The People Who Discovered Christopher Columbus

What did the indigenous people of the Americas think of Columbus?

Christopher Columbus and his crew arrived on the shores of Guanahani, an island in the Bahamas, on 12 October 1492. While Columbus was convinced that he had made landfall in Asia, he had unwittingly ‘discovered’ the New World. Carrying the royal standard, he took possession of the island in the name of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, renaming it San Salvador. 

Landfall was soon followed by Columbus’ first encounter with the indigenous people of the Caribbean, known collectively as the Taínos. After approaching the Christians on the shore, the Taínos swam out to the ships and traded parrots, balls of cotton and javelins for European glass beads and bells. This first, relatively friendly, encounter is recorded by Columbus in his Diario, the daily journal of his first voyage. In it, he writes how the indigenous people he met were ‘very well formed, with handsome bodies and good faces’ and had short, coarse hair, ‘almost like the tail of a horse’.  He continued: ‘They should be good and intelligent servants [and] I believe that they would become Christians very easily.’ 

Map of Columbus' voyage

Already, on the first day of the encounter, Columbus makes clear his views of the indigenous population. The animal comparison alludes to Columbus’ view of the Taínos as subordinate, if not subhuman. They were physically robust and intelligent, he concedes, but only so far as to enable them to act as capable servants and convert to Christianity. The rest of the Diario is filled with ethnographic descriptions of the Taínos, many of which emphasise Columbus’ categorisation of the natives as subordinate, as servants and as potential Christians subject to the Spanish crown. Such descriptions are found across sources from Columbus’ voyages and in later narratives of New World exploration beyond  the Caribbean. 

There were, however, two sides to this encounter. To borrow from the archaeologist William Keegan, what did ‘the people who discovered Columbus’ think of the Christian strangers who arrived on their shores? 

There is a total absence of written sources from 15th- and early 16th-century Caribbean natives. While unsurprising, this makes things complicated. Yet this lack of written evidence has stimulated innovative research, aiming to bring Taíno world views and belief systems to light. By combining evidence from European accounts, archaeological discoveries and anthropological research, a vibrant picture of pre-Columbian life has emerged, offering insights into religious beliefs, class structures and everyday life. The Taínos’ experience before the arrival of Columbus will have shaped their interactions with him and his crew, just as European expectations influenced their perceptions of the new lands and peoples they were encountering. So who did the Taínos think Columbus was? 

Myth of the white gods

It is often claimed that, when Columbus first arrived in the Caribbean, he and his men were received as gods. In the Diario, Columbus writes repeatedly of the heavenly origin and divinity the Taínos appeared to ascribe to them. He writes that the Indians were ‘convinced that we [the Christians] come from the heavens’ and that they threw themselves to the ground and ‘raised their hands to heaven’ before them. He even describes how a Taíno acting as an interpreter persuades a fleeing group of his people to return because the Christians were ‘from the heavens’ and therefore should not be feared. 

Columbus was not the only European to have mistaken himself as divine during the age of discovery: Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Henry Hudson and James Cook were all presented as gods or god-like, following their encounters with various indigenous populations. This portrayal of European explorers as ‘White Gods’ has persisted since first contact: the Disney film Pocahontas (1995) portrays a Native American community’s reaction to the arrival of Captain John Smith and his crew as one of shock and awe, while The Road to El Dorado (2000) follows the adventures of two Spanish explorers who, upon discovering a hidden city, are mistaken for gods by the devout Indians. 

Yet the idea that European explorers were received as ‘White Gods’ has been challenged by scholars. It is generally agreed that the idea was largely invented after the conquests of the Caribbean and Mexico. Emerging from the European need to justify their conquest of indigenous peoples, the myth of perceived European divinity gained currency and soon became a trope in European tales of their encounters with non-western societies. 

It is important to consider the reasons behind Columbus’ perpetuation of his own divinity in his Diario. Was he deliberately misrepresenting the Taínos’ actions to justify his possession of their land, portraying them as voluntarily submitting? Or might it have been an honest misinterpretation? After all, there were serious obstacles to mutual comprehension: the practical problems posed by the language barrier were further compounded by the cultural strangeness, such as the fundamental differences in Taíno and European world views and belief systems. 

