Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Queen Anacaona and the Conquistadors

In 1503, when the Spanish Governor of the Indies (Hispaniola), Nicolás de Ovando, arrived in the kingdom of Xaragua with his conquistadors, Anacaona, the Queen of Xaragua, did whatever she could to charm the Spaniards. She summoned her nobles and caciques (tribal leaders) and other important people from her tribe, and organized a lavish feast in honor of the Spaniards. There were a series of entertainments—performances of native dancers, a game of sticks, a parade of horses, and music of Spanish guitars.

Anacaona and her subjects did not realize that they were doomed. The Spanish had already taken the decision that they were going to extend their domination over all of Hispaniola. They intended to take all the land and divide it among the new Spanish settlers who would undertake to stay for at least five years. The native population was to be reduced to subjection. The conquistadors had arrived in Xaragua to bring an end to Anacaona’s tribal kingdom.

At the feast, Ovando said that his men would give a display of Spanish arms. The natives were pleased to hear this. They congregated in a small area. Ovando wore around his neck the gold cross of the Order of Alcantara. When he placed his hand on the cross, his conquistadors opened fire. At the same time, the Spanish horsemen and foot soldiers surrounded the house in which the caciques and nobles had been lured by Ovando. They set fire to the house and prevented anyone from escaping the inferno. The caciques and nobles were burnt to death. Anacaona was captured. She was accused of rebellion and executed in the Plaza de Santo Domingo.

The killing of their queen and caciques provoked the natives. They attacked the conquistadors. But their weapons, made out of wood, were no match for Spanish swords and guns. They fought ferociously and managed to kill forty conquistadors. There is no estimate of how many natives were killed. The conquistadors chased the natives all over the place, corralling them in fields and then cutting them down with swords. In their desperation to escape, several natives died by leaping into ravines. A number of native women killed themselves to avoid the fate of falling into the hands of the conquistadors. 

The Spanish victory was decisive. They gained control of Hispaniola’s western part. But the reports of the massacres in Hispaniola created a controversy in Europe. In 1509, Ovando was recalled by the Spanish monarchs (Queen Isabella I, King Ferdinand II) to answer to the charges of cruelty towards the natives. The Spanish monarchs did not incarcerate him, and he was allowed to keep the loot that he had brought with him from the Americas. Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish bishop and chronicler, has described the carnage that took place in Xaragua in his 1542 book A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

The seven year reign of Ovando (1502 to 1509) proved more disastrous for the natives than the reign of Columbus. There was a precipitous decline in native population. It is estimated that in 1492, the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, the population of Hispaniola was 500000; by 1507 only 60,000 were left. This ninety percent decline in population was not due to smallpox, which arrived in Mexico in 1519, during the time of Cortés. The decline happened because the natives were killed by the spaniards or were worked to death.

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