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The Aborigines


Source: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

In following the southern coast of Cuba, Columbus supposed he
was working toward India. He died ignorant of the fact that he had
discovered a new world, and he gave up the exploration of this island
when almost in sight of open water at its western end. Of the first
inhabitants of Cuba (called by some Macaca, and by others Caboi,
"land of the dead," for the people killed their prisoners), little is
known, for they were exterminated as a distinct race, and their few
relics were disregarded as worthless or destroyed as idolatrous. It
is believed, however, that they had some knowledge of the arts;
they worked gold into ornaments, and copper and stone into tools
and weapons, and they wore helmets of feathers, like those of the
Hawaiian chiefs. Near Bayamo have been found farming tools, painted
pottery, and little statuettes supposed to represent gods. Their
houses were hardly more than shelters, frames of bamboo or light
boughs, though they were prettily environed by walks and flowers,
and their clothing--sometimes of fur, oftener of leaves and coarse
cloth--was of the scantiest. Heavy dresses in a tropic country,
or in a temperate country in tropic weather, are manifestly absurd.

As on the other Antilles, the people of Cuba were brown, broad,
straight-haired, flat-faced, and decorated with slashes and
tattooing. They were singularly mild, honest, and trusting. They were
frightened by the Spanish ships, believing them to be great birds
that had come down from the sky, bringing the white adventurers in
their brave array; but when Columbus had sent a few beads and hawks'
bells to them, they expressed their confidence and delight in a hundred
ways, swam and rowed about his caravel offering fish and fruit, not in
trade, but as gifts, and when a crowd of hungry sailors ashore invited
themselves to a feast that had been prepared for a religious ceremony
the Indians made no objection, because they could prepare one like it
by another night's work. Food, indeed, was free to whoso needed it,
like air and water, and no stranger needed to go hungry. While the
Spaniards did little to invite their confidence, were insolent to
most other people and even to one another, the Indians set an example
of charity in conduct and in faith. The dons were intolerant of all
religions except their own, whereas the Cubans were quick to realize
that the performance of the mass was of some sacred significance,
and they preserved a reverent attitude throughout a ceremony whose
details they did not understand. When missionary work had fairly
begun it is said that some Spaniards drove Indians into the water,
forcibly baptized them, then cut their throats that they might not
repent their acceptance of the true faith. In their own belief there
appeared to be a purgatory and a paradise, but no hell or devil;
and, as beliefs reveal the character of the people who hold them, it
speaks well for the Cubans that the grewsome images invoked by certain
mediaeval theologians had never been created in their more generous
imaginations. When a soul left the body it had two journeys before it:
one to a dismal place, where the cruel and unjust awaited; the other
to a fair land, like the best of earth, where all was pleasant and
peaceful; for, in spite of the warlike undertakings made necessary
by irruptions of the fierce Caribs, these people held to peace as
the highest good.

Of these Indians hardly a dozen are remembered by their names, but the
chief Hatuey was revered among them for his courage and his military
skill. He had fled from Hayti to Cuba in a vain hope of escaping his
white enemy, and counselled the natives to throw all their gold into
the sea, that the Spanish might not linger on their coasts. He might
have been the one who ordered gold to be melted and poured down the
throats of his prisoners, that for one and the last time they might
have enough. The Spaniards caught him and burned him to death at
Baracoa. As he stood on the logs in chains, just before the flames
were applied, the friars pressed about him and earnestly advised him
to become a Christian, that he might not be required to roast in hell,
which would be worse than the torture he was about to endure, and which
would last forever. If only he would be baptized he could go direct
to heaven. "The white man's heaven?" he asked. "Yes." "Are there any
Spaniards in that heaven?" "Oh, yes, many." "Then light the fire."

Columbus was the more convinced that he had reached Asia because
the name of one Cuban province, Mangon, he assumed to be Mangi, a
rich district of China. That its people had tails, like monkeys, was
nothing against this theory; that footprints of alligators should be
the tracks of griffins, which had the bodies of lions and the wings
and heads of eagles, was quite in order; but most convincing of all
was the discovery by an archer, who had entered a wood in search of
game, of thirty men with pale faces, armed with clubs and lances,
and habited in white gowns, like friars. The man fled in fear. When
his comrades returned with him to find this white company, not a
human being appeared to them, and, except for the chatter of birds
and the clicking of land-crabs as they scuttled over the stones,
the place was still. The coast Indians were understood to say
that among the mountains dwelt a chief whom they called a saint,
who wore a flowing robe of white and never spoke aloud, ordering
his subjects by signs. This was surely Prester John, the shadowy
king of a shadowy kingdom, of whom much was said and written a few
centuries ago. He was declared by one author to rule a part of India
and was reputed to be a Nestorian priest who had made himself king
of the Naymans. Other travellers placed him in China, Persia, and
Timbuctoo. In a battle with the infidel Tartars Prester John mounted
a number of bronze men on horseback, each figure belching clouds of
smoke from a fire of punk within, and lashed the horses against the
enemy, filling them with such terror, and so veiling in smoke the
dash of his flesh and blood cavalry, that his victory was easy. So,
it was a great satisfaction to Columbus to think that he had reached
the confines of a Christian kingdom.

While working through the thousand little islands off the southern
coast of Cuba, that he called the Queen's Gardens, Columbus found
added reason for believing that this was the Asiatic shore, and he
hoped shortly to reach Cipango, or Japan, where pearls and precious
stones abounded, and where the king abode in a palace covered with
plates of gold more than an inch thick. The attempts of the Mongols to
overrun the Asian islands were defeated, because the Cipangalese were
invulnerable, having placed between the skin and the flesh of their
right arms a little stone that made them safe against swords, arrows,
clubs, and slings. The people of Cuba fell too easy a prey to Spanish
blades--of both sorts--to allow a belief like this to last long.

That Columbus thought he was approaching the earthly paradise, the
mountain-guarded Eden where our first parents lived, when he neared
these lovely shores, inhaled the fragrance of fruits and flowers,
heard the cries of birds and saw the flash of bright waters, is
probable. That paradise he sought. The serpent of oppression and wrong
has left it, and as America comes into her own, that paradise shall be.

Next: The Caribs

Previous: The Mermaids

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