New World, New Food and Concepts of Western Supremacy

Cacique (tribe leader) – perhaps how the Taíno leader may have looked when meeting Columbus.See epicworldhistory

In 1492 the indigenous people who lived in the Caribbean and Florida were Taíno, a tribe of the Arawak Indians. At the time of European contact in the late 15th century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Puerto Rico.  

Unknown to the Taíno, 3 little ships would sail from over the nearby ocean from Spain and their lives would be cataclysmically impacted forever. 

Indigenous people around the world who had not yet met explorers from Europe, had independently developed their communities over centuries. They had not heard of Christianity, especially in its fearsome form as was delivered to them by the Europeans. The Arawak/Taino were polytheists and their gods were called ZEMI. The zemi controlled various functions of the universe, very much like Greek gods did, or like later Haitian Voodoo lwa. However, they do not seem to have had particular personalities like the Greek and Haitian gods/spirits do. 

Women served bread (a communion rite), first to zemi, then to their leader or cacique, followed by the other people. The sacred bread was a powerful protector. This was amazingly the one and only similarity with the Catholic practice of communion. 

Cacique refers to an individual political headman, chief, or local lord, almost always male, while cacicazgo (kasee-KAZ-go) refers the political and social institution of rule by caciques. Most indigenous polities encountered by the Spanish in their explorations and conquests were governed by caciques. See 

A Genoese citizen, Christopher Columbus (who now researchers think may have been concealing he was a Jew to the Spanish monarchy, knowing Jews were persecuted by the Spanish) was funded by the King and Queen of Spain to find Asia, which he convinced them he would find. Along with many other educated men, he believed the earth was round and was confident in his own maps and calculations. He set off on August 3 1492. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, after the success of the Spanish conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492, felt flush with victory, and agreed to support his voyage. They were also influenced by a noble and friar, Juan Pérez, who was keen to spread the Christian beliefs of the Roman Church.

The Roman Church dominated the western world between 590 and 1517. It controlled religion, philosophy, morals, politics, art and education. Many commentators have said this was the dark ages for true Christianity. 

Columbus took three small ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina. He set sail on August 3 1492.

Thinking he had found China, he went ashore actually at Watling Island, in the Bahamas on October 12th 1492. In December he sailed to Hispaniola (since named by the French as Haiti). Columbus thought it was Japan.

The Taíno tribe who met these visitors, no doubt with great wonderment and humility, certainly not with aggression, did not share the European language of course. They were unaware their visitors considered them ignorant heathens. 

Their language was an Arawak variation. But nobody tried to learn it, and instead many were transported, along with gold, spices, food stuffs, as property, gifts to the monarchs of Spain.

The Arawak diet was totally new to their visitors, their local fish and wild fowl (turkey) added to regional crops included cacao (chocolate), maize, potato, squash, tomato, capsicum, peppers, cassava, pumpkins, and groundnuts (peanuts). Tropical fruits enhanced the native diet, such as pineapple, avocado, guava, and papaya. Most of these foods were new and unfamiliar to Columbus and his crew. The diet was enjoyed by the Europeans, but some found it harmful to their unaccustomed digestive system and those sailors died. 

On consequent voyages, Columbus thoughtfully brought foods from Spain which were mixed with those of the New World and his crew adapted well without further problems. His second voyage carried wheat bread, as well as radishes, chickpeas, and melons. Livestock came from Europe, including horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. 

In 1493 Columbus took sugar cane plants to grow in the Caribbean as the climate there was particularly suited to growth and that act is the origin of the sugar cane industry.  

This same year Columbus was accompanied by his influential friend and friar Juan Pérez. Pérez is said to have celebrated the first Mass in the New World at Point Conception on 8 December 1493, in a temporary structure; that this was the first church in America; and that Pérez preserved the Blessed Sacrament there. He also became the guardian of the first friary which Columbus ordered to be erected in Santo Domingo. 

Over time, new crops were introduced to the Americas, including wheat, rice, barley, oats, coffee, sugar cane, citrus fruits, melons and Kentucky bluegrass. The introduction of wheat was of particular significance. For thousands of years, bread had been a central part of the European diet. Wheat was not indigenous to the Americas, where maize was the native grain. In the first few decades of colonization, European settlers imported goods like bread, wine, olive oil and certain meats. Over time, wheat and other European foodstuffs were cultivated and grown in the Americas.

In Hispaniola, the first settlement in the New World, the native foods of the Taíno tribe became an important source of sustenance for Columbus as he and his men ventured further. 

Columbus led a total of four expeditions to the New World, discovering various Caribbean islands, the Gulf of Mexico, and the South and Central American mainlands. He died in 1506, not realizing the significance of his finding the New World. His goal was to find Asia, and he died not knowing of the Pacific Ocean from where he would have found Asia.

As Europeans opened up the New World for others to follow, so did disease arrive, such as smallpox, to kill high numbers of indigenous people. But modern methods and new approaches are providing a clearer perspective on the nature and experiences of the indigenous people who lived in the Americas before Columbus arrived. I will write about this when I come back to the Columbus story and the sharing of more modern methods of analysis 

 By 1548, the Taíno population had declined to fewer than 500 from several millions. Some historians speak of the appalling genocide of the Taíno (see thanks to Columbus. This is grim reading.

Whilst we can certainly admire the dogged determination of Columbus and his teams of explorers, something so momentous happened when these lands became known to Europeans. And it hasn’t all been good.

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see
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1 Response to New World, New Food and Concepts of Western Supremacy

  1. Pingback: New World, New Food and Concepts of Western Supremacy — borderslynn | Black History & Culture

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