When Columbus and his men first landed on the islands of the Caribbean believing that they had made it to Asia, they encountered a thriving civilization of people who had been living there for thousands of years. Mistaking his location, Columbus referred to these people as Indians. In fact, they were the Taíno, Lucayan and Carib, the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean. They were the first people of the Americas to be victims of European invasion, enslavement, and colonization, which resulted in devastating consequences for the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It is vital to confront our history and the reality of its impact. Despite this history, the language, rich culture, and traditions of Indigenous Peoples remain and continue to be revived and honored today.
The Caribbean region or West Indies refers to the island chains in the Caribbean sea of the Atlantic Ocean. The Lesser Antilles island chain in the east includes St. Croix, St. Kitts, Montserrat, Antigua and Barbuda, Martinique, St. Lucia, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago. The Greater Antilles in the west include Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), and Puerto Rico. The Lucayan Archipelago in the north include the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. Also included are the ABC Islands in the south: Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire, and the Leeward Antilles which include Tortuga and Isla Margarita just north of Venezuela.
The climate in the Caribbean is tropical as it is so close to the equator. The temperature remains warm to hot all year with a wet season from June through November which can bring hurricanes. Because of the warm tropical climate, vegetation is lush and green. There are rainforests with huge tree ferns, giant elephant ear plants, figs, balsam, and silk cotton trees. There are beautiful blooming flowers like hibiscus, orchid, lily, bromeliad, and jasmine and large palm and palmetto trees. The sea is abundant with fish and other animals such as sharks, seals, dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, crabs, stingray, and queen conch. On land you can find over 700 species of birds, lizards, iguanas, monkeys, rodents like the agouti and guinea pig, caimans, and even swimming pigs!
It is estimated that people began living on the islands as early as 5000 B.C. with the Ciboney and the Igneri ancient peoples. The indigenous peoples of the Caribbean region include the Taíno who speak an Arawakan language descended from the Arawak peoples of South America. The Taíno were the principal inhabitants of the region and lived in Cuba, Jamaica, Bahamas, Haiti, Dominican Republic (Hispaniola), Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the northern Lesser Antilles. The Lucayan people were a branch of the Taínos living in the Bahamas. The Carib people migrated from the Orinoco River between Colombia and Venezuela and lived in the southern Lesser Antilles. By the time of the first European invasion in 1492, it is estimated that there were 1-2 million people living in the Caribbean with about 700,000 living in Hispaniola alone.
Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean like the Taíno were able to use the natural resources of their tropical paradise to fish, hunt, gather, and farm. Fishing nets made from ropes of cotton and palm were used in the abundant sea and freshwater rivers for fish such as the parrotfish, grouper, and snapper and also conch, clams, crabs. and sea turtles. Dugout canoes (canoa) were carved from silk cotton trees. These canoes were built to travel on the ocean and varied in size, with some holding two people and others holding over 100 rowers! Most canoes could hold groups of 15-20 people and were used for traveling as well as fishing. The people used bows and arrows with poison tips for hunting small mammals like rabbits and agouti, birds, iguanas, and snakes. People like the Taíno gathered wild vegetables, fruit, and berries. They also cultivated the land with sophisticated methods of agriculture and grew cassava, maize, sweet potato, beans, gourds, yucca, chili peppers, and chocolate. Traditionally, men hunted and fished while women gathered and farmed.
The Taíno people used mahogany and dried palm leaves to build their houses and furniture. They lived in villages called yucayeques. The social structure was typically divided by class into serfs, or Naborias, who performed manual labor such as fishing, farming, and hunting and noblemen, or Nitaínos, who were soldiers, leaders, and craftsmen. The leader or chief of each yucayeques was called a cacique. They were aided by a priest or spiritual leader called a bohique. Yucayeques were always built close to a water source for drinking and bathing. In the center of the village was a large plaza called a batey. The batey was encircled by large stones carved with petroglyphs or symbols. The stones would make the area an enclosed rectangle and the batey could be used for festivals, ceremonies, and even games. A ball game, also called batey, was played with a rubber ball and 10-30 players on two opposing teams. It is believed that the ball game could have been played for festivals as well as to settle disputes between rival villages.
