Myths & Legends


New Spain: History of the Native Inhabitants of Cuba

The work that follows is from Cuban Folk-Lore, written by L. Roy Terwilliger. A chapter on the so called primitive Inhabitants of Cuba is included here for this reason: a look at the question of just many people lived in the Americas pre-Columbus. And as many original chronicles attest, this land was teeming with people before the introduction of European diseases. The role of disease in the decimation of native population has to be seen as accidental initially, although by the 19th century the issue of native immunity to disease became known and incidents of deliberate introduction of diseased clothing to cause death are documented.

No biographical information exists on the author.
— Orly

Fortunately for history, most early Spanish expeditions were accompanied by such observers as Las Casas, Cortés, Gomara and Oviedo, who although differing in minor details and unreliably eulogistic of their own expeditions and leaders have agreed on their accounts of the habits of the Indians as found at the time of the discovery.

Bartolomé Las Casas in particular made a study of the Indians and in so far as possible sought to relieve their sufferings.

Separated by but a narrow stretch of water from the other islands of the West Indies, Cuba was inhabited by an entirely different race of men. The Caribes, who infested the smaller islands, were a warlike tribe of anthropophagi who terrorized the shores of Cuba by frequent and bloody excursions, carrying off many captives for their cannibalistic feasts.

The Indians of Cuba were of the Siboneyes tribe, excepting those about Bayamo and Baracoa, who were of the Caribe nation. In these two localities deformed skulls have been found identical with those collected at Guadalupe, the principal seat of the Caribes.

Several hypotheses have been given of the origin of the Siboney Indians. Some writers claim them as descendants of the Mayas of Yucatan, but Bachiller y Morales disposes this on the radical difference of the characters of the two tribes. With the exception of the Floridians and the Araucanians of Chile; the Siboneyes are unlike all other American Indians.

Abbe Don J. Ignatius Molina writing of the Araucanian about the year 1800 says, “The natives of this part of the New World being of a mild character, much resembling that of the Southern Asiatics,” and again: “The features of both (hill or plain tribes) are regular; they have round faces, small animated eyes full of expression, a nose rather flat, a handsome mouth, even and white teeth, muscular and well shaped limbs and small flat feet.”

Of the Siboneyes Bachiller y Morales says: “They did not present the robust muscularity of the North American Indian nor did the expression of their faces assume the bloody instincts of the Caribe. In color light olive, they were tall straight limbed men of peaceful disposition who lived mainly by the chase and agriculture.”

On the strength of this resemblance some writers have concluded that the Siboneyes were descendants of the Araucanians. This disagrees with the traditions of the Siboneyes themselves who claim to have immigrated from Florida; first driving from the island the males of a nation who were inferior to themselves in number and civilization; moreover the Indians of Cuba long had tradition of the wonderful land of Cantio or Florida.

Washington Irving in his “Spanish Voyages of Discovery” says: “The belief of the existence in Florida, of a river like that sought by Juan Ponce, was long prevalent among the Indians of Cuba, and the caciques were anxious to discover it.”

Geographical conditions would also favor the theory of the Siboneyes coming originally from Florida.

Evidence of an earlier race in Cuba has been discovered in the caves of the eastern part of the island. Skulls differing greatly from both those of the Siboneyes and Caribes have been found, as well an stone implements, which most authors agree were not used by the Siboneyes.

It is probable that the Siboney tradition of their coming originally from Florida is correct.

At the time of discovery, Cuba was divided politically into thirty different states as follows:

Sabeneque, Cayaguaya, Manibon, Bani, Barajogua, Sagua, Baracoa on the north coast; Hanamano, Jagua, Guanjaya, Magon, Omapai, Guanaros, Cueiba, Cucanajani, Macaca, Boyuca, Bajatiquiri and Masi on the south coast; Cuanajami, Guanejuanica, Marien, Habana, and Canauei touching both coasts; Macoriges, Calacon, Bayamo, Maeye and Cuamaj in the interior.

Each state was independent and was governed by a king or cacique who was absolute ruler of the nation: subject to no laws and holding the power of life and death over his subjects, this power was seldom used arbitrarily, the cacique appearing more in the role of a father to his people.

The subjects of the kingdom were called tainos probably signifying citizens or subjects; they were of different rank; the naitains or naitanos formed the nobility or commanding part, the naboris or anaboris the vassals or laboring class, who were divided into different groups, each group under the authority or command of a naitains.

As a mark of distinction the nobles wore the hair tied high up on the head and on feast days adorned themselves with feathers, gold shells, etc. The hair of the vassal was cut straight about the ears.

The national laws were few and severe, theft being the crime most severely punished.

The convicted thief was impaled on a large stick and suspended between two upright posts until life was extinct.

