Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/January 1898/Aborigines of the West Indies
|ABORIGINES OF THE WEST INDIES.|
SOME little interest having again been awakened in the outside world concerning the West Indian Islands, the question is occasionally asked, Had those islands any aborigines when discovered by Europeans? If there were natives, do any of them remain? Both questions may be answered in the affirmative. The West Indies, or Antilles, consist of many hundreds, or even—reckoning keys or very small islands—several thousand islands varying in area from those which, like Cuba and Jamaica, number their square acres by the million, to the tiny key of half an acre or less. The greater number of these—indeed, all capable of supporting a population, with the exception of Barbados—contained inhabitants when first discovered. Barbados, though containing numerous evidences of former occupation, was uninhabited when taken possession of by its first European settlers, the English.
The peculiar interest attaching to the meeting between the European navigators and the Western barbarians is that—putting aside the discoveries of the Northmen in the tenth and eleventh centuries—it is the first meeting between modern and prehistoric man of which we have any account. Till the beginning of the nineteenth century the civilized world knew little or nothing of prehistoric man, and prehistoric anthropology was an unknown science. To have stated that man had existed on the earth more than four thousand years b. c. would have been regarded as heresy, and to have held that he had roamed over Europe when the mammoth crashed through its forests, and when the stately megaceros and reindeer browsed on its bogs, would have been considered the wildest folly. The stronger light that is being thrown on those times of long ago first shone in Denmark, where the study of runic stones and characters led to the disclosure of evidences of human occupation of that country far earlier than had ever heretofore been suspected. Subsequently, the finds at Abbeville, the discovery of the lake dwellings in Switzerland, the investigations in the caves of Kirkdale and Kent's Hole in England, with others too numerous to mention, awoke widespread interest in the newly arisen branch of investigation; learned men began to compare the remains and relics of the aborigines of America with those of Europe, and at length began to recognize that when Columbus landed on Guanahani, and was met by its painted and trembling inhabitants, the people of the Old World, instead of finding men of a new kind, were in reality standing face to face with men such as in Europe had been extinct for nigh two thousand years. This it is that gives such fascination to the descriptions left us by those who first saw men who were living very much as must have done the owners of the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal skulls, and that lends such peculiar interest to all vestiges and traces that have been preserved of a people secluded from all contact with those more enlightened than themselves.
Fortunately, there is considerable material available for so interesting a study. Besides relics of the aborigines in the shape of skulls, bones, stone and wooden implements, and rock-carvings, some of which are more or less abundant in most of the islands, the early writers have left us graphic descriptions of these people, their manners and customs; and they give us the facts as they passed before their eyes, without any endeavor to bend such facts to the support of their own pet theory, or to explain what they did not understand, save by the usual and satisfactory method of assigning everything of which they disapproved or for which they could not account to the agency of the devil.
It is indeed fortunate that the discoverers have given us so many details of what they saw in those beautiful islands, which they flattered themselves were the outposts of the empire of the Great Khan, for the people they saw there have long since passed away, leaving no posterity behind them, save in the case of the Caribs of Dominica and St. Vincent. The Lucayans of the Bahamas, the Arrowauks of Cuba and the larger Antilles have for the last three hundred years or so been extinct. It is true that at Parottee Point, in Jamaica, a few of the fishermen claim to have Indian blood in their veins, and one old man assured me he was a pure Indian by descent. These people had straight black hair, and were decidedly different in feature to their negro neighbors. However, in all probability the Indian element is accounted for by Indians having not infrequently been brought to Jamaica either from the Mosquito coast or Florida. Sir Hans Sloane, who came to Jamaica more than two centuries ago as physician to the Duke of Albemarle, speaks of Indians there—
Curiously enough, at the present day the people claiming Indian descent in Jamaica are still expert fishermen.
I was informed by General Légitime, ex-President of Haiti, that in that island, in the wild, forest-clad mountains beyond Jacmel, people live in the woods who never visit the towns or hold any communication with the present owners of the island, and who are believed to be descendants of the native Indians. It would be interesting if some communication with these people could be established, but meantime it is as likely they may be Maroons as Indians, for all concerning them is too vague and uncertain to allow at present of their being regarded as representatives of the aborigines.
