William F. Keegan, curator of the Florida Museum of Natural History and a foremost authority on the Lucayans asks, “How was it possible that a man from the Bahamas became the most important leader of the Tainos in Hispaniola?”  Based on the book  Historia de las Indias, Apologetica Historia and A short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, written by Bartolome de las Casas, plantation owner, a slave trader turned priest in 1510, as well as a mention by Christopher Columbus himself, from his own letters, in the Memorandum to Antonio de Torres, Isabela, 30 January 1494, The Torres Memorandum, we discover the Cacique king Caonabó.

Bartolome Las Casas lived on Hispanola with his father from 1502, and was witness to the atrocities committed against the native Indians there.  It is from Las Casas that we have a most incredible account of a Lucayan born hero, a chieftain, a cacique named Caonabó.

Identifying Caonabó  as a Lucayan proved to be a monumental challenge for researchers. They had to go to Middle Caicos, to confirm it. One particular reason for this stems from the very strict and closed society of the Taino people in Hispaniola (Hayti, as they called it). Taino societies really only advanced to higher statuses, from within their own ranks and there was doubt that if Caonabó was indeed a Lucayan, that he would have never risen to the rank of cacique on the island of Hispaniola. But he did. So how could it have happened?

William F. Keegan, curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, has written extensively on Caonabo. He writes that ‘the solution to the problem of uncovering where Caonabó was really born lies really in the geography of the Bahamas archipelago 500 years ago. He notes that there was, what he refers to as a ‘ball court’, the only ball court in the Bahamian archipelago on the island of Middle Caicos, pointing to the fact that this particular Bahamian island was populated by Classic Tainos. The same ethnic type of Taino that populated Hispaniola. Researchers conclude that the Lucayan Tainos of Middle Caicos, where Caonabo was born, were merchants and trader who bartered and sold goods such as feathers, cotton, dried conch and turtles between the southern Bahamas and Hispaniola. If Caonabo had been born there, in Middle Caicos, then all the parts to the historical puzzle would fit. And this makes Caonabo, a Lucayan.’

Caribbean Archeology, Middle Caicos, Florida Museum of Natural History

This makes Caonabó of Lucayan/Bahamian heritage; and one of our earliest ancestors on the shared land.

How Caonabó went on the become a powerful cacique is also incredibly interesting. Researchers proffer that the Taino lineage was derived from the mother. Under their traditions, when a boy child came of age, they would go to live in the village of his mother’s brother. Caonabo’s uncle must have been the cacique of Maguana in Hispaniola, where Caonabo would have gone at adolescence. Caonabo rose to prominence probably through is strength and proven leadership abilities. He would have been chosen to be the new cacique when his uncle died.

Caonabo is of special interest to us because Las Casas reported that he was a Lucayan, stating specifically that he came from an island in the Bahama archipelago. In 1492, Caonabo was viewed by the Spanish as the principal Taino cacique. Perhaps the only Taino leader worthy of the title guamiquina, which meant “lord, supreme ruler of all things, and chiefest of all divinities.” He ruled the cacicazgo of Maguana in central Hispaniola, and was allied through marriage with Behecchio, the ruler of Jaraguá. Between them they controlled most of Hispaniola including the gold fields and richest agricultural lands. But how was it possible that a man from the Bahamas became the most important leader of the Tainos in Hispaniola? If Las Casas was correct, Caonabó could only have achieved such status if his mother was from a chiefly family in Hispaniola, who was married to a very powerful cacique in the Lucayan islands. Then, when Caonabo reached adolescence he left his parent’s village in the Bahamas and went to live with his uncle, a cacique in the Maguana province. He must have had tremendous personal leadership qualities that made him the consummate entrepreneur and positioned him to succeed his uncle as cacique. Moreover, his reputation suggests that he successfully expanded the territory and power of his cacicazgo. Looking back to the Bahamas, the only settlement that is of sufficient size and importance to have launched such a career is MC-6, the ceremonial/trading center on Middle Caicos.”