As among many uncivilized races most of the manual work was performed by women. Among the Siboneyes married men were exempt from agricultural presents, but assisted in gold washing, etc. They were obliged however, to live separate from their families for some time before going on a gold hunting expedition.

“Los hombres casados iban en busca de oro á los ríos como los demás, pero se abstenían de la cohabitación y trato mujeril antes, para que no se les turbara la vista”.

The primitive Cubans were of an amorous disposition, somewhat indolent. Polygamy was permitted, but seldom practiced except among the ruling classes; promiscuous intercourses and unnatural crimes were ascribed to the Siboneyes by the early settlers. Narvaez gave this as his excuse for the massacres of the entire Indian village of Caonao.

Their acts were very ceremonious especially when receiving a visit from a neighbouring cacique. The receiving cacique was borne forth in a litter preceded by a number of women who were slightly clothed, and who scattered palm leaves before the approaching guest. A visit was always attended by great feasting, where nobles acted as servants to the visiting cacique, during the feast the women entertained their lords by songs and dancing; a number of young girls were always appointed to the service of a welcome visitor as a peace offering.

They in common with other West Indian nations had a tradition of the formation of the world. Lucuo (God) formed the world, we know he made all things; he came from a country beyond the clouds peopled by spirits and souls. The world was first formed without mountains or water, but under the influence of the sea sunk forming mountains and bringing fair water.

Lucuo formed the first man of wheat; when he was finished he touched the image on the stomach with his foot changing it into two grand Lucayos, male and female to whom nine divine offsprings were born.

The first Nounm (the moon) was very proud and boastful of his brilliancy but when Huin (the sun) was born and showed his shining face Nounm became ashamed and hid himself only coming out at night when Huin is absent.

The other offsprings were given charge of the elements.

Cuasima was chief of the Cemi inferior gods who were the offsprings of Lucuo and the first woman.

Lucuo lived a long time with his people and taught them the first principles of agriculture.

Taking an old man aside he buried a stick in the ground and told him to dig in the same place after nine months had passed; at the end of this period the old man dug up the place as directed and found yuca growing.

The Behique or doctors of the tribe exerted an important influence. They were charged with the perpetuation of the nations history or traditions, which were taught to the children of the nobility in the form of songs which were chanted by them on feast days.

The Behique was also at the head of their religion. Their prayers were directed not to the creator by but to the Mabuya or bad spirit their belief being as “God is good it is not necessary to gain his protection; the devil is bad and it is therefore better for us to adore and propitiate him so that he will work us no ill.”

Their intercessions were made through the medium of the Cemi inferior Gods of whom stone images were erected, and who acted as messengers to the greater Gods. Each Behique had his own particular Cemi called Cochexi who was solely at the command of that special Behique; the Cochexi of some Behique, were regarded as superior to others. The Cemi also had charge of all natural objects such as the springs, the rain, thunder, and dew.

Diseases were very rare and also very violent among the Siboneyes; the Behique cured their followers by medical preparations of herbs and roots, together with magical symbols and by blowing upon them; after fasting and pretending to hold direct communication with their Cemi.

Twice a year great religious feasts were held when the Behiques fasting weeks in advance living only on the juices of certain grains appearing weak and emaciated. After the usual sacrifices to the Cemi they worked themselves into a religious ecstasy; while in this condition they were questioned on subjects of interest, such as the probability of war, battles and death, their answers being received as coming direct from the Gods.

At their fiesta or Gloritas wonderful dances were held several taking hold of each other’s hands then moved themselves to the rhythm of a slow chant and the music of the tom-tom, a hollow trunk of a tree covered by the skin of some wild animal. It was their custom to dance until so exhausted that they fell to the ground. During the dances wine was passed from one to another and drunk without spilling or interrupting the dance. Men and women danced together only on the occasion of a great victory or on the birth or death of a cacique, when no wine was drunk.

The Siboneyes were armed with the bow and arrow, dart and mace; the arrow and dart were tipped with fish bones; the mace was a heavy club made of hardwood and seems to have been their favorite weapon. They also construed clever traps to ensnare game.

They had a primitive idea of weaving and wove cloth from the wild cotton plant that appears to have been indigenous to Cuba.

Fire was made by rubbing a piece of hard wood between two pieces of softer wood.

Fishing was one of their pursuits many of the houses of the noble were built upon piles along the shores of streams; this was probably a means of securing themselves against surprise by the cannibals.

The hardships to which the Siboneyes were subjected has caused them to rapidly disappear, with the exception a possible few among the mountains of Santiago. The race has entirely disappeared even as early as 1532 but 5,600 of the original population of two hundred thousand (according to Las Casas 1.000.000) remained in 1511. Moreover in 1553, Fray Luis Beltran writing of the travels in Cuba in 1551 claims they were entirely exterminated.

“Los 200.000 indios que entonces contenía serían exterminados por los tratamientos de que eran víctimas.”




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