St. John, Virgin Islands & Caribbean Stories: Enriquillo

The hero of this story was born on the island of Hispaniola in the early 1500’s. His name was Guarocuya. He was the son of a Taino cacique, or chief, who was assassinated by the Spaniards. After the death of his father, Guarocuya was adopted by Franciscan monks, who provided him with a Spanish-style education. Upon his conversion to Catholicism he was given the Christian name, Enriquillo.

Enriquillo was happily married to the granddaughter of the illustrious caciques, Caonabo and Anacaona. Her name was Mencía, and she also had converted to Christianity.

The Tainos of Hispaniola, conquered and subjugated by the Spanish, were governed under a policy called the encomienda, a system not very different than the institution of slavery. Under this policy Taino lands were entrusted to Spanish colonists who then exercised complete authority over that land and the people on it.

Enriquillo and Mencía, along with other Tainos of their village were “entrusted” to the Spanish colonist, Francisco de Valenzuela who operated a large ranch. When Francisco de Valenzuela died he left his estate, including the “entrusted” workers, to his son Andrés who, taking advantage of his position and his power, began to make unwanted sexual advance towards Mencía.

When Enriquillo found out about the persecution being suffered by his wife, he reproached his new master and begged him to leave Mencía in peace. Andrés de Valenzuela perceived his servant’s complaint as an affront to his authority and had Enriquillo beaten in front of the other Tainos.

Indignant over this unjust treatment, Enriquillo denounced Andrés to the lieutenant governor of the village, don Pedro Badillo. The Spanish colonial official, however, refused to get involved in any case involving a Taino against a Spaniard. Enriquillo then took his complaint to the highest judicial authorities on the island. This only resulted in the case being sent back to Badillo to deal with. When Badillo received the complaint for the second time, he warned Enriquillo that if he persisted in this matter, he would be arrested and sentenced to prison.

At this point Enriquillo made his decision to rebel against the Spaniards. He gathered together a large group of fellow Tainos and fled to the rugged mountain terrain in the region of Bahoruco. The year was 1520.

Badillo and Valenzuela and a force of armed men set out in pursuit of the rebels. A fierce battle ensued and the Taino rebels succeeded in defeating the Spaniards, many of whom were killed or wounded. Valenzuela himself was at the point of being killed by one of the Taino warriors when, Enriquillo, the former servant, took pity on him and ordered the warrior to spare Valenzuela’s life. Enriquillo set Valenzuela free, saying to him, “Be grateful that I have not killed you. Leave and never return here again.”

The Taino insurgents established a secure mountain stronghold where they planted fields of yucca and other provisions in the most hidden and remote valleys and conducted raids against Spanish haciendas and ranches in the vicinity.

Enriquillo turned out to be a great warrior and a master strategist. He used guerrilla tactics in which he avoided meeting his numerically superior and better armed enemy on open ground. Instead Enriquillo took advantage of his knowledge the terrain and lead his adversaries into to fall into deadly ambushes. After attacking with lightning speed Enriquillo would retreat into the nearly inaccessible mountain valleys and steep ravines, which only they knew well and, from there, prepare for the next surprise attack.

After several humiliating defeats, the Spaniards decided to take another tack. Diego Colon, the Governor General of Hispaniola offered to make peace with Enriquillo and his followers granting them complete immunity if they would give up the rebellion and once again submit to Spanish authority. Enriquillo refused to accept this and several other subsequent proposals made by both the government and the church.

At one point the Spanish sent Father Remigio, the priest who had been Enriquillo’s former teacher, to act as an intermediary between the government and the rebels. Father Remigio was intercepted by lookouts who dispossessed the Franciscan of his robes. They then conducted the priest, who was dressed only in his underwear, to meet Enriquillo.

Ashamed at seeing his old teacher in such a state, Enriquillo punished the warriors who were responsible for this show of disrespect, and as a means of apology ordered that a grand reception be made in Father Remigio’s honor. Enriquillo’s doubts concerning the sincerity and good faith of the colonial officials, however, still remained and he once again refused to accept the peace offer.

In 1532 in order to put an end to the Taino uprising, the Emperor sent a corps of two hundred well-armed and well-equipped soldiers to Hispaniola under the command of Captain Francisco de Barrionuevo.

Barrionuevo was ordered to explore all peaceful avenues for ending the conflict before resorting to violent action. In 1533 Barrionuevo, along with thirty soldiers, two priests and thirty Tainos, among whom were Enriquillo’s and two priests met to discuss peace with the rebellious cacique. The meeting took place alongside a saltwater lake that today is called Lake Enriquillo in commemoration of the epic uprising.

Barrionuevo carried with him a missive from the Royal Court that proposed that the cacique cease hostilities and sign a pact of peace. Enriquillo read the document which agreed to the abolition of the encomienda system, freedom for the Tainos and grants of land to be used for the cultivation of crops and the raising of animals in exchange for the cessation of hostilities and the acceptance of Spanish authority.

Enriquillo accepted the terms and signed the agreement with Barrionuevo. The Spanish monarchy rapidly approved the treaty and sent the ratified documents to a Taino representative named Gonzáles who had been commissioned by Enriquillo for that purpose.

The Royal Court was true to their word and even took special care in the resettlement of the Tainos, providing them with cattle for livestock and seeds for the cultivation of the land. Enriquillo died peacefully a year after the peace treaty was signed, earning the love of his people and the admiration and respect of the Spaniards.

Enriquillo’s wife, Mencía organized the construction a church where the remains of her heroic husband were then buried. His tomb, however, was also the tomb of the Taino people; for despite their recently won gains, the ravages of European diseases and depredations continued to take their toll on the less than 4,000 surviving Tainos of Hispaniola. By the end of the sixteenth century that noble and gentle race had all but disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Loosely translated from Historica Grafica de la Republica Dominicana by Jose Ramon Estella.

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