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Celebrating Columbus Day? Here’s Who You Should Be Honoring Instead

Taíno chief Hatuey’s rebellion against conquistador invaders offers a powerful counter-narrative to Christopher Columbus’ legacy of colonial brutality.

image via (cc) wikimedia commons

Since becoming a federal holiday in 1937, America’s general attitude toward Columbus Day—and the man for whom it’s named—has slowly shifted from nursery-rhyme adoration to a more textured, critical understanding of what Columbus’ journey the “new world” truly meant for the native communities he encountered at his voyage’s end. No longer famous for simply “sailing the ocean blue,” Christopher Columbus’ name has become inexorably bound up with a legacy of brutal colonialism, slavery, exploitation, and murder. His is a legacy which has caused a growing number of communities to reject Columbus day entirely, replacing the commemoration of a man whose arrival heralded catastrophe for the millions already living in what would become known as “the Americas,” with a celebration of those native peoples, themselves. This year alone, eight cities have chosen to mark October 12th as “Indigenous People’s Day,” with more likely to follow in their rejection of Christopher Columbus’ legacy in the United States.


There is, however, another name that deserves to be spoken of this time of year, someone whose actions represent a powerful counter-narrative to the history of European conquest: Hatuey, the native tribal chief responsible for the first organized revolt against the Spanish colonial forces this side of the Atlantic.

image via (cc) wikimedia commons

While much is unknown about Hatuey’s early life and history, historians believe he was a leader among the Taíno indigenous peoples native to the Caribbean and parts of Florida. Born sometime in the late 1400’s, Hatuey was witness to the early effects of conquistador brutality in the Caribbean, and as a result, lead an insurgency against the Spanish forces on his home island of Hispaniola. It is thought that in 1502 he may have connected with escaped Spanish slaves brought over from Africa, thereby launching a new phase in his struggle against the European invaders. Historians believe that in 1511, Hatuey and four hundred compatriots set off by canoe from Hispanola, headed to the island of Caobana (soon to become “Cuba”) in order to mobilize the natives there against an impending conquistador invasion. Once there, Hatuey’s attack-and-disperse guerilla methods kept the Spanish forces, lead by Diego Velázquez, pinned down in the colonial settlement of Baracoa for a number of months.

In his Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, sixteenth century Spanish historian and Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas writes that Hatuey presented the native Cubans a basket of gold and Jewels, claiming his fight against the conquistadors was because of their love of gold, for which “they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea.”

Ultimately, most historical detail about Hatuey’s life comes from his death. He was captured by Spanish forces and on February 2nd, 1512, was lead out to be publicly burned at the stake. Before his death Hatuey was offered a chance at conversion to Christianity and, to the mind of his executioners, eternal salvation as a result., Wrote de la Casas in his description of the scene:

image via (cc) wikimedia commons

When tied to the stake, the cacique Hatuey was told by a Franciscan friar who was present . . . something about the God of the Christians and of the articles of Faith. And he was told what he could do in the brief time that remained to him, in order to be saved and go to heaven. The cacique, who had never heard any of this before and was told he would go to Inferno where, if he did not adopt the Christian faith, he would suffer eternal torment, asked the Franciscan friar if Christians all went to heaven. When told that they did he said he would prefer to go to hell.

In the centuries following his death, Hatuey’s story has become a foundational element of Cuban national identity; across that country are statues in his honor, as well as a town named after the Taíno freedom fighter in the province of Camagüey. Elsewhere, though, Hatuey’s legacy as a freedom fighter, and the first native to offer organized resistance to the Spanish colonialists is largely unknown: No national holidays, no sing-song-y rhymes, nothing. Still, as America slowly begins to examine the–oftentimes unpleasent–context by which it and its neighbors were founded, Hatuey’s life takes on added significance. While Colombus’ story is ultimately one of colonial greed and brutality, Hatuey’s is one of resistance to unjust oppression, a steadfast commitment to cause, and a dedication to his people and his way of life—the very qualities we look for in a national hero.

So, forget Christopher Columbus—why aren’t we celebrating Hautey day, instead?

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Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

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