HERE BEFORE COLUMBUS
By Will Johnson
History revisionists will try to convince you that Columbus did not discover the continent later named America. I would argue that he did. The Vikings some 400 years before him had settlements in New Found land but it took a long time and by coincidence that one of these settlements was found.
People say that when Columbus left Spain, he did not know where he was going, when he arrived in our waters he did not know where he was and that when he re turned to Spain he did not know where he had been. I have stood on the steps in Barcelona where Columbus came to proclaim his success in discovering new lands to the West.
The same conflicts we read about now with the emergence of China as the new global superpower and the new silk road were the main cause for Columbus’ trip.
Ever since the first Crusade and the visit by Marco Polo to the East, trade between Europe and China was via a land route. The Crusades caused the emerging Muslims to strengthen their bases, the same which is taking place today. After the Capture of Jerusalem from the Crusaders and later in 1454 the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire that great City of Constantinople, Europe was in need of a sea route to China. The Muslims captured the Balkans and were knocking on the gates of Vienna before they halted their conquest. They also controlled the whole of Africa north of the Sahara the same as the Romans and the Phoenicians and Greeks before them. Europe was blocked from their lucrative land trade with the East by these Muslim conquests. When the Spanish captured the last lands of the Moors and drove them back into North Africa the King and Queen of Spain decided to finance a Columbus’ trip to the West in search of China. Neither he or those who financed him knew that there was an entire continent several times the size of Europe [which is not a continent but the Western part of Eurasia] waiting to be discovered. There were large cities in Mexico, Central America, Peru and so on indeed. These proved to be a great boon to Spain and Europe in later years. And at the same time, it proved to be a great discovery for Spain and Europe. Columbus went to his death believing that what he had discovered were islands close to Japan and by extension China. He was granted big titles and rewards from the King and Queen of Spain and he has descendants alive today who apparently still benefit from the journey of their Italian ancestor the great navigator Christopher Columbus.
One can make sense of the European discovery of the continent originally called the Indies, at a later time known as the New World, and eventually named America, from different perspectives.
For the Europeans. The discovery represented the beginning of a new era in which novel cosmographic and philosophical conceptions were forged. Chronicler Lopes de Gomara once said that the discovery was “the greatest thing after the creation of the world.” The discovery represented the translocation of the imperial borders and economic interests of Europe. In later centuries, the struggles for power in Europe would be mirrored in America, while the colonies produced goods and services [ much of which were robbed from the aboriginals for the exclusive benefit of the metropolis.
For the aboriginals in America, who were indeed the first true discoverers of the continent, the arrival of the Europeans meant the beginning, in the short- or long-term of the collapse of their societies, which were at different levels of development at the time of Columbus’ arrival. The inhabitants of the Greater Antilles, who believed initially, that the Spanish were celestial beings and welcomed them with legendary hospitality, drastically changed their minds and began to treat the colonizers with resolute hostility when their true intentions were revealed. It was in the Greater Antilles where the blunt first contact between the two worlds occurred and it was most likely the coveted gold the main factor that incited the beginning of the end for the Tainos.
In Old San Juan last month, I bought a book titled “Tainos and Caribs” by Sebastian Robiou. It was originally written in Spanish and published in 2003. The English translation which I have is from March 2019 so hot off the press. I will quote from this book some of the information on the Tainos and Caribs: The Aboriginal Culture of the Antilles.
Through this book and the many others written on this subject we know that Columbus found many people in the islands he visited. Day after day, island after island, he writes his thoughts with admiration, while at the same time assessing and glorifying everything that is revealed to him. In no time at all and as a man of his time, he projects, on the local inhabitants and the natural surroundings his European world view. It is important to know who these people were. Many archaeologists have been digging up the land of the Taino’s and the Caribs [Kalinago] and the Arawaks since Columbus’ discovery. Former French priests who were the first European historians documented the native names of the islands as well as where and when the people they interviewed had come from.
While news of the first voyage spread in Europe and the letter written by Columbus to the King and Queen enjoyed wide circulation thanks to the printing press, a fleet of 17 ships with more than 1200 crew members [settlers] would depart to the New World at the end of September 1493 under the command of the Admiral. If the purpose of the first voyage was to explore, the goal of the second voyage was primarily to colonize.
The second voyage was not a riddle. Columbus studies his notes and also, most likely, the reports of the indigenous seaman “Diego Colon,” and plots a new route to arrive at the islands that he could not reach on his first trip. Years later, this route would facilitate also the crossing to the Antilles of ships full of African slaves.
