The Story of the Caribs
Who were those Indians from the Lesser Antilles, the ferocious ones with the infamous appetite for barbecued human flesh? Whoever they were they certainly created a greater impact on the European imagination than the so called Arawaks. The Caribbean was named after them, as was the word cannibal and, by anagram,
Shakespeare's Caliban - that "Abhorred slave/Which any print of good-ness wilt not take/Being capable of all ill."
Who were these Caribs? They first entered the picture as a rumor
Columbus had heard from the Taino. "All the people I have met here," he entered in his diary, "have said that they are greatly afraid of the 'Caniba' or 'Canima'." Actually we cannot know what
Columbus was told because he had a remarkable ability for seeing what he wanted to see and hearing what he wanted to hear. And, after all, the caniba could be "nothing else than the people of the Great Khan, who must be very close by." ,P>Ovideo y Valdez suggested that the word meant 'brave' in Taino language. As much as a century later 'Carib' was still sometimes used as an adjective to describe different tribes. Thus, in 1620
Vasquez de Espinosa could say: "The island of Granada is thickly peopled with
Carib Indians called Camajuyas, which means lightning from heaven, since they are brave and warlike."
By then, somehow, Columbus's 'Caniba' were being called 'Caribe'.
The English used 'Caribbees' 'Charibs' or 'Caribs', the French used 'Caraibes' and, for those on the mainland, 'Galibis'. Fr. Raymond Breton, who lived amongst the Indians in Dominica from 1641 to 1655, said, however, that the men called themselves 'Callinago' and the women called themselves 'Callipunam'. Today, among anthropologists, the favoured name is 'Kalina' but those still living in St. Vincent call themselves 'Garifuna'.
But if the linguists have clouded the issue of Arawaks with their palaver about Arawakan language speakers, they have also demystified the vulgar ideas about the Carib race, since, we are told, these 'Caribs' spoke a dialect of the Arawakan language family.
In other words, linguistically the Caribs were really Arawaks and ironically, according to the linguist, Douglas Taylor, "the various but similar words referring to 'Carib' may go back to an ancestral kaniriphuna, meaningful in Arawakan but not, I think, in Cariban."
Either way, such was the impression created by the Lesser Antillians that the Spanish and other Europeans took the matter of their eating humans quite seriously. For instance, the story was spread in the 16th century that some Dominican Caribs, after eating a Spanish friar, all fell ill.
Thereafter, the Spanish, whenever they stopped off at Carib islands, they made sure to dress their sailors in sackcloth, just in case. The Caribs, it was thought, found
Spaniards to be stringy and grisly, as opposed to the French who were rather delicious and the Dutch who tended to be fairly tasteless.
For all its seeming detail Spanish knowledge of Kalina culinary habits was actually negligible, far more so than that of the French.
It is true that the Kalina and the Lokono raided each other's settlements for captives or revenge. And there was practiced, by both tribes, some degree of ritual cannibalism. In the 17th century account of Adriaan van Berkel who lived with Lokono in Berbice, and the 16th century account of Luisa Navarrete who was a Kalina 'slave' in Dominica, both tribes after successful raids killed one or two male captives in a victory ritual and put pieces of their flesh into the pot. An arm or a leg was preserved to remind them of their hatred of the enemy. That was more or less the extent of it.
There has a never been found any archaeological evidence as would indicate widespread and systematic cannibalism, evidence such as scorched human bones, bones with knife or saw cuts or which are unnaturally fractured, bones widely scattered. Nevertheless, such niceties were less than appreciated by the conquistadores who needed slaves. And if Queen Isabella had in 1503 prohibited any man "to arrest or capture any Indians... or to do them any harm or evil to their persons or possessions," she had also consented to the exception of, "a people called Cannibales ...(who) waged war on the Indians who are my vassals, capturing them to eat them as is their custom.
" What could be more practical for a Spaniard, then, than to discover as many 'Canni-bales' as there were Indians. After all, the Queen had explicitly ordered that "they may be captured and taken to these my Kingdoms and Domains and to other parts and places and be sold."
In her order Isabella specifically mentioned the coast of Tierra Firme in the region of Colombia, an area which was only visited once previously by Rodrigo de Bastidas who had been peaceably received.
The Queen's information, it seems, had come from Uraba la Cosa who deliberately misled her to justify his 1504 voyage of plunder and slaving from Cumana to Uraba.
"If they were cannibals in those days," queried the french pirate- priest Pere Labat (1722) who knew the Caribs of Dominica intimately, "why are they not cannibals now? I have certainly not heard of them eating people, whether Englishmen with whom the Carib are nearly always fighting, or Allouages Indians of the mainland near the Orinoco with whom they are continually at war."
The symbolic cannibalism which, it seems, certainly existed must have declined, ironically, after the Europeans arrived on the scene. Thereafter war ceased to be a ritual and became a matter of desperation. No Indian needed a white arm or leg to invoke a hatred for the new enemy.
Return to Table of Contents