Natural History

The Stranger King

By William Keegan and Betsy Carlson

The tale of the “stranger king” is told in some version in virtually every culture in the world. It is the tale of an immigrant king who deposes the former ruler and marries his daughter. The basic story line is as follows: The heroic son-in-law from a foreign land demonstrates his divine gifts, wins the daughter, and inherits half or more of the kingdom.

Before it was a fairy tale, it was a theory of society. Accounts of the stranger king have been retold numerous times in anthropological works. Marshall Sahlins devoted an extended essay to such beliefs, with an emphasis on those from Fiji and Hawaii, and demonstrated how belief in a stranger king not only justified king/subject relations, but also structured native reactions during initial contacts with Europeans.

In previous issues we have made mention of Caonabó, the most powerful cacique (chief) on Hispaniola when Columbus arrived on the island. We have written about him because it is likely that he grew up on Middle Caicos at the site known as MC-6. His story is the subject of a new book: Taino Indian Myth and Practice: The Arrival of the Stranger King by William Keegan, which will be published by the University Press of Florida in April.

The book explores the intersection of myths, beliefs and practice among the different participants who have written this history. For example, the Taino imbued Caonabó with a mythical status bordering on divinity; the Spanish imposed their own beliefs on their interactions with Caonabó and recorded the story; and the archaeologists who have studied this time period have used their beliefs to interpret the events and to present these as history. The story and legend of Caonabó begin with the sinking of the Santa María.

Shortly past midnight on Christmas Day, 1492, the Santa María had her belly ripped open on a coral reef. Awakened by the sound of an explosion that could be heard “a full league off” (about three miles), Columbus quickly assessed the situation and ordered the main mast cut away to lighten the vessel. He also sent Juan de la Cosa, the ship’s master, to take a boat and cast an anchor astern in order to keep the vessel from being driven further onto the reef. Instead, de la Cosa fled to the Niña. The captain of the Niña refused to let de la Cosa onboard and sent a longboat to aid the admiral. It was too little too late; the Santa María was stuck fast.


The wreck of the Santa María occurred in the Taino province of Marien, which was ruled by a cacique named Guacanagarí. Upon learning of the wreck, Guacanagarí wept openly and he sent weeping relations to console Columbus throughout the night. Afraid to risk the Niña in salvaging the Santa María, Columbus enlisted Guacanagarí’s assistance. His people recovered everything, including planks and nails, and assembled the materials on the beach. So thorough were the Tainos that not a single “agujeta” (lace-end or needle) was misplaced. Thus Guacanagarí came to be the first Taino cacique to establish a strong bond with the Spanish. Furthermore, his life-long friendship with Columbus can be interpreted as an unsuccessful effort on his part to enhance his status in the island’s political hierarchy.

Columbus took the sinking of the Santa María as a sign from God that he should build a fort in this location. Guacanagarí gave Columbus two large houses to use. With the assistance of his people, the Spaniards reportedly began the construction of a fort, tower, and moat in the cacique’s village using the timbers and other materials salvaged from the Santa María. Because the Niña could not accommodate all of the sailors, about 39 men were left at La Navidad with instructions to exchange and trade for gold.

When Columbus returned to La Navidad in 1493 he learned that all of the Christians were dead and that the fort had been burned to the ground. Columbus was told that soon after he returned to Spain the Spaniards fell to fighting among themselves. Some had gone off into the country to seek their fortune, but King Caonabó had murdered those who had remained there. History records that the Spaniards were killed because they abused the local people; they raped, looted, pillaged, and abused the hospitality of their hosts. Yet, if such local violations led to their deaths, then the local leader should have ordered the killing. Guacanagarí claimed that he was innocent, that he was a friend of Columbus, and that he had himself been wounded in battle defending the Spaniards.

Columbus apparently believed him, and he did not blame Guacanagarí for the destruction of La Navidad. Instead, Caonabó, the primary cacique for this region and the ruler to whom Guacanagarí owed fealty, was blamed. As proof, Columbus’s son Ferdinand wrote that when Caonabó was later captured he admitted to killing 20 of the men at La Navidad. Would another leader have acted differently? Whatever abuses the Spanish may have committed, Caonabó could not allow a second-level cacique like Guacanagarí to harbor a well-armed garrison of Europeans in his village. Had he done so, his own survival would have been threatened.

