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Sea kings of the Antilles.

One thing everybody knows about the Caribs is that they were cannibals. This indelibly impressed itself on the European imagination when Columbus' crew first pulled up their longboat on the shore of Guadeloupe, poked through a hastily abandoned Carib village, and came upon a peacefully bubbling cauldron. Inevitably one of them lifted the lid to see what these folk fancied for dinner - and gagged at what lay stewing within.

This electrifying discovery stereotyped the Caribs as savages from that moment on, but did so unfairly. Fierce cannibals they were, but they were also accomplished seafarers who made the most impressive voyages of pre-Columbian America. Far from being primitive fishing folk who stumbled half-drowned on each new island as storms drove them, the Caribs roamed the Caribbean at will, like New World vikings.

Significantly, when the Spaniards burst upon the scene, the Caribs survived the Conquest. They even thrived by raiding the new settlements and defying the cross and the sword. For almost two centuries after the wholesale extermination of the island Arawaks, the Caribs remained a force to be reckoned with in the eastern Caribbean. By the time they retreated back to their ancestral jungles in Venezuela they had stamped their name on the sea that was once theirs.

Caribs and Arawaks originated in the delta forests of the Rio Orinoco, and hated each other as far back as legend can tell. The Arawaks were the first to migrate up the Lesser Antilles, those mountainous emerald isles that stretch in a sparkling area from South America up the eastern border of the Caribbean. Using them as stepping stones, the Arawaks moved up through the Greater Antilles, evolving a culture remarked at by the early Europeans for its balanced, healthy, peaceful way of life.

Eventually the Caribs made a similar migration, capturing island after island of the Lesser Antilles until they reached the Anegada Passage, a wide, often rough barrier of water that separated them from Puerto Rico. That island proved too strong for them to take and here the Caribs had to call halt to their migration, but not to their seafaring.

Instead they became a pirate people, a race of seagoing warriors equally at home on the water or ashore. Every hurricane season the Caribs would take advantage of the weakened tradewinds and prevailing calms to launch their dugouts, disappear over the horizon, and strike at the Arawaks of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, or those of the South American mainland. Into their hollowed-out trees (as long as 80 feet) they could cram over one hundred men with gear and provisions and paddle almost a thousand miles to raid an unsuspecting town. They stopped at night to rest and cook, pulling their vessels up on the beach. Five hundred men in massive war dugouts formed a mobile, lethal strike force that had little to fear. With good reason they were called the "Camajuya," meaning "thunderbolt" since they fell on coastal villages at dawn like a blast of lightning, leaving smoke and blood to mark their course. They loved weapons, lived for combat, and delighted in rape.

Being a spartan lot, material loot did not interest the Caribs nearly as much as women did. They would paddle thousands of miles to capture female slaves, "especially the young and beautiful whom they keep as servants and concubines," as an early eyewitness commented. They took so many Arawak women that the Carib women spoke a different language from the men ... they spoke Arawak. European ships that touched at the Carib islands often picked up Arawak women escaping from slavery in Carib beds and fields.

The Caribs also brought back men and boys, for the titillation of castrating them, storing them in wooden cages, and butchering them for ceremonial feasts. At these bacchanals they would drink prodigious quantities of their casava beer and dance on wooden boards over a pit that sounded like a giant drum. According to a priest who stayed with them, the Caribs decided on their next marauding voyage while drunk and frenzied.

That such long distance passage-making could be performed in dugouts surprises anyone who supposes they were fit only for rivers and sheltered waters. In fact, the dugout was quite capable and well-suited to the Caribs' environment and several advantages over European sailing ships. For one thing it was of strong and trouble construction, with no seams to caulk, no planks to spring, no fastenings to rot. From small one-man fishing skiffs to enormous war dugouts, each vessel came from a single tree. A large one took over a year to build. Without steel tools the Caribs felled a tree by firing its roots, then hollowed it out by laying live coals on it and scraping out the charcoal with stone adze. Appropriate carvings on the stem and stern finished off what was the Caribs' most valued possession and their culture's highest expression.

