Some notes while reading ON THE TRAIL OF THE ARAWAKS

Bob Corbett

The Arawak Indians

I'm currently reading the book: ON THE TRAIL OF THE ARAWAKS by Fred Olsen, Normal, Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, 1974.

I want to report some of the things I'm reading, and some of the puzzles that this book raises for me and for understanding the Taino populations of the island of Hispaniola when Columbus first visited there and in subsequent years.

In an introduction a colleague of Olsen, Irving Rouse (who has written a great deal on the Hispaniola Tainos) claims there is a good deal of dispute about whom the Arawak are and from whence they came.

This puzzle led me to another book, this one by Rouse called THE TAINOS: RISE AND DECLINE OF THE PEOPLE WHO GREETED COLUMBUS. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992.

While the term "Arawak" is used both for some mainland natives who lived (and still live) in northern coastal South America, and for certain natives of the Caribbean Islands, the term is misleading. Actually, on Rouse's account we are talking about two distinct peoples and that the scholarly literature distinguishes between

But, Rouse argues that the term "Island Arawaks" is much too misleading since there really is very little connection between the Arawaks of northern South America and the so-called "Island Arawaks." Rouse switches completely to the name "Taino" to refer to these folks.

Rouse claims that there is a scholarly disagreement as to whether one dates the Island Arawaks from

Rouse and Olsen favor the 33 AD date, but, for conservative sake, they agree to use the safer 1066 date.

As some of you may remember, I was taken to task by several people, including a council of Taino people for claiming that the Taino people of the island of Hispaniola were completely wiped out by the Spanish. Actually, on Olsen's account the situation was much worse than I suggested, since I thought that only the island of Hispaniola suffered this fate. His claim is much stronger:

p. 3 "The Aztecs, the Incas, the North American Indians -- all eventually were subjugated, but none so rapidly and completely as the Arawaks. [By Arawaks here, Olson means what Rouse in his later book is calling the Tainos, and which usage I am following.] Within a hundred years of Columbus' landing (so Olsen say by 1600) these peaceful people, who had numbered perhaps two to three million in 1492, became extinct IN THE ANTILLES, victims of the cannibalistic Caribs, the white man's diseases, and Spanish greed. History records few such systematic exterminations."

Several comments I wish to make here.

The IN THE ANTILLES emphasis is mine. Olsen is not claiming that the unrelated South American Awawaks were wiped out, nor merely the Hispaniola Arawak/Taino (as I had earlier claimed), but all the Arawaks in the entire Antilles, both the lesser and greater Antilles.

Secondly, his "100 years after Columbus" is controversial. I have read several Spanish sources (in English translation) which do claim a very small number of Taino still living on Hispaniola as late at the 1660, so 160 years after Columbus.

Thirdly, this does not mean that there wasn't a single person. Rather, that the Taino of Hispaniola had nearly disappeared 100%, but perhaps a person might have existed here or there, but they ceased to exist as a group that could be noted and identified. Even in some recent fiction, and I am thinking of Jean Metellus' THE VORTEX FAMILY, one of the characters was claimed to be a direct descendant of the Taino, which at least indicates there are family stories to this day in Haiti of Taino ancestry.

Lastly at this point, I want to reiterate the claims of Michel Laguerre, who supports the strong claim of genocide of the Taino people on the island of Hispaniola, that not were the actual people themselves killed off, but they left very little trace at all in the blood lines of Haiti, in the culture or customs. On Laguerre's view, they simply disappeared.

This treatment of the Tainos was especially startling when one compares the treatment and outcome with the assessment of the people. Olsen says:

p. 5 "The friendliness and generosity of the Arawaks [Again, here he means Taino] deeply impressed Columbus. 'They are so ingenuous and free with all they have, that no one wold believe it who has not seen it: of anything they possess if it be asked of them they never say no; on the contrary they invited you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it...;'"


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Bob Corbett