Read Taino Online

Authors: Jose Barreiro


Text © 1993, 2012 José Barreiro

First published by Arte Publico Press, 1993

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system—except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review—without permission in writing from the publisher.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data on file

ISBN 978-1-55591-767-8 (ebook)

ISBN 978-1-55591-761-6 (pbk.

Design by Jack Lenzo

Fulcrum Publishing

4690 Table Mountain Dr., Ste. 100

Golden, CO 80403

800-992-2908 • 303-277-1623

For my tía Lilina and my abuelo Joseíto,

who taught me to value the old ways

And for my father and mother,

who pointed me to my future

Author's Introduction

A Fabulous Find

From 1988 to 1990, while I was completing research on a doctoral thesis, I endeavored to locate descendants of the aboriginal people of the West Indies. I visited the island nations of Santo Domingo/Haiti, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Saint Vincent, Trinidad, and Dominica. My research led me to interview numerous informants on family oral and documentary history, lifestyle, and the genealogical foundations of the islands. This exhilarating work—fueled, in part, by the occasion of the Columbus quincentennial, in 1992—led to a
number of adventures
, some personal revelations, and the fulfillment, twenty years late, of a doctoral thesis. However, that thesis, “The Indigenous Caribbean,” which became a curriculum, was not the only revelation of those years of research. A far greater discovery resulted, the dream of this researcher: the manuscript that follows this introduction.

In January 1990, during a research visit to Cuba, a friend from the Oriente region of the island told me of a fabulous find in the remote city of Baracoa, among the elder members of a family of Amerindian descent. My friend, an archaeologist of Indo-Cuban descent (from Santiago), insisted that the manuscript was a long-lost set of notes made by Father Bartolomé de Las Casas in preparation for his historic book
Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias
sometime during the 1530s. He said two investigators from the University of Havana had visited the family in the early 1980s but had only been allowed to view portions of the manuscript. “The family is very guarded,” my friend said.

Such documents have often been found among Indian descendants, so I was not surprised by my friend's assertions. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, the Amerindian peoples have revered and tried to keep safe such material legacies as they have been able to secure. Researchers have often reported otherwise destitute Indian families who could produce old chests full of intricate and high-quality breastplates, quill- and beadwork, ceremonial bundles and written testimonies and treaties dating back generations, materials sometimes several hundred years old. In fact, there is presently a generalized movement among Indian peoples to recover spiritually important museum pieces. In several places, tribes have reburied human remains taken by archaeologists and have established their own museums or asked traditional societies to hold artifacts, religious icons, and other objects retained from the past.

Indeed, I was soon to be pleasantly surprised when the two researchers, both doctoral candidates at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Havana, confirmed that the family had shown them six of the pages, written in Old Spanish script. They had judged that the paper was probably old, perhaps the log of a merchant sailor, but they had declined immediate work on the subject, having found the material unsuited to their own research on early colonial sugar mills. My friend, whom I had no reason to distrust, assured me that they had viewed but a minor part of it. He surprised me further by informing me that he had translated and read to the Indian family an old article of mine about Indo-Cuban persistence in the Baracoa area. They judged my perspective to be respectful, he said, and asked him to contact me about reviewing their prized possession.

A week later, I was in the village of Guarik
én, in the sierra of Baracoa,
overlooking the central valley of the Toa River, where I visited the family of Don Francisco Suárez Padrón, a native of the same village. The Suárez Padrón clan is a peasant mestizo/
family that, for several generations at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, worked for the estate of a Cuban scholar, Don Ernesto Bosch Samoa near Guarikén, still one of several small Cuban Indian communities.

