First settlers of The Bahamas
Last days of the Lucayans and their way of life
They called themselves Lukku-cairi, which means “people of the islands.” Spanish invaders transliterated this to Lucayos, and anglophones changed it again to “Lucayans.”
Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar and contemporary of Christopher Columbus, described the original Bahamians as “the most blessed among all Indians in gentleness, simplicity, humility and other natural virtues.”
They were, by all accounts, an attractive people. Columbus reported that the first men and women he met in the New World were “well proportioned and good looking.” It did not escape his attention that most of them, men and unwed women, went about “naked as their mother bore them.”
In his report to Queen Isabella, Columbus added: “They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal… . Your Highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people … they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are always laughing.”
Peter Martyr d’Anghera of Florence wrote in 1511 that Lucayan women were “so beautiful that numerous inhabitants of the neighbouring countries, charmed by their beauty, abandon their homes and, for the love of them, settle in their country.”
The natives had coarse, dark hair, which some wore long “like the tail of a horse.” In others, it was cut short “and brought forward over the eyebrows.” Columbus added that “their skin is similar in colour to the people of the Canaries–neither black nor white.”
Like other tribes of the New World, the men had flattened foreheads, caused by binding their heads to boards when they were infants. This, it was supposed, made them better able to withstand blows from enemy war clubs.
Although they knew how to defend themselves–the men showed their battle scars to the newcomers–they generally lived in peace and traded with neighbouring tribes in Cuba and Hispaniola.
Prophetically, Columbus noted that the Lucayans “ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion.”
In this, the Admiral of the Ocean Seas was mistaken. The Lucayans were a “religiously and socially sophisticated people,” wrote Dr Julian Granberry, PhD–an expert on ancient languages–in the Bahamas Handbook for 1999. “Their customs–although related to the lands of their origin–were distinctly Bahamian. They indicate local customs developed in The Bahamas rather than being replicated from their Taino cousins or other peoples further south in the Caribbean.”
Who were they?
For a long time, archaeologists believed the Lucayans were the first people to settle The Bahamas and that they discovered the islands between 800 and 1,000 AD–centuries before Columbus was born.
Thanks to recent archaeological work, the date of the first arrival has been continually pushed back until it is now estimated to be about 300 or 400 AD–and perhaps even earlier.
Dr Granberry wrote: “…[T]here were at least two migrations of Arawak-speaking people into The Bahamas: one from Cuba, the other from Hispaniola. Their fusion gave rise to the Lucayan people.”
Equally surprising are hints–based on chemical studies of pottery shards –that the Lucayans, like Columbus, may have also been latecomers to paradise. A primitive fisher-folk known as the Siboney (a word meaning “cave dweller”) preceded them, and the Lucayans either displaced or absorbed them.
According to historians Michael Craton and Gail Saunders–who co-authored a history of the Bahamian people entitled Islanders in the Stream–the Lucayans were part of a group of aboriginal peoples called Tainos, who were “ethnically, culturally and linguistically related to the people then inhabiting the Greater Antilles, whom British scholars have traditionally called Arawaks.”
Rulers of the isles
An estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Lucayans inhabited the archipelago when the Pinta, the Niña and the Santa Maria dropped anchor off Guanahani–the Lucayan name for the island that Columbus rechristened San Salvador.
Compared to other native villages throughout the Caribbean, the Lucayan communities were small. By all accounts, they were clean and well-kept, arranged along coastlines, often behind dunes, with a central swept-dirt plaza where ceremonies and games took place. One of these was called batos, a ball game that has been described as a cross between football and volleyball.
Several families–up to 20 individuals–lived together in large circular dwellings. They were made of upright wooden poles and palm thatch, topped by a conical palm leaf roof with a hole at the top that allowed smoke to escape.
Their hereditary leaders, caciques, could be of either sex. They owned carved wooden ceremonial stools or thrones known as duhos, examples of which have been found in caves on several of the islands.
The Lucayans had a varied diet that included cassava, sweet potatoes, arrowroot, peanuts and beans, all of which they probably brought with them and cultivated. They may also have grown papayas and pineapples, and enjoyed wild fruit such as guava, mammee apple, guineps, scarlet plums and tamarinds.
They also caught and ate land crabs, iguanas, hutias (a rabbit-sized rodent) and barkless yellow dogs, now extinct, that they kept.
From the sea, they ate fish caught in nets made of cotton or on hooks made of bone or shell. They also depended on conch, the easy-to-capture mollusc that is a favourite food among Bahamians today.
Stone chopping, cutting and scraping tools were imported from Cuba or Haiti. Most pottery was of a type called palmetto ware, tempered with bits of conch shell. While palmetto ware has been described as plain and utilitarian, it was also “technically complex [with] a broad range of variability along numerous dimensions,” according to William F Keegan, assistant curator at Florida State Museum.
“We know sites were clustered in groups, indicating a close political relationship between them,” wrote Granberry. “… [I]t is probable the islands were politically divided into rulerships, perhaps akin to provinces.”
As for their religion, Craton and Saunders write that the Lucayans were “classic animists.” They believed that all living things–and also the dead and even the yet-unborn–had spirts, as did the sun, moon and stars, the sea and natural phenomena such as hurricanes.
“Many Lucayan ceremonies were basically religious [and included] dancing to the limits of exhaustion under the narcotic effect of drugs and rhythmic music.” The Lucayans used yopo, a potent narcotic, which was ground into a powder and snorted. The drug is still used by Amerindians in Venezuela and is said to induce visions of the future. One Lucayan cacique reportedly foresaw the destruction of his people by strange blond men in “canoes with wings.”
