West Indian Uprisings Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The West Indians of the Caribbean Islands rebelled against the Spanish colonial policy of forced indigenous labor, the colonialists’ denial of local ruling authority, and the massacres of the indigenous population by the Spanish. All these factors, and the influx of disease, led to the decline of the West Indians and the beginning of the region’s importation of African slaves.

Summary of Event

The island of Hispaniola Hispaniola (what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was the key site of the first New World landing by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Historians have not only Columbus’s own account of contacts with the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean islands but also a number of descriptions by other explorers and missionaries who soon came to the first outposts in the Western Hemisphere. These accounts tended from the outset to distinguish two West Indian subgroups: Caribs Caribbean Indians and Arawaks Arawak . West Indian Uprisings (1495-1510) Columbus, Christopher Caonabo Guarionex Agüeybana Anacaona Guarocuya Ovando, Nicolás de Velázquez de Cuéllar, Diego Las Casas, Bartolomé

This conventional dualistic view gradually was reworked as ethnohistorians came to reserve the ethnolinguistic term “Arawak” for mainland populations, using the term “Taino” to refer to island groupings, including the indigenous population of Hispaniola. The westernmost Tainos Tainos on Cuba and Jamaica appear to have been the most peaceful, both in their relations with other Taino groupings and in their reaction to the first Spaniards. Ciguayan and Borinquen Tainos of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico had a pre-Columbian tradition of warring, mainly against aggressive raids from groupings now known archaeologically as Island Caribs Island Caribs (from the Lesser Antilles, mainly Guadeloupe). They were, however, relatively receptive in the first ten years after 1492 to trying to adapt to Spanish colonial presence.

It was among the eastern Tainos on the Virgin Islands that the Spaniards encountered the first signs of open hostility to their presence. After clashes with otherwise unidentifiable inhabitants on St. Croix, whom Columbus called Caribs, a number of observations began to enter Spanish accounts, including presumed acts of cannibalism and the enslavement of women captives (later identified as a ceremonial bride-capture tradition).

These early violent encounters with eastern Tainos stemmed more from the indigenous peoples’ fear of strangers than from a considered reaction against Spanish plans for colonization. By the time Columbus became Hispaniola’s first governor, however, a policy had been defined that called for direct methods of colonial control, including the encomienda system. The encomienda Encomienda system involved forced attachment of indigenous laborers to Spanish colonial economic ventures, both in agriculture and in mining. By 1495, when the first West Indian revolt against the Spaniards broke out, the long-term movement of all of Hispaniola’s Tainos toward extinction had entered its first stage. Colonization;Spain of the Caribbean

Historians have noted that the indigenous population of Hispaniola declined most dramatically by the first decade of the sixteenth century, mainly because of a lack of immunological resistance to diseases brought by the Spaniards. Scores of thousands died from infectious diseases, others from the overwork and undernourishment associated with the notorious encomienda system. A surprising number, however, fell victim to violent repression of resistance movements led by their tribal chiefs.

Between 1495 and 1500, there were at least two armed uprisings against Spanish control. Each of these (that of Caonabo, in 1495, and that of Guarionex, in 1498) was headed by an indigenous tribal head, or cacique, who had been able to retain his leadership (in Caonabo’s case, as head of a chiefdom west and south of the island’s central mountains; in Guarionex’s case, local leadership in Magua, near the gold fields north of the mountains) by at first agreeing to cooperate with the main lines of Spanish colonial policy, including the encomienda. Especially after the appointment of Governor Nicolás de Ovando in 1502, however, the situation became worse, and Spanish excesses were bound to cause an escalation of violence.

A final royal note to Ovando, dated in September, 1501, authorized Spaniards to take the indigenous peoples into labor service “in order to get gold and do . . . other labors that we order to have done,” probably presuming that reasonable wages would be paid for work carried out. In fact, this was the beginning of forced labor that reduced many to the status of slaves.

The excessive actions of Ovando against any sign of the caciques’ discontent with Spanish control set a pattern of violent conflict that took a high toll, especially among the indigenous leadership. Much of the discontent after 1502 came from the sudden dramatic increase in the numbers of Spaniards on Hispaniola. Ovando had arrived with a contingent of about twenty-five hundred persons, including not only soldiers, administrators, and private settlers but also missionaries such as the Dominican priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, the later famous author of the Historia de las Indias History of the Indies (Las Casas) (wr. 1527-1561, pb. 1875-1876; partial translation, History of the Indies, 1971) and also Brevísima relación de la destruyción de las Indias (1552; The Tears of the Indians Tears of the Indians, The (Las Casas) , 1656). Ovando’s contingent more than tripled the Spanish population of the previous decade. This increased settler population was certain to demand more indigenous forced labor under the encomienda system.

