The Taíno were all but erased from history within a generation of Columbus’ arrival; but before disease, violence, and slavery killed off the Taíno of Hispaniola, they were a thriving culture. Their society was organized into districts and regions with a hierarchy of leaders and two distinct classes of citizens: Nitaíno and Naboria. Several Taíno chiefs, or caciques, had direct contact with the Spaniards in the early years of Spanish settlement.
Guacanagarí of Marien Province
The wreck of the Santa María that led to the settlement of La Navidad, occurred in the province of Marien. This region encompassed the Northeast coast and interior areas that are today the Dominican Republic. This coincidence determined that the cacique Guacanagarí would be the first to meet Columbus, and the only to establish a lasting relationship with him. His village was near modern-day Cap Haitien.
Eager to use his relationship with the Spaniards to improve his status among his own people, Guacanagarí worked to ingratiate himself to Columbus; but his plan only succeeded in alienating the other caciques who resented his cooperation with the oppressors. In exchange for Guacanagarí’s help in salvaging the Santa María and building La Navidad, Columbus agreed to protect Guacanagarí from his enemies, the Carib. When Columbus sailed for Spain, however, leaving a small detachment at La Navidad, their relationship became more difficult for Guacanagarí to maintain.
Taíno Brothers Caonabo and Manicatoex
The atrocities committed by the Spaniards left at La Navidad resulted in reprisals from the Taíno people in Columbus’ absence. When Columbus returned to Hispaniola to find the men of La Navidad had been killed, he created his second settlement at La Isabela. Guacanagarí deflected blame from himself by relating to Columbus that his men had ventured outside his territory, bringing down the wrath of another cacique, Caonabo.
Caonabo was a higher level cacique (a matunherí) from Maguana province (where the Spanish town of San Juan de Maguana was later built). Described as an older, more experienced cacique, authoritative and brave, Caonabo and his brother Manicatoex were identified by Spanish leaders as the primary threat to their plans on the island.
The story of Caonabo’s capture by Columbus is similar to the capture of other American Indian kings/leaders. Feigning friendship, the Spanish used trickery and deceit to depose the legitimate rulers. The story goes that Caonabo was given a “gift” of handcuffs by Alonso de Ojeda, allowing himself to be led away after mistaking them for bracelets. Whether handcuffed or not, Caonabo was led away under the guise of friendship only to be captured and put on a ship for Spain by Columbus himself in 1494. The ship never reached Spain and Caonabo died en route.
In 1495, Caonabo’s brother, Manicatoex brought forth the rebellion Columbus feared from Caonabo. With the help of Guacanagarí, the Spaniards easily put down the rebellion and the Taino* of the region paid tribute to the Spanish from that point forward.
Guarionex, Behechio, and Anacaona
Guarionex, the cacique of the densely populated Magua region, learned quickly to submit to Spanish rule. His wife was raped by the Spanish and he was initially imprisoned before agreeing to Spanish terms of tribute. The Spanish immediately constructed the fort at Concepcion de la Vega to keep the region settled and profitable, particularly the east gold field. A dispute between two Spaniards over the gold field would later lead Guarionex into rebellion and then death while in Spanish custody.
After Caonabo’s death, his wife Anacaona went to live with her brother Behecio, the cacique of Xaragua. Columbus’ brother Bartolome paid them a visit in 1497 to institute a system of tribute there. Later that same year, Francisco Roldan, the mayor of La Isabela, led a march against Bartolome Columbus’ men at Concepcion de la Vega. He was angry at the abandonment of La Isabela and seeking compensation. Behecio, Anacaona, and other Taino caciques became caught in the Spanish power struggles when Columbus instituted the repartimiento in Xaragua, granting Roldan full authority over the Indian populations of the region.
The repartimiento continued under Francisco de Bobadilla’s rule. All remaining Taino leadership was swiftly and methodically destroyed. Anacaona, who became a beloved cacique after her brother Behechio’s death, was hanged by the Spanish at Santo Domingo after the massacre of Taino caciques at her village in 1503.
The Taino population of Hispaniola declined dramatically within a decade of Columbus’ arrival. None of the Taino caciques were better off for having known him, even Guacanagarí was forced to flee to the mountains after the 1495 rebellion and died in obscurity after betraying his people.
- Keegan, William. Taino Indian Myth and Practice: The Arrival of the Stranger King. 2007.
- Rouse, Irving. The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People who Greeted Columbus. London, 1992.
*In his book, “Taino Indian Myth and Practice: The Arrival of the Stranger King”, author William Keegan makes the argument that Caonabo may not have been an Arawak/Taino.