(William F. Keegan, PI, Curator of Caribbean Archaeology, Florida Museum of Natural History
February 1 to15 and February 22 to March 7, 1999
Middle Caicos Earthwatch Report, 2000

Caribbean Archeology, Middle Caicos, Florida Museum of Natural History

Caonabó, the Cacique of Maguana, Hayti, born in the Lucayas

Las Casas notes that when the Spanish arrived in Hispaniola there were five flourishing Indian kingdoms. The kingdoms were called cacicazagos by the natives. There were two very large kingdoms on the western side of the island. They were so large that boundaries comprised almost half of Hispaniola. These vast areas were ruled by the Cacique Caonabo and the Cacique Behechio. The cacicazagos or kingdoms were aligned by marriage because Behechio’s sister, Anacoana, was married Caonabo.

Bartolomé de las Casas indicates that Caonabó was Lucayan. He notes that Acacoana was married to a stranger king. Stranger king meaning that he was not from Hispaniola, but from somewhere else. In this instance, the somewhere else was Lucaya, now called the Bahamas.

“Cacique Caonabó is an entirely different case. He accessed the office of principal cacique of the region of Maguana, or “Not Large,” Valley (encompassing the Cibao Mountains), through personal achievement. Caonabó was, as Keegan (2006:387; see also 2007b) noted, a stranger cacique; his birthplace was in the Lucayo Islands (Bahamas). Chronicler Las Casas, in his Apologética Historia, specifically wrote: The fourth king [of Hispaniola] was Caonabó, last syllable stressed, who ruled the province called Maguana, coterminous or sharing its borders with Xaraguá…he was a most valorous and esforzado [backed by the force of “law”], who had gravitas and authority and who, as those of us who came there [Hispaniola] at the beginning understood, belonged to the Lucayo nation, a natural [born in] of the Islands of the Lucayos, who migrated from there to here [Hispaniola]. And because he was singled out as a man of war and peace, [he] had become king of that province, and was highly esteemed by all
[Las Casas 1929 (3):554, my translation; my emphasis].” (Oliver, J.O. (2009) Caciques and Cemai Idols: The Web Spun by Taaino Rulers between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, University of Alabama Press: 36)

Caonabo was a cacique of the Cibao region on Hispaniola Island at the time Christopher Columbus arrived in Ayiti renamed Hispanola. He was a native of the Caribs tribe and was well known and honoured for his skills and fearlessness in combat. When Columbus tried to land on the northern coast of the island (now known as Punta Flecha), he suffered an attack of arrows and was pursued by Caonabo. The attack forced Columbus and his crew to disembark on the southern part of the island near where he founded the city of Santo Domingo. The ship Santa Maria was destroyed during the December 25, 1492 landing, so the stranded Spaniards stayed and built a fort they named Fort Christmas to commemorate the date of their landing.

When Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of Hispaniola on his historic first voyage, he was befriended by Guacanagarí, the cacique or chief of that area. Guacanagarí offered Columbus and his men food, water and gifts of jewellery. When Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, struck a reef, it was Guacanagarí, who sent his men to try and save the vessel. When that proved impossible, Guacanagarí had his men paddle out to the shallow reefs and dismantle the wrecked ship. They brought it back bit by bit, plank by plank, to the beach to be used as construction material. Guacanagarí gave the stranded crew temporary housing while they used the wreck of the Santa Maria to build a fort, called La Navidad, was built to accommodate them.

Columbus had to leave to report his incredible findings to his benefactors in Spain. Guacanagarí then promised to care for and protect the sailors left behind, until Columbus returned.

The atrocities and brutality began almost immediately as the Spanish were making it clear that they were claiming the island for themselves. The indians were forced to begin mining for gold and pay tribute to the Spanish left on the island. Rape, murder and the servitude of little boys, girls and women began. The natives on Hayti (Hispaniola) soon came to realise that the Spanish had no intention of leaving. Not long after Columbus left the island in 1493, Caonabo attacked Fort Navidad. The enclosure was destroyed the 39 Spaniards left in charge of the island, were killed.

