The Poetess Who Went Toe to Toe With Christopher Columbus

Hayley Milliman - Content Lead

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It is with time, They say, that all things are revealed.1 Time, has, for instance, revealed that I have no aptitude for making my bed on days when my mother’s not visiting and that Facebook may truly destroy the world.

Time has also revealed that Christopher Columbus, propped up for generations as the penultimate symbol of all things brave and adventurous, was actually a pretty terrible human being whose real legacy should be death and destruction, not cultural canonization as a heroic figure in nursery rhymes.

It turns out Columbus didn’t, as my preschool teacher taught me, sail the ocean blue in 1492 to come to a brand new land and stand on empty sands. Yes, it’s true that Columbus set sail from Spain in 1492,2 but the sands that he eventually dropped anchor on were neither brand new nor empty. They were filled, and had been for thousands of years, by peoples native to the land Columbus was now “discovering.”

One of those native people was a remarkable woman named Anacaona.

B.C., AKA Before Columbus

“Honors to Queen Anacaona” from Vida y Viajes de Cristobal Colon

Anacaona was a Big Deal member of the Taíno people, an indigenous group who were the principal inhabitants of Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico when the Europeans arrived.3 The Taíno people were ruled by chieftains known as caciques. On Anacaona’s island, Ayiti (modern-day Haiti), there were five principal caciques. Anacaona was married to one, and the sister of another. So yeah, Big Deal.

But Anacaona wasn’t just respected because of the cache her marital and familial status commanded. She was extremely important to her people in her own right as a celebrated composer of traditional poems, songs, and dances known as arietos.4 Basically, Anacaona was a storyteller – one whose work shaped the narratives passed down among the Taíno people.

Between her reputation as a bard and her political connections, Anacaona was one of the most influential Taíno leaders at the time of Columbus’ arrival. When the Italian conqueror and his entourage landed in Jaragua (Anacaona’s brother’s territory) in 1496, Anacaona met the party standing at her brother’s side as his equal.

Aggressive Negotiations

The Taíno, like many of the indigenous people Columbus oppressed, initially tried to negotiate with their European “visitors,” hoping to keep the peace with the trigger-happy colonists. Unfortunately, it became pretty clear a few months after their first meeting that the Spanish were less neighbors and more conquistadors, whose main goal was to enslave the Taíno and steal their land.

Mr. Rogers definitely would not have approved.

The “negotiations,” such as they were, deteriorated pretty rapidly after the Taíno figured out what the Spanish were really up to. The Spanish also gave up any pretense of actually honoring the “co” part of “co-exist,” taking what they wanted and generally spreading disease and destruction everywhere, as was their wont.5

Like peoples throughout the Americas, the Taíno mounted what resistance they could. One of the Taíno resistance leaders was Anacaona’s husband. Unfortunately, Caonabo was caught relatively quickly and arrested on suspicion of organizing an attack against the Spanish (some evidence suggests he may have been framed).6 As punishment for his alleged crimes, Caonabo was shipped off to Spain for a “trial” but died in a shipwreck on the way there. Upon her husband’s death, Anacaona, who had already been named cacique of her brother’s territory after he died, was now chief of a second territory.

“Wow, Columbus! You’re, Like, So Smart!”

When Anacaona became cacique for the second time, she had to face a hard truth: her people just didn’t have the resources to mount a successful defense (or better yet, offense) against the Spanish. Moreover, the Taíno’s resistance efforts were just leading to more deaths. If Anacaona wanted to protect her people, she had to try something a little, well, different.

Anacaona’s plan for peace with the Spanish had two parts: flatter their dumb male brains and try to secure alliances through marriage.

The first part of Anacaona’s approach was pretty straightforward: every time some pasty European dude showed up, Anacaona would round up her friends and head down to the shores to shower the invaders with gifts, dance performances, and compliments about the size of their, er, cannons.7

Marriage proved to be a bit more complicated. The Spanish were more than happy to enter into colonizers-with-benefits relationships with Taíno women, but less willing to actually put a ring on it. Probably because the Spanish were deeply, deeply racist. Regardless, Anacaona’s attempt to secure any legal alliances with the Spanish never really got off the ground.

Big Egos, Black Hearts

“Cacique Taina” from Vida y Viajes de Cristobal Colon

Despite Anacaona’s best efforts, relations between the Taíno and the Spanish kept deteriorating, especially after the Spanish crown appointed a governor to the colony. That governor, named Nicolas de Ovando, was, well, a gigantic dickweed whose masculinity was threatened by many things, chief among them a badass female indigenous queen.8 Anacaona, for her part, did nothing to encourage Ovando’s fears and simply kept trying to maintain her people’s safety like she always had.