Homes were huts called bohios, which were circular and made from reed, bamboo, and tree branches tied together with grass and mud for durability. Bohios had thatched roofs made from palm leaves. The largest bohio in the village was rectangular to distinguish it from the rest. This rectangular hut was reserved for the cacique and his family and was called a caney. Caneys were built in the center of the village at the edge of the batey as a prominent place for the cacique. Inside their homes, Taíno slept in hamacas (hammocks) and had chairs called dujos. Dujos could be carved with elaborate religious symbols and decorated with gold. The cacique's dujo had a taller backrest and resembled a throne.
People often wore their hair with bangs in the front and longer in the back. Paint was used to decorate the face and body. Jewelry was worn made from gold, precious stones, feathers, seashells. and animal bones or teeth. Men and women wore necklaces with amulets, earrings, nose rings, arm bands, and bracelets.
Religion was an important part of life. Taínos carved zemís, or idols, from wood, stone, and clay. They could also be painted and decorated with gold and precious stones. A zemís would be a conduit for the spirit of the gods and was used for prayer. Religious ceremonies were held in the batey and led by the cacique and bohique. The ceremonies were called areytos and were very festive with much food, games, and music.
Instruments made by the Taíno are still played today. Drums were made from hollowed out tree trunks. Maracas and güiros were instruments made from hollowed out gourds. Food would be marinated and cooked over a fire using green, fire-resistant bearded fig branches. The Taíno people called this method of cooking barbacoa, which is now known as barbeque. They grew tobacco, which was considered a sacred plant and used only during special ceremonies about four times a year.
There are many words that are in the English and Spanish language today that we can credit to the Taíno and other Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean:
In 1492, Spain defeated the Muslim ruler Boabdil for control over the city of Grenada. They succeeded in overtaking the last Muslim stronghold in the region; a feat the Spanish Christians had been trying to do for centuries. Emboldened by this victory, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sought to expand their empire further in order to gain more wealth, influence, and power.
At the same time, Christopher Columbus had been repeatedly seeking a sponsor for a voyage that had never been done before. Instead of sailing south and around the tip of Africa to get to India and Asia, like his predecessors, he wanted to head west. Imagining that the world was smaller than it was and not anticipating the Americas, Columbus convinced Ferdinand and Isabella that this would secure them a new trade route to Asia and an opportunity to claim any unknown lands they found en route for Spain.
On August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail from Spain with three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He arrived in the Caribbean on October 12, 1492 after sighting an island in the Bahamas. Christopher Columbus called this island San Salvador, but its original name from the Lucayan people that lived there is Guanahani. When Christopher Columbus met the Lucayan Taíno people, he was impressed with their generosity, kindness, and gentle nature. Columbus didn’t realize that he hadn’t reached Asia and incorrectly referred to the Taíno people as Indians. He saw that on San Salvador and the island of Cuba, people were wearing gold ornaments and pearls. He and his men stayed for three months gathering gold, new foods, and spices. In 1493, Columbus sailed back to Spain with his treasures for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. He also promised them that he would bring them back “as much gold as they need ... and as many slaves as they ask.” Columbus is credited with introducing new plants, animals, and resources as well as initiating the first transatlantic trade of enslaved people from the Americas to Europe (what is referred to as the Columbian Exchange).
Columbus would make three more trips to the Caribbean. The goal of Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors that followed was to conquer the many islands of the Caribbean, exploit the land, and control its people. The indigenous people were forced to convert to Christianity or be enslaved. They were forced to work in gold mines and on the Spanish plantations. They were brutally punished, tortured, or killed for disobeying or resisting Spanish rule. The atrocities committed by Columbus and his men against the Indigenous people were so horrifying that Columbus was even imprisoned for a period of time for mismanaging the territories in 1500. Historians estimate that within the first 20 years of contact with the Spanish, 90% of the Indigenous population were murdered, enslaved, or died from diseases they were not immune that were inadvertently brought by the Europeans.
Despite the genocide commited by Columbus, the Spanish conquistadors and other European colonizers, the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean survive today. There are many people all over the Caribbean that can trace their genetic ancestry to the Taíno, Lucayan, and Carib peoples. Some of the largest and most active Taíno groups are in Puerto Rico (Borikén in Taíno). Influences of the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean are seen and heard all around us in the language we speak, foods we eat, and instruments we play, and there is a resurgence of effort all over the world to honor their past and their present.
With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean. They’ll become familiar with their environment, resources, traditions, and culture.