After sharing a cup of Cuban
and reviewing my credentials, Suárez produced a copper box, twelve by eighteen inches in size and almost four inches thick, which he placed on a small wooden table. He said that except for the few pages shown to the Havana investigators, he had never revealed the inside of the box to anyone outside his family. Suárez recited how he had been entrusted with it by his grandfather, who had received it from his own grandmother. That matriarch from five generations ago, according to Suárez, had said that the box and its contents came to her family via a great-aunt from the Dominican Republic, a migrant to Cuba, who had received it herself as a young woman from a Catholic friar. The friar was a member of the Dominican Order, one of a long line of friars dating back to the turn of the sixteenth century in Santo Domingo. Remembering that Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas was a member of the Dominican Order, I took careful note of all the names and their family connections. Suárez then ushered me to the table, where he placed the box. He took my hand and put it on the stack of papers.

“Most of it is written by an Indian,” Suárez said.

I told him I had been informed it was a Las Casas manuscript.

“Yes,” he said, “there are letters from Las Casas, but the bulk is by a Taíno Indian who claims to have known Columbus.” He pronounced it “Colón,” as in Spanish. Suárez claimed to understand only about a third of the material, as he found the Old Spanish, written in an elaborate twirling script, hard to decipher.

The copper box was indeed full of sheets, pressed tightly. It gave every indication of being quite old. The box had been lined inside with fine wood, of which only a slip remained, dry as last year's tobacco leaf. With great care and under Suárez's watchful eye, I took out one section and then another. There were two types of paper, both fifteen inches long but one slightly thicker than the other. The thinner papers were blank and had been placed between the sheets of writing for protection. Many of the sheets appeared blank to the eye, but about halfway into the manuscript a blotting effect had occurred and much of the ink was stenciled onto the thinner sheets, reading backward to the eye but discernible. I could immediately see that the papers were old. The script was indeed elaborate, in the ornate style of Spanish calligraphy used in the 1500s. Having held in my hands and closely studied verifiable documents from that period at the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, I could indeed sense that these pages were likely to be a genuine find. Later, in 1990, radiocarbon tests at the Bureau of Ethnology in Washington, DC, dated the paper and wood to the period 1450–1550.

Encouraged by this potentially important find, I rented a room at a
near the Suárez home, and thus began a six-month process of photographing, reading and deciphering the tiny script, and determining the authorship of the documents.

I found that the contents consisted of letters, some notes, and a manuscript of some 440 pages handwritten in very small script. There were indeed letters by Las Casas, two of them, both addressed to a Diego or Dieguillo Colón at the Dominican convent in Santo Domingo, a long, rambling note by an unnamed friar, dated 1659; a short note by Don Ernesto Bosch Samoa, dated 1864; and the long manuscript of notes and journal entries, comprising the bulk of the papers by a Diego Colón, who I initially assumed would have been either the brother or the son of the discoverer Christopher Columbus. However, the note by scholar Bosch Samoa seconded Suárez's assessment, guiding me toward a truer analysis. After a short paragraph explaining that he came to read the manuscript on a request from his aunt, Bosch writes, “This is not the writing of the son nor of the brother of the Great Mariner. Neither the argument nor the exposition corresponds with the point of view of the Colón family. This is likely a fraud, though admittedly an old one, judging from the paper stock.”

Immensely intrigued, I read the manuscript pages. Signed by Diego Colón, they were obviously not by a Spaniard, since the journal entries spoke from the point of view of a Taíno or Arawak Indian, one who claimed to have sailed with Christopher Columbus during the Caribbean phase of the contact period. The manuscript of 440 pages, each signed by Diego, was written in a descriptive and natural Spanish. It tells of events lived by the author, mostly around the period 1532–1535, but with episodes that recall the first encounter at the island of Guanahaní, site of Columbus's landfall and the writer's home island. Thus, the entries tell of memories from the early conquest history of the island that the Spanish named Española, now divided by the countries of Santo Domingo and Haiti. They tell also of the conquest of Cuba and of Puerto Rico.

