Natural History

Talking Taino: Boat Trips

Surviving in an ocean environment links all TCI inhabitants as one.

By Betsy Carlson and Bill Keegan

Life on an island is just not possible without boats. The history of the Turks & Caicos, both prehistorically and historically, is linked to the ability to build boats and navigate the oceans successfully.

Not just anybody can go out and colonize an isolated, oceanic island. The most important factor is the colonizer’s voyaging ability, which is not always linked to how accessible oceanic islands may be to a population. Madagascar lies just off the coast of Africa but was colonized by people from Indonesia. Other prerequisites to successfully colonize islands include horticulture, a marine economy, a material culture that uses shell as a major raw resource, and the ability to change the island’s resource base by introducing plants, animals, and assets through exchange. Since 500 B.C., all West Indian cultures have met each of these requirements.

In the West Indies, the direction of colonization followed the direction of the currents. The south equatorial current flows north from the Venezuelan coast up the Windward Islands. As it reaches the Leeward Islands it is eclipsed by the north equatorial current, which flows westward past the Leewards, paralleling the northern coasts of the Greater Antilles. The distances between the islands are not great, and once the 120 km gap between Trinidad and Grenada was bridged, every other volcanic island was intervisible from the next with distances of less than 50 km. There was no fear of not finding the way home after setting out to investigate a new island.

Once you can navigate well, you possess the maritime skills to sail past one island to reach a better one. Thus, accessibility fails to be a determining factor. In the Pacific, where the distances between islands are much greater, colonization occurred in quite the opposite way Ñ here, navigators sailed against the currents when exploring in order to ensure their ability to return home.


The ability to supplement the natural resources of an island with domesticated foods substantially reduces the risks involved in island settlements. When the Polynesians colonized a new island, they brought taro, sweet potato, fruit trees, and domesticated pigs and chickens. In the West Indies, in addition to root crops and some fruit trees, the colonizers brought with them dogs and small mammals such as guinea pigs for food. They also transported West Indian species, such as hutias (a large rodent) and rails (a ground bird, some species of which are flightless), from one island to another. Sweet potato may have been a key ingredient in island colonization by horticulturists because it produces an edible crop in two months or less, quickly establishing a reliable food base. The Taino were known to plant uninhabited islands with the root crop manioc, but never settle the island, creating food stocks for voyagers or for times of shortage.

The Turks & Caicos Islands were first colonized about A.D. 600 by pre-Taino peoples coming from Hispaniola. So, how did the navigators of Hispaniola stumble upon Grand Turk first? As you head north from the coast of the Dominican Republic, you encounter within 40 miles a series of shallow banks – the Navidad, the Silver and the Mouchoir. They are submerged between 5 and 16 m today.

These shallow banks may have given the appearance of islands on the horizon by virtue of their aquamarine color, and the banks themselves could have attracted fishermen to their abundant marine resources. If voyagers from Hispaniola explored this line of banks looking for dry land, they would have been led straight to the Turks Islands. Grand Turk is the largest island on this bank, and the only that could have supported a population.

The northwesterly Antillean current flows from Puerto Rico toward the Turks & Caicos Islands, eventually joining the Gulf Stream. This, in association with the tradewinds, which blow east to west, would promote drift voyaging in the northwest direction, making voyaging from eastern Hispaniola to the Turks easy, but return voyaging more difficult.

The navigators of the Caribbean were not, however, at the mercy of the winds and currents of the region. The winds blow east to west in the summer and more northeast to southwest in the winter. All maritime cultures have a vast understanding of winds and weather systems. The Spanish recorded just one Taino word for wind, huracan, which described fierce winds, and is the source for our word hurricane. The language of the modern Miskito Indians of coastal Nicaragua has 25 words to describe types of winds. For the Miskito, the dry season, when tradewinds are less intense and no unexpected squalls or storms occur, is the time of the long distance journey. For the Turks & Caicos, February through April, with multiple day-long intervals of still weather, are the driest months and perhaps the best time for long distance travels. At the Governor Beach site on Grand Turk, where people from Haiti came to make shell beads, all of the clam shells were harvested during this season. This suggests that they, too, recognized this time period as the best time to travel over open waters.

