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1512: Hatuey, defied Spanish colonization

February 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1512, the Taino Indian cacique Hatuey was burned alive at Yara, Cuba — the prototypical martyr of heroic resistance against the centuries of colonial onslaught to come.

As the Spanish devastated his people on his native island, the chief fled Hispaniola to Cuba and attempted to warn the natives there what awaited them at the hands of the conquerors. Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas conceived Hatuey’s meeting with Cuban “Indians” thus:

“You already know that it is said the Christians are coming here; and you have experience of how they have treated the lords so and so and those people of Hayti (which is Hispaniola); they come to do the same here. Do you know perhaps why they do it?” The people answered no; except that they were by nature cruel and wicked. “They do it,” said [Hatuey], “not alone for this, but because they have a God whom they greatly adore and love; and to make us adore Him they strive to subjugate us and take our lives.” He had near him a basket full of gold and jewels and he said. “Behold here is the God of the Christians …”

Hatuey had a trenchant critique. The Spanish had the guns.

Hatuey kept up a hopeless guerrilla resistance for a few months, but was captured and tied to the stake — where a famous parting dialogue took place. Once again, de las Casas:

[A] Franciscan monk, a holy man, who was there, spoke as much as he could to him, in the little time that the executioner granted them, about God and some of the teachings of our faith, of which he had never before heard; he told him that if he would believe what was told him, he would go to heaven where there was glory and eternal rest; and if not, that he would go to hell, to suffer perpetual torments and punishment. After thinking a little, Hatuey asked the monk whether the Christians went to heaven; the monk answered that those who were good went there. The prince at once said, without any more thought, that he did not wish to go there, but rather to hell so as not to be where Spaniards were, nor to see such cruel people. This is the renown and honour, that God and our faith have acquired by means of the Christians who have gone to the Indies.

Thus fixed in the vast martyrology of native resistance, Hatuey’s remembrance and his inspiration echoed down centuries. (It also inspired a commercial beer label that bolted Cuba after another resistance became a little too successful.)

And it is not to detract from that inspiration that as a textual matter, Hatuey’s story has become layered with all the paradoxical intervention of history.

Indigenous peoples have been quite useful to political elites in Latin America generally, and in the Caribbean specifically, almost since the time of the conquests by Spanish and Portuguese adventurers in the 15th and 16th centuries. But they have been most useful dead.

Dead, the Indian could be transformed, generalized, denatured, and repackaged for the benefit of emerging elites. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, indigenous people supplied the foundations for a trope, both literary and political, essential for the construction of cultural, ethnic, racial and political identities distinct from the traditional colonial masters of emerging Latin American states, as well as from that great power to the North.

Hatuey might have thought he died as one of what would be a growing number of Indian patriots resisting the aggressive and undocumented migration of European peoples into their lands. Thus the first irony. More than that, Hatuey died a martyr for a reformed Catholic Christianity by a noble death, a martyrdom really, and one which was served up by Bartolomé de las Cases as an indictment of the practices of Spanish Catholicism. Thus the second irony.

Hatuey has been transfigured. From a Taíno cacique from Hispaniola (Hayti) seeking to preserve the control of Indian peoples over their lands, he has become the first Cuban—foreign born, warrior, martyr, whose blood sacrifice ties him not to the Indians of Cuba but to Cuba iteself.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Cuba,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,Guerrillas,Heads of State,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions

5 thoughts on “1512: Hatuey, defied Spanish colonization”

  1. Ti_Dame_Ayitien says:

    Aye ya yai…as the ultimate insult to this brotha, they made his image into a white man after his death.

    The Indian natives of Haiti were NEVER exterminated en masse. Even in 1922, they were giving Smedley Butler hell…google “Hait + Smedley Butler+ Caicos”. They still live and they look nothing like that.

  2. tawanda says:

    good to know more about the history of these people. for interest’s sake, are the idians (Amreican) still found on the map of USA today?

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