The village chiefdom of Higüey, on the eastern tip of Hispaniola, was the first site of what became major clashes between Spanish troops and what seemed to be rebelling elements of the local population. Governor Ovando’s decision in 1502 to kill seven hundred Higüey Indians who had reacted violently to the killing of one of their chiefs by a Spanish dog was followed a year later by a wholesale massacre, in the western province of Xaragua (the former territory of Caonabo, the 1495 rebel leader), of some eighty district chiefs. In the 1503 massacre, Caonabo’s widow, Anacaona, assembled the chiefs to meet Ovando’s party. While the Spanish murdered the subchieftains brutally in a mass slaughter, Ovando’s “respect” for Anacaona compelled him to end her life by hanging. The future conquistador of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, at that time Ovando’s deputy commander, followed up the massacre by systematic conquest of the entire western half of Hispaniola.

From 1503 forward, it became obvious that no previously offered Spanish promises to recognize the local ruling authority of caciques in any part of Hispaniola would hold. In 1504, some local chieftains, such as Agüeybana in the Higüey region, began trying to organize serious resistance forces before the Spanish dared to carry out added systematic removals or massacres of the remaining caciques. Despite the fact that Agüeybana’s revolt was joined by diverse tribal elements, including groups the Spanish called Caribs, from the Lesser Antilles (more likely Eastern Tainos, not the traditional island Carib enemies of Hispaniola’s shores), it was brutally repressed. Agüeybana’s execution in 1510 impelled any remaining potential leaders to leave Hispaniola, or at least to take refuge in the more remote eastern Taino region.

Five years after the bloody events in the western region of Xaragua, and shortly after the failure of Agüeybana’s abortive efforts in the east, Chief Guarocuya, Anacaona’s nephew, tried in 1509 to go into hiding in the island’s mountain region of Baonuco. When local troops condemned this act as rebellion, the commanding authorities searched for him and then killed him. More out of fear than in active resistance, the neighboring provinces of Guahaba and Hanyguayaba rebelled, and immediately suffered violent repression by the hand of Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar.


With such harsh actions, the short and uneasy period of cooperation between the Spanish and the West Indians was over. As the indigenous population Population decimation;Americas died off under the overwhelming odds of disease, the process of importing African slave laborers began. They became the ancestors of most of today’s West Indian population—the inevitable consequence of this breakdown of the encomienda system.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Deagan, Kathleen, and José María Cruxent. Columbus’s Outpost Among the Taínos: Spain and America at La Isabella, 1493-1498. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. An account of the five-year history of the town established by the Spanish among the Tainos, on the northern coast of the chiefdom of Higüey, the first European settlement in the Americas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797. New York: Methuen, 1986. Focuses on literary and anthropological approaches to understanding the psychological distances separating the colonial and colonized populations of the Caribbean.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keegan, William F., ed. Earliest Hispanic/Native American Interactions in the Caribbean. New York: Garland, 1991. A series of specialized studies of both Spanish and indigenous Indian institutions, including methods of agriculture and local administration, before and during the Ovando governorate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Las Casas, Bartolomé de. History of the Indies. Translated and edited by Andrée Collard. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. A partial translation of the massive work of the Spanish missionary who, after coming to Hispaniola with Governor Ovando, turned critical of Ovando’s and Spain’s repressive policies against the indigenous peoples of the New World.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lupher, David A. Romans in a New World: Classical Models in Sixteenth Century Spanish America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Study of the influence of Roman models of empire upon the Spanish imperial project in the Americas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pané, Ramón. An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians: Chronicles of the New World Encounter. Translated by Susan C. Griswold. Edited by José Juan Arrom. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. Modern translation of the writings of the Spanish friar, brought to Hispaniola on Columbus’s second voyage, who lived with the Tainos and recorded many aspects of their lives and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rouse, Irving. The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Contains the most extensive coverage of the distant past of the indigenous West Indian population, with a concluding chapter on their short history of contacts with Europeans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tyler, S. Lyman. Two Worlds: The Indian Encounter with the European, 1492-1509. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988. Provides the most concise history of the circumstances of West Indian revolts and repression in this period.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

June 7, 1494: Treaty of Tordesillas

Beginning 1519: Smallpox Kills Thousands of Indigenous Americans

1527-1547: Maya Resist Spanish Incursions in Yucatán

1528-1536: Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

1537: Pope Paul III Declares Rights of New World Peoples

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

1552: Las Casas Publishes The Tears of the Indians

Sept. 14, 1585-July 27, 1586: Drake’s Expedition to the West Indies

Categories: History