In Dominica, St. Vincent, and Trinidad a few of the primitive inhabitants still remain. They are Caribs, who were a fierce and warlike race, the bitter enemies and persecutors of the comparatively mild and inoffensive Arrowauks. Both tribes still exist in Guiana, and apparently have forgotten their old differences. It is probable that the Arrowauks were the earliest arrivals in the islands, but when their migration from the mainland took place there are not sufficient data for saying: all we know is that it must have been long ages before the arrival of the Europeans. In Hispaniola (now the negro republics of Haiti and Santo Domingo) the absence of any legend of a distant origin would allow of the native Indians having had a legitimate claim to being an autochthonous race, or at any rate points to the great length of time that must have passed since their canoes had carried them across the breezy Caribbean Sea, from the cradle of their race far away in the dense and mysterious forests of South America. The Indians of Hispaniola, like many others of their brethren, handed down their histories and traditions in songs which were chanted before the people on festivals and other great occasions, and which were often accompanied by dances. On great occasions they danced to the sound of a drum made out of the trunk of a tree and played by a cacique. In these songs or hymns the tradition was recorded that the first men came out of two caverns in the island. The sun was irritated at the advent of mankind, so changed the guardians of the caves into stones, and metamorphosed the men who had escaped from the caves into trees, frogs, and different animals. In spite, however, of these efforts on the part of the great luminary, the world became peopled. Another tradition declared that the sun and moon themselves had come out of a cavern in Haiti.
The traditions of the Lucayans, on the contrary, all pointed to the Lucayans having come to those islands from a land to the south, so probably their residence in the Bahamas had not been for so long a period as to blot out all recollection of the large islands where their race had struck such firm root on its migration from the mainland. That the Arrowauk occupation of the islands had been of long duration, a mass of evidence appears to show. In Cuba artificially flattened skulls have been discovered imbedded in lime rock in caves near Cape Maisi. With them were found fragments of pottery, an earthen jar containing bones, and some stone axes or celts, popularly known as "thunderbolts." In Jamaica we ourselves found pottery and bones imbedded in a cave in the rocks, out of which we had to break them with a machete, or cutlass. In the Jamaica cave, however, the lime in which the bones were incrusted appeared to be of stalactitic nature, and may have been deposited more rapidly than would have been the formation of true limestone. The district in which the cave is situated (the St. John's Hills, Guanaboa) is a very dry one, and there was no appearance of any drip from the roof or sides of the cave when we visited it; so it may be assumed that the incrustation must, in any case, have been a slow process. The Indians had been exterminated in Jamaica for a considerable period before its occupation by the English, which took place in the days of Cromwell, so even a low computation of the lapse of time must assign a respectable antiquity to the incrusted pottery and bones. When more extensive researches and explorations take place, it is possible that traces of human presence may be discovered in some of the older rocks or strata of some of the islands.
That all the larger islands were inhabited by a race which was divided into tribes, some of which spoke different dialects, but which derived their origin from the same stock, is shown not alone from evidence afforded by skulls, pottery, and implements, but from the fact of identity of language. On Columbus's first voyage he carried home with him some of the natives to exhibit in Spain. Among these was a boy named Didacus, taken by the admiral from Guanahani, now generally known as Watling's Island, the scene of the landfall. We are told that Didacus "was a man from his child's age, brought up with the admiral." Later on he sailed with Columbus back to the Antilles and acted as his interpreter, and eventually Guarionexius, the King of Cibana (in Hispaniola), in order to secure to himself the friendship of Columbus, gave his sister as wife to Didacus. In most of the islands Didacus appears to have understood the language with ease, and when he failed to do so the fact is expressly stated. This was the case at one end of Cuba.
Who these people were whose tongue was incomprehensible to a Lucayan, who spoke the Arrowauk language, we have no means of judging. As Didacus could not understand these people "one whit," the difference in their tongue from that of the generality of the Arrowauk descendants must have been very great, more so apparently than that of a diversity of patois or of accent. This seems to point to the fact that there were other Indians living in some of the islands besides Arrowauks and Caribs. We know that from time to time Indian traders from the mainland visited the islands, and some of them may have remained and settled in them. On his fourth voyage Columbus met some of these trading canoes, and Peter Martyr gives a detailed account of the event from a letter written by Columbus himself.