The full translated text of the Diego Colón journal, plus the two letters from Las Casas, follow this introduction. However, I leave out Bosch Samoa's and the friar's notes, as they are largely unreadable. I am thankful to the eminent Caribbean scholar Professor Juan Mateo (Harvard emeritus), who helped me translate the manuscript and authenticated dates used by the author. Professor Mateo, an indefatigable tracker of the Caribbean's Taíno roots, was extremely helpful in deciphering the meanings of Taíno words. However, the final translation is my full responsibility. For the sake of readability, I have sometimes introduced modern usages, such as Puerto Rico (named San Juan Bautista in Diego's time), and I use the contemporary term
interchangeably with the more historical
. The term
refers to the broader Caribbean indigenous culture that blanketed the Greater Antilles. The two letters of Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, one left for Diego and the other sent from Barcelona, are placed at the end of the volume, as they are in fact dated from 1534 and 1543. Diego's final entry, dated 1546, in shaky handwriting, comes after a full three years of silence following the last of the Las Casas letters. It provides a proper postscript to the narrative and comes after a final encomendation of Diego's worldly goods.

Diego Colón: Points in the Trajectory

After a cursory search of the early chronicles, I found the historical personality named Diego Colón, who was indeed a Taíno Indian. Diego Colón was a young man, twelve years old, when taken captive by Columbus at the first landfall at Guanahaní. A quick study, Diego became Columbus's primary Taíno interpreter within weeks of the first contact. He would not only remain at the center of events throughout the first ten years of the Spanish colonization of La Espa
iola, but he lived to full maturity in Santo Domingo. Diego Colón was a native witness to the first half century of that fateful encounter.

Among the early chroniclers, Las Casas himself mentions the Indian interpreter Diego Colón several times in his
History of the Indies
Dr. Álvarez Chanca, who sailed in the Columbus voyage, mentions him twice (though not by name) in his famous Letter to the City of Seville. Both Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo,
the king's historian, and Columbus's son Ferdinand
refer to Diego in their books: in Oviedo's definitive
General and Natural History of the Indies
(1535) and in Columbus's biography of his famous father, respectively. Diego also turns up in the infamous letter of Michele de Cúneo,
raconteur and friend of Columbus, and in Pedro M
rtir de Angler
Décadas del nuevo mundo

There are references to a Diego Colón at the General Archive of Indies that twice place such a person in Española in 1514; he is also mentioned by an
(Spanish grantees who were ceded lands holding whole Indian communities) in Cuba in 1515. Among twentieth-century historians, Columbus's preeminent biographer Samuel Morison provides several anecdotal references to Diego in his books
Christopher Columbus: Admiral of the Ocean Sea
The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages.

In a twentieth-century novel, Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier twice mentions a “Dieguito, the only one of them to learn some of our words.”
Writing in Columbus's own voice, Carpentier reflects the final thoughts of the legendary admiral: “Through Dieguito, the last one left to me, I learned that those men neither liked us nor admired us; they had us for treacherous men, liars, violent, choleric, cruel, dirty and foul-smelling.”

But that was fiction and in a European (Columbus's) voice. Diego's manuscript reopens the historical record and his is an indigenous voice. Sitting in the coastal breeze of the eastern Cuban mountains, under palm and
trees and surrounded by the sounds of
, the Cuban woodpecker, Diego's words resonated in my ears with a vibrancy that is a researcher's dream. Diego's journal narrates a moment in that early history of encounter when, for a brief decade, the Taíno people regrouped under the leadership of the young chief Guarocuya (Enriquillo's Taíno name) and actually won a war against the Spanish Crown, one that resulted in capitulations that constitute the first treaty between a European power and an American indigenous people.

In any case, Diego's folios provide us with the story of Enriquillo's war and many other historical incidents as well. A narrative written in journal style and making full use of descriptive elements, it can be read for itself, making these explanations already long enough. Except for a glossary that explains Taíno and Spanish words, readers will rejoice that this introduction constitutes the only words extraneous to the noted translator's journal and the letters he saved from Father Las Casas. Without further delay, then, five centuries overdue, we directly proceed to the translation of Diego's text.

José Barreiro

Crows Hill, NY

December, 1992

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