Who in today’s western world has not heard of The Super Bowl, The World Series, The NBA finals, The British Open and the Wimbolton? How many of us have played ball games as youngsters and adults, games like baseball, basketball, soccer, football, tennis, stick ball, paddle ball, punch ball and literally hundreds of other ball games? Where did these games originate?
Before the arrival of Columbus Taino Amerindians played a rubber ball game at Cinnamon Bay on St. John as well as throughout their territories in the West Indies.
Games involving rubber balls were then unknown in Europe.
The Tainos called the game, and the court on which it was played, “batey.” The court was rectangular and was bordered by upright stone. Commoners sat on the stones or on embankments to view the game. Caciques (chiefs) and nobles sat on stools called duhos. Both men and women played, but there were no coed games. Men played with men, and women with women. Winning the game was thought to bring a good harvest and strong, healthy children.
The Spaniards, who had never seen rubber, were amazed by it. They brought the ball and the concept of the ball game back to Europe, and today ball games are an extremely important part of our culture.
Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, who arrived in Santo Domingo with Columbus and was the most prolific chronicler of the Indians, gave us this description of the game:
“The Indians had a plaza located outside the door of the señor (cacique), well swept, three times as long as it was wide, and fenced in with stones. The fence was about one or two palm lengths high. They were penalized if they crossed this boundary. There were 20 or 30 Indians on each team and one team gathered at each end of the plaza. Each one bet what he had, it making no difference if what he had was of more value than that of another; this is how it was, after the Spanish arrived, that one Cacique would bet a red robe, and another an old rag, this was as if he
had bet a hundred castellanos. A player hit the ball and it was returned by the nearest opponent. If the ball came high, it was struck with the shoulder, if it came low, with the right hand. In the same manner they continued until someone erred. It was joy to see their heated play, and much more so when the women played against each other, striking the ball with their knees and closed fists.”