On February 2, 2012, is the
500th anniversary of the death of Hatuey, an Indigenous
American fighter for independence from colonialism not mentioned in the
same breath as Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.
However, Hatuey deserves recognition as their earliest ideological
ancestor and great forerunner.
Little is known about Hatuey,
a Taino Cacique [leader], not his date of birth, nor exactly when he
first led his forces into battle. But key elements of his story have
come down to us from Bishop Las Casas, the Dominican Priest, who became
Spain’s “Defender of the Indians.” On February 2, 1512, Las Casas was in
Cuba when Hatuey died at the hands of the European invaders.
Hatuey’s armed resistance
began on the island of Hispaniola [today Haiti and the Dominican
Republic] during the age of Columbus. It probably increased after 1502
when a fleet of 30 Spanish ships brought over the new Governor Nicolas
de Ovando, hundreds of Spanish settlers and a number of enslaved
Africans to pursue Spain’s search for gold.
But oppression rarely goes as
planned. Before the year was over Governor Ovando complained to King
Ferdinand that the enslaved Africans “fled among the Indians, taught
them bad customs, and could not be captured.” The last four words reveal
more than his problem with disobedient servants or his difficulty of
retrieving runaways in a rainforest. Ovando is probably describing the
formation of the first American rainbow coalition: Hatuey and his
followers are greeting and embracing the runaway Africans as allies.
After about a decade of armed
resistance in Hispaniola, in 1511 Hatuey and 400 of his followers
climbed into canoes and headed to Cuba. His plan was not escape but to
mobilize fellow Caribbean islanders against the bearded intruders, their
lust for gold, and the slavery, misery and death their invasion
Cuba Hatuey’s clear message was recorded by Las Casas: the intruders
“worship gold,” “fight and kill,” “usurp our land and makes us slaves”
For gold, slaves and land “they fight and kill; for these they persecute
us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea….”
Hatuey’s forces had no sooner
begun to mobilize Cubans when well-armed Spaniards under Diego Velásquez
landed in Cuba. (One was Hernán Cortés who would conquer Mexico.)
Hatuey’s strategy to attack, guerilla fashion, and then retreat to the
hills and regroup for the next attack, kept the Spaniards pinned down at
their fort at Baracoa for at least three months.
But finally a Spanish offensive
overwhelmed Hatuey and his troops. On February 2, 1512, Hatuey was led
out for a public execution. Las Casas described the scene:
“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, 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.”
As the first freedom fighter of
the Americas, Hatuey not only united Africans and Indigenous people
against the invaders, but in bringing his fighters from Hispaniola to
Cuba, he initiated the first pan-American struggle for independence from
Today a statue in Cuba
celebrates Hatuey as a national hero, its first great liberator. He was
more than that. He was the first of the heroic American freedom fighters
whose contributions led to 1776, to the revolution in Haiti, and to
Simon Bolivar who also sought to liberate all of the Americas from
One could argue that Hatuey was
the first to have ignited the American spirit of liberty and
independence that would circle the globe for the next five hundred