Extinct Ancient Societies Arawak of Hispaniola

About the Arawak of Hispaniola South American, history of the extinct society, how they were destroyed and the last of them.



Their Society: Originally from South America, the Arawak Indians spoke an Amazonian dialect. They had migrated north through the Caribbean island chains to the island of Hispaniola, which today is occupied by the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This large island lying between Cuba and Puerto Rico was the homeland of 1 million Arawak Indians in the 15th century. The Arawak were primarily farmers; they grew manioc and corn in fields that they cleared by burning off the jungle undergrowth. Arawak men hunted hutias (small rodents) and iguanas and spearfished in the island streams and in the ocean.

The Arawak lived in round or rectangular wood-framed, rattan-and-cane walled houses. The Arawak villages, situated on the sandy shores of Hispaniola, usually had temples to house the tribe's carved stone idols. Every village had its own ceremonial ball court, protected by a stone wall and decorated with petroglyphs. Ruled by caciques (chiefs), the Arawak were a peaceful people whose main threat came from their aggressive, cannibalistic neighbors, the Caribs, who raided the Arawak villages and carried off women and children for use as concubines, slaves, sacrifices, and meals.

How and When Destroyed: The Arawak had the rather dubious honor of encountering the first Europeans to visit the Americas. In 1492 Christopher Columbus landed on the north shore of Hispaniola and began trading with the Arawak. On Jan. 14, 1493, in Samana Bay, Columbus's men and an Arawak war party fought a brief skirmish--the first episode in a history of white-Indian wars which would last almost 500 years. During the next decade Spaniards kidnapped Indians and sold them as slaves in Europe and Africa. As Spanish towns sprang up on Hispaniola, the battles increased, and the Europeans, armed with crossbows, muskets, and cannons, invariably won. Also, the Europeans brought typhus, influenza, and smallpox, which took heavy tolls in the Arawak villages.

By 1500 the Arawak had surrendered to Spanish rule, and their chiefs were forced to deliver a regular payment of gold to the Spanish governors. Eventually even gold did not suffice, and the governors ordered the chiefs to turn over men to work as slaves in the Spanish mines.

What finally destroyed the Arawak people was the repartimiento system established in 1502, which effectively enslaved the entire Arawak population of Hispaniola. The Spanish governor gave land grants--which included ownership of all Indians living on that land--to Spanish soldiers and settlers. Overworked and undernourished, the Arawak died in scores. Plantation owners complained that suicide by eating the poisonous part of manioc roots was epidemic among their Arawak serfs. So many Arawak died so quickly that by 1508 Spanish plantation owners began importing slaves from Africa to work in the fields and mines.

The Last of the Arawak of Hispaniola: In 1492, when Columbus came ashore, there were 1 million Arawak. Thirteen years later there were only 60,000, and by 1533 these had been reduced to 6,000. By 1548 there were a scant 500, and when Sir Francis Drake visited Hispaniola in 1585 he reported that not one Arawak still lived on the island.

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