Built of hardwoods and hauled out of the water when not in use, the dugout was free of the toredos that riddled the white man's vessels in the West Indies - one of Columbus' ships had to be beached in Jamaica because the planking had turned to Swiss cheese. Propulsion was another strong suit - paddles were supremely reliable. Wind or no wind, the dugout moved and maneuvered on command, it always started, never broke down, needed no spares and in calms or light air could weave figure eight around clumsy sailing ships. Best of all, they could not sink, being wholly wood without any ballast. At worst a dugout might capsize. In that event its occupants righted their vessel, bailed it dry with calabash scoops, and climbed back in to resume their voyage. The Caribs, men and women both, were marvellous swimmers, something noted by European observers with a certain astonishment. A ducking in the sea was about as debilitating to a Carib as it would be to a pelican.

While the Arawaks of the Greater Antilles seemed incapable of serious resistance to their enemies, the Arawaks in South America fought back with a creative vengence. After a particularly violent Carib raid of the mainland, outraged Arawaks in the Orinoco delta gathered baskets full of deadly poisonous fer-de-lance vipers and carried them in dugouts up to the islands of St. Lucia and Martinique. Here they disembarked the squirming guerrillas to wreak havoc on the local Carib inhabitants. To this day these snakes are found in none of the other Antillean islands.

An account written by an old Spanish friar illustrates the day-to-day struggle in the sixteenth century when power was dispersed between Caribs, Arawaks and Spaniards. Aracoraima, cacique of the Trinidad Arawaks, steered a dugout across the current wracked channel known as the Dragon's Mouth, where brown water boils past the rocky tip of South America's rugged Paria Peninsula. Twenty-four women paddled - his wives and his collateral - for a loan Aracoraima wanted from the Spaniards of Isla Margarita. He needed axes and adzes of steel in order to construct a fleet of war dugouts to fight the Windward Island Caribs who had devastated the coastline of Trinidad. The Arawaks intended to launch a raid of their own that would cripple the island pirates for years to come.

Halfway across the channel the paddlers saw a sight that must have sent their adrenaline pumping. Six dark slivers lifted on a distant swell, then disappeared in a trough ... Caribs. Aracoraima and his wives turned to flee but were spotted and pursued. With their long waterlines they soon overtook the Arawaks, overwhelmed them and left Aracoraima for dead in the stern. They tied the women in the bow and twelve young Carib braves began paddling the prize back to Dominica. Not much time passed before they noticed that some of the women were young and beautiful. The warriors stopped paddling, untied the ones they wanted and bent them over the gunnel.

By one of those uncanny true life strokes, Aracoraima had been stunned but not killed. Coming to his senses amidst the sobs of his wives and the gloating of the Caribs, he seized a war club and split the skull of the nearest pleasure-dazed lout. He faced forbidding odds but held powerful advantages too. He had caught the Caribs with their pants down, with women tangling their feet. Aracoraima had his weapon - a club sword of dense lignum-vitae, tipped with razor sharp fragments of flint - while the Caribs were separated from theirs. And he had the advantageous position facing only one opponent at a time due to the narrow beam of a dugout. The cacique proceeded to kill every one of the young Caribs and returned home to Trinidad in triumph.

In the end Aracoraima did get to Isla Margarita and obtained the loan, but nothing came of it until years later when his nephew won a famous victory over a Carib raiding fleet caught in one of the mouths of the Orinoco. Though only 60 dugouts strong, the Arawaks demolished a Carib fleet of 120. Forty were captured and the rest fled. To save his life the Carib admiral promised fealty and tribute - an annual dugout loaded with cotton, hammocks and six slave girls.

When Columbus arrived he ingratiated himself with the caciques of Hispaniola by promising to protect the Arawaks against the Caribs. History tells us that the fulfillment of that promise did not work out quite as the Indians had hoped. Within a short span of years the Spaniards had wiped them out, and needing labor for the gold mines and plantations, they turned to the Carib islands for slaves. A few attempts showed them the impracticality of attacking Caribs on their home ground.

