Anacaona, which means golden flower in the Taíno language, was killed, but she will live on forever in the hearts of her people.
The history of colonization is usually told by the victors. Just think about the history classes you got in school. When we learn about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America, we hear all about his eagerness to make the journey and how he never gave up no matter how much he was refused funding. We also learn about the horrible perils these men went through during their journeys and all the exact dates and facts about how they managed to colonize the New World. It’s all about them and their deeds, while the native population tends to play a secondary role in the story. But that’s not the case with the Spanish settlement in the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where one of the founding characters, praised for her bravery and pride, is the inspiration of songs and stories about her life. She was Anacaona, a woman who opposed the Spanish invaders and became a local hero.
Born in 1474 in the chiefdom of Jaragua in Hispaniola, Anacaona was born and raised to rule. She was the sister of the Jaragua chief, and wife of the Maguana one, making her one of the most powerful Taíno caciques. It’s said that in 1496, one of the voyages Columbus made to Hispaniola, he was received by both Anacaona and her brother Bohechio. In Bartolomé de las Casas’ Historia de las Indias, he reports the meeting as cordial and friendly, with the Taíno being so generous to their guests as to offer them a great feast and celebration. Then, the chief brothers were taken on a small trip as special guests on one of Columbus' ships. This amicable relationship wasn’t as nice as it might sound. Of course, this got the Spaniards a great deal in which the Taíno would pay tribute to them with resources in exchange for relative peace, which of course didn’t happen.
The Spaniards as we know, pillaged the island through massacres and slavery, and the Taíno weren’t going to allow this to happen just like that. After her brother’s death, Anacaona became chief of the Jaragua. It was around this time when her husband was captured by the Spaniards under suspicion of organizing an attack on their settlement, which, although there’s no evidence to deny or prove it, it’s very much likely he was. Caonabo was sent along with other noblemen of his tribe to Spain; he died in a shipwreck. Despite both tragedies, Anacaona was now chief of both territories, and with such a great responsibility, she was determined to do the best for her people. She decided that fighting the Spaniards in small rebellions was nonsensical and only made everything worse.
Though many might see her policies as weak and cowardly, they were, in fact, what a good politician and analyst would’ve done. Anacaona knew very well that, although they outnumbered the Spaniards, the latter had better weapons that the Taíno wouldn’t be able to compete against. As she saw it, rebelling against the invaders would be like signing a death sentence. So, instead, she decided to play the diplomatic card and started building a relationship of integration. This was achieved through intermarriages between Taíno royalty and high-ranking soldiers. However, this relative submission wouldn't last very long.
In 1502, Spain named a new governor of Hispaniola, Nicolás de Ovando, who had very different ideas about how to exploit the island. For Ovando, the most dangerous local was, in fact, Anacaona. He was sure that through her charms she had been seducing Spaniards and making them submit to her. So, of course, she had to be gone if he wanted his plans to succeed. To do so, he suggested a peace treaty in which she had to gather with among 80 of the most influent Taínos. This, naturally, was just a setup. While the Taíno were talking and suggesting strategies to have a friendly relationship with the invaders, while avoiding complete submission, a Spanish army entered the building. The most prominent figures were taken outside, and the building was set in flames, killing those inside. Those who were separated were tortured and forced to declare against Anacaona. She faced a public trial and was sentenced to be hanged for treason.
And this is where the story starts become more of a legend. One of the “official” versions of the story is that, right before being hanged, she was offered the chance to save herself. She would be granted clemency if she agreed to become a concubine for one of the high-ranking officials. However, she refused the deal and was hanged. As for Ovando, things didn't go as well as he had envisioned. His cruel and bloodthirsty methods reached Queen Isabella of Castille, who, despite being no saint, was a rather emotional person, and dismissed the greedy governor. Still, the damage was done: when Columbus had set foot on Hispaniola, the local population reached more than half a million, but when Ovando was dismissed as governor, it had been reduced to 60,000.
But let’s go back to Anacaona. She was only 29 years old when she was hanged, and even though she wasn’t able to stop the invaders, she acquired the status of one of the founders of Haiti and a symbol of rebellion and pride. She might not be the classic rebel we read about in novels or textbooks, but there's no doubt that she was a committed leader who did everything in her power to avoid as much suffering to her people as she could. Perhaps, the most important and interesting thing about Anacaona is the fact that she’s one of the few women in history who has always been recognized as a leader and crucial figure in history despite her gender, something that wasn’t (and still isn’t) common in our society.
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