Besides the ability to navigate well, the key technology for any complex island society is advanced water transport consisting of sophisticated ocean-going vessels that can carry large cargo loads and travel long distances. Large canoes allow for the distribution of wealth and the amassing of populations for military and ceremonial events.

The Taino possessed canoes of various sizes and proportions for different activities. Small canoes may have been individually owned, but some larger, special-purpose canoes could have been shared by a community and had restricted access. Because of this, the most important factor in choosing a settlement was access to the open ocean. They needed launching and beaching places for their large canoes.

The dugout canoes (canoa) constructed by the Taino were made from the trunk of a single large tree (maca), although the sides may have been built up with planks to allow for construction of very large vessels. The chroniclers of the contact period described immense canoes for the Taino. Las Casas said the canoes in Cuba were 20 m long, and Columbus reported seeing very large canoes under sheds on the coast of Cuba. Oviedo wrote that the boats had cotton sails, but this is generally not believed to be a pre-Columbian trait.

The Island Caribs in the 17th century did have boats with sails (called piraguas), but again this was likely due to European influence. Today, the tradition of hand-crafted boats is best seen in Haiti where types of boats range from rafts to dugouts to sloops. The Taino had a word for a flat boat with no keel that may have resembled a raft (called Cayuco).


Las Casas noted that the Mona Passage between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico was the site of daily voyages, and thus culturally more closely linked than eastern and western Hispaniola. So, the primary movement of people and goods in the Greater Antilles was between water passages, not within an island’s landmass. The Taino maintained “gateway communities” such as MC-6 on Middle Caicos, which allied far-reaching political territories and greatly increased trade opportunities. This is evidence that the Taino were voyagers and were not isolated on their separate islands. The Taino word for small island was cay. Similarly, the word for the passage between small islands was cayo. The similar word caico means outer island in the Taino language.

We have no preserved Taino canoes from the Turks & Caicos, although the Turks & Caicos National Museum houses a Taino canoe paddle (nahe in Taino) found in the peat sediments of North Creek on Grand Turk. This paddle is nearly identical to one found on Mores Island (Little Bahama Bank) in the Bahamas. Las Casas described Taino paddles “like long handled bakers’ shovels, but sharp.” The Mores paddle was first described in 1913 by Theodore DeBooy and remains the only other prehistoric paddle known from the Bahamas archipelago.

The Grand Turk paddle was carved from a single piece of bullwood (Pera bumeliifolia), a native to Cuba, Hispaniola, and the northern Bahamas. This species is not known from the Turks & Caicos Islands today. The paddle may have been carved in Hispaniola and lost after working its way to Grand Turk along with the early inhabitants of Grand Turk. The wood was radiocarbon dated and provided a calibrated age range of A.D. 995-1125, centuries after Grand Turk was first colonized. This suggests that people sailed between Hispaniola and the Turks & Caicos Islands regularly and for many centuries.

The cultural history of the Turks & Caicos Islands includes occupations by Tainos, Bermudians, Loyalists, and Post-Emancipation period Africans who were formerly enslaved to work in the salt and cotton industries in these islands. What these cultures had in common was the island environment. All these people had to make a living from the sea and their lives were intimately tied to boat technology. There is one indelible reminder of this in the history of the Turks & Caicos – the boat images scratched into the plaster of ruinous plantation houses throughout the Islands.


Etchings of sailing vessels have been found throughout the Bahamas and have been reported on plantation ruins from New Providence, Crooked Island, and San Salvador as well as Middle and North Caicos and Providenciales. Laurie Wilkie and Paul Farnsworth, who have worked on plantations throughout this region, argue that ship imagery is an important symbol in many contexts throughout the African Diaspora and link the drawings to the late enslavement period or post-Emancipation (ca. 1820Ð1900).

