Debate has long raged over whether or not the Tainos who once inhabited Hispaniola were exterminated during the initial period of Spanish colonization. Certainly the majority were wiped out – by war, slave labour and epidemic smallpox – but there is evidence that some Tainos (perhaps quite a number of them) survived throughout the colonial era, intermarrying with the Africans and Europeans who lived on the island from Columbus onward.
The principal evidence for complete genocide comes from Spanish authors such as Las Casas who estimated that just a few thousand remained as far back as 1518. Early sixteenth-century sugar mill owners such as Juan de Viloria claimed, meanwhile, that their entire Taino slave workforce had been destroyed by smallpox. But there is counter-evidence: when Viloria died, his wife counted three hundred Taino slaves as part of his estate. It could be that Viloria had hidden the true figure to secure a free allotment of African slave labour.
Nor is the official historical record much more illuminating, with various wills and court documents continuing to refer to “Indians”, and a 1545 census (twenty years after the Tainos’ supposed extermination) claiming that over half of all sugar mill slaves were “Indian”. Bear in mind, too, that most of the island was outside European control and would have served as a safe harbour for Taino communities. In 1555 four large Taino villages were discovered along the north coast.
The question of the Dominican Republic’s continuing Taino heritage is controversial and emotive. The Tainos have been used by Dominican intellectuals in the past to cover up the nation’s more extensive African background, for instance, and Dominican mulattos are still officially classified as “Indios”. So it’s no surprise that many mainstream anthropologists are wary when someone presses the case for the Taino heritage of the Dominican people.
What is not in doubt is that Dominican culture owes a profound debt to the Tainos. Hundreds of Taino words and inflections are used and their methods of farming, cooking, weaving and boat-building are still widely practised. Even the pantheon of spirits in Vodú dominicana – a largely African religion – includes several divisions of Taino spirits while, in the most rural campos, villagers still use conch shells to call to each other from hill to hill whenever fresh meat or ice has arrived for sale.