On the second voyage, his return to Hispaniola, Columbus brought 1,500 men to expand the gold mining and to complete the process of taking of the island from the native inhabitants. Columbus was enraged when he found Fort Navidad destroyed and the inhabitants dead. Guacanagarí, who had initially greeted Columbus, was considered the most likely suspect as he was familiar with the fort and could gain easy access. Guacanagarí though blamed Caonabo. Columbus believed him and then set his sights on pursuing and killing Caonabo.

Caonabo was the most important and powerful ruler in Hispaniola at the time; a leader to whom Guacanagarí owed allegiance and whose power and position Guacanagarí coveted. Guacanagarí told Columbus that Caonabo was a Carib, but historical and archeological evidence belies this claim. The chronicler Las Casas wrote that Caonabo was a Lucayo (Western Taino) born in the Bahamian archipelago. Therefore he could not have been a Carib, a people who came from the islands of the Lesser Antilles.

Caonabo held great contempt for Columbus and the Spanish and did everything he could to see them off the island. What brought Caonabo to prominence with the Spanish, was when Columbus found out that the gold he was so eagerly searching for, the gold that was the basis of his dreams, was discovered in great quantities in the territory of Maguana, the territotry ruled by Caonabo. However, Columbus could not reason with Caonabo and felt he was the most stubborn and unrelenting of all the caciques.

“Further, as we saw that most of those who went inland to explore fell sick on their return, or even had to turn back on the way, this was a reason to fear that the same might befall those healthy men who might make such an expedition now. And two perils might threaten them there in consequence. First, if they were to fall sick out there in the course of the work, where neither is no house nor refuge of any sort from the chief they call Caonabó (who by all accounts is a very bad man and – even more – a very bold one), he, seeing us there unfeebled and ill, would be able to undertake that which he would not dare if we were in normal health. And along with this there would be a second difficulty: how to get back here with the gold we would be carrying…”

(Christopher Columbus in Hispaniola, dated 30 January 1494, as part of the Torress Memorandum. The letter was for Columbus’s messenger, Antonio de Torrres, to be delivered to Ferdinand and Isabella, king and queen of Spain. In it, he mentions Caonabó.)

Columbus gave strict instructions to capture Caonabó. Columbus sent Alonso de Hojeda, along with nine other men, on a secret mission to capture the king. They could not attack him directly for fear of an uprising among the Tainos, so they decided to trick him instead. The Tainos had been fascinated by the brass objects used by the Spanish and they used this curiousness to their advantage. The indians called the brass turey. The Spanish had convinced them it was a gift from heaven, so when they were given odd broken bits of it as gifts, the Tainos believed it was a gift from heaven in the sky as they had been taught.

Alonso de Hojeda had brought a pair of brass handcuffs to the meeting and convinced Caonabó that they were a gift with heavenly properties. Hogged convinced Caonabó to first bathe in the local river, as was the Taino custom before ceremonies, then he would be presented with the grand gift of the turey. They grabbed Caonabó put the handcuffs on him and tied him up with rope. According to the account of Bartholomew Las Casas, Caonabó was kept a prisoner in Columbus’s house where he confessed to the destruction of Fort Navidad.

Caonabó, other Taino indians bound for slavery in Europe,  as well as a cargo of gold mined on the island, were loaded on to a ship bound for Spain. Caonabó was chained to the deck of the ship. The vessel was soon caught in a hurricane and sank. All onboard drowned, as well as Caonabó, who was still chained down to the deck.

Caonabo’s wife, Anacaona, considered a princess, confessed later to having incited him to exterminate the Spaniards because their abuses of indigenous people. She was hanged.

“Their princess was instantly secured. Her attendants were seized and bound, and left to perish in the flames of the house, where they were assembled, which was set on fire. Anacoana was carried in chains to St. Domingo, where, after the formality of a trial, she was condemned to be hanged. This atrocious conduct toward the Haytin princes completely humbled the natives, who, in all the provinces of Hispaniola, now submitted, without farther resistance, to the Spanish yoke”

(Holmes, Abiel (1829) The Annals of America, from the Discovery by Columbus in the Year 1492, to the Year 1826. Volume: 1. Edition: 2nd. Hilliard and Brown: 26)