The Lesser Antilles, especially the Windward Islands, were so deeply forested and ruggedly dissected by ravines that Caribs could ambush a Spanish patrol from the other side of a gorge and be hours away from pursuit. The Spaniards found themselves clambering up and down brutal slopes, pestered by silent poisoned arrows that drove men raving mad before they died. It was not their kind of war, particularly since the islands held no obvious riches to exploit. Hence the Spaniards tried to ignore them.

But the Caribs would not settle for that. The concentration of Europeans with firearms and armor in the islands to the west did nothing to intimidate the raiders, who were after the white man's steel, wine and women. The Caribs had conceived a well-deserved hatred of the Spaniards and lost no opportunity to express it. The early Hispanic settlements suffered frequent assaults. Peter Martyr, a contemporary chronicler of the Indies, estimated in 1515 that the Caribs had taken 5000 inhabitants from Puerto Rico alone since the Discovery.

That year Ponce de Leon was sent across the Atlantic with an armada to stop and chastise the Caribs in Guadeloupe before continuing on to Puerto Rico. He anchored off a river, sent a party ashore - women to do the washing, sailors to fill the water casks and soldiers to guard them. The Caribs laid an ambush from dense cover, killed most of the men and seized the women. Ponce de Leon left in disgust. Similar disasters dogged subsequent attempts to subdue these first Antillean guerrillas.

Terror punctuated the sixteenth century for Puerto Rico. In September of 1520 when hurricane season calms gave the Caribs perfect paddling weather, five dugouts with 150 warriors ascended the Humacao River on Puerto Rico's east coast. They ravaged the farms and the mines, killing some 20 Spaniards and carrying off 50 Indians. They got away cleanly in their dugouts and not a boat on the coast could catch them. The Spanish troops, counterattacking too slowly, raged on the beach while the colonists sent a petition to the Crown for two fast oared boats to patrol the mouths of the rivers up which the Caribs made their forays.

The same drama was played out 500 miles south, where as late as 1620 a travelling friar noted in a report to royal officials: "These Granada Indians (Caribs) start out every year in late July or early August with their dugout navies on robbing expeditions along the whole coast of the Spanish Main, the islands of Trinidad, Margarita and others ... and it will aid the service of God and his Majesty to conquer them, bringing them under subjection and killing the male Indians ... thus getting rid of that pirate's nest of savage cannibals; with them there no security is possible in all the surrounding territories and islands; their conquest would bring quiet and tranquility."

Among the millions of documents in Seville's Archive of the Indies, a tattered parchment letter written to the king in 1568 gives an eyewitness feel to these events. His Excellency Don Dahamonde de Lugo, governor of Puerto Rico, received word that 800 warriors had landed on the south west coast, burnt the town of San German and massacred many of its citizens. He set out with a handful of men to assist the survivors who had fled to nearby swamps. Travelling toward San German on the south coast road, de Lugo caught sight of the Carib fleet making its way back, hugging the coast. Aware that they would stop every night, the governor followed them by land, watching as they pillaged and burned coastal farms and hoping to get a chance to rescue the Spanish prisoners the Indians had taken which included the wife and two small sons of one of the survivors. Accumulating recruits as he went, waiting for the right circumstances, de Lugo finally struck one night when the Caribs had camped ashore near thick forest. With twenty men he crept unseen close to the camp and opened fire, while calling in Spanish for the prisoners to run into the forest.

The Caribs rallied enough to wound the governor with a poisoned arrow as they retreated to the safety of their dugouts. Most of the prisoners managed to escape, but the woman with two sons suddenly realized her children had been left behind. She broke free of the protective Spaniards and ran back to the beach to look in the dugouts for her sons. Caribs grabbed her, threw her in and pushed off to sea.

The governor recovered from his wound with the help of a loyal Indian who knew the herbal antidote to the envenomed arrowhead. The rescue party found the abducted woman days later, wandering out of her wits in a river near the sea. The Caribs had grown impatient with her wailing and had beaten her and thrown her overboard. At the end of his account de Lugo stated that without a patrol of galleys to protect the coast, its inhabitants would abandon Puerto Rico for lands farther to the west.

