We all know that before Africans were brought to Haiti (or St. Domingue as it was called then), there lived a nations of people. Do you know who they were? They were known as the Arawaks and the Caribs. In those days, Haiti and the modern-day Dominican Republic were divided into five tribes, or kingdoms if you will: the Marien (Guacanagaric), the Magua (presided over by Chief Guarionex), Maguana (ruled by Chief Caonabo), Xaragua (presided by Chief Bohechio), and Hyguey (presided over by Chief Cotubanama) .
The Arawaks were known as rather peaceful, compared to the Caribs who were hellraisers. Most historians agree that the Caribs most likely came from the island of Martinique, and with time even intermarried with the Arawaks. Anacaona, who was ruling the area of Xaragua, which is now modern day Leogane, Haiti.
Haiti’s agricultural landscape was plentiful, with cassava, corn and potato, three of the favorite foods of the Arawaks. In terms of dress, they went around naked practically. The women wore a grass skirt, with their breasts bare, and the men wore headbands, and were often equipped with an arrow for hunting (fishing was another great pastime).
According to Haitian historian Emile Nau, Haiti’s indigenous peoples were very artistic, and they produced areytos, which were poems and songs performed by sambas (poets), and they were able dancers, and often devoted songs to their gods, or zemes. They had ceremonies in caves, which exist in Haiti to this day. During their festivals, Haiti’s “Indians” would rub this red dye (roucoucou) all over themselves. They made hammocks, hanging beds from cotton, which grew in abundance on the island at this point. They believed that after death they would live on Earth in a paradise, and would eat to their heart’s content.
Haiti at this point, had three names: Haiti, Quisqueya and Boyo.
When Christopher Columbus initially landed in Haiti, sponsored by Queen of Isabella of Spain, he landed in the territory ruled by Guacanagaric, the Marien. Columbus suffered a shipwreck (the ship Santa Maria) near Mole St Nicholas (actually, it came to be called that by Columbus, who gave it the namesake of the Catholic saint St. Nicholas) in the Bay of Caracol. The welcome given to Columbus and his men must have been overwhelming. Guanagaric gave them gifts, just because—and he and his people thought the ships, and Columbus messengers from Heaven.
Columbus dug a cross deep on the coast of Haiti (he did come to spread Catholicism at the orders of the queen after all) and claimed the territory for Spain.
After taking a tour of his surroundings, Columbus marveled at the variety of fauna and flora, the immense amount of natural resources, but especially gold, which the indigenous people seemed not to think much of (Guacaganaric actually gave him a mask made of gold! Bad idea Guaca!), but which the Europeans valued a great deal. Columbus and his cronies built La Navidad, a fort in Haiti, and afterwards he departed for Spain, leaving behind about 39 Spaniards on that side of the island, and taking with him plenty of gold, and samples of the birds, plants and other species found on the island, and unknown to Spain.
The Spaniards he left behind soon got busy. They stole all the gold from the indigenous peoples, and mistreated them, and reportedly violated some of the Arawak women. They went beyond La Navidad to retrieve more of the island’s gold. Caonabo, one of the chiefs from the nearby kingdoms, was not about to tolerate this type of conduct from the strangers. He joined forces with Guarionex and burned down La Navidad to shambles. Guacanagaric came to the rescue of the Spaniards, and really ticked off Caonabo who fought him, and gave him a cut to the head as a souvenir.
What shall happen next? Oh, the intrigue! Tune in next time for the next installment of Haiti History 101. And if you missed the other segments, be sure to CLICK HERE to read them.