The Arrowauks were ignorant of the working of metals, so the mention of "laton bells" as part of the stock in trade of this roving trader points to his having come from the mainland, where the Zuñis, Aztecs, Mayas, and Peruvians were all workers of bronze, or laton, though they had not progressed so far as the use of iron.
That the Caribs were later comers in the Antilles than the Arrowauks seems likely from the fact that they had only established themselves in the smaller islands, and made thence raids on the inhabitants of the larger ones; for it is highly improbable that, had so fierce and domineering a people had time to increase and multiply, they would have left their weaker neighbors in possession of all the larger islands, though it is possible they regarded the latter as stock farms whence to draw supplies for their larders. Some authors even assert that the arrival of Caribs in the islands could only have shortly preceded the Columban discovery. The Spaniards were astonished to observe that the Carib women spoke a different language from the men. The Caribs did not kill or eat the women whose tribes they attacked. The young women, says Martyr, "they take to keep for increase, as we do hens to lay eggs; the old women they make their drudges." Alluding to this fact, and discussing the probable date of the arrival of the Caribs in the West Indian Archipelago, Dr. D. G. Brinton says:
The comparatively mild and inoffensive Arrowauks must have had a bad time of it when the Caribs were on the war path in those lovely islands, about which Martyr writes so enthusiastically as "an earthly paradise," where
exclaims he, writing of Hispaniola; but the human enemy, more relentless and deadly than four-footed beast, must have been a blighting factor in the happiness of the daily life of the Arrowauk, even before the arrival of Spanish oppressors. "They of the islands," writes the old monk, ignoring his having pronounced all things there "blessed and fortunate,"
Cruel as were the Spaniards to the unfortunate Indians in general, to the Arrowauks they must at first have appeared almost as benefactors compared to the Caribs, and indeed the more severe enactments of the conquerors were avowedly directed against those Indians "guilty of that unnatural crime" of eating human flesh.
Nowadays that travelers in Africa, New Zealand, the Pacific, and elsewhere have made us familiar with stories of cannibalism as a widespread practice among savage peoples, and that research has shown us that in prehistoric times it may not have been unknown even in Europe, we often fail to appreciate the horror and astonishment with which so strange and revolting a habit filled the early Spanish navigators. It came upon them as a shock, a horror which was a novelty, and therefore all the more abominable. We are always apt to overlook cruelties and evils with which we are familiar, while rarely failing to be scandalized at those that are new to us. The Spaniards were not squeamish about cruelty, and indeed the word can not be applied to cannibalism, for once a man is dead it is not more cruel to eat his body than to bury or burn it.
The Inquisition had made the Spaniards callous to barbarity, but cannibalism was a different matter; they were not accustomed to it, had never before met with it. Rough sailors, relentless bigots as they were, who at home doubtless would have attended a bullfight or an auto-da-fe with equal pleasure, they could not stomach cannibalism, and it was with loathing and unspeakable disgust that in the round, bell-like houses of an Indian village they often found.
By the people supposed to be of Arrowauk descent the Spaniards were generally received with submission and fear, the people mistaking them for Caribs, except in a part of Jamaica, where the inhabitants at first offered a feeble resistance. In some instances the new arrivals were even worshiped as gods. Such was the case in the Bahamas and in Haiti, where ancient prophecies had taught the Indians to expect the arrival of
The existence of these prophecies seems not to have excited any great surprise or to have caused much speculation as to their origin in the minds of the Spaniards. Such apparently miraculous foresight on the part of the Indians the new arrivals easily, and to themselves satisfactorily, accounted for by the fact that the barbarians were worshipers of the Evil One, and that their priests and idols, or zemis, were enabled to prophesy because of their intercourse and familiarity with devils. But, notwithstanding much that was objectionable and false, the creed of the Indians does not appear to have been altogether debased, and as explained to Columbus by one of the old chieftains of Cuba, the doctrines of those remote and benighted savages might claim some affinity to those professed by the Christians. Columbus and his men had landed and were hearing mass on the Cuban shore when "there came toward him a certain governor, a man of fourscore years of age, and of great gravity, although he were naked," and who
After Columbus had "gently entertained him," the old man made a speech, which Didacus, the interpreter, translated to the Spaniards to the following effect:
The old man was so pleased with these comfortable words of the admiral that he became desirous of forsaking Cuba and accompanying Columbus to Spain, "notwithstanding his extreme age," and was with difficulty deterred from the purpose by his wife and children, who fell prostrate at the feet of the old cacique, imploring him with tears not to forsake and leave them desolate.
