Tribes of the West Indies and Northern Provinces of South America

The Caribs, their Islands first visited by Columbus

At the time of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, the fierce and celebrated race of cannibals, which forms the subject of the present chapter, was principally located upon the beautiful tropical islands, extending from Porto Rico to the main land of South America. The terror of their invasions, felt by the more gentle and peace able natives of the greater Antilles, inspired no little curiosity and interest in the minds of the early voyagers, and Columbus had promised the assistance of the Spanish power to check their ravages. Upon his second voyage, in 1493, the first land made was one of the Caribbean islands, and on the following day, (November 4th,) a landing was effected at Guadaloupe. Here the first intercourse took place with the terrible Caribs.

This singular race of savages, according to tradition, had its origin upon the continent of North America, among the mountain districts of the central United States. Perhaps they, might have sprung from the same stock as the warlike Monacans and other savage tribes of the interior, spoken of by early historians. “They are said to have migrated,” says Mr. Irving, “from the remote valleys embosomed in the Appalachian Mountains. The earliest notices we have of them represent them with their weapons in their hands; continually engaged in wars; winning their way and shifting their abode, until in the course of time they found themselves on the extreme end of Florida.” Hence they made their way from one island to another to the southern continent. ” The archipelago extending from Porto Rico to Tobago, was their strong-hold, and the island of Guadaloupe in a manner their citadel.”

Whether the foregoing account of the original derivation of the race be the correct one, it would be difficult to decide at this distance of time. When first known to Europeans the different nations of Caribs were widely diffused upon the continent of South America. They were to be found upon the banks of the Orinoco, where their descend ants are living at this day, and, still farther south, in Brazil. They were everywhere noted for the same fierce and war like spirit. Something of the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of eastern Asia has been observed in the Caribs and the Guarani tribes who inhabited the country north of the Amazon. As described by D’Orbigny, the following peculiarities are noticeable in most of them. “Complexion yellowish; stature middle; forehead not so much arched as in other races; eyes obliquely placed, and raised at the outer angle.”

To return to the experience of the discoverer of the New World at the Caribbee islands. At the landing of the Spaniards, the natives fled from a neighboring village into the interior. In order to conciliate them, the visitors fastened hawks-bells and attractive ornaments to the arms of some children who had been left behind in the hurry of flight. The sight of human remains, among other things, “the head of a young man, recently killed, which was yet bleeding, and some parts of his body boiling with the flesh of geese and parrots, and others roasting before the fire,” at once suggested the thought that this must be the country of the Caribs. Columbus took a number of the natives prisoners, and carried off several women who had been held in captivity by the islanders. It appeared that most of the men of the island were away upon some war like excursion.

Cruise Among The Islands

Pursuing his course towards Hispaniola, or Hayti, where the first colony had been planted upon his preceding voyage, Columbus sailed by numerous islands of the Caribbean group. He landed at Santa Cruz, called Ayay by the Indians, and secured a further number of prisoners. Some of these were in a canoe, and offered a fierce resistance when they saw their retreat intercepted by one of the Spanish boats. There were two women of the party, one of them apparently a female cacique, and these showed no less valor than the men. They were taken by upsetting their canoe; but, even in the water, they resisted stoutly to the last, availing themselves of every point of sunken rock, where they could obtain a foothold, to discharge their arrows. One of the men was a son of the queen, and his “terrible frowning brow, and lion s face,” excited the admiration of his captors. The demeanor of the whole party reminds one strongly of the early descriptions of the Maquas or Mohawks when in captivity.

“When on board,” says Irving, “the Spaniards could not but admire their untamed spirit and fierce demeanor. Their hair was long and coarse, their eyes encircled with paint, so as to give them a hideous expression; they had bands of cotton bound firmly above and below the muscular parts of the arms and legs, so as to cause them to swell to a disproportionate size, which was regarded by them as a great beauty, a custom which prevailed among various tribes of the new world. Though captives, in chains, and in the power of their enemies, they still retained a frowning brow and an air of defiance.”

Destruction Of The Fortress At That Island

Arriving at Hayti, Columbus found the settlement at La Navidad laid waste and abandoned. Its destruction was owing to a Carib chief named Caonabo, whose warlike and commanding nature had gained him unbounded authority over the natives of the island. The fact of his uniting himself with another race by which his own nation was regarded with the utmost detestation and dread, and his attainment of rank and influence under such circumstances, are sufficient proofs of his enterprise and capacity.

The friendly Indian chief Guacanagari had in vain ex tended his assistance to the little band of Spanish colonists. Caonabo had heard at his establishment among the mountains of Cibao, of the outrages and excesses committed by the whites, and during the absence of the admiral, he made a descent upon the fort. All of the Spaniards perished, and Guacanagari was wounded in the encounter. As a further punishment for his espousal of the cause of the de tested strangers, his village was destroyed by the revengeful Carib.

