After her husband Caonabo was shipped to Spain by Christopher Columbus and her brother Behechio died, Anacaona ruled so well she was hanged for it.
Both her marriage and her bloodline gave Anacaona the right to rule in Taino culture. She was the wife of the cacique Coanabo and the sister of the cacique Behechio. Upon their deaths, she ruled almost half of Hispaniola and held strong influence over the remaining caciques until her execution in 1503.
Matrilineal Taino Culture – The Power of Anacaona
According to Bartolome de las Casas, when the Spanish arrived in Hispaniola there were six thriving kingdoms. Two of these western kingdoms, or cacicazagos, comprised almost half of Hispaniola. These regions were ruled by Caonabo and Behechio whose kingdoms were allied in marriage when Behechio’s sister, Anacaona, married Caonabo.
In Taino culture, male caciques were empowered by their matrilineal alliances. It was the females who determined the status of the ruler and this was measured by female productivity in providing for the tribe, both in subsistence farming and the crafting of objects. Anacaona embodied great power in Taino culture through her bloodline, her marriage to a stranger king*, and her administrative abilities. In addition, she was well-respected by the Spaniards who knew her personally and noted to be an accomplished poet (arietos).
Taino Production for Spanish Consumers
Because of his reputation as the most formidable cacique, the Spaniards almost immediately dethroned Caonabo. According to Las Casas, Caonabo boarded a ship for Spain in irons never to be seen again. As Anacaona’s first alliance was always to her home region of Xaragua, she returned there to rule with her brother Behechio upon Caonabo’s death. Xaragua was seen as the most cultured of the Taino cacicazagos according to Las Casas and was located near modern-day Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
When Columbus’ brother Bartolome Columbus visited the region in January 1497, he noted that Behechio and Anacaona seemed of equal status, negotiating the terms of their debt (tribute) equally. At that time, Anacaona lived separated from the main village, closer to the coast. There she managed the production of what Keegan termed “high-status goods” such as dishes, containers, and duhos (wooden stools used by caciques). These were made of highly polished wood by female artisans on the island of Gonave and were part of the debt paid to the Spanish.
Taino Massacre – Spaniards Profit from Anacaona’s Death
Between 1497 and 1503, Anacaona’s dominion grew. For six years, she complied with Spanish demands and attempted to live peaceably with them. Even so, when Nicolas de Ovando was granted the governorship of Hispaniola he felt threatened by her influence. Under the pretext that Anacaona was secretly planning a revolt, Ovando planned her downfall. First, he announced that he would be making a visit to Xaragua, knowing that in response Anacaona would call for a gathering of the remaining Taino nobles in Xaragua to honor the occasion.
Governor Ovando arrived in Xaragua with 300 Spanish soldiers led by Diego Velasquez, a friend of Hernan Cortes. At first taking part in the normal pleasantries and festivities, the Spanish turned on the Taino mid-way through. Forced at sword-point into a thatch structure, 84 Taino nobles were burned alive without provocation. According to Las Casas, the remainder were run through with swords and hunted down on horseback, leaving only Anacaona to face her execution in Santo Domingo.
On the flimsiest of pretexts, the Spaniards led by Diego Velasquez, on the orders of Governor Ovando, massacred the Taino assembled in their honor in Xaragua. For this, Velasquez would receive governorship of western Hispaniola and later lead the Taino massacres in Cuba. Governor Ovando would go on to implement the encomienda system in Hispaniola before being relieved of duty in 1509 for his cruel treatment of the Indians.
Anacaona’s Execution in Santo Domingo
Because of her status, Anacaona was spared during the massacre, forced to witness the atrocities on those she had invited to her village. Transported to Santo Domingo, Anacaona was hanged from a gibbet in the plaza. She was 39 years old at the time of her death and survived by one child, Higuemota, whose fate remains unknown.
Within a decade of their arrival, the Spanish decimated the Taino population. Anacaona was just one of many Taino caciques on Hispaniola at the time of Columbus’ arrival and certainly not the only one to die at their hands. She does, however, remain the most celebrated. Anacaona holds a special place in the histories of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two nations now sharing the island of Hispaniola.
- Casas, Bartolome de las. A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. “Nicolas de Ovando”.
- Keegan, William F. Taino Indian Myth and Practice: The Arrival of the Stranger King. Florida, 2007.
- Rouse, Irving. The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeting Columbus. New Haven, 1992.
*In his book, William Keegan postulates that Caonabo was not an Arawak Taino but a “stranger king”.