Whence did they come?
The Taino/Arawak forebears of the Lucayans were one of many tribes who peopled the steamy Orinoco River basin–on the border between Brazil and Venezuela–in prehistoric times. They, in turn, were the descendants of early man who, it is believed, came to the New World from Russia, between 11,000 and 30,000 years ago, across a land bridge that no longer exists in the Bering Strait.
Leaving the muddy waters of the Orinoco, the ancestors of the Lucayans would have reached Grenada and then island-hopped, as today’s yachters do, following the great arc of islands that curves northeast, north and then west to Puerto Rico.
Many tribes settled on islands along the way, including Martinique, Guadeloupe, Antigua, Barbuda and the Virgin Islands. For the Lucayans-to-be, it was a longer paddle to Hispaniola and even further from there to the Turks and Caicos and Great Inagua, the southernmost island of The Bahamas.
… and why?
Why did they leave the Orinoco basin? The usual answer is that they were fleeing from the warlike Caribs, another tribe that lived along the banks of the Orinoco. But it’s also possible that the movement of native peoples into the Caribbean was simply a continuation of the restlessness that drove early man to explore the unknown territories in front of him.
Alexander Von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist–described by Charles Darwin as “the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived”–had first-hand knowledge of tribal life along the Orinoco.
Humboldt explored the length of that river in 1800. He found many thousands of Caribs still living in the area, although it had been thought at the time they had been killed off in their wars with the Spanish.
Humboldt admired them, writing that “their daring, and warrior and mercantile skills exerted a big influence on the base part of the land.” He added that the cruelty of the Caribs was exaggerated “because the first discoverers listened only to stories from conquered tribes.” The missionaries that he met told him “the Caribs are perhaps the least cannibalistic of the New World tribes. Perhaps the do-or-die way in which [they] fought the Spaniards … contributed to their fame for ferocity.”
Many of those thought to be Caribs during the Spanish conquest actually were not. In 1520, Rodrigo de Figueroa was appointed by the Spanish Court to decide which South American tribes–and there were many of them throughout the Caribbean–were Caribs.
His report, wrote Humboldt, “is one of the most curious records of the early conquistadores’ barbarism. Without paying attention to languages, any tribe that was accused of eating prisoners was called Carib.”
He added, “It was Christopher Columbus who first decided to attack the Caribs and deny them their freedom and natural rights–he was a fifteenth-century man, and less humane than is thought today.”
It is interesting to note that, by the time Columbus arrived in 1492, the Caribs were still travelling up through the Caribbean and had not yet reached The Bahamas.
Fate of the Lucayans
While there is still much to learn about the origins of the Lukku-cairi, the exodus of their forebears from the Orinoco valley and their multi-generational journey to The Bahamas, there is little mystery left about their ultimate fate.
A decade after Columbus, a nobleman by the name of Nicolás Ovando was appointed by the Spanish King to, among other things, ensure that “… the Indians pay the tributes and dues they owe Us as subjects in Our Kingdoms.”
The barbarity of that period is scarely believable. Research by Sandra Riley and Thelma B Peters, in their book Homeward Bound: A History of the Bahama Islands to 1850, revealed that natives “were cut to pieces, roasted over slow fires … devoured by dogs, hanged in lots of thirteen … and tortured in numerous bizarre ways. Many were killed for sport.”
Population statistics tell the story. When Columbus arrived in 1492, between 400,000 and 500,000 natives were living in Hispaniola. By 1507, an official census showed that only 60,000 remained.
At first, to keep the gold mines and plantations in full production, Ovando imported Ladinos–African slaves born in Spain (they were the first of African descent to arrive in the New World). And then he sent raiding parties into The Bahamas starting in 1502.
A cruel hoax
According to 16th-century accounts, the commanders of these expeditions told the Lucayans they had come from a delightful country where their dead ancestors lived and that these ancients wanted living Lucayans to join them there.
Some of the duped Lucayans died en route, as was usual on slave ships, and many of the survivors later willed themselves to die. Peter Martyr wrote: “in an anguish of despair, retiring to desert caves and unfrequented woods, [they] silently give up the ghost.”
Last of the Lukku-cairi
When pearls were discovered at Cubagua, a small island off the coast of Venezuela, the last of the Lucayans were enlisted as divers to gather oysters from the seabed.
Whereas the going price for slaves at that time was said to be four gold pesos, the Lucayans, because of their diving skills, fetched 150 pesos.
Las Casas relates: “The pearl fishers dive into the sea at a depth of five fathoms (30 ft), and do this from sunrise to sunset, and remain for many minutes without breathing, tearing the oysters out of their rocky beds where pearls are formed. They come to the surface with a netted bag of oysters where a Spanish torturer is waiting in a canoe or skiff, and if the pearl diver shows signs of wanting to rest, he is showered with blows.
“Often a pearl diver does not return to the surface, for these waters are infested with man-eating sharks that can kill, eat, and swallow a whole man.”
By 1513, when Ponce de Leon travelled through The Bahamas on his famous search for the Fountain of Youth, he was disappointed to find not a single human being on any of the Bahamian islands.
It’s difficult to believe that a whole indigenous people could be extinguished so quickly, but such was the terrible fate of the Lukku-cairi.
With them gone, the islands remained devoid of humanity for 125 years, until the Eleutherian Adventurers–a band of idealistic English settlers seeking religious freedom–arrived from Bermuda in 1647. But that’s another story.
First settlers of The Bahamas
Last days of the Lucayans and their way of life
Information in editorial and listings is subject to change at any time.