The reaction of Caonabó to foreigners in his territory was immediate and swift. The fact that Caonabó took military action against the Spaniards at La Navidad attests to his status. Guacanagarí’s village was more than 80 km as the crow flies (more than 90 km by foot) from Caonabó’s village. Despite this distance, Caonabó exerted his power and displayed his regional status. Las Casas and Oviedo y Valdés both identified him as one of the five principal caciques on the island. On his return to Hispaniola in 1494, Columbus was distracted by the need to establish a beachhead on the island, and thus Caonabó was ignored for a while. However, with the establishment of Fort Santo Tomás, Caonabó and his brothers were again identified as the main threat to the Spanish enterprise.

In reading the accounts of the chroniclers it is hard to see why Caonabó was considered to be such a threat. Indeed, Carl Sauer concluded that Caonabó was not a menace. Furthermore, there reportedly was little gold in his cacicazgo, and there is no indication that he made any offensive moves against the Spanish after ridding himself of the pestilence at La Navidad. Perhaps his power and fame came from a reputation based on past deeds. It is possible that the Tainos who were being abused by the Spanish referred to their big and powerful brother (Caonabó) who would eventually come to their rescue. Or perhaps the perceived threat derived from Columbus’s personal anger over the destruction of La Navidad. The motives are difficult to sort out.

Concerned with the threat that Caonabó posed to Fort Santo Tomás, Hojeda and nine horsemen went to visit Caonabó as emissaries of Columbus. When Caonabó heard they were coming he was especially pleased because he was told they were bringing a gift of turey, and he was fascinated by stories of the bell in the church at La Isabela which the natives had described as “turey that speaks.” When Hojeda arrived he told Caonabó that he was bringing a gift of turey from Biscay, that it came from heaven, had a great secret power, and that the Kings of Castile wore it as a great jewel during their arietos, the Taino word for ceremonial songs and dances. Hojeda then suggested that Caonabó go to the river to bathe and relax, as was their custom, and that he would then present his gift. Having no reason to fear a few Spaniards in his own village, Caonabó one day decided to claim the gift and went off to the river with a few retainers. While he was at the river, about 2 km from the village, Hojeda tricked him into going off together. When they were alone, Hojeda presented Caonabó with the highly polished silver-colored handcuffs and manacles he had brought. He instructed Caonabó in how they were worn, placed him on his horse, and with Caonabó as his captive, Hojeda and his men, with swords drawn, made haste to return to La Isabela. The trap was set, and successfully sprung.

It is reported that Columbus decided to send Caonabó to Castile along with as many slaves as the ships would hold, although some dispute whether Caonabó was ever sent to Spain. The official report is that the ships sank and that Caonabó was lost at sea. It was further reported that Caonabó’s brothers were determined to seek retribution by waging a cruel war against the Spaniards such that they would drive them from their lands. Yet there are no records of any substantial military successes by the Tainos of Hispaniola, so it appears that the brothers failed to achieve their reported objective. Within a decade the native population was decimated by warfare, cruelty, enslavement, and disease.

Ferdinand Columbus described Caonabó as “a man well up in years, experienced and of the most piercing wit and much knowledge.” He was strong, authoritative, and brave. He was the paramount cacique (matunheri) for the Maguana cacicazgo. His main settlement was located on the west side of the Cordillera Central, and the Spanish town of San Juan de Maguana was established there after he was deposed.


This town, which still exists today, is the site of the largest Taino earthwork in all of the West Indies. It is today called Corales de los Indios, and measures more than 125,000 square meters. But most important, Caonabó was described as coming to Hispaniola from the Lucayan Islands (Bahama archipelago). How was it that the most powerful chief came from the relatively insignificant Lucayan islands? If you are interested in the answer, then you will have to read the book.

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

Leave a Reply


What's Inside The Latest Edition?

On the Cover

Gary James at Provo Picture ( made several visits to the award-winning Provo Golf course to shoot this intriguing overhead cover shot.

Our Sponsors

  • Fortis
  • Sothebys
  • Shore Club
  • Turks and Caicos Real Estate
  • Turks & Caicos Property
  • South Bank
  • Turks & Caicos Banking Co.
  • Projetech
  • Turks and Caicos Tourism
  • Windong
  • Butterfield Motors
  • Do It Center
KR LogisticsSWA
jsjohnsonDempsey and Company
Hugh ONeillTwa Marcela Wolf
LHeureuxJohn Redmond
Caicos Express AirIsland Escapes TCI
Walkin Marine Landfall
Great Bone Fishing Race for the Conch


Lost your password?