Native Americans Had Their Own “Amistad” Incidentby Dee Dee Garcia Blase on Aug. 31, 2013, under Cultura, Culture
The below is by one of my favorite Texas writers via Juan Montoya.
Here’s a bit of history.
NATIVE AMERICANS HAD THEIR OWN “AMISTAD” INCIDENT
By Juan Montoya
The year was 1515.
Spanish Queen Isabella had, in 1503, issued the astonishing and momentous order to permit the enslavement of natives in the New World “discovered” by Columbus only 11 years earlier (1492).
While ostensibly it protected natives from capture or injury, it made an exception of “a certain people called Caribs who had been asked to mend their ways and become Christians but who had hardened their hearts and “continued to eat Indians and kill Christians.”
This was all propaganda being brought back to the Catholic queen by her conquistadors who were decimating the native population by demanding a daily gold tribute as they tried to enrich themselves but found that the natives were dying faster than they could amass their wealth.
For this reason the Queen said: “For the present I give license and power to all and sundry persons who may go by my orders on the Islands and Terra Firme of the Ocean Sea discovered to the present, as well as to those who may go to discover other islands and Terra Firme, that is said cannibals continue to resist and do not wish to admit and receive to their native lands that Captains and men who may be on such voyages by my orders not to hear them in order to be taught our Sacred Catholic Faith and to be in my service and obedience, they may be captured and taken to these my kingdoms and domains and to other parts and places and sold.”
And so it came to be that 12 years later Diego Velasquez de Cuellar was sending out ships on slave raids to replace the Cuban natives who were being used up.
In a letter he wrote then to Diego Columbus in Santo Domingo, Velasquez told the Admiral’s son about an incident that had happened when a ship and a bark were sent from Santiago to hunt slaves in the Guanaja Islands (the Bay Islands off Honduras discovered by Columbus in 1502).
Bartolome de Las Casas quotes from the letter which was later copied and published by Herrera in Decade, II, Bk. 2, ch. 7:
“The bark remained to hunt more Indians, and the ship returned to the port of Carenas (the present Havana), with its captured Indians confined below.
While most of the Spaniards were taking their ease on the Cuban shore the Indians broke the hatch, seized the ship, ran up the sails, and fled. That they made it back home “was known when the wreck of the ship was found on the Bay Islands by a party Velasquez sent out to avenge the affront.”
This incident – preceding the hijacking of the ship Amistad by African slaves in 1839 from a Cuban schooner after a mutiny by some 324 years – has been forgotten in the mists of history. But while the African slaves, led by Cinque, were tricked by two Spanish sailors to sail northward from Cuba instead of east toward Africa, the natives of the New World actually succeeded in returning home sailing the ship themselves.
When I read this account from Carl Ortwin Sauer’s “The Early Spanish Main” to my kids, their questions were predictable.
“How could Indians who had never been aboard a Spanish ship manage to sail it back to their island?” asked one. “How far was it from Guanaja to Havana and back?”
We looked it up in the World Atlas and found that Guanaja is approximately 300 miles by sea from present-day Havana. Also, that in order to return the way they came, the Indians had to navigate a complex path and negotiate through winds and currents from the north side of Cuba, around the island, and head southwest toward Honduras.
This mystified my kids and their questions abounded.
“How could they learn how to do that if they were kept in the ship’s hold all the time?” asked the oldest of the three. ”Were they watching the Spaniards from below after they were captured and made slaves?”
We must remember that at the time this happened, the Spanish ships were the culmination of Portuguese and Spanish sailing technology that had taken them around the Cape of Africa and beyond. They were the cutting-edge of maritime vessels.
One can only imagine what the more timid souls among the natives argued, but some of their objections to strike a blow for freedom are predictable. “What if we can’t sail it? What if we sink? What if we are punished? What if slavery turns out to be not so bad compared to the unknowns?
I could not in honesty answer my children on the motives that drove the Indians (actually Native Americans) to their eventual decision, but only asked them what they would do if they they knew they were destined to be sold as slaves and had no other recourse.
Would they dare to navigate through uncharted waters, to brave the dangers, to learn what was necessary to survive as free people?
Freedom, it is said, is a powerful motivator. The freedom to choose what you want to do, to not allow someone else to dictate to you what you can do with your person, your home, or your belongings is the most basic of human drives.
Apparently, this was not the only time natives attempted to take the ships into which they were bound to be sold into slavery. At least one other attempt has been documented in that era, but alas, it failed because the slave-catchers were by then aware of the natives’ abilities.
We can only guess at the fate these unfortunates suffered at the hands of the queen’s conquistadors.
But somewhere on Guanaja, those natives who overcame their fears and took the chance of controlling their own destiny and not allow outside intruders to take what they valued and loved most prospered and eventually became inhabitants of a free country.