engraving of Columbus landing in the caribbean
16th century copper plate engraving of Christopher Columbus landing in the Caribbean by Theodore de Bry.

Courtesy of the Smathers Library Special collections

Editor’s note: Five years after this story published, new evidence lent credibility to Columbus’ cannibal claims, changing researchers’ thinking on the matter.

Indigenous Bahamians plunged into the Caribbean ocean of the 15th century. As with anything from beyond the horizon, they thought the foreign vessels were from the heavens and swam out to the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria without fear.

Christopher Columbus had missed his Asian destination by more than 8,000 miles, landing in the Caribbean during his search for the city of Grand Khan—a golden city said to have existed on the eastern coast of China. In his misguided journey, Columbus created a myth that has persisted for centuries—warrior cannibals in the Caribbean, said William Keegan, curator of anthropology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“The lesson from conventional and popular history is that there were two different groups living in the Caribbean when the Europeans arrived: the peaceful Arawak’s and the cannibal Caribs,” Keegan said. “This notion of peaceful vs. warlike Indians, and the duality between good and evil, can be traced back to Columbus’ diary of his first voyage.”

Columbus observed wounds on the bodies of islanders and interpreted what he saw as the signs of warfare with the powerful “Caniba” or Carib people of the Grand Khan. Based on Greek and Roman mythology, Columbus described the Caribs as mythical beings with “snouts of dogs, who ate men,” Keegan said.

Columbus’s introduction of the term “Caniba” during this initial encounter would later be interpreted as indicating cannibals inhabited the islands, Keegan said.

Studying scores of entries in Columbus 1492-93 diary, Keegan argues in a study appearing in the January 2015 issue of Ethnohistory that the wounds Columbus observed were the result of hostile trade relations with neighboring islanders, not attacks by cannibals.

“The ethnographic literature suggests that many tribal societies are in a near constant state of warfare with their neighbors,” Keegan said. “Nowhere is hostility more evident than in nonmarket and nonbarter economies where trades are offered and either accepted or declined. Exchanges are even choreographed as ritualized battles.

“The bottom line is that anytime you give a gift, the person receiving the gift evaluates your generosity. An inadequate gift can result in disdain, and even a fight.”

Men carrying spears met Columbus on the shores of Guanahaní—the first stop of his voyage—an island he would rename San Salvador. They presented valued commodities such as cotton thread, parrots and javelins, goods they regularly traded with indigenous people on Cuba and other islands.

Exchange was an important element of island life. Objects made from nonlocal materials have been recovered from archaeological sites throughout the Bahamian archipelago, Keegan said, as well as large dugout canoes built for long-distance travel.

Similar trading practices were recorded by Columbus on each island he visited in the Bahamas, supporting Keegan’s argument that natives were active in trade, which could either go peacefully or end in a fight.

“I am not suggesting that all exchanges were hostile,” Keegan said. “The point is that the potential for hostilities was always present. Columbus’s observations suggest that hostilities were a component of indigenous exchange relations in the Bahamas.”

A more recent example of this hazardous trading system observed by Columbus existed among Melanesian peoples and their related interisland exchange networks. The Kula trade in the 1920s was the equivalent of going to war.

By deconstructing his diary, Keegan found that Columbus, who did not understand the indigenous language, imposed his own expectations on situations he observed. His conclusions were based on his belief the islands he had reached were off the coast of Asia and near the people of the Grand Khan.

“Columbus heard stories and saw forms of aggression, then historians later interpreted these observations based on information that was gained as Europeans conquered the entire Antilles,” Keegan said. “But this later information is skewed because when the crowns of Europe began allowing aggressive Indians to be enslaved, all of the Indians became bad Indians to justify their enslavement.”

The historical populations we now called Caribs lived in the Lesser Antilles on the islands of Guadeloupe. But Keegan said there is no historical or archaeological evidence to prove these people are related to the “Caniba” of Columbus’s diary. Unlike their neighbors to the north, they attacked Europeans and were reputed to be fierce cannibals, Keegan said. It is more likely that their response resulted from information regarding Spanish atrocities obtained through exchange with those neighbors, he said.

“This finding adds a humanity to these people that they don’t usually get from the general public,” Keegan said. “Europeans were fascinated by the notion of cannibals, but there’s no evidence that the ancestors of modern Caribs were ever cannibals.”

In order to understand human behaviors and how it’s changed and remained the same, we need to make finer distinctions than just peaceful vs. aggressive among both indigenous and other people, Keegan said.

“There’s peacefulness among societies that we consider to be aggressive and there’s aggression among societies that we consider to be peaceful,” Keegan said. “By better characterizing how people behaved in the past, we can better understand societies today.”

Learn more about the Caribbean Archaeology Collection at the Florida Museum.

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