The Caribs were of different mettle from the inhabitants of the larger islands. They resisted to their utmost, and sometimes, without waiting to be assailed, attacked the Spaniards even at sea. In the Gulf of Paria we read that the Spanish vessels met with
Speaking of the Caribs of the mainland, the old writer says: "That wild kind of men, dispersed through the large distance of those coasts, hath sometimes slain whole armies of the Spaniards." Indeed, the Caribs even mocked at their invaders, designating them as women or children, in ridicule of their white teeth, those of the Caribs "being black as coals, from a leaf they chewed."
The Arrowauks were taller than the Caribs, but not so robust, in color of a clear brown, their complexion, according to Columbus, not being much darker than that of a Spanish peasant. Both Arrowauks and Caribs flattened their heads, though each race had a different fashion of doing so.
Their wants were few, and sea and land furnished them with the necessaries of life, without exacting any severe or continuous labor on their part; so, as is almost invariably the case with natives of the tropics, the Arrowauks were indolent and indisposed to hard work, though showing considerable energy in their amusements, as we are told that "it was their custom to dance from evening to dawn." Another of their favorite pastimes was the game of bato, said somewhat to have resembled cricket. The players were divided into two sides, which alternately changed places. The ball with which they played was made of India rubber from the native milk withy, and the elastic nature of the material was a surprise to the Spaniards, who heretofore had not seen India rubber. Both men and women took part in the game; the ball was not caught with the hand, but received on head, elbow, or foot, and repelled with great force and dexterity. Wrestling and running for prizes were also well-known amusements among these people.
The great defect of the Arrowauks was their extreme immorality. Some of their dances were exceedingly indecent and disgusting, and the more abandoned a woman was, the greater was the consideration in which she was held. The religions and beliefs of the Indians varied more or less with the different tribes and races among them, and no doubt the Arrowauks had a variety of sects and formulas in the different islands. In broad lines we gather that they believed in a supreme being called Jocahuma, who had a father and mother residing sometimes in the sun and sometimes in the moon. Divine honors were also paid to images of wood, stone, and cotton, called zemis, which represented usually distorted versions of the human face and sometimes reptiles. A consecrated hut or temple was set apart in every village for worsip of these zemis, but only the priests or Bohitos were permitted to enter these temples, and they acted as intercessors for the people, besides practicing the art of medicine and superintending the education of the children of caciques and men of high rank. When the will of the cacique had received the approval of the Bohito or priest, it was received by the people as the decree of Heaven.
The spirits of the good were believed to go to a pleasant valley called Cozaba. There, surrounded by leafy trees laden with delicious fruits, the islanders looked forward to rejoining the spirits of their ancestors, and in cool shade beside flowing rivulets to rejoice in the society of the friends they had loved in the islands of earth, in a land where there were no hurricanes, no drought, and no Caribs. Each tribe appears to have considered that this paradise was situated in some mysterious way within their own province. During the day the souls of the departed hid themselves in the fastnesses of the mountains, but in the soft, fragrant tropical nights the souls were said to emerge from their retreat and to come down to the valley, to feed upon the fruit of the glossy-leaved mammee. This tree was consequently deemed sacred by the Indians, who refrained from eating the fruit lest the spirits of their ancestors might want food.
Of course, there were many variations in the rituals and beliefs of the religions of the various tribes. It would be as impossible to attempt an account even pretending to be comprehensive of their creed, in the space of a few pages, as it would be to do so of the churches and sects of Christianity; but such, in broad lines, is the sketch left us by the Spanish writers of the faith of the peoples of the Greater Antilles. Accounts of creeds given by opponents of the religion are, of course, always liable to misconceptions and perversions. The Indians, on their side, seem often to have been under the impression that the object worshiped and invoked by the Spaniards was gold, and not the Trinity. Gold they already regarded with a certain reverence, apparently esteeming it a sacred thing, as before setting out to seek for it they underwent a certain course of abstinence and fasting.
