The original Cuban inhabitants, the Guanajabatey, were driven to western Cuba by the arrival of subsequent waves of migrants, the Taino and Ciboney. The Taino and Ciboney reached 350,000 by the end of the 15th century. They were a splinter group of the Arawak, who inhabited parts of northeastern South America prior to the arrival of Europeans.
The Tainos and Ciboney didn’t have a written language but were inventive and good farmers. The yucca root was harvested and baked to produce cassava bread. They grew cotton and tobacco, and ate maize and sweet potatoes. Commenting on their bounty, Spanish Dominican clergyman and writer Bartolome de las Casas, wrote “they have everything they need for living; many crops, well arranged.”
The Taino learned to strain cyanide from the life-giving yucca, developed pepper gas for warfare, and built oceangoing canoes large enough for more than 100 paddlers. They fascinated the Europeans because they played games with a ball made of rubber, an item never seen before by the Europeans. They made exquisite pottery, wove intricate belts from dyed cotton and carved enigmatic images from wood, stone, shell and bone.
Columbus noted their generous spirits, handsome bodies and faces, and the fact they didn’t carry arms or know them. “They should be good servants,” he noted.
The Tainos soon were sent to work on colonial plantations and in the gold mines; they ceased planting their own crops and many began to starve. Thousands fell prey to small pox, measles and other European diseases. Some committed suicide to avoid being slaves, while others either died fighting the Spaniards or escaped to remote regions of Cuba beyond the reach of their conquerors. By 1514, an official survey showed 40 per cent of Spanish men had taken Indian women as wives.
Possibly 85 per cent of the Taino population vanished as did Taino as a living language. Yet the name of Cuba itself, Havana, Camaguey, and Taino words such as tobacco, hurricane and canoe were transferred to English and are used today.
The famed Taino Chief, Hatuey, was burned alive at Yara, Cuba — the prototypical martyr of heroic resistance against the centuries of colonial onslaught to come.
As the Spanish devastated Tainos, Hatuey fled from Hispaniola to warn other Tainos of what awaited them at the hands of the conquerors. Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas conceived Hatuey’s meeting with Cuban “Indians” thus:
“You already know that it is said the Christians are coming here; and you have experience of how they have treated the lords so and so and those people of Hayti (which is Hispaniola); they come to do the same here. Do you know perhaps why they do it?” The people answered no; except that they were by nature cruel and wicked. “They do it,” said [Hatuey], “not alone for this, but because they have a God whom they greatly adore and love; and to make us adore Him they strive to subjugate us and take our lives.” He had near him a basket full of gold and jewels and he said. “Behold here is the God of the Christians …”
Hatuey had a trenchant critique. The Spanish had the guns.
Hatuey kept up a hopeless guerrilla resistance for a few months, but was captured and tied to the stake — where a famous parting dialogue took place. Once again, de las Casas:
[A] Franciscan monk, a holy man, who was there, spoke as much as he could to him, in the little time that the executioner granted them, about God and some of the teachings of our faith, of which he had never before heard; he told him that if he would believe what was told him, he would go to heaven where there was glory and eternal rest; and if not, that he would go to hell, to suffer perpetual torments and punishment. After thinking a little, Hatuey asked the monk whether the Christians went to heaven; the monk answered that those who were good went there. The prince at once said, without any more thought, that he did not wish to go there, but rather to hell so as not to be where Spaniards were, nor to see such cruel people. This is the renown and honour, that God and our faith have acquired by means of the Christians who have gone to the Indies.