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Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

Written by Samuel M. Wilson

Publication Year: 1990

In 1492 the island of Hispaniola was inhabited by the Ta&iactue;no, an Indian group whose ancestors had moved into the Caribbean archipelago from lowland South America more than 1,500 years before. They were organized politically into large cacicazgos, or chiefdoms, comprising 70 or more villages under the authority of a paramount cacique, or chief. From the first voyage on, Columbus made Hispaniola his primary base for operations in the New World. Over the subsequent decades, disease, warfare, famine, and enslavement brought about the destruction of the Ta&iactue;no chiefdoms and almost completely annihilated the aboriginal population of the island.

This book examines the early years of the contact period in the Caribbean and in narrative form reconstructs the social and political organization of the Ta&iactue;no. Wilson describes in detail the interactions between the Ta&iactue;no and the Spaniards, with special attention paid to the structure and functioning of the Ta&iactue;no chiefdoms. By providing additional information from archaeology and recent ethnography, he builds a rich context within which to understand the Ta&iactue;no and their responses to the Europeans.

The Ta&iactue;no are especially important in a New World context because they represent a society undergoing rapid sociopolitical change and becoming more complex through time. The early contact period on Hispaniola gives us a rich ethnohistorical glimpse of the political processes of a complex New World society before (and during) its destruction brought about by the arrival of the Europeans.

Samuel M. Wilson is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

Five hundred years ago, the island of Hispaniola was the setting for one of the most dramatic encounters in human history. After tens of millennia of virtually total separation, the peoples of the New World and Old World began the process of mutual rediscovery. In the Caribbean, the newly expansionist European nationstates encountered the...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-34

In the autumn of 1492 a Genoese merchant captain and ninety sailors attempted to find a more profitable route to Japan by sailing west across the Atlantic. The expedition was financed by the royal courts of Castille and Aragon, and to a large extent by the participants in the voyage. They all hoped to amass the kinds of...

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2. The First Spanish Voyage to the New World

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pp. 35-73

In the fifteenth century, Seville and Lisbon emerged as centers for merchants and traders trying to extend Europe's long-range trade routes in new and more profitable directions. The traditional eastern orientation of Mediterranean businessmen was threatened by increasing pressure on the spice roads by the Turks. At the...

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3. The Vega Real

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pp. 74-110

In the years 1494 to 1498 a conjunction of events brought about the destruction of the indigenous sociopolitical system of Hispaniola. During this period there was dissention and warfare among factions of the Spanish forces, coupled with despair of adequate support or assistance from Spain. Anticipated profits from...

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4. The Adelantado's Visit to Xaragu

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pp. 111-134

The ethnohistorical accounts of the visit of Col

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5. Conclusions

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pp. 135-142

From 1492 into the 1520s, Hispaniola was the scene of one of the most dramatic encounters in human history. Two human groups that had been separated by tens of millennia-since Upper Palaeolithic people crossed the Bering land bridge and colonized the New World-rediscovered each other through the voyages of...


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pp. 143-163


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pp. 165-170

E-ISBN-13: 9780817381004
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817304621

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 1990

OCLC Number: 647887752
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Hispaniola

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Subject Headings

  • Taino Indians -- Kings and rulers.
  • Taino Indians -- First contact with Europeans.
  • Indians of the West Indies -- First contact with Europeans -- Hispaniola.
  • Chiefdoms -- Hispaniola.
  • Taino Indians -- History.
  • Indians of the West Indies -- Hispaniola -- Kings and rulers.
  • Indians of the West Indies -- Hispaniola -- History.
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