Hatuey, a cacique of Santo Domingo, had emigrated thence with his people to Cuba, in order to escape from the tyranny of the Europeans. The Spaniards pursued the fugitives, and the cacique exhorted his followers to resist to the uttermost, but pointed out to them that no bravery of theirs could prevail unless they invoked and conciliated the god of the Spaniards, who had shown himself to be so powerful, and in whose honor their enemies were ready to embark on any enterprise.
Thereupon the Indians began their sacred songs, all the while dancing around the gold. Hatuey, however, declared that they could not be safe so long as the god of the Spaniards remained in their neighborhood, and that he should be buried where he could never be discovered. Amid shouts of joy from the people the gold was then cast into the sea. But, unfortunately for the Indians, his power was not so easily allayed as that of their zemis. The Spaniards came, the cacique fell into their hands, and was condemned to be burned alive. As he was being tied to the stake a Franciscan friar drew near and attempted his conversion, telling Hatuey of the heaven and hell of the Christians. "In this place of happiness whereof you speak," said the cacique, "are there any Spaniards?" "Assuredly," answered the missionary, "but only good ones." "The best of them were good for nothing," replied Hatuey, "and I desire not to go where I may be in danger of meeting with one of that horrid tribe."
"Les grands mangeurs de viande sont en général cruels et féroces, plus que les autres hommes; cette observation est de tous les lieux," writes Rousseau, and the difference in the disposition of the Arrowauks and Caribs bears out the truth of the remark. The Arrowauks had little animal food, with the exception of fish, a few birds, reptiles, and insects; but the Carib larders were kept well furnished with human flesh, and even if an expedition had failed to bring back men prisoners for the table (women were not eaten), they had preserves of children taken in former raids, and fattened up till they were plump enough to be irresistible to any cannibal palate.
But though on festival occasions they no doubt gorged themselves both with meat and drink, as a rule, like Indians in general, they were very abstemious. Indeed, the Spaniards, although the most abstemious of Europeans, to the Indians—"whose abstemiousness," says an old writer, "exceeded that of the most mortified hermit"—appeared excessively voracious. So surprised were they at the appetites of the Spaniards—one of whom was supposed to consume as much as ten Indians—that the islanders were of opinion that the Spaniards must have come among them in quest of food, their own country not producing enough to satisfy such immoderate appetites—a conclusion which Carib manners and customs would certainly assist in forming.
Both Arrowauks and Caribs were fond of smoking. They intoxicated themselves with tobacco, which they called cohiba, drawing up the fumes by a tube through the nostrils. A dream coming during the ensuing intoxication was regarded as an inspiration.
Though usually shorter than the Arrowauks, the Caribs were strong and muscular, active and lithe. To our eyes their appearance would have been anything but pleasing. In their cheeks and ears they made deep incisions, which were rendered conspicuous by being stained black; their faces and bodies were painted red with annotto, and round their eyes they were distinguished by circles of black and white. Some of the greater dandies pierced the cartilage of the nose, and inserted therein the bone of a fish, a piece of tortoise shell, or a parrot's feather. Instead of shells they strung together the teeth of their enemies slain in battle, whenever such could be obtained, and wore them round their arms and legs. Their arrows were usually poisoned, and when attacking an enemy by night the arrows were often tipped with cotton dipped in oil and set alight, in order to fire the dwellings they assailed. When a male child was born it was sprinkled with some drops of the father's blood, and as the child grew older it was if possible anointed with the fat of a slaughtered Arrowauk. When the boy entered manhood he had to undergo excruciating tortures in order to prove his prowess and claim to be accounted a warrior. They were not unskillful in the few arts with which they were conversant; they wove cotton and dyed it of various colors, red being the favorite color of the Caribs; they made pottery and burned it in a rough kiln, the shapes of some of their vessels being artistic and pleasing. They were particularly clever in weaving baskets of palmetto leaves, an art still retained by the Caribs of Dominica and St. Vincent, whose beautifully dyed and woven baskets are fashioned with such cunning that they will even hold water. Like the Arrowauks, they believed in future states of bliss or woe. In the former the braves were to enjoy supreme felicity with their wives and captives, while the spirits of cowards were to be banished eternally beyond the mountains, and doomed to everlasting toil in captivity to the Arrowauks. In every hut there was an altar made of banana leaves and reeds, on which they placed the earliest fruits and choice viands. Demons and evil spirits were dreaded and worshiped, and sacrifices offered to them by the hands of their Boyez, or magicians, the worshipers on such occasions wounding themselves by instruments made of the teeth of the agouti.
