The term Arawak (from aru, the Lokono word for cassava flour), was used to designate the friendly Amerindians encountered by the Spanish in the Caribbean. These include the Taino, who occupied the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas, the Nepoya and Suppoyo of Trinidad and the Igneri who were supposed to have preceded the Caribs in the Lesser Antilles, together with related groups (including the Lokono) which lived along the western coast of South America as far south as what is now Brazil. The group belongs to the Arawakan language family and they were the natives Christopher Columbus found when he first landed in the Americas. The Spanish described them as a peaceful, gentle people, although this description was biased by the fact that any "hostile" groups were automatically classified as Caribs.
On the islands of the Caribbean the Taino were able to grow crops very easily. They raised their crops in a conuco, a large mound that was devised especially for farming. They packed the conuco with leaves to prevent soil erosion and planted a large variety of crops to assure that something would grow, no matter what weather conditions prevailed. Yucca was a staple of their diet and grew easily in a tropical climate. They also used their large, stable, slower boats to take goods for trade to the Central American tribes (Incas, Aztecs, Mayas, etc.) and inter-island travel but used smaller, faster but less stable boats for intra-island shore travel.
Since the agriculture and trade was so good the Taino had plenty of extra time to make crafts and play games. One of these games was a lot like soccer. With plenty of leisure, the Taino devoted their energy to creative activities such as pottery, basket weaving, cotton weaving, stone tools and even stone sculpture. Men and women painted their bodies and wore jewelry made of gold, stone, bone, and shell. They also had time to participate in informal feasts, and dances. The Taino also drank alcohol made from fermented corn and they also used tobacco in cigars.
The Taino had organized systems of religion and government. They believed in both good and evil spirits, which could inhabit both human bodies and natural objects. They sought to control these spirits through their priests or shamans. The Taino's political system was a hierarchical one, in which the islands were broken up into groups, each island in turn was divided into provinces ruled by chiefs known as caciques. The provinces were allocated into districts ruled by a sub-chief and each village was ruled by a head-man.
Their socio-political rivals within the Caribbean were the Caribs, considered aggressive and the Ciboneys, considered docile. The Taino would often offer protection to the Ciboney from the Carib in exchange for manual labour. This was not like the slavery that the Spanish later brought to the New World but more of a tax for civil services. The Taino treated the Ciboney well and rewarded them for their labour. The Carib were attempting to expand their territory in the Lesser Antilles and South America into the Taino community and considered the Ciboney and Taino expendable.
Estimates of the Taino population range from 100,000 to 400,000 at the time of Columbusí arrival, but by the 1500s their numbers had fallen to a few hundred at most. The main reasons for the Taino's massive decline was their lack of resistance to disease introduced by Europeans, especially smallpox, and being mercilessly overworked and tortured by the Spanish in mines and on farms. The Spanish also murdered the Taino in countless massacres to try to create obedience through fear. The first genocide was the Ciboney whom the Spaniards felt were fair game since they thought the Taino had already enslaved them. When the Ciboney died out rather quickly, they turned to the Taino. As the Taino died out, they turned to Africa and exploded the Slave Triangle and the horrors of the Middle Passage.
Most scolars believe that of the Ciboney, Taino and Carib, only the Carib survive today. Although some groups have claimed to be descendants of the Taino, this is academically viewed as highly unlikely.
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12