Taino (Arawak) Indians

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Taino (Arawak) Indians

The Taino, also known as the Arawaks, migrated from the Caribbean coast of South America, moving northward along the island chain of the lesser Antilles to the greater Antilles, around 1200 ce. They were agriculturalists whose basic food crops—corn, manioc, and beans—were supplemented by hunting and fishing. By the time the Europeans first encountered the Taino in 1492, they dominated the islands of Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, most of Cuba, and the Bahamas, but they were coming under pressure from the more warlike Caribs of South America as they too moved northward through the lesser Antilles.

The first expedition of Christopher Columbus brought an initial wave of Old World peoples to the Caribbean. Columbus was impressed by the beauty, peaceful nature, and agricultural techniques of the Taino, and often wrote about the richness and productivity of the land. Chieftains, assisted by elders, ruled the land, and groups were linked loosely by confederations. Columbus frequently boasted of large populations that seemed well off and, surprisingly for the Europeans, to have no money. The Taino were more than willing to exchange their small gold objects or cotton for broken mirrors, knives, or copper bells.

Modern scholars do not know for certain the total population of the Taino when the Europeans arrived, and there is heated debate about these numbers. Nonetheless, it can be said that the population was substantial, with villages containing up to five thousand people, and that almost immediately such numbers began to decline. Within half a century after 1492 the Aboriginal population of many of the islands was approaching extinction. According to Miguel de Pasamonte, the Taino of Hispaniola numbered 60,000 in 1508. According to Diego Columbus, there were 33,523 in 1510; four years later the population was reported to be 26,334. The total fell to about 18,000 in 1518 and 1519, and only 2,000 Tainos remained on the island in 1542.

What were the causes of this demographic collapse? Those making a case for genocide cite the vivid descriptions of Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas who arrived in the islands in 1502, a decade after Columbus's first voyage. In his Brevissima Relación and other writings, he characterizes the Spanish settlers, gold seekers, and warlike conquerors as villains. He, too, had shared in the exploitation of the Taino until his conversion, thanks to a compelling sermon by friar Antonio de Montesinos on Whitsunday of 1512. It influenced him to give up his Indians and dedicate his life to their protection. As an eyewitness, he reported the Spanish to be rapacious, burning captives to secure the source of treasure, and forcing them to travel long distances to work in mines or on settler's estates. They raped the native women and took pleasure in maiming and brutalizing Amerindians with war dogs and instruments of torture. His compelling descriptions were supported by the writings of others, such as the Italian traveler Girolamo Benzoni. These accounts, reinforced by the gory illustrations of Theodore de Bry later in the century, led to the Black Legend, which depicted the Spanish as the scourge of whomever they encountered. But the account of Las Casas was intentionally and successfully exaggerated in order to secure legal protections for Native-American peoples from the Spanish Crown.

In fact, several factors coincided and led to the destruction of Taino society. It is impossible to deny the role of the shock of violent conquest. Columbus's first expedition of three small ships engaged in reconnaissance and trade; within months a large-scale expedition of 17 vessels and 1,500 men—and a handful of women—followed. Some of the men had fought in the wars in Italy and the recent conquest of the kingdom of Granada. They brought warhorses, war dogs, and ample military equipment. The group had been influenced by Columbus's pronouncements on the wealth of the islands, the ease of communication with the Natives, the seemingly friendly nature of the Taino women, and the backward technology of the military.

The Spaniards arrived expecting to find wealth, and they were ready to take it by force if necessary, especially as the Spaniards discovered that no one remained of a handful of men left behind by Columbus; all had fallen to the Taino. If one accepts the statistic that the Taino population of Hispaniola at the time of the Europeans' arrival was approximately a half-million, then the ratio of Spanish males to Taino males was 1:167. The superior military technology of the Europeans more than made up for the difference in numbers. Further, the Spanish utilized brutality in the early stages of conquest to subdue the enemy as quickly as possible. Some of Las Casas's descriptions of brutality during the early months of the encounter were likely accurate. Shock led to submission. But mortality for the Europeans was also very high; more than half did not survive their first year on Hispaniola.

Taino were soon distributed to the settlers in the form of an encomienda, an Iberian institution that had been used during the reconquest of the peninsula. Simply put, the settler was given a grant of natives, mostly adult married males, who provided tribute (a head tax) to the encomendero, who was then responsible for their conversion and civilization. The Spanish Crown frowned on the direct enslavement of the Indians; Queen Isabella had freed Indians enslaved by Columbus to help defray the costs of his second expedition, arguing that the Indians were her free subjects. The Laws of Burgos (1518) restated the policy against Indian slavery, although exceptions were made for Indians who rebelled, killed missionaries or rejected their efforts, or were cannibals. Although technically not slavery, the early encomienda in the Caribbean permitted the Spaniard to use Indian labor, either in mining or the creation of plantations for exports to Europe, especially sugar. The institution led to the abuse and death of tributary workers. Migration, either forced or voluntary, also contributed to the high rate of mortality, as normal subsistence patterns were disrupted.

The impact of culture shock as a technologically more advanced society comes into contact with a less developed one is hard to measure, but evidence exists that this phenomenon did play a role in the collapse of Taino social groups. Las Casas mentions infanticide, which he claimed mothers committed in order to free their infants from the exploitation of the Spanish. Crops were torn up and burned, with starvation as the consequence, but the destruction of crops may have been intentional, carried out by the local population on purpose to deprive the Spaniards of food. Villages became deserted as their residents fled to the countryside. Men and women, too worn out by forced labor, failed to procreate.

Until recently it was believed that the disappearance of the Taino did not involve Old World disease, so important to the collapse of the Amerindian population elsewhere. But there is new evidence that disease did play a role in the Taino disaster. A wave of disease broke out simultaneously with the arrival of the second Spanish expedition in late 1494. Several observers have suggested the loss of a third to a half of the population within that short period of time. There has been much debate among scholars on which disease triggered the huge loss of life; likely candidates have been typhus, which was present with the fall of Granada and the Italian campaigns, or swine flu, similar to the epidemic that occurred at the end of World War I. More recently smallpox has been suggested. Certainly, the smallpox pandemic of 1518 killed most of the remaining Taino on the islands before it spread to the mainland.

Slaving expeditions during the early years of the colony were undertaken to resupply the island's labor force as the Taino population declined. The brunt of slaving fell early on nearby islands, especially the Bahamas. Mortality for enslaved Indians seems exceptionally high. Slaves purchased in the Old World, largely of African origin and transported to the Carribean, ultimately solved the labor problem for European settlers in the lands of the Taino. The legality of slavery was not questioned because it had been practiced in the Mediterranean region for centuries. The long-term demographic consequence for the Caribbean islands was a population of largely European or African origin, or a mixture thereof, with little remnants of the original Aboriginal population, although the significant cultural legacies of the Taino persist.

SEE ALSO Indigenous Peoples; Native Americans


Alchon, Susan Austin (2003). A Pest in the Land: New World Epidemics in a Global Perspective. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Cook, Noble David (1998). Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492–1650. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rouse, Irving (1992). The Tainos, Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Watts, David (1987). The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change since 1492. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Noble David Cook