Such misunderstandings are recorded in the Diario, in which Columbus does not shy away from confronting the communication difficulties that he and his men faced. On 3 December 1492, for example, a large group of Taínos approached the Christians and one made ‘a big speech that the Admiral [Columbus] did not understand’. While he was speaking, the other Taínos ‘raised their hands to the sky and gave a great shout’, which Columbus interpreted to mean that they were pleased to welcome him. The Taíno interpreter turned ‘yellow as wax, and he trembled greatly, saying by signs that [Columbus] must go away … because the Indians wanted to kill them’. The indigenous interpreter even grabbed European weapons to show to the opposing Taíno group, hoping to deter their attack. Columbus wrongly interpreted the Taínos raising their hands to the sky as a positive gesture, thinking they were associating the Christians with the sky or heavens. Luckily, for Columbus, the quick-thinking interpreter saved the day. 

The language associated with divinity in both Taíno languages and Spanish is problematic as well. The Spanish term cielo – used by Columbus in the Diario – could have meant ‘sky’ or ‘heaven’. In translating Columbus’ writings, then, scholars must make their own deductions about what Columbus meant by the word. Considering the strong religious connotations a translation of ‘heaven’ entails, it is unsurprising that this is a contentious issue in the context of the White Gods narrative. 

It is equally important to consider the indigenous language used for these concepts. As Keegan explains, in the Taíno world view things from elsewhere were believed to come from the sky, or turey. The foreign origin of an object gave it value, as the Taínos gave special significance to exotic items. ‘Heavenly’ and turey were synonyms, but they denoted something or someone exotic or foreign, rather than ‘divine’ in the Christian sense. Therefore, it seems reasonable that the Taínos identified Columbus as foreign and received him in a way reflecting the importance of exoticness in their world view. Unlike the European narrative of subservient ‘worshippers’ and ‘god-like’ Christians, this very different belief system did not always result in amicable and peaceful relations. 

Columbus the cannibal 

If he was not a White God, how might the Taínos have identified Columbus? What might explain the Taínos’ more fearful responses to European arrival, when they fled from the strangers, hid their possessions or abandoned their homes? On 23 November 1492 Columbus was told by a group of Taínos that on the island of ‘Bohío’ there were people they ‘called cannibals, of whom they showed great fear … because the cannibals eat them’. What is more, the Taínos told Columbus that they ‘believed the same thing about the Christians’ when they first saw them. Columbus and his crew had seemingly been identified as man-eaters rather than gods. 

From what Columbus understood, these cannibals were indigenous men from the island of Carib, who periodically raided Taíno lands and stole their women. The Christians gained first-hand experience of those they believed to be ferocious Caribs towards the end of the first voyage, when, on 13 January 1493, a group of Indians attacked and attempted to capture a party of Christians. Columbus remarks that ‘without doubt’ the attackers were ‘evildoers’ from Carib, ‘who would eat men’. 

The man-eating, women-stealing Caribs continued to feature in tales of Caribbean exploration long after Columbus. As the anthropologist Neil Whitehead explains, the Caribs became irrevocably associated with wildness, savageness and cannibalism (in both contemporary accounts and scholarly discourse). The Caribs were just one of many cannibal groups said to be found in Central and South America that were encountered by Europeans in the age of discovery. Although cannibalism was not a new phenomenon (before the ‘discovery’ of the New World, the practice of consuming human flesh was known as anthropophagy), the publication of ‘eyewitness’ accounts of cannibalism were received with intrigue and curiosity in early modern Europe. So, too, were visual representations: among other monstrous (and rather unsettling) depictions, dog-headed cannibals are pictured butchering and cooking their human victims on a Caribbean island. 

The European idea of the New World cannibal has received a considerable amount of scholarly attention, particularly in the way explorers’ expectations and imaginations may have shaped their experiences with indigenous people. Marco Polo’s Travels (c.1300), for example, tells of monstrous men in the East who had the heads of dogs (cynocephali), or who had one giant foot to shade them from the sun (sciopods), or who had no head at all and whose eyes were on their shoulders (blemmyae). Accordingly, Columbus was not alone in his surprise at finding that the Taínos were not physically monstrous in any way. For Columbus and the explorers who followed him the New World became a ‘testing ground’ for European ideas of what, and who, existed on the edges of the known world. 

