Sunday, May 19th

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A Caribbean history questioned

1._An_eighteenth~ Dismissing the cannibal myth ~

By Rik Haverman

As a historian, I started to delve into the history of St. Maarten from the moment I knew I was going to be an intern at The Daily Herald on this island. Since this history is quite unknown to me; my quest obviously started on the internet (Google, Wikipedia, et cetera) and in tourist guides for a small overview of the island's history. It soon became clear that the writing of St. Maarten's popular history often starts with the pre-Columbian period – a period in which the island was inhabited by Amerindians: the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

What immediately caught my attention was the distinction between the Arawak and Carib Amerindians. I noticed that it is alleged in popular history that St. Maarten was first inhabited by the peaceful and cultured Arawaks, who settled on the island around 500 BC. This Amerindian tribe originally lived in the Orinoco basin of South America and kept on migrating upwards to the Caribbean islands.

Eventually, the Arawaks would have been driven out by "aggressive" Caribs in the 14th century. These Caribs were supposed to be a ruthless cannibalistic warrior tribe. What surprised me greatly is that the word cannibalism is actually derived from the Spanish word for the Carib tribe: Caníbales, so there was widespread belief that these Amerindians consumed human flesh. (By the way, "Caribbean" – the name of this beautiful region – is also derived from the word Carib.)

While getting more fascinated about this claim of Caribbean cannibalism, I intensified my search for information about the Carib tribe. I found out that the Arawak-Carib struggle is present in many more popular writings about Caribbean history. Furthermore, fictional novels also used the component of Carib-cannibalism. In the 18th century novel Robinson Crusoe, for instance, the main character encounters cannibalistic Caribs on a Caribbean island. In this story, this tribe kills and eats it prisoners on a desolate beach.

Even modern popular culture reflects this idea of Amerindian/Carib cannibalism. For example, I came across news articles about Carib-descendants in Dominica who protested against the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest – a movie I actually saw myself. I remembered the scene which triggered the contemporary Caribs' protest: The main protagonist, Captain Jack Sparrow, had to escape from a cannibal-tribe on a fictional island, Pelegosto, while half of his crew was already dead (suggested: eaten). The whole scene was filmed on Dominica and, although some Carib-descendants contributed to it as actors, others felt that the movie incorrectly portrayed the Caribs; claiming that their ancestors weren't cannibals.

The latter protest made me think. Why did the Dominica Caribs protest so fiercely against something that is so widely believed in popular history? One thing I learned during my history studies is that there are often huge discrepancies between popular history and scholarly historical analysis. The first often lacks the much needed nuances, in-depth research or is based on outdated theories. This leads to misconceptions regularly. For me, this was the motivation to figure out what the views of recent (academic) historians are on this subject. I have to conclude after reading the articles of some of these recent scholars that the "cannibalism-claim" should be rejected.

First, these historians indicate that there was no great difference between the Caribs and Arawaks. The two tribes would both have been Arawakan-speaking peoples who migrated from South America. The Caribs would have migrated to the Caribbean islands between 500 and 1200 AD and weren't savage raiders but mostly traders who also settled on the islands. Some scholars argue that the Caribs adapted to the language of the original Arawak-population, while roaming and trading on the Caribbean Sea in huge canoes, instead of it being their mother tongue.

Even the name Caribs isn't correct, according to some scholars. The real name of the second wave of Amerindian immigrants to the Caribbean would have been the Kalinago. The Arawaks who were already settled on the islands would in reality call themselves the Taíno. This seems contradictory with what is stated above, because Taíno means "good": It's assumed that these Arawakan-speaking Amerindians choose to call themselves Taíno to distinguish their tribe from the "bad" Caribs/Kalinago; this seems to underline the aggressive behaviour of the latter tribe.

However, a historian like Neil Whitehead has, in my opinion, an excellent explanation for the Arawaks referring to themselves as Taíno. According to this scholar, the distinction between Caribs and Arawaks is the result of a colonial construction; a theory which receives support from other scholars. This construction was created because the colonial exploiters were searching for means to justify enslaving, exterminating and expulsing the Amerindians.

How arbitrary the colonial enslavement might have ended up to be, in the beginning (15th century and beginning of the 16th century) there have been discussions about the theological and ethical basis for the Spanish conquests and slavery in the Americas. The Spanish Crown actually required "legal foundations" for enslavement. In other words, the conquerors were looking for a good excuse to enslave the Amerindian population.

A popular justification for slavery was the Christian "right" to dominate indigenous peoples who weren't civilized and/or capable of self-governance. Columbus' entourage and successors presented cannibalism and human sacrifice, to the Spanish Crown, as an evidence of a lack of civilization amongst the Amerindians. And with success, the Crown gave permission for unrestricted slaving of those deemed cannibals.

From there on, the colonial exploiters started to distinguish the Amerindians in two groups. Those who collaborated with the Spaniards were called Arawaks, and left alone (in a sense). These Arawaks would even be the Amerindians who helped the colonists directing the slaving and displacing of other existing tribes. So, the classic "divide and conquer" was also used by the Europeans. The ones who resisted the Spanish dominion were called Caribs and subjected to enslavement and other terrors. Of course, the ones deemed Caribs grew over time and more and more Amerindians ended up enslaved, expelled or exterminated.

Therefore, the whole distinction between the Caribbean Amerindians is a colonial construction to justify the extermination of resisting tribes and enslaving them for free labour on already conquered islands. The Arawaks had been well aware of this distinction and started calling themselves the Taíno to avoid being enslaved or murdered by the Europeans.

For me, personally, this theory of Whitehead (and many other likeminded scholars) makes perfect sense. There have been many examples throughout history in which colonial power used the tactic of demonizing the subjugated in combination with the divide and conquer element: From Asia, Africa to the "New World", from Ireland, Indonesia to Congo and Rwanda. All these places have experienced these manipulative tactics from their colonizers. Even in Europe itself, the tactic was used; before the pogroms in Medieval Europe, Jews were demonized so their prosecution was justified in the eyes of the participants.

However, I do understand that these scholars participate in an ongoing discussion about the subject. The theory of Whitehead will probably be refuted at some point in the future by another historian. At the same time, I believe that the cannibalism claim will never be portrayed as undifferentiated as before. In my opinion, the counterarguments against Carib-cannibalism are just too strong for that. Perhaps some scholars will argue that there was some incidental ritualistic cannibalism amongst Caribs, as is a popular assumption about the Mayas and Incas, but it will never be so biased again. Besides that, the arguments in favour of the cannibalism claim are based on accounts of the first Spanish colonists; which is questionable, since it's clear from the above that they had a hidden agenda to portray the Amerindians as cannibals.

What is beyond me is why popular tourist guides, websites, folders, Hollywood-productions and so forth, keep portraying the Caribs as savage cannibalistic warriors. There is a vast number of historians who disagree with this portrayal, so at least make notion of these contending voices in the overviews of St. Maarten/Caribbean history. It really baffles me because some shallow Googling will expose quickly that there are many opponents of this alleged cannibalism. So, I do hope I make some people rethink these general assumptions about the Caribs.

For more information about the subject, see Neil Whitehead, Of Cannibals and Kings: Primal Anthropology in the Americas (Penn State Press, 2011). Sylvester Clauzel, 'The Myth of Cannibalism and Warlike Caribs of the Lesser Antilles', extracted from: Indigenous Peoples of Saint Lucia (Scribal, 2009).