Haiti: Her History and Her Detractors/Part I: Chapter II

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Christopher Columbus—His arrival in Haiti—Behavior of the Spaniards toward the aborigines—Their cupidity—War—Caonabo—Anacaona—The Spanish domination—Cacique Henry.

Such were the first inhabitants of Haiti when, on August 3, 1492, Columbus left Palos. After a journey too well known to be repeated here, his three caravels anchored on the 6th of December, 1492, in a pretty bay in the northern part of Haiti. In honor of the saint whose feast the Catholic Church was celebrating that day, the place was called St. Nicholas.[1] The beauty of the scenery, the lovely panorama which Columbus beheld on arriving, the song of the nightingale, the fish, everything reminded him of the country whence he started out to the conquest of the New World. Therefore he gave the name of Hispañola[2] to the island he had just discovered; and believing that he was in Asia, he called the inhabitants "Indians." On those unfortunate people the arrival of the Spaniards was about to bring endless calamities. And the island up to that time so peaceful and quiet was to have no more tranquillity; the land was to be nothing else than an everlasting battlefield, where all kinds of horrors and atrocities would be perpetrated. Torrents of blood would irrigate its fertile soil and a whole race would disappear in order to satisfy the cupidity of the newcomers. On the 12th of December, in setting up the cross on the coast of Haiti, Columbus had no idea that the symbol of redemption was to be the signal of a fierce struggle, of a struggle without mercy.

In fact, after the first impulse of curiosity caused by the sight of the large sails, which, like huge birds' wings, were carrying the caravels to their shore, the natives, prompted by the warnings of instinct, fled and got under shelter in the depths of their forests. The looks of the white men foreboded no good. But the trusting and kind disposition of the aborigines prevailed over fear. They were quickly won over by the cajoleries and the gifts of the Spaniards. Their leader, Guacanagaric,[3] not only welcomed Columbus as a friend, but also became his ally; he granted the Admiral sufficient land for the building of a fortress. So a stronghold, called "The Nativity" in honor of that holy day, was erected with the help of the Indians not far from the place where the present town of Cap-Haitien[4] is situated. The aborigines themselves had thus forged the first link of their own chains.

Thirty-nine men garrisoned the fortress, and on the 4th of January, 1493, Columbus left for Spain. He had scarcely set sail when the Spaniards, forgetting the simplest rules of prudence, became most unrestrained in their manners and committed the worst excesses. Taking no account of the generous hospitality and of the hearty welcome of Guacanagaric, they inflicted on his followers all kinds of ill treatment. They outraged women and girls, and despoiled the men of their goods. Eager for riches, and thinking only of acquiring gold, they seized the metal wherever they could lay their hands on it. They trampled on the chastity and the customs of the Indians. Finding no more booty in the "cacicat" of Marien, some of them decided to carry their depredations to the Maguana, where the auriferous mines of the Cibao were located. But Caonabo, the "cacique" of Maguana, was not like the passive Guacanagaric. Descending from the fierce tribe of the Caribs, he determined to remain the sole master of his "cacicat," which he had conquered by main force. Therefore he did not hesitate to cause the invaders to be arrested and put to death. And, having a vague presentiment of future perils, he determined to rid the island of the dangerous newcomers; in consequence he invaded the Marien. At the head of a numerous band of armed followers he rushed upon the fortress The Nativity, which he razed to the ground, after exterminating all the Spaniards. Henceforth it was to be war to the death.

When, on the 27th of November, 1493, Columbus returned to the place where The Nativity was built, he could but deplore the disaster. From Spain he had brought with him imposing forces. He settled in the eastern part of what is known to-day as Monte Christi; and there was built the first town erected by the Spaniards in the West Indies. In honor of the Queen of Spain this town was called Isabella.[5]

Among Columbus's new companions there were many adventurers whose sole thought was to acquire riches. They began searching for gold with a greed second only to their contempt for the feelings of the Indians. Besides, the latter had to work hard to supply their oppressors with cotton, tobacco, and gold dust. They were soon compelled to fetch from the bowels of the earth that gold which in their indolence they had been content to pick up in the sands of the rivers. Their artless souls rose against such unjust oppression. They joined the party of Caonabo,[6] who became the leader of the opposition to the tyranny of the foreigners. The natives fought gallantly. To get rid of his indomitable foe, Columbus had to resort to Alonzo Ojeda's perfidy. Under the pretext of making peace, they decoyed Caonabo into an ambush. As a gift from the chief of the Spaniards, Ojeda presented him with chains and handcuffs made of iron polished and glittering like silver. The unsuspecting Indian admired the irons, and mistaking them for ornaments he allowed himself to be manacled. He was then easily carried to Columbus, who kept him prisoner in his own house. Caonabo was afterward sent to Spain.[7]

This treacherous act, instead of intimidating the Indians, provoked a general uprising. Manicatoex, Caonabo 's brother, became their leader. Against the band of numerous warriors who threatened the town of Isabella, Columbus despatched a well-disciplined body of foot-soldiers, cavalrymen, gunners, and arbolisters; twenty-five blood-hounds also were added to the army. In the struggle the natives fought desperately; but the firearms of the Spaniards prevailed over their spears and clubs. Their forces were annihilated. The cavalry harassed the fugitives, many of whom became the prey of the ferocious dogs. No quarter was granted, those only could escape who were lucky enough to reach the shelter of the inaccessible mountains. This victory secured the Spanish domination. The Indians agreed to pay tribute to them.