Indigenous expectations 

Just as European preconceptions were tested, Columbus and the other Christians may have challenged Taíno expectations of strangers from other lands. Did the Taínos really think the Christians were cannibalistic Caribs? Would this fit within their pre-existing ideas about visitors from ‘Elsewhere’? Possibly not. Yet again, misinterpretations made by Columbus and the explorers that followed him have clouded what the Taínos may have actually meant. As argued by Keegan, as well as Peter Hulme and Neil Whitehead, pre-Columbian world views suggest that the Taínos had quite a different idea of the Carib cannibal from that of the Christians. 

The key misunderstanding surrounds the Taíno term ‘Carib’. The island that the Taíno called Carib was a mythical island, supposed to be inhabited only by men, which the Christians mistook for a real place. It was one of three islands that existed in Taíno belief, the others being Matininó (inhabited only by women) and Guanín (symbolising sexual union). As Keegan explains, the Christians mistook the (mythical) men from Carib for real people who were enemies of the Taínos. Still believing they were in Asia, Columbus hypothesised that the Caribs ‘must have been under the rule of the Grand Khan’, whom Columbus hoped to meet. From what he understood, the people of the Grand Khan (whom Columbus knew as ‘Caniba’) committed the raids on Taíno lands and stole their women.

Christopher Columbus landing on the island of Hispaniola, etching, 1728. Courtesy Library of Congress

To add to the confusion, the Taínos believed that there were spirits called ‘Caribe’ or ‘Caníbales’, who were greatly feared and associated with the East. These spirits were responsible for transporting Taínos to the afterlife; in doing so, the Caribe ‘consumed’ the life of the dead. The Caribe were not living people, but they did have the ability to travel between the natural and supernatural realms (a power also held by Taíno chiefs, known as caciques). Compounding this issue, it is generally accepted that cannibalism was performed in some religious or ceremonial contexts. These tangible, real-world cannibals, though, were quite separate from the mythical Caribe and from the masculine island of Carib. 

For the Taínos, therefore, eaters of human flesh had both a real-world presence and cosmological existence. In failing to distinguish myth from reality, the Christians conflated the concepts and ‘invented’ a new, European idea of the Caribs. Although he could not have been identified as a Carib in the European sense, this misunderstanding does not mean that Columbus was not identified as a cannibal, or as a corporeal Caribe. After all, he had travelled from the East, like the Caribe, and took Taínos captive who never returned, like the Caribe. 

Throughout the Diario, Columbus records indigenous communities fleeing their homes upon the Christians’ arrival at their village, sometimes hiding their possessions or abandoning them completely. It was not unusual for Taíno warriors to threaten the Christians with an attack, nor for incidents of physical violence and fighting to occur between the two groups. Such reactions indicate that these Taíno groups perceived the Christians as dangerous or malevolent. Aside from identifying them as Caribe, it is possible that the Taínos saw the Christians as raiders or as a warring tribe from another land (albeit a particularly exotic one): a tribe who may or may not have been man-eaters. 

Chief Columbus

As well as fleeing the Christians or starting skirmishes with them, the Taínos made numerous exchanges with Columbus and his crew. By using archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence to examine these cross-cultural transfers, we can see how Taíno communities may have viewed the European newcomers in a more amicable light.  

The idea that the Taínos considered the Christians to be trading partners is well-evidenced throughout the Diario. During the first encounter on Guanahani island, Columbus records how he ‘gave red caps, and glass beads which they put on their chests … in which they took so much pleasure and became so much our friends it was a marvel. Later they came swimming to the ships’ launches where we were and brought us parrots and cotton thread in balls and javelins and many other things’. 

These items were traded for glass beads or other European ‘trinkets’. Such exotic items soon became highly prized in indigenous trading circles – bells, in particular. Columbus wrote that ‘they desired nothing else as much as bells … for they are on the point of going crazy for them’. This clearly baffles Columbus and he takes the opportunity to impress upon the reader the apparent simple-mindedness of the Taínos. Such attention to the unequal nature of these exchanges (a worthless European glass bead for a priceless New World pearl) became a way of demonstrating indigenous peoples’ intellectual inferiority.