In many cases, when the Turks & Caicos Loyalist plantations were abandoned, the former slaves of the plantations were left in the Islands. They took residence in their former slave houses and plantation houses. The ship imagery in the ruins lends itself to a feeling of isolation, which we can imagine reflects what the freed slaves may have felt in these surroundings. Eventually, people congregated in small villages rather than live in isolation on the former plantations and they turned to the sea to form a maritime rather than a primarily agricultural economy.

The etchings contain an amazing amount of detail – so much so that the specific type of boats depicted can be deciphered. The most common wooden boats of the time were a small ketch, single mast sloops, and schooners. A schooner has two or more masts and “fore and aft” rigging, which means the sails run with the long axis of the boat. Bahamian schooners could be up to 50 feet long and carry 20 men. A two-masted schooner is shown in the etching from a Turks & Caicos plantation ruin, along with fragments of two other boats. As can be seen in the photograph and the line drawing, the ship likely had topsails, as is indicated by several horizontal lines near the top of the masts. All three ships have sprits extending off the bow with indications of multiple jib sails. The complete etching appears to have three jibs. Also illustrated are the fore sail (in the center of the ship) and the main sail (at the stern end of the ship).

The people making these drawings had intimate knowledge of the workings of sailing vessels. The commonness with which these images are found throughout these islands and the detail they show reinforces the bond all inhabitants of the Bahamas archipelago had with the sea. It is this tie to the ocean environment that links all the prior residents of these islands as one.

Dr. Betsy Carlson is an archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville.

To the Taino, the Spaniards were much worse than man-eaters.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

And they say that this cacique affirmed that he has spoken with Giocauaghama [the chief god] who had told him that whoever remained alive after his death should enjoy the rule over them only a short time, because they would see in their country a people clothed which was to rule them and to slay them and that they would die of hunger. At first they thought these would be the Canibales; but reflecting that they only plundered and fled they believed that it must be another people that the cem’ spoke of. Wherefore they now believe that it was the Admiral [Columbus] and the people he brought with them. Ram—n PanŽ, 1496.

PanŽ’s account illustrates just how quickly Taino attitudes changed. In the diario of his first voyage, Columbus reported that the Tainos thought that he was a Canibale. The fact that he took people aboard his ships and they never returned; that he was clothed and had exotic vessels and weapons, convinced them that he had arrived from some supernatural realm. The Tainos soon realized their mistake when Columbus established a permanent colony. Supernatural beings may arrive from time to time, but they do not settle permanently in the land of the living. The Spaniards were something much worse than cannibals.

Caribbean cannibalism is a complicated issue. On the one hand we need to consider the actual beliefs and practices of the Tainos. On the other we need to deal with the prevailing attitudes in Europe at the time. Let’s start with the Europeans.

As anthropologist Neil Whitehead noted, the focus on cannibalism reflects the “European pre-occupation with this subject, still evident today, rather than its overall sociological significance for Carib peoples.” Indeed, there were a number of extracts from human flesh and bone that were used as “medicines” in 16th century Europe. It is reported that spectators would arrive at public executions carrying cups with which to collect and drink the still warm blood of the person who was executed. These forms of cannibalism were more alive in Europe than they were in the native Caribbean. Anyone really interested in the European fascination with cannibals should read the essays of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne that were first published in 1580 (The Essays of Montaigne, trans. J. Florino, 3 vols. AMS press, New York, 1967).

The issue of cannibalism can be pushed back even farther. In the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher/historian Herodotus invented a dialogue between a person from the city and one from the country. In this urban/rural conversation, the city dweller is appalled that the rural folk cremate the dead and then consume the ashes of the deceased. In response, the representative of the rural folk is equally appalled that people in the city bury their dead where they are subject to any number of degradations by the creatures that inhabit the soil. The rural perspective is that consuming the remains of their fathers is a far more respectable treatment of the dead than burying them in the ground.

