Taino Gold

By Gerald Singer

Early depiction of Taino panning for gold for the Spaniards

On September 6, 1492 Christopher Columbus set out on a voyage that was to significantly change the history of the world. His goals were to establish trade with the court of the Great Khan in China and to obtain gold, slaves, spices and other valuable commodities.

On Oct. 12, 1492, Columbus landed on the island of Guanahaní in the Bahamian archipelago. He believed that he had reached the outskirts of China. Guanahaní was inhabited by the Lucayo tribe of the Taino People. (Lucayo means dwellers on cays. Our word cay, meaning small
island, comes from the Taino language.) Columbus renamed Guanahaní San Salvador and declared it to be a territory of Spain. The Taino inhabitants who he called Indios (Indians) were declared to be Spanish subjects.

The official interpreter for Columbus' fleet was Luis de Torres who was a converted Jew. Torres was chosen as fleet interpreter because he spoke Hebrew and Arabic, which, for some reason, would enable him to communicate with the Chinese. Apparently Torres was unable to
converse with the Taino in Hebrew so another course of action was deemed necessary.

Several Tainos were kidnapped. One young man named Guaikan was taught to speak Spanish and became the interpreter for the expedition. Guaikan became Cristobol Colón's (Christopher Columbus) adopted Taino son. He took the name Diego Colón and sailed with Columbus on his subsequent voyages. Six of the captives were eventually brought to Spain and baptized with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela acting as godparents. They were later allowed to return home with the exception of one who chose to remain at the Spanish royal court. He died two years later.

Columbus was finally able to communicate his desire to find the source of certain amulets and nose rings worn made from a yellow metal, which the Taino called guanin and the Spanish called oro. The guanin (an alloy made from gold silver and copper) had been obtained through trade with the Lucayan's neighbors who inhabited a large island to the south; today called Cuba.

The Lucayo captives guided Columbus to Cuba and agreed to help him find the gold, which was caracuriso dear to his heart. They followed their traditional canoe route through the Bahamian Cays. Their first stop was an island thought to be today's Rum Cay, where, according to the captives, the inhabitants wore massive golden bracelets and anklets. No gold was found. Columbus wrote "All they said was humbug in order to escape". (Two of the Lucayo prisoners took advantage of a lapse of vigilance and jumped overboard. Fellow Taino who had been following the fleet in their dugout canoe picked them up. The natives paddled away so fast that all attempts to recapture them were in vain.)

The fleet then sailed to what is today Long Island, which Columbus named Fernandina. Here Columbus was more successful. One of the islanders was wearing a gold nose stud, which he referred to as a caracuri. The owner of the caracuri refused Columbus' attempts at trade and ran away.

Columbus then guided the ships to an island the Taino called Saomete. He renamed it Isabela after the Queen, and it is now thought to be Crooked Island. According to his guides there was a
gold mine on this island and a king who wore cloths and had much gold. No mine or king was found, but Columbus was able to trade with the inhabitants, exchanging trinkets for gold caracuri.

From Saomete (Isabela) the fleet sailed on to Cuba. A return trip to the Bahamian Island of Great Inagua called Babeque by the Taino was attempted after Columbus learned from the Taino of Cuba that on Babeque the natives "gathered gold on the beach by candles at night,
and then made bars of it with a hammer". Headwinds forced Columbus to give up the voyage, but Martín Alonzo Pinzón, captain of the Pinta was successful. No gold was found on the beaches of that island; not at night, nor at any other time.

In a letter at least partly intended to solicit financial support from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela, Columbus wrote: "…Finally, to compress into few words the entire summary of my voyage and speedy return, and of the advantages derivable therefrom, I promise, that
with a little assistance afforded me by our most invincible sovereigns, I will procure them as much gold as they need, as great a quantity of spices, of cotton, and of mastic and as many men for the service of the navy as their Majesties may require. I promise also rhubarb and other sorts of drugs, which I am persuaded the men whom I have left ... have found already and will continue to find…" It is interesting to note that only one report of a potential gold producing area was actually verified on the first voyage. The other riches promised were even more disappointing.

The spice that Columbus refers to in his letter was Canella alba, a plant that smells like cinnamon but is not useful as a spice. The mastic mentioned in the letter turned out to be the sap of the turpentine tree and not the valuable resin of the gum mastic tree.

The prospective slaves for service in the navy had such a low survival rate that the few survivors were returned to their island homes as an act of mercy by the crown. The rhubarb that was supposed to have been found was in fact not rhubarb at all but a plant known
now as false rhubarb. The promise of drugs probably refers to the discovery of an abundance of what was thought to be the medicinal plant aloe, but which was in reality the relatively worthless, century plant. Another worthless item that Columbus brought back to Spain as evidence of the riches that could be exploited from the continuance of his adventures was the unpleasant-tasting fruit of the icaco, which he believed to be the coconut mentioned in the
writings of Marco Polo.

Notwithstanding these inconsistencies, Columbus was successful in obtaining the desired financial support for his second voyage in which he was instructed by the crown to establish gold mines, install settlers, develop trade with the Tainos, and convert them to Christianity.

Marginally productive gold mines were eventually discovered in Hispaniola and later in Puerto Rico and Cuba. At first it was Spanish settlers who panned for gold in the rivers and worked the
newly discovered mines, but the combination of disappointing yields, harsh working conditions and high mortality rates quickly led to the abandonment of this activity by the Spaniards.

The task of gold mining was then given to enslaved Tainos. Most died from disease brought on by unsanitary conditions, overwork and lack of resistance to European illnesses. Countless others succumbed to famine that resulted when the Taino were not given sufficient time
to provide for their own sustenance. The chronicler, Las Casas, reported that only ten percent survived after three months of service and that there was a constant shortage of workers. As a
result inhabitants of other Caribbean islands were captured and enslaved. The mines in Hispaniola became depleted in the 1520's and those of Puerto Rico and Cuba became exhausted within the following decade.

The Taino cacique Guacanagari, who befriended Columbus and who was later sold into slavery by his "friend" twice sent Columbus facemasks with nose, tongue and ears made of gold.

Masks traditionally have spiritual significance. Was Guacanagari trying to make a statement about the true nature of Columbus's character?

Article Source: stjohnbeachguide.com

UCTP Taino News Moderator's Note: The above information is presented for educational purposes only. The views and opinions expressed within "Taino Gold" by Gerald Singer are not necessarily those of The Voice of the Taino People News Journal or the United Confederation of Taino People.

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