For years it’s been common family knowledge that my great grandmother was Taino from Puerto Rico; however, for centuries, scholars believed that the Taino people were extinct after the invasion of Christopher Columbus. How could this be a possibility? Even without the backing of science, my family stuck by this claim.
Mama Rosa. August 2nd, 1935
A few years ago, geneticist Maria Nieves-Colon led a scientific study that confirmed Taino DNA is still very much alive and flourishing through the veins of many decedents of Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. Thanks to the recent advancements, my AncestryDNA results showed that I carried 15% of Indigenous DNA. Those who know me well know that I can become obsessed with research, so I decided to investigate the minute I got my results.
The word ‘Taino’ translated means “Good People” and references to the Arawakan Natives that settled in the Caribbean from South America. The land was blessed, abundant and the Taino’s’ respected it. As inhabitants of their land, they mastered agriculture and cultivated crops like yuca, corn, and sweet potato. According to historical accounts, Taino’s lived their lives as happy, gentle, and friendly people. They were skilled craftsmen and invented things like the hammock and the canoe. The communities were inclusive, self-sufficient, and thriving before Christopher Columbus’s arrival and Spanish rule.
Columbus’s first unintentional stop in the new world was the Bahamas, where he had his first encounter with the Taino people. Columbus quickly noticed the gold the Tainos were donning and went back on his ship, the Santamaria, searching for more. The Santamaria crashed on the northern part of the island Hispaniola which today is known as the Dominican Republic. Columbus left several men on the island to set up a colony and sailed back to Spain, where the Europeans celebrated him. The Spaniards and the Taino’s relationship started out promising as Taino’s nature was generous.
“They will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery. They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces…. They do not carry arms or know them…. They should be good servants.”– Excerpt from the Diary of Christopher Columbus.
After some time, the relationship between the Tainos and the Spaniards began to disintegrate. Spain was quick to claim the islands that Columbus invaded and gave him the title of governor. Columbus returned to Hispaniola with ships to fill with gold for the king and queen of Spain. Instead, he found a local chief had murdered the men left behind. The Taino chief in charge was said to own an abundance of gold on his land and war quickly broke out between the two groups. Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors overpowered the Tainos and drained the land of its gold.
Photo Credit: http://www.History.com
The Taino way of life was dying, and enslavement resulted in the inability to sustain life quality. Taino’s over the age of 14 were forced to give gold to the Spaniards, and those did not produce enough gold were brutally punished. If the Taino people were not dying at the Spaniards’ hands, they would die from the diseases they had carried over for which they had no immunity.
“They forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes. They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mothers’ breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks. Others, laughing and joking all the while, threw them over their shoulders, shouting, ‘Wriggle, you little perisher.'”- A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolome De Las Casas.
Within a few decades of the European invasion, more than 90% of the Taino population was exterminated. Some natives fled to the mountains to escape Spanish rule, but many fell victim to the Spaniards’ advanced weapons. Many Tainos starved and committed suicide at alarming rates, including killing their children so they would not have to be subjected to the enslavement and horrendous acts carried out by the Spaniards in the name of Christianity.
The actions of Christopher Columbus and his men were criticized by many in his colony. Word got back to Spain about the tortuous and barbaric acts Columbus used to govern Hispaniola. He was found guilty of crimes against the Spanish and the Natives. Christopher Columbus was arrested and sent back to Spain. He was no longer permitted to visit Hispaniola. He had one last voyage in the Caribbean before dying in prison.
A study funded by the National Science Foundation found that 61 percent of all Puerto Ricans have American Indian mitochondrial DNA. This is believed to be a link to Taino ancestry. So traces of Taino can be found engraved on stones in mountainous reigns of the Caribbean and can be found embedded in the DNA of many descendants of the Caribbean.
“You know what? These people didn’t disappear. In fact, they’re still here. They’re in us.”- Maria Nieves-Colón.
The terrorist reign of Christopher Columbus left a devastating impact on the entire population of the Taino people. However, it did not put a dent on the Taino impact or influence in our culture today, and on a day like today, it should not be overlooked. The English language has incorporated words that come from the Taino origin. Words like hurricane, canoe, tobacco, and hammock all derive from the Taino language. Inventions of the Taino’s are still used today. The generosity and giving nature of the people in Boriquén is still alive today. Christopher Columbus was not a hero. He was a terrorist. This why I will always choose to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day.