More recently, James Michener (Caribbean, 1988) used the notion of “peaceful Arawaks” (Tainos) and “warlike (cannibal) Caribs” as a literary device to portray the battle between good and evil in the West Indies. In addition, some historians have suggested that the reason the Turks & Caicos Islands, along with the rest of the Bahamas, were first settled was because these people were fleeing the Carib “cannibals” who supposedly were attacking the islands of the Greater Antilles. The Caribs lived in the Lesser Antilles chain as far north as Guadeloupe at the time of Columbus. They are called Island Caribs to distinguish them from related mainland South American groups.

The Island Caribs survived centuries longer than the Taino and most of what we know about them comes from later European descriptions, especially those of Breton (1647). The Island Caribs of the mid-17th century called themselves Kalina or Karina, which translated as “manioc eaters.” Surprisingly, the Island Caribs are for the most part archaeologically invisible. Based on the available evidence, two proposals have been put forward. The first suggests that Carib peoples from South America began colonizing the southern Lesser Antilles just prior to Columbus’ first voyage (around AD 1450). The second proposes that the peoples who already were living in these islands adopted trappings of Kalina culture (from the Guianas) as a reflection of their strong association with these people. We lack the evidence to decide which is correct. If the Caribs did arrive in the 15th century, they cannot be blamed for forcing people to settle the Bahama archipelago; an event that happened seven centuries earlier.

The fierce reputation of the Island Caribs comes partially from the fact that they resisted the European invasion. In this regard they exhibited remarkable political acumen. When a French colony was established on their island, they would go to the British and suggest an alliance for the purpose of removing these French colonists from their island. When the French were removed, and a British colony established, they would go to the French to help them eliminate the British. This strategy was successful until the British and French reached accommodation in the Treaty of Versailles. The last of the Island Caribs were then rounded up and shipped to Central America.

So where does the notion of cannibalism in the Caribbean come from, and why were the Spanish so anxious to apply it? There are no firsthand accounts or other evidence that the Caribs ever consumed human flesh (anthropaphagy). Yet Oviedo (1527) described the Caribs as follows: “The bow-using Caribs . . . eat human flesh. They eat all the men that they kill and use the women they capture and the children that they bear, if any Carib should couple with them, are also eaten. The boys that they take . . . are castrated, fattened and eaten.” Despite this sort of propaganda and the modern popular culture images of bodies being boiled in large cooking pots, the notion of eating your enemy has always been more an emblem of ferocity than an actual practice, and this is true universally. The Spanish came to associate all fierce people with the name Carib, which reflects the translation of the Taino word, and the name “Carib” appears on European produced maps of other territories including the Philippines.

Columbus first heard the rumour of Caribes and Canibales while sailing along the north coast of Cuba during his first voyage. During his sojourn in the Baie de l’Acul, on the north coast of Haiti, Columbus recorded that the highest mountain was known locally as Mount Caribata. It is likely that he never would have focused on these names if he had not been looking for the Grand Khan of Cathay (China). He admits that his ability to communicate with the native peoples of the islands was limited, but he tells us in his diario (daily log) that he asked for the whereabouts of the Canima or Caniba, which to him meant the people of the Grand Khan. The information available to Columbus was woefully out of date. The Ming Dynasty had expelled the Mongols and their Grand Khan from China about 300 years earlier. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how Canima or Caniba was easily confused with Caribe and Canibale, especially when neither party spoke a mutually intelligible language.

That Caniba and Canibale were one and the same made sense to Columbus because the Tainos said the Canibales wore clothing (in contrast to the naked Tainos) and bore arms. In his mind, the Canibales were representatives of the Grand Khan who ruled over the simple island folk he had so far encountered. The Asian mainland had to be only be a short distance away (after first thinking Cuba was the mainland, he later decided it must be Cipango [Japan]). At what point Columbus realized that he had reached a “New World,” and not the islands off the coast of Asia, remains an open question.

