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Indigenous Erasure in Caribbean Histories of Colonization

The Indigenous “nations” listed near the Essequibo and Demerara rivers (present-day Guyana) represent data from the charts of Lawrence Keymis (1596) at top, Robert Harcourt (1609) in the middle, and map by Nicholas Sanson (1656) as the bottom listing. The changing names may suggest genuine migrations or confederations of Native people throughout the seventeenth century, but also show how imperfect records contribute to the appearance and disappearance of Indigenous groups in the historical record. Detail of map by Colleen Truskey and Carolyn Arena, “Yarico’s Caribbean: Mapping Indigenous Guiana,” available online here and through Dr. Arena’s website here.

Various municipal, state, and federal entities in North and South America have sporadically adopted (and disavowed) “Columbus Day” since the eighteenth century. President Franklin Roosevelt declared October 12 to be “Columbus Day” in 1934, but only 38 states had adopted it as of 1955. Many Italian immigrants and organizations had pushed for commemorations of Columbus, a Genoese voyager. They wanted to assert their contributions to American history and that they were not “descendants of bandits and assassins.” Ironically, Columbus’s activities in America included stealing from, enslaving, and killing Indigenous people. Also ironic were the justifications offered for making it a national and legal holiday in 1955: U.S. Congressman Daniel Flood testified that Columbus was celebrated in Latin America as well and “is still considered as almost an indigenous hero.” It seems safe to assume that Flood did not actually consult a Native person in the Caribbean to verify Columbus’s reputation.[1]

The myth of Columbus as a nation-builder sits uneasily with the equally persistent, although less flattering, histories of the Black Legend. As the legend goes, starting with Columbus, the Spanish annihilated the Indigenous population of the Caribbean. Based in truths about war, disease, and enslavement of the Native Caribbean population, anti-Spanish propaganda among English, French, and Dutch colonizers disseminated the Black Legend in the sixteenth and seventeenth century for their own purposes. They wanted to demonstrate either that lands in America were empty or that decimated Native polities were desirous of other European nations to protect and rule them. These new colonizers, quick to condemn Spanish slaughters, nevertheless continued both warfare and enslavement against Indigenous peoples who resisted colonization. A major surviving population, the Kalinago (“island Carib”) consolidated their power on a number of islands in the Lesser Antilles, including St. Vincent and Dominica, until the late eighteenth century. The Dutch, English, and French retained many violent practices, including the Spanish bifurcation of Indigenous identities into either “Arawak” or “Carib,” erasing Indigenous diversity. The Black Legend speaks to real historical violence, but it fails to include Indigenous Caribbean people as historical shapers, agitators, laborers, resistors, and simply, survivors, from 1492 to the present day.[2]

In addition to many islands in the Lesser Antilles, the Guiana Coast of South America remained a stronghold for various Indigenous groups labeled “Carib” and “Arawak” as well as Yaio, Shebaio, Warao, and Akawaio. Charts created by early explorers of the region, such as Lawrence Keymis (1596) and Robert Harcourt (1609), often represent this diversity better than colonial and governmental correspondence found in later seventeenth-century archives. My collaborator Colleen Truskey and I created an interactive digital map based on a few of these sources. We endeavored to better represent the numerous groups in the Guiana region in the age of the first colonial attempts. Still, I could not align all of the historical names given by these Europeans with contemporary Indigenous peoples or linguistic groups. For instance, the Pemon and Patamona (Kapon) people who reside in the Republic of Guyana today, and who were very important in early sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European trade networks, do not appear at all on the charts or maps we used as source material for the digital map. The Kapon include the Akawaio, who do appear as “Wacawaios” in Keymis’s 1596 chart and “Waccawayi” on Nicholas Sanson’s 1656 map. Linguists have categorized the Kapon as “Cariban” language speakers. We may deduce that the over 60 languages and peoples classified as “Cariban” that this grouping (and subsequent erasure) mirrors the categories used in the historical record by colonists, mapmakers, and chroniclers.[3]

According to Romario Hastings (Kapon-Akawaio) from the present-day Republic of Guyana, the Kapon do not actually identify with groups known historically as “Carib,” despite these historical and linguistic groupings. Other Native people of the Caribbean, like the Kalinago, have debated and ultimately rejected the name “Carib” as derogatory. Research methodologies that involve community engagement and the use of Indigenous-made material culture and documents serve as important correctives to both the labeling and stereotyping that emerge from European archives, maps, and printed materials. Scholars of Native American and Indigenous studies have advocated for these methods, which are increasingly adopted in history as well. Native oral traditions help subvert stereotypes about Indigenous people that prevail in European documentation. For instance, Columbus perpetuated the pernicious rumor that “Caribs” were cannibals. A number of Native traditions collected from around the Marowijne river of Suriname, however, demonstrate that Europeans were similarly rumored to be cannibalistic. These traditions depict colonizing Europeans as monstrous priests appearing from rivers to stalk young Native men, or as military figures who looked like man-eating wood stumps.[4]

The consequences of ignoring the presence and perspectives of the Native Caribbean fall hardest on Indigenous people themselves. Today, Indigenous groups within the Caribbean combat that erasure with physical and digital sites to educate the general public about their lives, histories, customs, and traditions. These groups include the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community in Arima, Trinidad, and the people of the Kalinago Territory in Dominica. As in the United States, Indigenous groups in the Caribbean struggle to win respect for claims over ancestral land and resources. This is particularly true in areas where mining and logging are major industries, although the tide may be turning. Increasingly, Indigenous groups are banding together to fight against what they suffer collectively. Throughout the Americas, more and more cities, states, and nations are changing Columbus Day, a day that celebrates a man who instigated these struggles, to a holiday that instead celebrates the persistence and achievements of Native peoples in the America, Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

For further reading on how the historical erasure of Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean affects contemporary Indigenous communities and politics, see the work of scholars Melanie Newton, Shona Jackson, and Maximilian Forte.

Carolyn Arena (PhD, Columbia) is the National Endowment for the Humanities Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. She is the author of an article and a chapter on colonization and enslavement of Native People in the Lesser Antilles and Guiana regions of the Caribbean.

For more pieces on the Caribbean, click here. For another reflection on Columbus Day, read this 2017 piece.

[1] For one of the most recent assessments of Columbus’s actions, see Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (New York, 2016) esp. 13–45. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, H.R. 4121 “A Bill Declaring October 12 to be a legal holiday,” 84 Cong., 1 Sess, March 4, 1955, pp. 3-7.

[2] For the “Carib” and “Arawak” divide, see Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797 (New York, 1986). For the Black Legend propaganda and promotion of Indigenous alliances among Northern Europeans, see Benjamin Schmidt, Innocence Abroad: The Dutch Imagination and the New World, 1570–1670 (Cambridge, Eng., 2001).

[3] Lyle Campbel, American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (New York, 1997), esp. 202–203 and 365.

[4] Romario Hastings email interview by Carolyn Arena, April 16, 2018, emails in Carolyn Arena’s possession. Information shared with permission. Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Caroline Wigginton, and Kelly Wisecup, “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies: Completing the Turn,” William and Mary Quarterly, 75 (April 2018), 207–36. F.P. Penard and A.P. Pernard, De menschetende Aanbidders der Zonneslang [The Human Worshippers of the Sun-Snake] (Paramaribo, 1907).