Such attacks and the periodic wreck of Spanish shipping in the Carib islands eventually gave rise to persistant reports of a considerable number of Christians being held captive in Dominica, and - of even greater interest - a mounting treasure in silver and gold. In 1588 the governor of Puerto Rico wrote to the Crown about the testimony of Luisa Navarrete, a mulata in her thirties who was married to a Spaniard and by all accounts "a worthy Christian woman." Ten years previously she had been living in Humacao when Caribs assaulted the hacienda and carried her off along with other blacks to Dominica.

In her four years of captivity she learned the language and found out about the precious hoard. The Caribs told her a ship carrying bullion had wrecked at the island, driven by a violent tempest. Some of the crew drowned, others were killed, and the rest scattered among neighboring islands. Since the recent eating of a friar had touched off the killing of many Caribs, they no longer ate Christians (unless they were also Indian). As a result, there were upwards of 50 white as well as 300 black captives. The gold and silver from the ships and the loot gathered in almost a century of raids had been piled up in a cave for safekeeping and it amounted to a fortune.

This information had San Juan agog with gold fever. Fifty Indian fighters from the Venezuelan frontier as well as a hundred adventurers from Puerto Rico and Hispaniola were poised to ransack the cave and rescue the prisoners if the king would make available two shallow draft, fast galleys. The king and council must have thought it impractical - after a few more letters on the subject, the correspondence fades and it is not mentioned again.

Had the Lesser Antilles been inhabited by the peace-loving Arawaks, the Spaniards might well have settled and fortified them to control access to the Caribbean. As it was, the Spaniards mostly gave the implacable Caribs a wide berth, and into this vacuum sailed increasing numbers of French, Dutch and British corsairs, whom the Caribs often welcomed as enemies of their enemies.

The relationship between the interloping ships and the Indians was not always smooth, but both sides had something to gain from interchange. The corsairs and smugglers brought tools, guns and wine to trade for poultry, vegetables and drinking water. The islands' location made them a convenient place to refresh a ship and its crew after the long transatlantic voyage and to pick up news about the Spanish realms to the leeward. The English stopped at Dominica while the French favored Guadeloupe. Often the Caribs paddled out to ships becalmed in the lee of the high islands to sell pineapples or turtles.

These visits led to individuals settling with the Caribs as merchants, factors or planters. Some of these adventurers accompanied their hosts into battle using guns on their behalf. In 1623 a joint British/French occupation of part of St. Kitts was agreed to by the Indians. Conflict came quickly, however. Warned of an impending Carib attack by the Carib mistress of one of the colonists, the whites struck first and massacred their hosts. In revenge a fleet of Caribs, thousands strong, killed a hundred whites in an assault on St. Kitts but was beaten back with heavy casualties.

St. Kitts survived as a British colony and its Caribs retreated to Guadeloupe. Then followed a period of intermittant warfare between Caribs defending their territory and Europeans ever encroaching. Settlements attempted in Barbuda, Tobago, Marie Galant and St. Lucia were destroyed by the Caribs, and they came close to expunging the important colony on Antigua. As the newcomers gained control of each island its Caribs migrated to the strongholds of Dominica and St. Vincent or went back to Venezuela.

The two islands became beacons of refuge not only to the island Caribs but for Africans escaping from slavery. Once again the Caribs welcomed the enemy of their enemy. In 1672, Govenor Stapleton estimated that 600 runaway slaves from the British Leeward Islands to the north had taken refuge with the Caribs in Dominica and St. Vincent. Ironically once again the welcome given to new allies proved the Indians' undoing. The runaway slaves joined with a group of free blacks and when the wreck of a slave ship nearby greatly augmented their numbers, they virtually displaced the Caribs.