After sailing for 39 days the fleet arrives in Dominica. After that on Guadeloupe they found in a house and Las Casas mentions a curious detail, pieces of a shipwreck “that the sailors called ‘quodatse’, at which they marveled and could not imagine how it arrived here, It later proved to be parts of a shipwreck from a vessel that sunk Between the Canary Islands and the coasts of Africa, and that had arrived in the Antilles following the same ocean current used by the Admiral.
The chronicler Diego Alvarez Chanca describes a distinctive feature of Carib men:
“the difference from the other Indians in their custom, is that the Caribs have the hair very long, and the other [the Taino] have their hair cut in thousands of different ways, and they wear paint in their bodies in diverse ways […]”
Continuing on their journey from island to island, the fleet arrived on November 14, 1493, on the island called Santa Cruz. It was here that the first clash between the Caribs and Spaniards took place. A canoe with “four men and two women and a boy” was chased by a boat with 25 Spaniards. When they saw themselves being attacked, “the Caribs […} daringly put their hands to the arches, the women as well as the men. Even with a capsized canon, the Caribs continued firing their arrows. One of them continued swimming despite being wounded by a spear. According to Michele de Cuneo, who claims to have been on the boat, the only option left was “to bring him to the edge of the boat and we cut off his head.”
In his letter to an Italian nobleman, Cuneo narrates that he took for himself “a beautiful cannibal” who he saw naked and “I wanted to take pleasure with her.” She objected, so he whipped her and finally achieved his purpose: He claimed that she was better than any whore in Barcelona. This would be the first documented interracial sexual encounter in the New World.
“For years, scholars have used the term ‘prehistory’ to refer to events belonging to the era before recorded history. We should warn however, that the term has fallen into disuse due to its arbitrariness. In every culture, with or without recorded history, humans are the protagonists, the forgers of history. In this sense history evolves to be the social development in time and space.
Similarly, the word ‘culture,’ often used as a synonym for civilization, has been tied wrongfully to scientific and material progress. Culture is what every human group develops when they are provided with a common set of social relations, knowledge, beliefs, artistic ideas and characteristics of their own. As such, there is no such thing as a primitive culture, much less one culture that is superior or inferior to another. Rather, there are degrees in the historical development of culture.
“The history of Antillean cultures can be summarized as follows:
The first Antillean settlers; around 6,000 BC
They came probably from Central America and settled in Cuba and Hispaniola. They were mainly hunters, ettling inland and fabricating objects made of flint of flint stone. [On Saba flint objects were found while digging a cistern in the Level at about 8 feet below ground].
. The fishermen-gatherers: around 4,000 BC
They were natives of South America and became the first humans to populate the Lesser Antilles and Puerto Rico. They made objects using polished stones, and contrary to the previous settlers, exhibited a preference to live on the coasts.
The Agro-Ceramics: from 500 BC to 600 AD.
They were natives of the coast of South America and probably settled in the Antilles in several migration waves. Traditionally, it is believed that they were the first to introduce the manioc and the confection of cassava to the Antilles. [I bought some manioc meal in the Supermarket in Marigot recently and I intend to make my own cassava bread soon]
The precursors of the Tainos from 600 to 1,200 AD
“This group is the result of either the Agro-Ceramics adapting to the island ecosystem, or of new migrations from South America, or of the Archaic adopting the techniques of the Arawak,
The pinnacle of the Taino: from 1200 to 1500 AS.
The pinnacle of the historic process is reached before the arrival of the Europeans in the Antilles and is characterized by the formation of a more complex society.
Carib emigrants: from 1000 to 1500 AD.
This phase is best described by the invasion or migration by the Kalinago (the continental Caribs) to parts of the Lesser Antilles from the coats of South America. This group took possession of the Arawak women and adopted mainly their language and other cultural traits, constituting the Island-Carib culture, or simply Carib culture.”
On Saba in the nineteen seventies several Carib descended people from Dominica and St. Vincent came here to work. I was very liberal in granting them permission to settle here against the objections of one of the Administrators. I told him these people were here long before us. Who are we to deny them entry into the island?
Mr. Evition Heyliger’s mother was from St. Vincent and descended from the few Caribs left on that island. He has served two terms on the Island council of Saba and is now starting his third term.
My cousin Travis Johnson’s wife Lianna is a full-blown Carib from Dominica and they have two sons. And there are others who can claim descent from the original settlers of these islands. In this sense ‘I born here’ is not enough when you know history.
The newly translated book by Sebastian Robiou Lamarche, PH.D. [ ISBN 97817967 41.322] is a worthwhile read to those interested in the history of these islands before the Europeans came here. Not judging but it was a fatal day for those people who lived here at the time.