Malta Hatuey…my grandmother use to give this to me and my cousin as tasty treats. It’s a sweetened malt beverage of hops and molasses. They are iconic in the Latino community. As a kid, I thought the Indian guy was the Spanish version of Tanto from the Lone Ranger. In later life, I learned that Hatuey is a real indigenous chief of our ancestors.
The Tainos were the indigenous people that collectively inhabited the Caribbean islands (Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Dominica, etc) for thousands of years. Upon the arrival of Columbus and his men, the Tainos greeted and fed them. Columbus noted in his diary that the Tainos were peaceful and beautiful masculine people who would make great slaves. Tainos were enslaved and forced to work in mines to extract gold for the Columbus people. Bartolome de las Casas, one of the many priests brought in by Columbus would later write that Columbus’s men made them do “…tasks utterly beyond their strength, bending them to the earth with crushing burdens, harnessing them to loads which they could not drag, and with fiendish sport and mockery, chopping off their hands and feet, mutilating their bodies in ways which will not bear description.”
These stories were far too common as Columbus’s men encountered new villages. One village of 2,500 Tainos welcomed them, fed and gave them drinks. Once the feast was over, Columbus’s men turned against them: slashing, disemboweling, and slaughtering them until their blood ran like a river. As Columbus’s men spread throughout the island, so did their atrocities. They would bash Taino babies against rocks or throwing them into rivers. They hanged Tainos in groups of 13 and burned them alive – in memory of Jesus and the 12 apostles. For fun, Columbus’s men challenged each other on their skill of cleanly chopping a Taino’s head off or chopping them vertically in half. In their off time, the rape of Taino women and young girls was an everyday occurrence. Taino children young as 9 was sold into the sex trade.
The Tainos did not know what was wrong with these foreign guests. They thought they were mad men who became crazy at the sight of gold. Columbus demanded quotas of gold from each young Taino (12-13 years and older). When they weren’t met, Columbus’s men would simply chop off their hands. Many Taino men died within 3 months of working in mines due to little foods. Babies died due to lack of milk and thousands of children died due to hunger, since parents could no longer attend to their crops. Many Tainos would commit suicide instead of becoming slaves. Some would even kill their own children before jumping off a cliff.
Hatuey was a Taino chief on a distant part of the Island. Escapees would spread the wild atrocities committed by bearded men who came on large boats. As soon as Hatuey heard the news, he immediately witnessed the carnage in surrounding tribes. Hatuey left with about 400 men, women, and children on a fleet of large canoes. He wanted not to only save his people, but to warn others of the impending doom and hoped he could raise an army to stop them. Hatuey would display a basket of gold to other tribes, and argued:
“Here is the God these crazy bearded men worship. They kill us and persecute us because of this metal…and this why we have to throw it all into the sea. These tyrants tell us they adore a God of peace and tranquility, but yet they take our lands and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards, but yet they rob our belongings, rape and violate our women and daughters. These cowards cover themselves in iron that our weapons cannot break.”
Some simply didn’t believe Hatuey, since the stories appeared too imaginative. Some believed him, and Hatuey managed to form a small resistance. His army managed to kill a few of Columbus’s men, giving inspiration to those enslaved. This resulted in severe, grotesque retaliation, with Tainos tortured to death for information of Hatuey’s whereabouts. Many months later, Hatuey was caught along with some of his men.
To be made an example of, Hatuey was tied to stake to be burned publicly in front of countless other Tainos. Before Columbus’s men set fire, a priest explained the concept about hell and Christianity to save his soul so that he can repent and go to heaven. Hatuey asked the priest, “will I be in this heaven with all of your Christian soldiers?” to which the priest responded “Yes.” Hatuey looked at him and said, “I would rather go to hell.” Oral tradition tell us that Hatuey yelled freedom and rebellion against Columbus’s people before the fire consumed his last breath.
The Tainos called Puerto Rico at the time “Boriken.” “Boricua” is a derivative that is a widely use term in contemporary day to identify others of Puerto Rican heritage. The Tainos give us other words that still carry on to this day. “Canoa” was eventually carried over to English as “canoe.” “Hurakán” comes from Taino mythology of the god who created storms, which is carried over to English as “hurricane.” “Tabaco” is used in English as “tobacco.” “Hamaka” is now “hammock.” “Guayaba” is “guava” (a pale tropical fruit). “Barbacoa” is now commonly known in English as “barbecue.” These are some examples.
Nowadays, there are statues of Hatuey and other Taino around the Carribeans. Locally, Hatuey is considered to be the first freedom fighter in the Americas.