The first Europeans to travel to the islands of the Americas were duly impressed by the boats used by the Taino natives they met there. Their craft were made from the hollowed out trees and were called canoas, from which the English word canoe came from.
The smaller canoes were used by individuals for near shore fishing or by small parties of fishermen, hunters or warriors. The largest ones were the property of the caciques or chiefs and were capable of carrying as many as one hundred people over long distances.
Christopher Columbus wrote, “On every island there are many canoes of a single piece of wood; and though narrow, yet in length and shape similar to our rowboats, but swifter in movement. They steer only by oars. Some of these boats are large, some small, some of medium size. Yet they row many of the larger row-boats with eighteen cross-benches, with which they cross to all those islands, which are innumerable, and with these feats they perform their trading, and carry on commerce among them. I saw some of these canoes which were carrying seventy and eighty rowers.”
These great canoes were carved from a tree that the Taino called tsayee-baa. On St. John, this tree is called kapok, elsewhere it is known as ceiba or silk cotton.
For a people who possessed only stone tools, the felling and subsequent carving out of a tree large enough to make a hundred-person canoe was no mean feat. It was accomplished by making a fire at the base of the tree, which would char the trunk. The fire was then extinguished and the burned wood scraped out with sharp stone tools.
This process would be repeated again and again until the tree came down. The fallen tree would then be stripped of its branches and hauled out of the forest. The ends were then squared off and the bark removed. The same charring and scarping process would be used to carve out the inside of the trunk and after the proper configuration was obtained the canoa would be polished, painted and launched.
The incredible amount of manpower, time, dedication and craftsmanship required to produce a canoe of this magnitude is only part of the story. To the Taino, as well as to most other cultures of the Americas, the ceiba was a highly sacred and spiritual tree. It could not just be cut down and carved up without attention to the powerful spirit that resides within.
According to the Spanish chroniclers who left us the only written documents concerning of the Taino culture, the fabrication of these giant canoes involved a complicated spiritual ritual. The chief who intended to make the canoe would first need to communicate with the spirit of a ceiba tree, which could only be cut down if the tree spirit gave its permission. The spirit would also indicate the manner in which it would be transformed, giving detailed instructions as to the size, nature of carving and even the painting of the canoe. The spirit of the tree would then exist within the canoe, and the chief would carry the responsibility for that spirit for the rest of his life. This would involve ceremonies honoring and making offerings to the tree spirit.
The Tainos took pride in their courage on the high ocean as well as their skill in finding their way around their world. Columbus was often astonished at finding lone Taino fishermen sailing in the open ocean as he made his way among the islands. Once, a canoe full of Taino men followed him from island to island until one of their relatives, held captive on one of the ships, jumped over the side and was spirited away so quickly that the Spanish sailors could not recapture them.
The Taino were so comfortable at sea and so adept at navigation that they were said to make almost daily crossings over the rough and treacherous Mona Passage that separates Puerto Rico from Hispaniola.
The Tainos did not confine their sea travel to their homeland islands of the Caribbean and the Bahamas. They were also known to venture as far as the mainland of South America, Mexico, Yucatan and Central America, which, according to archeologists, explains the many cultural similarities between the Taino and the often advanced societies that inhabited these far off places.