However, the tranquillity which followed these events did not last long; more terrible convulsions were in store for the unfortunate island.

The exactions of the Spaniards became unbearable. Hoping to get rid of them by starvation, the Indians gave up cultivating their lands; they deserted their homes, taking shelter in unsearchable forests in the mountains, where they lived on roots; they voluntarily endured hardships rather than submit to the treatment inflicted on them by the conquerors.

The Haitian soil was soon to be soaked with Spanish blood. In the absence of Columbus, who left for Spain in 1496, his companions quarreled and civil war began. On all sides bloody scenes were enacted: the Spaniards exterminating the Indians; the latter availing themselves of the least opportunity to retaliate; and to crown the situation, the Spaniards killing each other.

On his return to Hispañola, Columbus suppressed the dissensions among his followers by establishing, in behalf of Roldan-Jimenes, the leader of the malcontents, what is known as the "repartimientos" system: he granted to Roldan and to his followers a certain quantity of land and a sufficient number of Indians to cultivate it. In that manner slavery began to appear; and Quisqueya had a new horror to add to the list of the calamities with which its unhappy inhabitants were already afflicted.

In 1500 Bobadilla succeeded Columbus; and the "repartimientos" system became worse. The "caciques" were compelled to supply every Spaniard with a certain number of Indians; these Indians were made to work under the guidance and in behalf of their masters, to whose heirs they were transferable.

Naturally this caused the natives to be still more highly displeased. Moved by their complaints the court of Spain appointed Nicholas Ovando governor of the island; he landed in Santo Domingo[8] on the 15th of April, 1502.[9]

The new governor had a good reputation, which he soon belied. It would seem that in reaching Hispañola the best-intentioned man laid aside his kind disposition to give way to his worst instincts. Thinking only of shipping as much gold as possible, in order to convince the King of Spain of the merit of his administration, Ovando was pitiless to the Indians. These unfortunate people, accustomed to the sunshine, were made to live in the depths of the earth; and many of them died from starvation and exhaustion.

From the Canary Islands Pierre d'Atença brought the sugar-cane to Hispañola. This new culture increased the burden which was already so heavy for the natives.

With a view to preventing any uprising on their part Ovando decided to destroy the last centres of organization where they could gather their forces for a common resistance. On his arrival two of the former "cacicats" were still holding their own and recognized the authority of two aborigines.

Anacaona,[10] widow of the gallant Caonabo, governed the Xaragua, and the Higuey was ruled by Cotubanama. The prestige of the Queen of Xaragua was very great. She was a beautiful woman, possessing the art of lulling away the cares of her people by extemporizing for them the naive songs they were so fond of. Like her husband, Anacaona was to be a victim of the Spanish tyranny. Ovando took umbrage at the moral ascendency she possessed over the natives. Under the pretext of collecting the tribute due to the Court of Spain, he left for the Xaragua, escorted by 300 foot soldiers and 70 cavalrymen. In pursuance of instructions given by Anacaona, the people everywhere gave him the most friendly welcome. The Queen herself went to meet her illustrious visitor, in honor of whom many festivities took place.

But all this confidence did not move the inexorable Spaniard. During one of the festivities, at a given signal agreed on beforehand, Ovando's soldiers rushed upon the harmless Indians and began a wholesale slaughter. They set fire to the village, thus rendering the massacre still more horrible. Anacaona, now a prisoner, was dragged away to Santo Domingo, where a mock court of justice, completing Ovando's treachery, sentenced her to death. Neither her beauty nor her charms could excite the compassion of the conquerors, and she was hanged. Thereafter Ovando was master of the Xaragua. (1504.)

But the Higuey was still under the authority of the stalwart Cotubanama. It was an easy matter to find a pretext for waging war on him. The last of the Haitian "caciques" defended his small State with great bravery. The struggle was a fierce one. The Spanish fury spared neither sex nor age. They massacred the natives indiscriminately. Vanquished at last, Cotubanama was taken as a prisoner to Santo Domingo where, like Anacaona, he was hanged. Through his defeat and death the Spaniards at last acquired the entire possession of Hispañola.

