The conquerors meet the "natives":
contemporary painting of Spaniards' first encounter with Taínos in Cuba
|Main Amerindian Native groups in 1492, at the time Columbus arrived|
Tainos are depicted on this Cuban stamp
When Columbus first landed in Cuba in 1492 - and set in motion the making of Cuba into the first Spanish colony of the New World - the island was already inhabited by "Indians" (as Columbus called them, believing he had reached the East Indies). These natives were from two distinct groups of amerindians: Taínos in the east and centre of Cuba; and Ciboneys (sometimes called Guanahatabey), in the west. Their appearance was similar; but their languages are believed to have been unrelated, and they were at different levels of development (the Taínos much more advanced than the Ciboney). What happened to this native population?
In the first century of colonisation, the Spanish tried to use them as unpaid servants and labourers ("slaves" in fact, without being named as such). This was justified by the Spanish on the basis that the Indians were pagans, not christians; and therefore of less value than the Spanish colonisers. Their pagan rituals were suppressed. The natives were also affected in large numbers by imported diseases to which Europeans were immune, but from which many Indians died. So we are told in all the history books, the Indians were within 100 years "wiped out". Even many recent histories of Cuba go along with this idea. They describe the present Cuban population as being a mixture of "White" (i.e. European); "black" i,e. descendants of the African slaves brought in during the 18th and 19th centuries; and "mulatto" - being those with a combination of white and black ancestry. The "Indians" scarcely get a mention. What is the truth? Have they really all disappeared?
In reality, all that has disappeared are the native languages and their cultural systems. The Taíno especially, have survived in large numbers: Only now they are Catholics and speak Spanish! We can see this from the overwhelming presence of "Indian" features in the Cuban population; this is especially true if we look in the countryside and in small or remote villages. Significantly, Cubans with these facial features probably classify themselves as "white"; but recent scientfic developments, in particular the use of DNA evidence, shows conclusively what some people have been saying for a long time: that the Taíno genes have been the Ta passed down, and exist today, as the main racial gene of a large percentage of Cuba's population - perhaps as high as 30%.
What is even less well-known is that there are still pockets of "pure" Taíno culture remaining. There are several villages in the Sierra Maestra and in Eastern Cuba, where because of their remoteness, groups and families of Taíno have managed to survive right into the 21st century. They speak Spanish now of course - but still retain much of their their Taíno original culture. Examples of these villages are Yateras, Maisí, Jiguaní and La Ranchería. There is an important Taíno cemetery at the village of Caridad de los Indios, situated to the east of Guantánamo City. A friend of the author, who lives in the central part of Camaguey province, remembers from her childhood, that her grandfather still spoke the Taino language. We're not talking here about the 19th century - this was the 1970's !
Why has the truth about the survival of the Indians been suppressed for so long? For the answer we need to look at, first of all, political considerations during the first century of the Spanish conquest. Spanish governors of Cuba had to send home reports to the King in Madrid (Seville ??), detailing the extent of christian-isation of the island. This would be in the form of a census, giving counts of natives converted, and natives "still un-converted". So there was a heavy incentive for the colonisers to under-estimate the number of surviving Indians; either deliberately, knowing there were latge numbers in remote areas and not bothering to look for them; or erroneously believing that they really were "almost wiped out". So when the Cuban governor in 1550 reported home that the Indians had all been "wiped out", we can safely say that this definitely was far from true: a combination of lies for political ends; and a certain amount of ignorance.
In later centuries when a population census was made - what incentive was there for a Taino family to put down their race as "Indian"? They had been conditioned for hundreds of years to think that being "Indian" was something you kept quiet about; so they would state their colour as "White".
An interesting sideline on the use of the term "Indian" is that today in Cuba, the label "Indio" on a person, indicates not a pure-blooded Taino but one of a group of people descended from inter-marriage between the Tainos and Black slaves; these Cubans have very dark skin, but long, straight or slightly wavy hair.
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