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Caonabo

When Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of Hispaniola on his historic first voyage, he was befriended by Guacanagarí, the cacique or chief of the region.

Guacanagarí provided Columbus and his men with food, women and gifts of golden jewelry. When Columbus' ship, the Santa Maria, struck a reef, Guacanagarí, sent his men to try and save the vessel. When that proved impossible, Guacanagarí had his men paddle out to the breaking reef and dismantle the wrecked ship and bring it, plank by plank, to the beach to be used as construction material. Guacanagarí gave the stranded crew temporary housing while the fort, called La Navidad, was built to accommodate them. He also promised to care for and protect the sailors until Columbus returned.

On his second voyage Columbus found the fort destroyed and the inhabitants dead. Guacanagarí, the most likely suspect, blamed the cacique Caonabo from Maguana in the remote interior of the island. Despite some very serious inconsistencies in Guacanagarí's account of the La Navidad massacre, Columbus chose to believe him.

Caonabo was the most important and powerful ruler in Hispaniola at the time; a leader to whom Guacanagarí owed allegiance and whose power and position Guacanagarí coveted.

Guacanagarí told Columbus that Caonabo was a Carib, but historical and archeological evidence belies this claim. The chronicler Las Casas wrote that Caonabo was a Lucayo (Western Taino) born in the Bahamian archipelago. Therefore he could not have been a Carib, a people who came from the islands of the Lesser Antilles.

The Lucayo identification, however, created a different problem for social scientists. If Caonabo were a Lucayo it would be extremely doubtful that he could have risen to become an important cacique in the Classic Taino world of Hispaniola.

The solution to this inconsistency has been uncovered with the finding of the only ball court in the Bahamian archipelago on the island of Middle Caicos, indicating that this particular Bahamian island was populated by Classic Tainos. If Caonabo had been born there, then the pieces to the historical puzzle would fit.

Scholars theorize that the inhabitants of Middle Caicos were merchants and traders who sought to control the flow of goods such as feathers, cotton, dried conch and turtles passing between the southern Bahamas and Hispaniola. They would also have had strong ties to the main population center of Hispaniola.

The Tainos followed a matriarchal lineage under which a child coming of age would go to live in the village of his mother's brother. Caonabo's uncle must have been the cacique of Maguana where Caonabo would have gone at adolescence. Caonabo apparently proved to be an excellent leader and was chosen to be the new cacique upon the death of his uncle.

For his part, Columbus continued his exploration and search for gold. The elusive metal was eventually discovered in territory ruled by Caonabo.

Columbus had a fort built there to protect the goldfields. He named the fort Santo Tomas as a reproach to those who doubted that he would ever find gold. St. Thomas (Doubting Thomas) was the Apostle who needed to see in order to believe.

The soldiers from the Santo Tomas fortification became infamous for their persecution and exploitation of the Taino in the area. The Spaniards brutalized the native population in an orgy of rape, murder and pillage.

The natives, consequently, developed a profound hostility to the Spanish and began to retaliate. Columbus feared that the powerful and popular Caonabo might initiate a serious organized rebellion. To prevent this he sent Alonso de Ojeda and a group of nine men to the remote region where Caonabo was camped. Their mission was to capture Caonabo.

Ojeda brought with him a Taino from the village of Guacanagarí as an emissary and guide. The intermediary told Caonabo that the Spanish had come in peace and wished only to re-establish peaceful relations and end the bloodshed and animosity between the two peoples.

Little by little Ojeda was able to gain Caonabo's confidence. One day Ojeda convinced Caonabo to accompany him to a nearby river to bathe. There, away from the village, Ojeda presented Caonabo with a peace offering from the King and Queen of Spain. The supposed gift was a pair of shiny metal handcuffs. Believing them to be jewelry, Caonabo allowed Ojeda to place them on his wrists whereupon they were locked tightly and the helpless Caonabo was spirited away.

Caonabo died in a shipwreck as he was being brought back to Spain in irons.

The Taino revolt that Columbus feared finally took place led by a brother of Caonabo and other allied Taino caciques.

In the battle of La Vega Real in 1495 heavily armed Spanish soldiers vanquished the rebellious Taino forces. Fighting alongside the Spaniards were warriors from the caciazgo of Guacanagarí.