The Aborigines

: 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.