CAUTION: Image of a hanging in the main text below.
Anacaona (c.1470s—c.1503) was a cacique – or chief – of the Taíno people. She was born in the cacicazgo – or land – of Jaragua. Jaragua was one of the five caciazgos on the island of Hispaniola, which the Taíno people called Ayiti. She ruled from Yaguna, now modern-day Léogâne. Anacaona was born into a high-ranking family in Taíno society. Her brother, Bohechío, was cacique of Jaragua. Bohechío organised a marriage between Anacoana and Caonabo, cacique of the neighbouring cacicazgo, Maguna. The marriage produced at least one child—a daughter, Higuemota.
Anacaona was a poet and a religious leader of the Taíno, and therefore an important figure within the community. Being the sister and wife of two caciques would have simply enhanced the power and authority she already possessed. Such was Anacaona’s importance that she was said to have been present when the caciques of Ayiti met Christopher Columbus upon his arrival in 1492. This was a disastrous turning point in Anacaona’s life and in the history of the Taíno people.
In 1493, the Spanish established colonies on Ayiti which directly led to the exploitation and murder of the Taíno people. Cacique Caonabo fought back against the colonists and burned the settlement of La Navidad to the ground, sending the Spanish back to their boats. In retaliation, Columbus ordered 400 men into the interior of the island to terrorise the Taíno and capture Caonabo. The capture of Caonabo caused the Taíno stage a rescue attempt. Caonabo’s brother led a small army against the colonists but they were routed by Spanish forces.
The Spanish decided to remove Caonabo from Ayiti, lest he be a focal point for more unrest. Caonabo was put on a ship bound for Spain but it sank during the journey, taking Caonabo and the Spanish aboard down with it. It’s unlikely Anacaona ever knew what happened to her husband. After Caonabo’s capture, Anacaona returned to Jaragua. There, she encouraged her brother to adopt a policy of appeasement in order to mitigate Spanish violence against the Taíno. After Bohechío’s death around 1500, Anacaona became cacique of Jaragua.
Anacaona’s rule was cut brutally short by Nicolás de Ovando who suspected the Taíno of plotting another rebellion. Ovando and his men arrived in Jaragua and were warmly welcomed by Anacaona and the other caciques who were still following this policy of appeasement.
What followed can only be described as a slaughter of immeasurable cruelty. While the other caciques were rounded up and burned, other Taíno were slaughtered where they stood. Anacaona did not die with the other caciques, though. She was taken and hanged in public for all to see.
Historians disagree on the events surrounding Anacaona’s death. This is just one narrative. What it tells us about Anacaona is interesting, though. The fact that she was marked out and executed differently to her peers implies that the Spanish viewed her as a particular threat.
Perhaps it was because she was Caonabo’s wife, and they feared his legacy as embodied by Anacaona. Perhaps it was her own personal power, and perhaps she was more of a thorn in the side of the Spanish than we realise due to lack of sources. We may never know.
Anacaona was a survivor. She was also an accomplished ruler. She maintained peace between the Spanish and the Taíno for as long as she could, and she has not been forgotten. Léogâne’s nickname is ‘the city of Anacaona,’ reflecting her enduring importance to the people of Ayiti.
Sebastián Robiou Lamarche, Tainos and Caribs: The Aboriginal Cultures of the Antilles (San Juan: Editorial Punto y Coma, 2019).