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JUAN MATEO GUATICABANÚ, SEPTEMBER 21, 1496: EVANGELIZATION AND MARTYRDOM IN THE TIME OF COLUMBUS Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo* The first native converts to Christianity in the Americas were baptized on September 21 , 1496, on the island of Hispaniola in what is now the Dominican Republic and claimed the palms of martyrdom for the faith less than two years later. Sadly, this first willing acceptance of the Gospel by native peoples in 1496 has gone relatively unstudied by theologians and historians alike.' The lamentable void may be partially explained by the enigmatic character of the evangelization of the Taino natives of the Caribbean, which is overshadowed by the successes of missionary efforts among the natives of Mexico a generation later. Ifwe are to understand the special character of the first native conversions in 1496, 1 do not think we can use as guideposts the evangelization after the Caribbean experience.2 Instead, we should turn to the evangelization which came before 1492, even if this means we must trespass the disciplinary boundaries between Americanists and medievalists.3 The quick- "Mr. Stevens-Arroyo is professor of Puerto Rican Studies at Brooklyn College, City University of NewYork, and affiliate research fellow at the Center for the Study ofAmerican Religion at Princeton University, 1995-1996. 'Gerald R Fogarty's review of Columbus' accomplishments ("1892 and 1992: From Celebration of Discovery to Encounter of Cultures," Catholic Historical Review, LXXTX [October , 1993], 621-647) reflects more than 100 years of historiography and omits these events. The Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez (Las Casas:In Search ofthe Poor of Jesus Christ [Maryknoll, NewYork, 1993]) never mentions the Taino converts at all, nor does the Protestant Luis Rivera (A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest oftheAmericas [Louisville, 1992]) despite acknowledging the work ofRamón Pané (pp. 155,219). 2Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, "The Inter-Atlantic Paradigm: The Failure of Spanish Medieval Colonization of the Canary and the Caribbean Islands," Comparative Studies in Society and History, 35 (July, 1993), 515-543. 'The work ofJames Muldoon stands as a notable, if not solitary, exception to this division . SeeJames Muldoon, TheAmericas in the Spanish World Order:TheJustificationfor Conquest in the Seventeenth Century (Philadelphia, 1994). 614 BY ANTHONY M. STEVENS-ARROYO 615 ening pulse ofmedieval Christendom in the twelfth century had brought contact with China and other non-Christian kingdoms, necessitating a reformulation of how Christendom viewed "the other."4 This impetus to evangelization converged withAtlantic exploration after 1351 when the Canary Islands became the laboratory for conversion of native peoples who were neither Jews nor Muslims.5 It has become increasingly clear that Columbus' voyage is best understood as part of medieval Europe's exploration of the Atlantic.6 1 would attach study of evangelization in the Caribbean to this paradigm of a fifteenth-century Atlantic world. Columbus' first description of the native Tainos of the Caribbean compares them to the natives of Gran Canaria. It should not be surprising that the Canaries were the analogue for the Admiral's narrative, since Columbus' first voyage in 1492 occurred midway between the subjugation of Gran Canaria in 1488 and the conquest of Tenerife in 1496.7 But the physical appearance of the natives was not the only similarity between the Canary and the Caribbean Islands for the Admiral. His insistence upon feudal rights to govern the islands he had "discovered " placed Columbus in the mold of the fourteenth-century colonizers of the Canaries who had tried to reproduce medieval society by placing themselves as lords over the natives as serfs.8 These entrepreneurial hidalgos clashed with missionaries who preferred to leave the chiefs in power, because even ifthe mission was vulnerable to native rebellions like the massacre of 1483, Christianization was longer lasting when a converted native ruler imposed the faith upon his own "vassals" without Spanish arms.9 The Spanish monarchs, Fernando and Isabela, who settled Spain's claim to the Canaries in 1479, insisted that evangelization and colonization go hand in hand,10 and intervened as arbiters between friars and hi- 'James Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers and Infidels: The Church and the Non-Christian World, 1250-1550 (Philadelphia, 1979). 5The status of native Canarians raised questions of jurisdiction, both political and...


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