It remains to assess the Caribs. Were they as savage and depraved as their enemies claimed? The loudest expressions of revulsion came from the Spaniards, who were themselves fresh from the genocide of a race - the island Arawaks - and needed justification for enslaving Caribs to fill the gap in their labor force. But sixteenth-century Europe as a whole was far from civilized. It suffices to recall the stake, the public tortures and executions, and the savage civil wars of these times. If the Caribs were savage, theirs was the eastern Caribbean variant of a universal failure.

The role of torture in Carib society is paradoxically brutal yet spiritual. To prove his worthiness a Carib candidate for war captain had to fast for a year drinking only a hallucinogenic gruel, and then wear a stinging vest of wasp and ants so venomous that one bite would give a European a fever for a day. Afterwards two powerful warriors wielding whips flogged him. These rituals were intended to test the warrior's ability to transcend the body. Since fear of pain and death bar the way to the spiritual world and keep man anchored in the flesh, the Caribs respected the transcendence of pain as a mark of spiritual power. They tortured themselves to induce it and they tortured their enemies to witness the triumph of spirit at the moment of death. Although their cannibalism revolts us, it also had a religious significance. By eating their enemies the Caribs believed they would ingest the virtues of the slain; one who died bravely was eagerly eaten.

Given the challenges they faced, the Caribs' ferocity reminds one of claws on a tiger - necessary equipment for survival. The times called for a warlike people. The Caribs survived two hundred years of the European incursion, holding onto their way of life until making a disciplined retreat back to their ancestral hearth. Compare their legacy to that of the Lucayans who, twenty years after the Conquest, were scorched off the face of the earth.

The last time I sailed to Dominica, I made my way over the rugged rain-forested hills to the village of Salybia on the windward coast. Here live the last full-blooded Caribs of the Antilles, a minute remnant, now as gentle and kindly as Arawaks once were. Unlike the other villagers who produced traditional basketry for the tourist market, one man was hewing out a sleek thirty-foot "canot" as dugouts are called in the local patois, from a tough grained, rosy-hued log. While steel adzes have replaced the technique of fire hollowing, he still builds the traditional dugouts, slightly modified in the stern to take an outboard motor. He told me that the one under construction had been paid for in full by a French fisherman from Martinique, and that he could not begin to keep up with the demand.

St. Lucia is another island in which the dugout is the preferred vessel for the fishing fleet, which roars out of Castries harbor near dawn for a day's trolling in mid-channel when the dorado are running. Some of these boats are over seventy years old and still in active service. I got to know the owner of one, and we talked about the merits of various vessels in rough weather and calm. After a polite pause he informed me that while my boat was a fine yacht he, for his part, would feel much safer in his battered old canot were the trades to start really blowing while he was out in mid-channel fishing. I checked the impulse to smile, and came to realize he was in dead earnest when I rode with him down the coast delivering coconuts from a nearby plantation to the copra factory in Soufriere.

I almost capsized the dugout when I stepped into it, and sat down muttering something derogatory about West Indian log rolling. But a little later, with well over a ton of coconuts and five people aboard I had to eat my words. The venerable hollowed out log was making an easy four knots, pushed by an ancient three horsepower outboard. I busied myself with bailing out the water that seeped in through cracks where the wood had checked over the years.

"Do these canots ever capsize in mid-channel?" I asked.

"Sometimes. If de crew be drunk."

"Then what?"

"Well ... de captin does le' go de engine off de stem, and de crew hol' on til dey be rescue," he stated matter-of-factly. Simple enough, I thought to myself, remembering the clamp screws on my own outboard were seized with corrosion.

Later in the week, as we sailed out from under the lee of the island into the full force of the winter trades, we slowly overhauled another vessel, a 20 foot canot sailing under the familiar Robin Hood Flour sack jib and main. Three men comprised the crew, one at the tiller with the main sheet in his hand, another hiking out for all he was worth, and the third man bailing constantly. They were en route to St. Vincent some thirty rough sea miles to the south. I had to give them, their dugout, and the Caribs immense credit.

Peter Muilenburg is an avid sailor and freelance writer who is currently moored in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
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Title Annotation:the Carib Indians
Author:Muilenberg, Peter
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Words:4068
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