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The Life of Christopher Columbus

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Skirmishes with the Caribs

During the first day Columbus spent here, many men and women came to the water's edge, "looking at the fleet and wondering at such a new thing; and when any boat came ashore to talk with them, saying, 'tayno, tayno,' which means good. But they were all ready to run when they seemed in danger, so that of the men only two could be taken by force or free-will. There were taken more than twenty women of the captives, and of their free-will came other women, born in other islands, who were stolen away and taken by force. Certain captive boys came to us. In this harbor we were eight days on account of the loss of the said captain."

They found great quantities of human bones on shore, and skulls hanging like pots or cups about the houses. They saw few men. The women said that this was because ten canoes had gone on a robbing or kidnapping expedition to other islands. "This people," says Doctor Chanca, "appeared to us more polite than those who live in the other islands we have seen, though they all have straw houses." But he goes on to say that these houses are better made and provided, and that more of both men's and women's work appeared in them. They had not only plenty of spun and unspun cotton, but many cotton mantles, "so well woven that they yield in nothing (or owe nothing) to those of our country."

When the women, who had been found captives, were asked who the people of the island were, they replied that they were Caribs. When they heard that we abhorred such people for their evil use of eating men's flesh, they rejoiced much." But even in the captivity which all shared, they showed fear of their old masters.

"The customs of this people, the Caribs," says Dr. Chanca, "are beastly;" and it would be difficult not to agree with him, in spite of the "politeness" and comparative civilization he has spoken of.

They occupied three islands, and lived in harmony with each other, but made war in their canoes on all the other islands in the neighborhood. They used arrows in warfare, but had no iron. Some of them used arrow-heads of tortoise shell, others sharply toothed fish-bones, which could do a good deal of damage among unarmed men. "But for people of our nation, they are not arms to be feared much."

These Caribs carried off both men and women on their robbing expeditions. They slaughtered and ate the men, and kept the women as slaves; they were, in short, incredibly cruel. Three of the captive boys ran away and joined the Spaniards.

They had twice sent out expeditions after the lost captain, Diego Marquez, and another party had returned without news of him, on the very day on which he and his men came in. They brought with them ten captives, boys and women. They were received with great joy. "He and those that were with him, arrived so DESTROYED BY THE MOUNTAIN, that it was pitiful to see them. When they were asked how they had lost themselves, they said that it was the thickness of the trees, so great that they could not see the sky, and that some of them, who were mariners, had climbed up the trees to look at the star (the Pole-star) and that they never could see it."

One of the accounts of this voyage relates that the captive women, who had taken refuge with the Spaniards, were persuaded by them to entice some of the Caribs to the beach. "But these men, when they had seen our people, all struck by terror, or the consciousness of their evil deeds, looking at each other, suddenly drew together, and very lightly, like a flight of birds, fled away to the valleys of the woods. Our men then, not having succeeded in taking any cannibals, retired to the ships and broke the Indians' canoes."

That of Peter Martyr.

They left Guadeloupe on Sunday, the tenth of November. They passed several islands, but stopped at none of them, as they were in haste to arrive at the settlement of La Navidad in Hispaniola, made on the first voyage. They did, however, make some stay at an island which seemed well populated. This was that of San Martin. The Admiral sent a boat ashore to ask what people lived on the island, and to ask his way, although, as he afterwards found, his own calculations were so correct that he did not need any help. The boat's crew took some captives, and as it was going back to the ships, a canoe came up in which were four men, two women and a boy. They were so astonished at seeing the fleet, that they remained, wondering what it could be, "two Lombard-shot from the ship," and did not see the boat till it was close to them. They now tried to get off, but were so pressed by the boat that they could not. "The Caribs, as soon as they saw that flight did not profit them, with much boldness laid hands on their bows, the women as well as the men. And I say with much boldness, because they were no more than four men and two women, and ours more than twenty-five, of whom they wounded two. To one they gave two arrow-shots in the breast, and to the other one in the ribs. And if we had not had shields and tablachutas, and had not come up quickly with the boat and overturned their canoe, they would have shot the most of our men with their arrows. And after their canoe was overturned, they remained in the water swimming, and at times getting foothold, for there were some shallow places there. And our men had much ado to take them, for they still kept on shooting as they could. And with all this, not one of them could be taken, except one badly wounded with a lance-thrust, who died, whom thus wounded they carried to the ships."

Another account of this fight says that the canoe was commanded by one of the women, who seemed to be a queen, who had a son "of cruel look, robust, with a lion's face, who followed her." This account represents the queen's son to have been wounded, as well as the man who died. "The Caribs differed from the other Indians in having long hair; the others wore theirs braided and a hundred thousand differences made in their heads, with crosses and other paintings of different sorts, each one as he desires, which they do with sharp canes." The Indians, both the Caribs and the others, were beardless, unless by a great exception. The Caribs, who had been taken prisoners here, had their eyes and eyebrows blackened, "which, it seems to me, they do as an ornament, and with that they appear more frightful." They heard from these prisoners of much gold at an island called Cayre.

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Copyright Edward E. Hale, ROXBURY, MASS., June 1st, 1891
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CaribSeek, 2002 - All Rights Reserved - Web Published:  December 7, 2002