Caribs? Arawaks?

Who were the original Trinidadians?


Galleon deck cannonsThe story of the first Trinidadians, Caribs and Arawaks, continues to evolve as new evidence comes to light. It's and exciting tale filled with intrigue, greed and cultural ignorance. A story, we'll see, with enough propaganda and spin to make even jaded politicians blush.

Old photo of Carib Indian the first Trinidadians Land of the Gentle Arawaks 

Trinidad history books teach that Arawaks once peopled Trinidad, a gentle people who at one time inhabited the entire Caribbean archipelago.

So gracious and guileless were the Arawaks that they embraced Christopher Columbus when he arrived in Hispaniola. Among their rewards were, exposure to diseases for which they had no defense, enslavement and merciless slaughter.

It is said, that within a few decades after the arrival of Columbus, not one Arawak remained alive in the Caribbean.

 Bloodthirsty Caribs on the Scene 

Some time previous, a second wave of immigration had begun, flooding into the Caribbean from Venezuela. The Caribs were a savage and warlike people, cannibals who gobbled their way through the Caribbean, moving on to the next island, only after they'd gorged themselves on every available Arawak. But is this the true history of the West Indies?

Christopher Columbus discovering the Caribbean Spanish Perspective 

By the time Columbus arrived in Hispaniola, the Caribs had eaten their way through the Lesser Antilles and were licking their chops in anticipation of the leap into Puerto Rico, or so the story goes.

New research suggests that there is a far more intriguing tale to be told, one filled with arrogance, deceit and greed.

In 1503 Queen Isabella of Spain, who funded Columbus' expeditions, created a law that prohibited the arrest or capture of her new children, stating further that, no harm or evil was permitted against their person or possessions. Now, how were god-fearing fortune hunters expected to obtain the free labor necessary to mine gold, if they could not enslave natives? This dilemma called out for a creative solution.

Caribbean Cannibals Crime Against God 

Cannibalism was that solution: part error, part bigotry, part religious zeal, part cultural arrogance, but mostly human greed and brilliant political propaganda, it was an answer that made enslavement of native people legally possible for the Conquistadors, and religiously palatable to their Queen and benefactor.

In a nutshell, what seems to have happened was, native groups who aided the Conquistadors and were considered potential converts to Catholicism, took on the label of peaceful Arawaks; native groups who resisted, or who did not advance Spanish goals, were labeled warlike Caribs, and cannibals who deserved enslavement for their sins. A very tidy solution, don't you think?

??????Soon a second law was written by Queen Isabella, who by the way also invited the inquisition into Spain, which set Spanish slavers free to hunt native Amerindians in sufficient quantities to replace the thousands dieing in Cuban gold mines.

 Reinterpreted Evidence 

Prior to Columbus, numerous semi-independent tribes populated Trinidad and other Caribbean Islands. Stunningly, pre-Spanish populations in Trinidad have been estimated at close to 40,000 natives, but by the mid 1700s, only 1,200 "Caribs" remained in Trinidad.

Carib Arawak family in Trinidad and Tobago Lingering Memories 

Some of their tribal names still linger today. For example, the Chaimas lived at the current site of Charapachaima Village, the Kailpunians at the current site of California Village, and the Chaguanes lived at today's Chaguanas.

In fact, many of today's place names would be familiar to the first Trinidadians, Caroni, Piarco, Arima, Couva, Mucurapo, Mayaro, Maracas, Toco and Guayaguayare to name just a few; as would local animal names like agouti and manicou, and food items like cassava and roucou. Even the word barbecue is of native Caribbean origin.

 The Currency of Trade 

These tribes had a long history of trading with, and raiding, one another. Women were the most important item of exchange, being both the primary commodity and currency. There was nothing more valuable to be bought, bartered or stolen. High mortality rates made their reproductive capabilities extremely valuable for survival.

Trade networks ran northwards through the Windward and Lesser Antilles, and southwards into Venezuela, Guyana and beyond, which traded in many commodities including stone for tools, pottery, and gold for ceremonial items.

 The Truth About Cannibalism 

No evidence, either archaeological or from first hand observations by Europeans conclusively proves that Island-Caribs EVER consumed human flesh, and second hand accounts cannot entirely be trusted. For example...

Christopher Columbus writes in his diary, "far from there, there are one-eyed men, and others, with the snouts of dogs, who ate men, and that as soon as one is captured they cut his throat and drink his blood." Sounds a bit like one of Walter Raleigh's fantastic tales.

In fact the "Caribes" were a figment of native Amerindian imagination and part of Taino mythology.

In comparison to the unsubstantiated cannibal stories told by Columbus, we know that Spanish Conquistadors, in their lust for gold and fortune, butchered thousands of Caribbean Amerindians, and enslaved a like number, who died from exhaustion and disease.

Carib Arawak dancers history of Trinidad and Tobago Resistance was Futile 

The myth of the warlike Caribs, a savage tribe of cannibals licking their lips for European and Arawak flesh, seems to be of purely Spanish invention.

The more plausible scenario is that some native tribes resisted the oppression and cruelty of their Spanish conquerors. Native tribes who in Trinidad, believed that humming birds were the spirits of their ancestors, and called their home "Iere" (land of the humming bird).

Coconut head logo It's Still in the Blood 

There are no longer any full-blooded Amerindians in Trinidad. However, one of our closest Trinidadian friends is of "Carib" ancestry. It is stimulating to think that, after all these years, the blood of native Caribbean people - Caribs and Arawaks - still courses through the veins of some Trinidadians.

Like a once beating heart now stilled, ancient Amerindian alters, engraved with forgotten symbols, still lurk deep within the bosom of this land, hopefully to be preserved forever in honor of thees first Trinidadians - native rock art that awaits your personal discovery.

When you visit Trinidad, and you find yourself sitting around a beach fire late at night, be silent for a moment and listen. You may be lucky enough to hear the whispers of the first Trinidadians. Fierce Caribs, gentle Arawaks, or just simply "the people" as they may have called themselves in their native tongues.
Caribbean deck cannon

         Related Topics...       
The Early History of the West Indies
Caribbean Cannibal Stories
The Christopher Columbus Story
Early Tourism in Trinidad
Real Pirates of the Caribbean
Tobago's Old Colonial Forts

      Suggested Topics...    
Pepperpot, Traditional Caribbean Foods

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