Q: This month the United States — as well as many other countries in the Americas — will observe Columbus Day to mark the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the American continent on Oct. 12, 1492. Native American people did not always welcome their discoverers. In fact, the first documented act of resistance to European encroachment took place at what is now a national park site. Can you guess which one?
A: The brief but violent episode took place between Columbus’ crew and a half dozen Carib Indians in what is now the Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Columbus was on the second of four voyages to the Americas when his fleet of 17 vessels dropped anchor near the island known today as St. Croix on Nov. 14, 1493. Columbus himself didn’t leave his ship — apparently he never set foot anywhere on what would become U.S. territory — but instead sent 25 men ashore to meet the natives and confirm the fleet’s location. The island showed promise, as it appeared populous and extensively cultivated.
What happened next is a matter of some debate. It is recorded in four different and sometimes conflicting accounts, all from the perspective of the European explorers, including a friend of Columbus, Michele de Cuneo, and the fleet’s surgeon, Dr. Diego Alvaredo Chanca.
While on St. Croix, Columbus’ men captured several native women and boys, some of whom had apparently been held captive by the local Caribs. When the boat was making its way back to the ships, the occupants saw in the distance a small canoe with about four Carib men and two women in it. When the Caribs saw the 17 vessels, they “were so stupefied with amazement, that for a good hour they stood motionless,” according to Chanca’s account of the event.
Meanwhile, the Spaniards’ boat was heading toward them. When the Caribs realized they were being chased, it was too late to flee. Despite being vastly outnumbered, they “most courageously” took their bows and arrows and aimed them at their pursuers, Chanca wrote. Had the Spaniards not protected themselves with shields, they would have suffered heavy casualties. Still, “to one of the seamen who had a shield in his hand came an arrow, which went through the shield and penetrated his chest three inches,” de Cuneo wrote. That man died several days later, and Columbus named the promontory near the site of the attack “Cabo de las Flechas” or “Cape of the Arrows” to honor the seaman’s death.
The Caribs did not fare better. The Spaniards rammed their canoe, and when a wounded Carib tried to swim away he was hauled back on the boat with an anchor and decapitated on the spot, according to de Cuneo’s account of the event. De Cuneo then described how he took one of the women captured as a sex slave. The rest of the prisoners were apparently sent to Spain.
The Salt River encounter is the first documented resistance by American Indians to European colonists, but another episode that was not documented might have happened just a few days earlier. Two weeks after the Cape of the Arrows skirmish, Columbus’ fleet reached La Navidad, a Spanish settlement established on present-day Haiti during Columbus’ first voyage. There, his crew found the settlers’ bodies with their eyes missing. “It could have been from 15 to 20 days that they were dead,” de Cuneo wrote. Locals had apparently resented the colonists’ “lust for gold and native women,” according to a Park Service historical account.
The Caribs continued to resist the European invaders. In fact, the term “Carib” came to mean “all recalcitrant Native Americans,” according to the Park Service. Many were taken as slaves, and under constant pressure from the Spaniards, they finally left St. Croix in 1590.
The Park Service commemorates the “Cape of the Arrows” incident every year, using the occasion to cast a spotlight on the culture of St. Croix’s indigenous people whose fate turned for the worse on that November day more than 500 years ago.
About the author
Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.