We can picture the depredations caused by the incessant marauding of bands of these ferocious cannibals, and the terror they must have excited in the minds of the milder islanders. Peter Martyr tells us that in his time alone more than five thousand men had been taken from the island of Sancti Johannis to be eaten. Even after the Caribs had abandoned cannibalism they continued a fierce and desperate people, shunned and dreaded by Arrowauks and Europeans alike, and when cannibalism had ceased to be an everyday matter it would break out every now and then when occasion arose. The establishment of Spanish rule and the disappearance of the Arrowauks must have been the main factors in the decline of cannibalism, but before such was the case the Caribs seem to have given up the practice in some places. Thus Herrera says that "those of St. Croix and Dominica were greatly addicted to predatory excursions, hunting men," but not long before he wrote the Caribs of Dominica had eaten a poor monk, "and he so disagreed with them that many died, and that for a time they left off eating human flesh, making expeditions instead to carry off cows and mares."
When the English began to settle in the smaller Antilles they found the still unconquered Caribs a formidable obstacle peace, and they must have been a difficulty to be reckoned with till the close of the seventeenth century at least.
It is difficult to judge what were the number of the inhabitants of the islands at the time of the discovery. In 1495, when the Indians of Hispaniola rose against Columbus, according to the Spaniards, the number who revolted was a hundred thousand. Some authors place the native population of Hispaniola as high as three millions. It must have been impossible for the invaders to have formed any accurate computation of the number of inhabitants in countries so mountainous and impenetrable as were the larger Antilles. However, all accounts agree that the Indians were very numerous, and Las Casas describes the islands as "abounding with inhabitants, as an anthill with ants."
It seems extraordinary how so numerous a people could have been exterminated in so comparatively short a time. Oppression and cruelty alone could not have succeeded in wiping them out so completely. The Caribs were treated with greater severity than the Arrowauks, and their numbers were small in comparison with their less warlike neighbors, and yet the race survives to this day in Dominica and St. Vincent. Probably there was an inherent weakness in the race itself that tended to its destruction. They were timid and vicious, and timidity and vice are qualities that must hasten the disappearance of any people. Famine and disease seem to have been the chief factors in blotting out the Arrowauks. In Hispaniola the Indians, hoping to rid themselves of the voracious Spaniards, refused any longer to sow any crops. The Spaniards do not seem to have suffered as was expected, but in a few months no less than a third of the number of Indians in that island are said to have perished from starvation. But in 1518, according to Herrera, a scourge appeared in the Greater Antilles that almost desolated them. We know how great are the ravages of any imported disease among barbarians.
In our own days the natives of Fiji were swept off in thousands by so comparatively mild a distemper as measles: we can therefore understand how terrible must have been the ravages of so fatal an illness as smallpox, which was then first introduced from Europe. Even at the present day it is dreaded, but at that time it was twenty times more deadly and dreadful than now. The Indians were swept off in crowds, and the islands were almost depopulated. The mortality was increased by the miserable sufferers flinging themselves into the streams and rivers to seek relief from the burning fever that consumed them. Granting that the great majority of the Indians succumbed from disease and famine, the remainder of a people deficient in stamina might easily have dwindled away under the conditions then existing. Labor was odious to them, and that in the mines proved very fatal. The pearl fisheries also caused much mortality. These were chiefly worked by Indians from the Bahamas, who were expert divers and able to remain long under water; but so little care was taken of the men that they gradually died off, and, as the Bahama Islands had been entirely depopulated, it was impossible to supply their places.
Of course, the cruelty experienced, from their conquerors was one among other causes of the disappearance of the Arrowauks, but if the Indians were so numerous, it would be contrary to experience that oppression alone would so soon have exterminated such a multitude, in islands of such considerable area and so inaccessible to invaders.