Updated: Mar 12, 2020
I have often told people that we, the Taino people, welcomed Columbus to our shores with open arms. I was repeating what I was taught. While this scenario did play out with the Taino of Kiskeya (modern-day Haiti/Dominican Republic) in 1492, my research into historical documents shows that this did not happen with my Taino people on the island of Boriken (Puerto Rico). As the resurgence of the Arawak Taino identity continues I find that many offenses are taken by my people 500 years later because of the onslaught of the Spanish brutality against the indigenous people of the Caribbean. These offenses are internalized because of the history that we are taught and it is carried in our genetic memory. But were the atrocities committed on the soil of Puerto Rico actually perpetrated by Columbus and his men?
Many indigenous people are beginning the process of "decolonization" of our way of thinking. Unfortunately, this is also a slippery slope when we consider that what we know about our ancestors comes from Spanish sources. While many of our traditions, language, and customs have been passed down in our families much of what we know is based on historical writings. So how can we "decolonize" back to the old ways when much of what we know is based on the colonists' writings about our history and people?
If you have an ounce of empathy one can easily see how an offense can be taken by the Arawak Taino of today because we were the first indigenous people group to be called "Indian", the first to be enslaved and the first to suffer the impact of genocide at the hands of the brutal Conquistadors. However, when the historical records don't fit the actual eyewitness narratives that we have been given we must reassess and reevaluate. What I am sharing doesn't diminish the fact that Columbus set the precedent for conquest by what he wrote about how easy it would be to subjugate the Taino people. Also, these findings are not to say that the actions of the Spanish are excusable or justified in any way but we must be historically accurate in our perceptions of our ancestor's history whenever possible. Otherwise, we are promoting the same fake news that everyone is decrying at every turn. This only serves to fuel an agenda of hate and internal un-forgiveness that does nothing but continue the same cycle of emotions and actions that our ancestors suffered. In other words, the abused become the abusers.
Let us examine some of the historical evidence from handwritten copies of Columbus journals and other historical sources. Some of these writings I came across at The Institute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies (ISAS) at Netanya Academic College in Israel where they have handwritten copies of Columbus' journals, ship's logs and many other Spanish writings from the 15th century. I was given the privilege and permission to look through many of these journals and ledgers when we visited there in order to research my own hidden Sephardic ancestry. It's amazing what one can find when getting out from behind a computer screen and into an actual physical library! And the feel of ancient paper in your hands cannot be paralleled by a sterile (or not so sterile) keyboard.
According to research based on Spanish accounts, Columbus never set foot on the island of Boriken (Puerto Rico) on November 19th, 1493. Some of his sailors did come to shore, investigated a few of the bohios (native thatched-roof homes) and gathered water. According to written records and contrary to popular history, Columbus himself did not set foot on our island. The iconic paintings of Columbus planting a Spanish flag on our shores while the Taino timidly watched from the woods simply did not happen. He docked his ship for two days, claimed the island for Spain and moved on.
“Descubierto Haití (1492) Colón regresó a España. Los reyes, satisfechos con el éxito obtenido, mandaron prepárale una segunda expedición de 17 buques, que zarparon de la bahía de Cádiz el 25 de septiembre de 1493.”
“Discovered Haiti (1492), Columbus returned to Spain. The kings, satisfied with the success he obtained, commanded him to prepare the second expedition of 17 ships, which sailed from the Bay of Cádiz on September 25, 1493." (Maldonado)
Columbus said that he would return after his first trip in 1492 and after petitioning the Spanish Crown they commanded him to return on another voyage. He ended up making four trips in total between 1492 and 1504. On his second voyage in 1493 Columbus was sailing along the island chains making observations along the way. It was then that he made the decision to anchor his ship offshore of the island of Boriken (Puerto Rico). (Bergreen)
“un grupo de islotes tan numeroso que mereció en conjunto el nombre de Las once mil Vírgenes.” Reaching his destination “el día 19 [de noviembre] … atrajo la atención del Almirante una espaciosa bahía, al ángulo oeste de Boriquén.”
“A group of islets so numerous that it deserved the name of the eleven thousand virgins altogether.” Reaching his destination “on November 19, 1943 ... the Admiral's attention attracted a spacious bay, to the west corner of Boriquén.” (Brau)
“la necesidad de proveerse de agua algunos buques, indujo a hacer alto en aquella bahía....aguardar la llegada de algunas naves, que por sus condiciones marineras rezagábanse mucho en la marcha, para llegar con la flota reunida a la Española.”
"The need to provide some ships with water led to stopping in that bay .... to await the arrival of some ships, which due to their marine conditions lagged a lot in the march, to arrive with the fleet assembled with the ship La Española. (Cruz)
Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca (Columbus' Brother In-law) wrote:
“Llegó de allí a otra grande, que llamó Sant Juan Baptista … donde pescaron todos los navíos diversas especies de pescados, como sábalos y sardinas algunas, y en mucha cantidad lizas … salieron en tierra algunos cristianos y fueron a unas casas .. [pero] no vieron aquí alguna gente, debieron huir cuando los navíos vieron.”
“He came from there to another large one, which he called Sant Juan Baptista… where all the vessels caught several species of fish, such as sabalos and sardines, and many lizas… some Christians went ashore and went to some houses ... [but ] they saw no people there, they must have left when they saw the ships.” (Chanca)
Another eyewitness Francisco Morales said,
“que vio como [en el segundo viaje] el dicho almirante saltó en tierra en la isla que se dice Marigalante, y tomó allí la posesión por sus altezas … y en esta isla de San Juan … no saltó en tierra, pero que les puso nombre a todas el dicho almirante.”
"I saw how [on the second trip] the said Admiral jumped ashore on the island called Marigalante, and took possession there for his Highness ... and on this island of San Juan ... DID NOT JUMP ONTO THE LAND, but put the name (of Spain) by said Admiral." (Brau)
In other words, Columbus NEVER SET FOOT on our island and there was ZERO contact with the indigenous inhabitants of Boriken (Puerto Rico) until 15 years later... by a different captain. In 1508, Spaniards under the command of Juan Ponce De Leon set foot on our island with 50 men and began the conquest and subjugation of the Taino people of Puerto Rico. This is when the abuse and genocide began on our island.
What do we do now that we cannot blame Christoper Columbus for the genocide of the Taino people of Boriken? Perhaps rather than focus on hatred of the perpetrator - and it turns out, it wasn't even the correct person - we should instead focus on the healing of our people. For me, that process began with forgiveness. Our people still wear the shackles placed on our ancestors by men who have been dead half a millennium.
But I have chosen not to be a slave to anger or bitterness.
Forgiveness is the master key that unlocked the shackles placed on me generations ago.
Chief Joseph "AmaHura" RiverWind
Laurence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504, Penguin Books, 2012
J. L. Vivas Maldonado, Historia de Puerto Rico. Nueva York: L. A. Publishing Company, Inc., 1974, p. 76.
Salvador Brau, Historia de Puerto Rico. San Juan: Editorial Coquí, 1966, p. 15.
“El 19 de noviembre de 1493 en Puerto Rico no pasó na’” Por Rafael Acevedo-Cruz, 2010
The Letter of Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, Dated 1484; Volume 48; Creative Media Partners, LLC, 2018
Salvador Brau, La colonización de Puerto Rico. San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1981, pg. 38