Competitive polities and territorial expansion in the caribbean

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In the early morning hours of friday, october 12, 1492, a contingent of men under the command of Christopher Columbus arrived at one of the islands in the bahamas. a couple of months later they arrived at hispaniola. in the next several years most of the Caribbean had been visited by emissaries of the spanish Crown. accounts written by Columbus, bartolomé de las Casas, gonzalo fernández de oviedo, Pedro Martyr de anglería, and ramón Pané, among others, documented chiefly polities on hispaniola and Puerto rico. these were the taíno indians; they built ceremonial and po liti cal centers with monumental architecture, they maintained ascribed status distinctions, and tribute flowed through their polities (Curet and oliver 1998; rouse 1992; siegel 1991b, 1999; Wilson 1990). i will review the chiefdoms (cacicazgos) of Puerto rico, their competitive nature, and subsequent geographic expansion of taíno polities and interactions with groups in other islands of the archipelago. With the development of competitive chiefly polities, intergroup hostilities became increasingly tense, eventually result ing in raids, counter raids, battles, and wars of subjugation. Winning polities gained territory and people. Members of defeated groups could join ranks with victorious polities, ally themselves with other groups, or find unoccupied spaces to establish new territories. in the tumult, undoubtedly some combination of these strategies was followed. Predatory expansion of group territories is well documented ethnographically, especially among settled agricultural societies (anderson 1994; Carneiro 1990; ember 1982; ferguson 1990; otterbein 1994, 2004; vayda 1961, 1976; Webster 1998). My discussion will articulate with other reviews of chiefly polities as fluid, frequently unstable po liti cal formations with, at best, fuzzy territorial boundaries. in textbooks issued to students in Puerto rico, the taínos are described as following a peaceful, if not monotonous, existence: "una vida plácida y monótona . . . nuestros indios eran hospitalarios y acogedores" (departamento de instrucción Pública 1983:14-15). they went about their business of collaborative farming and mining of gold, plying the bountiful waters surrounding their islands, and generally enjoying the life of tropical paradise (alegría 1983a; rodríguez et al. 1979; rouse 1948). in a fourth- grade curriculum unit on the taínos, the author noted that "although peaceful and non- Aggressive, they had to combat the fierce Caribes who attacked the taíno villages. . . . they were farmers and had a more advanced culture than that of the earlier groups" (Calderón 1998:6). another text described the taínos in rather neutral terms, although there is an observation about a war rior class: "los nitaínos eran los guerreros y ayudantes del cacique" (garcía arce et al. 2001:97). in spite of their friendly, monotonous, and noble lifestyle, the textbooks describe the indians as capable of warfare, primarily to protect themselves from the nasty, almost subhuman marauding Carib indians from the lesser antilles, as reported by the taínos to the spaniards. The story went that the Caribs would kill the men, frequently eating them, and steal the women of the peace- loving taínos. if only those nasty and brutish Caribs would leave well enough alone, the noble taínos, those children of nature, could wile away their days following such respectable pursuits as agronomy, dancing, playing ball, and, of course, hanging in the hammock. needless to say, digging into the primary ethnohistoric accounts and the archaeo logi cal record, unfortunately for those would- be denizens of paradise, this rousseauian cartoon of idyllic life didn't come to pass. in fact, the late pre- hispanic and protohistoric ar chaeo logi cal record suggests that interactions between taíno polities were increasingly competitive, and ethnohistoric accounts vividly describe people well versed in the arts and science of systematic warfare. evidence for intergroup feuding or rivalry appears in so many accounts that it is hard to attribute these activities to wholesale misinterpretations or agenda building by the spaniards. My discussion will be situated within the larger context of the anthropology of warfare. i will then review ar chaeo logi cal and ethnohistoric lines of evidence for taíno complex chiefdoms and competitive interactions between them and discuss implications for regional expansion by chiefly polities into the lesser antilles.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIslands at the Crossroads
Subtitle of host publicationMigration, Seafaring, and Interaction in the Caribbean
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Print)081735655X, 9780817356552
StatePublished - 2011


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