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The Americas 63.4 (2007) 587-614

The Revolt of Enriquillo and the Historiography of Early Spanish America
Ida Altman
University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida

In 1519 Enrique, one of the few remaining caciques, or indigenous chiefs, of the island of Hispaniola, removed himself and some of his people from the reach of Spanish authority. For nearly a decade and a half he and his followers lived in the remote and barely accessible south-central mountains of his native island, occasionally raiding Spanish settlements for arms and tools and clashing with militia units but for the most part avoiding contact with Spanish society. Enrique eluded the numerous patrols that were sent to eradicate what became a stubbornly persistent locus of defiance of Spanish authority that attracted other discontented residents of the island, including both African and indigenous slaves and servants as well as small numbers of nominally 'free' Indians.

Enrique's revolt arguably was the best-known rebellion of its time in the islands, at least in the history and literature of the Dominican Republic, where the episode is often portrayed as the last stand of a heroic leader of the Hispaniola's remaining native Tainos.1 They had been all but eliminated as a result of the violence, flight, and disease that followed the imposition of Spanish settlement and rule. The famous and influential contemporary historian Bartolomé de Las Casas, perhaps better known today for his passionate defense of the rights of America's native peoples than for the lengthy volumes of history he also produced, wrote of the rebellion sympathetically, romanticizing Enrique and portraying him as a principled and capable leader, committed to the defense of his people while avoiding unnecessary violence against the Spaniards. [End Page 587]

Enrique's story is a fascinating one, full of telling detail that sheds light on the nature of early colonial society and indigenous-Spanish relations in Hispaniola. That story will be related at some length here. Enrique's revolt and its context, however, also can be seen as more than an interesting episode that unfolded in an area that in the course of two generations went from primacy to relative insignificance in the rapidly expanding Spanish empire in the Americas. Enrique's was only one of many indigenous revolts that occurred in the large islands of the Caribbean during the early years of settlement, foreshadowing many others large and small that occurred on the mainland during the conquest period and beyond—and indeed throughout the colonial period, up until and even through the struggles for independence.2 In that light a full-scale, long-lasting Caribbean episode of indigenous revolt merits serious attention.

Consideration of the circumstances of Enrique's revolt and Spanish response also highlights aspects of indigenous-Spanish relations that perhaps are better known to scholars in the context of the conquest and early settlement of the mainland but in fact had figured from the earliest years in the Caribbean. These elements include complex social and kinship relations fostered by intermarriage and other forms of close contact, including the establishment of encomiendas,3 the role played by indigenous leaders who were empowered both by interaction with Spanish society and the continuing acknowledgment (on both sides) of the significance of indigenous rank, and the moderation of wholesale exploitation with the emergence of a pragmatic recognition of the benefits of accommodation. Not only did the Caribbean serve as the crucial staging ground for Spanish conquest of the mainland, but well beyond the conquest it contributed personnel and expertise to governmental and religious institutions and economic enterprises (gold mining, sugar cultivation) on the surrounding mainland and served as a market for exports from the mainland of everything from wheat and biscuit to indigenous slaves.4 The history of African slavery in Spanish America [End Page 588] also was strongly rooted in the Caribbean, where from the earliest years Africans worked on sugar estates and in gold mines, and frequently were sent on to booming new centers of development like Mexico and Peru, where they...


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