Ovando was victorious. The Spanish conquest had annihilated a whole race. Shipped to Europe and sold as slaves, heavily burdened with taxes, over-worked, tormented, persecuted, the autochthons had rapidly disappeared. Many had resorted to suicide to escape from the ill treatment inflicted on them; others were devoured by the ferocious dogs; the greatest number had fallen in the bloody wars and bloody massacres. In 1507, scarcely fifteen years after the arrival of the Spaniards, there remained, out of a population numbering about 1,000,000, only 60,000 natives. Four years later, in 1511, these 60,000 were reduced to 14,000.[11]

The cruelty and cupidity of the newcomers had depopulated the island. There was in consequence a great deficiency of laborers: the prosperity of Hispañola was in jeopardy. Ovando, always fruitful in expedients, conceived the idea of importing the inhabitants of the neighboring islands, pretending that it would be easier to convert them to Christianity. Deceived by the grossest artifices, 40,000 of those unfortunate people were removed from their homes and became at Hispañola the prey of the Spanish avidity.

The Spaniards soon introduced into the island a new element more resisting than the Indians and Caribs: a few blacks had been sold in the colony. Pleased with their work, the Spaniards held the Africans as indispensable. The slave-trade which ensued was the cause of the downfall of the colonists. Cargoes of human flesh abounded in Hispañola. Stunned by their brutal separation from their families, stupefied by the sufferings and the fatigues of a long journey, scattered on the various plantations, and unable to understand the language spoken around them, the new slaves were at first necessarily docile and obedient. But, little by little, through contact with the survivors of the last Indians, they began to be able to exchange ideas among themselves. And the old grievances uniting with the new ones served to augment the hatred of the oppressors.

In 1519 occurred the last uprising of what was left of the first inhabitants of the island. Saved almost miraculously from the massacre of Anacaona's followers in 1504, Henri, a native of Bahoruco, was taken to Santo Domingo and brought up in a convent of Dominican friars. Though he became a Christian, he was nevertheless a slave. Tired of all the ill treatment inflicted on him by his master, incensed by an attempt on his wife's honor, and being unable to obtain justice, he fled in 1519; accompanied only by a few Indian slaves who swore to die rather than endure again the humiliation of their former condition, he took refuge in the mountains of Bahoruco.

This new leader could read and write; and like some of his companions he understood the use of firearms. They could therefore successfully hold their own. The Spanish pride received blow after blow. Henri's victories encouraged all the Indians who could make their escape to flock to his camp.

The black slaves were not long in following the example of their companions in misfortune. They rebelled on the very plantation of Diego Columbus, governor of the island. They set fire to all the farms they found on their way and killed every European they met. But, being without a leader and having only a slight knowledge of the country, they met with rapid defeat. Yet many of them were fortunate enough to reach the Ocao Mountains, where there lived already some men of their race, known as maroons, who had freed themselves from slavery.

The Spaniards failed to subdue Henri either by force or by deceit. He firmly established his authority in the Bahoruco, and his followers became the terror of the colonists. It was now his turn to inflict humiliations on the conquerors; which he did for more than fourteen years. The frequent defeats met by the Spaniards decided Charles V, then King of Spain and Emperor of Germany, to send a special agent to Hispañola: Barrio-Nuevo was intrusted with the mission of restoring peace. Bearing a letter from the Emperor to Don Henri, he had no trouble in persuading the "cacique" to lay down his arms. Acting by the advice of Las Cases, who was called the "Protector of the Indians," Henri went to Santo Domingo. A solemn treaty of peace was made and ratified on both sides. Henri was allowed to reside in the village of Boya. Exempt from paying tribute, he was to be called "cacique of Haiti" and to keep under his command the Indians who were permitted to follow him. These, numbering about 4,000, the last scions of the aboriginal race, settled at Boya. They had at last recovered their liberty. Henceforth they would be able to lead a quiet life.

  1. The place is called to-day Mole Saint-Nicolas. Pronounce: Moll Sain Ni-co-la (a as in alone).
  2. Little Spain. Pronounce: Iss-pa-yola (both a's as in alone).
  3. Columbus landed in the northern part of the island, in the "cacicat" of Marien.
  4. Pronounce: Cap A-e-ci-en.
  5. Pronounce: E-za-bell-e-a.
  6. Cacique of Maguana.
  7. Caonabo was sent to Spain in March, 1496. According to E. Robin (History of Haiti, p. 14) the ship foundered and the cacique was drowned. But Mr. J. B. Dorsainville (Course of Haitian History, p. 44) says that the Indian leader starved himself to death during the voyage; for the ship arrived at Cadiz on the 11th of June, 1496. However, Caonabo never reached Spain.
  8. In 1496 Barthelemy built on the left bank of the Ozama a town which he called New Isabella and which became the headquarters of the administration. Destroyed in 1502 by a cyclone, the town was, in 1504, reconstructed, at the mouth of the same river, by Ovando, who called it Santo Domingo after Columbia's father.
  9. According to Placide Justin, History of Haiti, p. 32, Ovando arrived in Santo Domingo on April 15, 1501.
  10. Golden flower. Pronounce: An-na-ka-o-ná.
  11. Placide Justin, Histoire d'Haiti, pp. 40-42.