Guacanagari and other Haytian Indians were taken on board the Spanish vessels, and, among other proofs of superiority and power, were shown the Carib prisoners, confined in chains. This seemed to affect them more powerfully than any thing else that they witnessed. These captives were afterwards sent over to Spain for instruction in the Spanish language and in the true religion, it being intended that they should thereafter act as missionaries among their own savage countrymen.

The circumstances attending the capture of the Spaniards most dreaded enemy, Caonabo, are too singular and well attested to be passed over. This was accomplished by the celebrated Alonzo de Ojeda, commandant of the fortress of St. Thomas. The Carib chief was able, it is asserted, to bring no less than ten thousand warriors into the field, and his personal strength and courage rendered him no despicable foe in open combat. Ojeda had recourse to the following stratagem to secure his enemy: He proceeded, accompanied by only ten mounted companions, direct to the chiefs encampment, upon pretense of a friendly mission from the admiral.

The cacique was, after great persuasion, induced to undertake an expedition to Isabella for the purpose of peaceful negotiations with Columbus. Among other inducements, Ojeda promised him the chapel-bell, as a present. Accompanied by a large body of armed warriors, the party set out for the Spanish settlement. Near the river Yagui, in the words of Mr. Irving, “Ojeda one day produced a set of manacles of polished steel, so highly burnished that they looked like silver. Those he assured Caonabo were royal ornaments which had come from heaven, or the Turey of Biscay,” (the location of certain extensive iron manufactures); “that they were worn by the monarchs of Castile in solemn dances, and other high festivities, and were intended as presents to the cacique. He proposed that Caonoba should go to the river and bathe, after which he should be decorated with these ornaments, mounted on the horse of Ojeda, and should return in the state of a Spanish monarch, to astonish his subjects.”

The bold device was completely successful. Caonabo, en croupe behind Ojeda, for a short time exulted in his proud position, curvetting among his amazed warriors; but suddenly the little cavalcade dashed into the forest with a rapidity that defied pursuit. The cacique was safely carried a distance of fifty or sixty leagues to Isabella, and delivered to the admiral. He ever after expressed great admiration at the skill and courage with which his captor had duped him, and manifested a reverence and respect towards Ojeda which his proud and haughty spirit forbade him to exhibit in any other presence, even that of Columbus himself.

Upon the occasion of the admiral s second return to Spain, in 1497, Caonabo, with several of his relatives, and a number of other Indians, was taken on board. Baffled by contrary winds, the vessels were a long time delayed at the very commencement of the voyage. A landing was affected at Guadaloupe, for the purpose of procuring fresh provisions.

Capture Of Caonabo: His Death

The inhabitants exhibited their natural hostility of disposition, and it was especially observed, as upon a former occasion, that the women were as warlike and efficient as the men. A number of these females were made prisoners, among the rest, one who was wife of a chief of the island, a woman of most remarkable agility and strength. On setting sail, the admiral, desirous of conciliating the good will of the natives, set his prisoners free, and gave them divers presents in pay for the provisions and stores plundered by his crew. The cacique s wife was allowed to remain on board, with her daughter, at her own request, she having become enamored of the captive Caonabo. This distinguished chieftain died before the vessels reached Spain.

The Carib tribes who occupied the islands where the race was first encountered by Europeans, maintained possession of their homes as long as courage and desperation could avail against the superior skill and weapons of the whites. Spanish cupidity, and love of novelty and ad venture led to the gradual occupation of the Caribbee islands. In some of them, bloody battles were fought: “At St. Christopher’s,” according to the Rev. W. H. Brett, “in 1625, two thousand Caribs perished in battle, whilst their European invaders lost one hundred men. In the other islands their losses were equally great. These calamities would cause a migration of the natives when they found it useless to fight any more. Some of the islands, as Martinico, were suddenly abandoned by them, after a fierce but unavailing struggle.

Expulsion Of The Natives From The Caribbee Islands

Those of the Caribs who chose to forsake the islands entirely, would naturally take refuge with their brethren already settled in Guiana, and by their valor secure to themselves such portions of the country as they might think proper to occupy; as few tribes would be able, or indeed dare, to oppose them. A remnant of the Caribs still remained at St. Vincent, and they were transported, about the end of the last century, to the island of Ruattan, in the bay of Honduras.”

This once terrible and dreaded race so dreaded by the Spaniards that vague reports of the approach of an army of Caribs could terrify the conquerors of Peru in the midst of their successes is now reduced to a few insignificant tribes. They are scattered in the wilderness of Guiana, and mingled with other nations of the interior. About the upper waters of the Pomeroon is one of their most considerable establishments, and the tribe there located numbers but a few hundred savages, living in almost as primitive a state as when Columbus first coasted along these tropical shores.


Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

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1 thought on “Tribes of the West Indies and Northern Provinces of South America”

  1. Hi everyone.
    I am wondering how to find the Indian heritage from my great grand parents and my father. My father was born in El Salvado -San Salvador and his parents and their parents were from Spain. Thank you

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