Value, however, is a relative term. What Columbus thought was a valuable or ‘good’ trade deal would have been different from that of the Taínos. European travel literature often ignores any notion of relative economic value; there is no acknowledgement that a hawk’s bell was, in fact, a rare and precious item in indigenous communities and could be used to heighten the owner’s social status or exchanged for greater wealth. Bells and other foreign goods were not just incorporated into Taíno trade networks, but also into their cultural systems and world views. Columbus records that the Taíno had their own name for bells: chuq chuque

Trade is a two-way street: items that the Taínos gave to Columbus can provide clues as to how they may have identified him. On 13 December a Taíno community ‘brought many parrots to [the Christians] without wanting anything for them’. Significantly, the gifting of parrots suggests that some Taínos may have identified Columbus as a cacique, a chief or king, from another land. As Wilson explains, parrots (guacamayas) were highly prized in Taíno culture and were often given as gifts to or between caciques

Parrots were not the only gifts that support this theory. Upon his arrival on Hispaniola, a number of caciques met and exchanged gifts with Columbus. These meetings were more ceremonious than those taking place in smaller villages and the items given were more prestigious. The caciques often dined with Columbus on board his ship or invited him to their houses and, in return for European clothes, shoes and jewellery, the caciques gave gold plates and embellished masks as gifts. In his Caciques and Cemi Idols (2009), the archaeologist José Oliver emphasises the value of these masks (called guaízas) in the context of the Taíno belief system: for them, a person’s soul was located in the face. The giving of a guaíza was not just about material value, but symbolised the imparting of a potent part of one’s soul. Guaízas were a preferential gift to and from caciques from different lands

The ceremonial nature of the exchanges implies that they symbolised the formation of a friendship or alliance, as David Abulafia has suggested. For example, on 25 December 1492, disaster struck Columbus’ fleet when one of his ships was destroyed on a reef. Fortunately, the local cacique, Guacanagarí, came to Columbus’ aid, ordering his men to bring the contents of the ship safely to land. The king dined with Columbus the next day and gifts were exchanged. This time, though, there was also a discussion about the threat posed by the Caribs (or the people who the Christians thought were the Caribs). From the European perspective of the Diario, an agreement had seemingly been reached: 39 of the shipless Spaniards would stay on the island (in a Spanish settlement built nearby, La Navidad) and protect Guacanagarí’s village from Carib raids. On 4 January Columbus left the island feeling secure in his friendship with Guacanagarí, who apparently ‘showed much love’ towards him.

Columbus’ record of these events places control of the situation firmly in the (godly) hands of the Christians. The event was unfortunate, but not a catastrophe. If we read between the lines of the Diario, however, Guacanagarí is transformed from helpless victim to cunning powerholder, who used Columbus’ disastrous position after the shipwreck to his own advantage (as the Hispanic and Lusitanian scholar Margarita Zamora has argued). Scholars have shown convincingly that Guacanagarí was not necessarily forming a friendship with Columbus to protect his people from ‘the Caribs’. Instead, he used the alliance to gain an advantageous position over Caonabó and Behechio, paramount caciques on the island, who had previously abducted Guacanagarí’s women. 

The gift exchanges made by Guacanagarí were, therefore, highly pragmatic. He did not merely identify Columbus as a foreign king, but as a potential diplomatic ally that he could use to his own benefit. Moreover, the Christians’ very survival, the salvaging of the ship and the construction of La Navidad were dependent upon Guacanagarí’s amity and benevolence. It was he, not Columbus, who was ultimately in control. 

How the Taínos saw Columbus upon his arrival in 1492 is far from a clear-cut issue. Different communities and people responded to the Christian strangers in different ways. Some traded with them, gave gifts or offered aid, while others fled, abandoned their homes or attacked them. Each of these responses speaks to a way in which the Taínos perceived Columbus and his crew: either as potential friends or as enemies posing a threat to their community. 

Whether the Taínos thought Columbus was an exotic stranger, foreign king or cannibal, exploring the Taínos’ existing world views and belief systems at the time of their encounter with the Christians is essential. In doing so, we are able to increase our understanding of this profoundly important moment and produce a much more balanced history of the Taíno-European encounter. 

Claudia Rogers is a PhD student at the University of Leeds, researching cultural encounter, indigenous history and identity in the 16th-century New World.

The People Who Discovered Christopher Columbus

Related Articles

By Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Sign up for Miscellanies, our free weekly email