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Columbus and the Cannibals

Columbus and the Cannibals

Searching for gold, women and Cannibals, Columbus ran into his first troubles in Samana. It is known as the Bay of Arrows incident, and is the first reported skirmish between Europeans and Natives of the New World — the first of many to come.

For the precise details, let’s turn to the words of the man himself — Christopher Columbus. Cue an ominous Columbus voice in your head.

Saturday, 12th of January 1493

After he had come abreast of Lover’s Cape (now known as Cabo Cabron) he saw between it and the other cape a huge bay three leagues wide (that’s about 10 miles), and in the middle there is a tiny little island, and there is a good depth of water right up to the shore. He anchored there in 12 fathoms; he sent the boat ashore for water and to see if they could make contact; but all the people fled. He anchored also to find out if all that land was part of Española, for he suspected that what he called a gulf might have made a separate island. He was amazed to find that the island of Española was so large.

Now, historians are split as to where exactly this took place. It is clear that he just rounded the Samana peninsula, but it’s unclear where exactly he anchored for the night. The lines of a ‘huge bay, 10 miles across’ and with a tiny island might indicate the actual Samana Bay, and the ‘tiny island’ being the island now known as Cayo Levantado, or Bacardi Island — although it’s not really that tiny. But it’s unclear if he anchored right there and his men went ashore here… or maybe dropped anchor in what is now Playa El Rincon.

Moving on…

Sunday 13 the of January

He did not leave this harbour because there was no land breeze–

Little note on the ‘he’ — the third person point of view. Columbus journal, as we have it today, is actually an abstract or summary written by Bartolomé de las Casas 30 years after Columbus’ journey. The original journal is lost and all we have is de las Casas’ retelling of Columbus voyage — hence the third person point of view.

Moving on.

He did not leave this harbour because there was no land breeze with which to do so; he would have liked to go to a better harbour because that one was somewhat exposed

This line could actually indicate that they had anchored right in Samana Bay, somewhere off Cayo Levantado and NOT in the bay of El Encuentro beach. Then again, who knows.

He sent the boat ashore to a beautiful beach so that they could gather ajes to eat, and they found some men with bows and arrows, with whom they stopped to talk and with whom they traded two bows and many arrows, and asked one of them to go to talk to the Admiral on the caravel, and he came.

At this point we need to remember that Columbus had already had several dealings with the natives and even had about half a dozen on board that helped him as translators and envoys.

He says he was very ugly to look at, more so than others he had seen. His face was all blackened with charcoal, although everywhere they are accustomed to paint their faces in various colours. His hair was very long and drawn back and tied behind and gathered in a small net of parrot feathers, and he was as naked as the others. The Admiral thought he must be one of the man-eating Caribs, and that the gulf he had seen yesterday divided the land and made a separate island.

This line could be understood that he was actually anchored in El Rincon bay as opposed to Samana Bay, otherwise he would have said that they were IN the gulf. Also, here is the first indication of whom Columbus was facing — he thought he may have met the first Cannibals he had been warned of.

He asked him about the Caribs and the Indians pointed out some land nearby to the E which the Admiral says he saw yesterday before entering that bay, and the Indian told him that there was much gold there, and pointing to the poop of the caravel which was very large he said that there were pieces just as large.

He then keeps asking the envoy about gold, using different names. It’s like all they ever asked about was gold, wasn’t it?

The Admiral further says that the people on the previous islands were very afraid of the Carib and some called them “Caniba”, but “Carib” on Española, and that they must be a daring people for they roam these islands eating anyone they can capture. He says that he understood a few words and from them he says he gathers other things, and that the Indians he had with him understood more although they found the languages different due to the great distance between the lands.

Let’s skip ahead. Columbus realized they were a different people, possibly the Cannibals he had heard about, so his intentions were to be peaceful with them — never argue with someone who may be checking you out for his next lunch. He traded with them and then ordered a few of his men to go to shore to trade some more… but specifically to trade weapons. He felt that if they were willing to give up some of their weapons it may indicate that they had peaceful intentions. So his men went to shore with the envoy. They were expected by about 55 naked, long-haired natives. All armed.

The Indian landed and made the others lay down their bows and arrows and a piece of wood which is like a very heavy [club] which they carry instead of a sword. They then came to the boat and the sailors went ashore and began to trade for the bows and arrows and other weapons from them as the Admiral had ordered. Having sold two bows they did not wish to sell any more; instead they made ready to attack the Christians and capture them. They ran to pick up their bows and arrows where they had left them and came back with ropes in their hands, to tie up the Christians. Seeing them running towards them, and being ready because the Admiral had always warned about this, the Christians attacked them and gave one Indian a great gash on the buttocks and wounded another in the chest with an arrow. When they saw from this that they could gain little even though there were only seven of the Christians and more than fifty of them, they ran off leaving their bows and arrows scattered about, and none remained behind. He says that the Christians would have killed many of them if the pilot who was in charge of them had not prevented it.

Thus far the incident. According to the diary the natives were the instigators without reason, but it was the Christians who drew first blood. The account doesn’t say if the two wounded natives survived, but we do know that a gash in the butt is nasty and a wound in the chest… well, we can only speculate.

The accounts with Columbus concluding that he was quite certain that these were the Cannibals, and if not a similar tribe at least. He didn’t seem happy about the incident, but at the same time he knew they would now fear the Christians as he saw smoke signals being sent to other villages.

The following day he wanted to send a few men to capture a few of these ‘Cannibals’ but instead they woke to a horde of natives on shore. Among them the envoy he had met the day before, along with their king. The king and a few of his men were brought aboard and it would seem a sort of peace settlement was met — and according to the diary the indian king gave Columbus a gold crown in exchange for… beads and red cloth. Columbus did then decide to sail on, searching for this mythical island of Cannibals, as well as an island inhabited only by women — or so had he been told — both having lots and lots of gold.

But he sailed in the wrong direction and ended up in the open Atlantic, fighting a massive storm for several days — possibly a hurricane. At last he came across an island: it turned out to be the Azores.

And so he realized his trip was over. No Cannibals, no island of women, no more gold. As far as we know nowadays, Cannibals never existed in the Caribbean, yet the place carries their name: both the words Cannibal and Caribbean derive from this tribe’s name: the Caribe.

And as for the island populated only by women? Well, we’ll leave that for another article.

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