Ovando grew more and more paranoid the longer he stayed on Ayiti. Less than a year after he became governor, Ovando ordered dozens of caciques to join him at a friendly meeting, Anacaona among them. As you might have guessed, the meeting wasn’t very friendly at all. After all the caciques were settled in, Ovando ordered his men to set the meeting house on fire and kill everyone inside. To their credit, some of Ovando’s soldiers balked at the heinous command and attempted to help the Taíno escape capture.Most of these men were found and enslaved or killed.9

Anacaona was spared the flames, but only because Ovando wanted to make an example out of her. Together with her retinue, Anacaona was arrested and prosecuted on bogus charges.

In a telling move, Ovando offered Anacaona clemency… if she would become a concubine to the Spanish. Anacaona refused and was sentenced to public death by hanging.

At the time of her execution, she was 29 years old.

“The Golden Flower”

“Massacre of the queen and her subjects” by Joos van Winghe

I wish that I could write something like this as a conclusion about Anacaona:

“Nicolas de Ovando wanted to erase Anacaona. He was threatened by her power, her grace, her intelligence. Ovando thought that her death would keep Anacaona from having a part in his narrative, but really, in killing her, Ovando gave more life Anacaona’s legacy than he ever could have imagined.”

But I can’t.

Because Ovando did succeed. Just like Columbus succeeded. Not just in coming to an unfamiliar place and forcibly making it his own, but in eliminating the histories and lives of the peoples who had been there before. As a child, I never learned about Anacaona. But I sure as hell learned about Columbus, and was taught to idolize his legacy before I was ever taught to question it.

Anacaona’s erasure from history is even more poignant when you consider the fact that Anacaona herself was a historian, responsible for shaping the narratives passed down through her people with her poems and stories. So, in honor of Anacaona, and what she loved to do before colonizers came and destroyed her life, I’m going to tell her story loudly, and often, to all the people who likely haven’t heard it before.

I hope you’ll join me.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. I have no idea who They are.
  2. History.com Staff. (2009). Christopher Columbus. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/exploration/christopher-columbus
  3. Lawler, O. (2016, February 12.) Taíno: Indigenous Caribbeans. Retrieved from:  http://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/pre-colonial-history/taino-indigenous-caribbeans
  4. Majewski, K. (2015, March 11). Anacaona: the Woman Chief Who Stood Up to Christopher Columbus. Retrieved from http://modernnotion.com/anacaona-woman-chief-stood-columbus/.
  5. Majewski, K. (2015, March 11). Anacaona: the Woman Chief Who Stood Up to Christopher Columbus. Retrieved from http://modernnotion.com/anacaona-woman-chief-stood-columbus/.
  6. Majewski, K. (2015, March 11). Anacaona: the Woman Chief Who Stood Up to Christopher Columbus. Retrieved from http://modernnotion.com/anacaona-woman-chief-stood-columbus/.
  7. Majewski, K. (2015, March 11). Anacaona: the Woman Chief Who Stood Up to Christopher Columbus. Retrieved from http://modernnotion.com/anacaona-woman-chief-stood-columbus/.
  8. Majewski, K. (2015, March 11). Anacaona: the Woman Chief Who Stood Up to Christopher Columbus. Retrieved from http://modernnotion.com/anacaona-woman-chief-stood-columbus/.
  9. Majewski, K. (2015, March 11). Anacaona: the Woman Chief Who Stood Up to Christopher Columbus. Retrieved from http://modernnotion.com/anacaona-woman-chief-stood-columbus/.

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Accilien, Cecile. “Anacaona, the Golden Flower.” Revolutionary Freedoms: A History of Survival, Strength, and Imagination in Haiti. eds. Cecile Accilien, Jessica Adams, Elmide Meleance.
  • Danticat, Edwidge. “We Are Ugly But We Are Here.” Barnard / Spring 1994.
  • de las Casas, Bartholome. A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies.
  • Langville, James Hibbert. Popular history of the life of Columbus; a complete, compendious narrative of his voyages, discoveries, and general career.
  • Saunders, Nicholas J. The Peoples of the Caribbean: AN Encyclopedia of Archaeology and Traditional Culture. ABC-CLIO, 2005.
  • Wilson, Samuel M. Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus.