Cristóbal Colón spent much of December 1492 exploring the northwestern coast of an island which the natives called Ayiti. His men were seemingly well received by the local Taíno cacique Guacanagarí, who made the fateful decision of presenting the white men with a gold mask and assuring them that the island’s interior held vast deposits of the precious metal.
Then, in the early morning hours on Christmas Day, Colón’s flagship the Santa María ran aground on a sandbar. The crew salvaged as much wood as they could from the ship and built a small fort, giving it the appropriate name La Navidad. Colón left 39 of his men behind with instructions to locate the gold deposits and build a secure settlement for his second voyage. He captured many of the natives and loaded them onto his two remaining ships, the Niña and the Pinta, and headed back to Spain to inform his royal patrons of his “discovery.”
Happy with the report, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella supplied Colón with 17 ships and more than 1200 men to seize as much gold and slaves as they could get their hands on. But upon his return to the island he had renamed La Isla Española, he discovered the corpses of 11 of his men on the beach and La Navidad completely wiped out.
In May 1494, during his second voyage, Colón reached an island south of Cuba that the Taínos called Xaymaca. Andrés Bernáldez, a clergymen who was a person friend of the admiral’s and had joined him on his return trip to the Americas, later described what happened when the Spaniards approached the shore:
As soon as the admiral arrived off the coast of Jamaica, there immediately came out against him quite seventy canoes, all full of people with darts as weapons. They advanced a league out to sea, with warlike shouts and in battle array. And the admiral with his three caravels and his people paid no attention to them and continued to steer towards the shore, and when they saw this, they became alarmed and turned in flight. …
Next day, at dawn, they went to seek for a sheltered harbour, where they might be able to careen and repair the ships. And having gone four leagues to the westward, they found a very remarkable harbour and the admiral sent the boat to examine the entrance. And two canoes with many people came out to it and shot many darts at it, but they fled as soon as they found opposition and that not so quickly that they suffered no punishment. The admiral entered the harbour and anchored, and so many Indians came down to it that they covered the land, and all were painted a thousand colours, but the majority black, and all were naked as is their custom. They wore feathers of various kinds on the head and had the breast and stomach covered with palm leaves. They made the greatest howling in the world and shot darts, although they were out of range.
Juan Ponce de León had also sailed on Colón’s second voyage in 1493, and by 1508 he was the governor of Hispaniola’s easternmost province. Here he frequently came in contact with Taínos from a neighboring island they called Borikén. Rumors of fertile lands and riverbeds of gold on the island convinced the governor to mount an expedition of Borikén, which he had been renamed San Juan Bautista by Colón 15 years earlier. He founded Caparra, the island’s first European settlement, just west of its present-day capital city.
The Spaniard had been greeted by Agüeybaná, the island’s most powerful cacique. The chief performed a Taíno friendship ritual called guatiao; for their part, the conquistadors baptized the chief’s mother. Despite the warm introduction, the Europeans soon unleashed all kinds of horrors on the natives, raping the women and enslaving the men.
After Agüeybaná’s death in 1510, his nephew Güeybaná succeeded him as the most powerful chief on the island. The following year Güeybaná and another cacique had one of the Spaniards lured away from their camp and drowned in a river. It was the first act of a war for which Güeybaná had planning for some time. The Taínos raided a Spanish settlement, killing 80 conquistadors. But Güeybaná would meet his end at the Battle of Yaguecas, where thousands of natives attempted to repel a Spanish force of around 500 men. After the last great Taíno cacique was shot and killed by Spanish soldier, the natives fell into disarray. However, subsequent centuries of rape and intermingling would give rise to a new group on the island: Boricuas.
Remembering our indigenous ancestors — and that they did not simply lay down in the face of conquest — is how we celebrate our heritage.