Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean: Legend of Hatuéy

Hatuéy was a great Taino cacique in Ayti, the land of mountains, now known as the nation of Haiti. He had first hand experience with the Spanish conquerors of his homeland, who had enslaved the Taino people, committing atrocities upon them and forcing them to labor, often to their deaths, in order to satisfy the Spaniard’s lust for gold. Rather than submit or offer resistance to the well-armed oppressors, Hatuéy chose to leave the land of his birth. He and his people escaped across the Windward Passage to Cuba.

In 1511, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, who had participated in the massacre of the Taino in the province of Xaraguá, and Pánfilo de Narvárez, a veteran of the conquest of Jamaica, were chosen by the Spanish to begin the conquest of the island of Cuba. The chronicler, Bartolomé de Las Casas, sailed with Narvárez. When Hatuéy heard rumors of this invasion, he proceeded to warn the caciques of eastern Cuba about this serious threat to their very existence.

Hatuéy arrived in the village of the Cuban cacique, Guamax accompanied by a small entourage and carrying in his canoe a basket filled with gold and gold jewelry.

Addressing Guamax’s people, Hatuéy explained that the Christians so cruelly mistreated the Taino people because the Christians had a God who they worshiped and revered. The Tainos were murdered and enslaved in order to take that God away from them.

Hatuéy then displayed the basket of gold to the gathered assembly and explained that this was the God of the Christians. He then asked the people to decide what to do with Him.
Hatuéy suggested that the people perform their ceremonial dance called the Arieto and the sacred and magical Cohoba ceremony in which hallucinogenic herbs are ingested. Perhaps the God would then be pleased and He would instruct the Christians not to kill the Tainos.

After the ceremony, however, Hatuéy warned the assemblage that if they were to keep the God amongst them, the Christians would surely come and kill them in order to get possession of the God. It was finally decided to throw the God into the river.

Hatuéy’s warnings to the Cuban Taino precipitated several major rebellions and began an overall pattern of resistance against the Spanish in Cuba that was not completely subdued until the 1530’s.
Hatuéy himself was finally captured, and he and his warriors were burned alive at the stake. While tied to the stake Hatuéy was approached by a Spanish priest, who offered to baptize and convert Hatuéy, thus cleansing his sins against the Christian God which would allow Hatuéy to enter heaven and avoid hell.

Hatuéy asked for time to think about the offer. After a time Hatuéy responded by asking the priest where the Spanish went after they died. The priest told Hatuéy that baptized Christians went to heaven. Hatuéy then made his final decision. He told the priest not to baptize him because if the Spanish went to heaven, he preferred to go to hell.

The story of Hatuéy’s execution was recorded by Las Casas and is now part of Cuban folklore. Hatuéy has become a national folk hero representing Cuba’s struggle against foreign oppression, first from Spain and later from the United States of America.

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