Columbus believed that the Caribes were the enemies of the Tainos, and he promised to defend them against this enemy. Yet the fact that Columbus first heard of these people in Cuba, and the people who came to be known as Caribs lived far to the south, suggests that for the Tainos the name was not associated with living peoples. The fact that the Tainos at first identified Columbus as a Canibale brings this distinction into sharper relief. If Columbus was a Canibale, then the Tainos must have lacked a corporeal knowledge of such beings.

On several occasions in his diario Columbus described the physical attributes of the Caribe/Canibale. They were described to him as “one-eyed men, and others, with the snouts of dogs, who ate men.” What Columbus described are gods in the Taino pantheon who are associated with the world of the dead. Like the ancient Egyptians, the dog god (Opiyelguobir‡n) guarded the world of the dead and carried their spirits into the afterlife. The Taino notion of “eating men” can be interpreted as reflecting what happens after someone dies. Although their body remains intact, their spirit was consumed and carried over into the afterlife. In this regard it was not the actual consumption of human flesh, but rather the spiritual eating of the life force.

When Columbus encountered hostile natives in the Bay of Arrows (on the Saman‡ Peninsula of the Dominican Republic) on his first voyage, and on his second voyage on Guadeloupe and St. Croix, he concluded that these people must be Canibales/Caribes. In his mind, because they attacked him, they had to be the enemies the Tainos spoke about. Yet history is fraught with twists and turns. The peoples of the eastern Dominican Republic and St. Croix did attack the Spanish, but they were not Caribs, although the people in he encountered in Guadeloupe may have been.

Columbus repeatedly told the King and Queen of Spain that there were vast riches to be obtained from his enterprise of the Indies. Yet he continually asked for additional support from the Crown. When the promised riches failed to materialize, Columbus decided that enslaving the native peoples and sending them to Spain was a way to finance his colony. To their credit, the Spanish sovereigns returned the survivors of the first shipment of slaves back to Hispaniola, and they instructed Columbus to treat the native peoples as their vassals. In other words, they were to be given proper treatment, paid proper wages for their service, and converted to Christianity. These instructions were largely ignored, and the Taino population of Hispaniola rapidly declined.

Faced with a significant shortage of native labor the Spanish colonists devised a new strategy. They told the Spanish monarchs that there were native peoples, known as Caribes or Canibales, who ate human flesh and refused conversion. In response, Queen Isabel proclaimed in 1503 that these “cannibals” could be enslaved. Suddenly, all of the native peoples of the islands were cannibals. This may explain why the Turks & Caicos and Bahamas came to be known as the “Islands of Devils” and were the first to be entirely depopulated from slave raiding. Spanish predation, mistreatment, famine, and the introduction of diseases to which the local peoples had no immunities quickly led to the collapse of the Taino peoples. Within 20 years of Columbus’ first voyage, enslaved Africans were being imported to Hispaniola as laborers.

Were there cannibals (people who ate human flesh) in the Caribbean when Europeans arrived? Probably not. The Taino notion of Canibales reflects their belief in what happened to the spirits of people after they died. The Island Caribs, and others, who resisted the Spanish invasion, were characterized as cannibals in order to justify their enslavement. There is no evidence that native West Indians consumed human flesh as a part of their normal diet, although the ritual consumption of cremated remains (endocannibalism) cannot be rejected. However, mixing the ashes of your parents in a drink is far less troubling to us than what was happening in Europe at the same time.

The notion of cannibals may be the product of Spanish misconceptions. However, during your visit to the Cannibal (oops, Caribbean) Islands it is best to play it safe. Have a long talk with your waiter before you order the souse or steak-and-kidney pie!

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. Dr. Betsy Carlson is an Archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc., Gainesville, FL.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography ( created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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