Few people seem to be aware of this, but the greatest genocide in the history of our planet began in 1493 when Columbus returned to the Caribbean in search of riches for the Spanish Crown. In a single generation the millions of Tainos who inhabited the Greater Antilles and neighboring islands were all but wiped out, and as the European conquerors spread over North and South America other native peoples met a similar fate, seeing their civilizations subjugated and their people decimated through warfare, slavery, and disease. There are times when forgetting is a blessing of Providence but some things should never be forgotten. The more I learned about the Taino people, the more I realized that they deserved to have their voice heard, to have their place in the gallery of voices that make up our human history—both the tragedy and pain of their demise and the riches of their cultural heritage. To go back in time over five hundred years to resurrect a largely forgotten story was an enormous challenge, one that required a great deal of research and whatever powers of imagination I could summon, but it was a deeply rewarding challenge on many levels. The title comes from the Taino areito, a long ceremonial song, both historical and mythological in content, that their shamans and chiefs would perform during religious festivals, thereby preserving and celebrating the cultural memory of their people. Theirs is a tragic story but it is also one of hope and celebration, for the spirit of the Taino remains alive in the Caribbean and that should be celebrated for as long as human beings live in these islands.
For many centuries the islands of Haiti and Borikén had been home to the Taino people, the peace-loving inhabitants of the Greater Antilles whose carefree society led Columbus to believe that he had stumbled across the earthly paradise that stirred the imagination of most fifteenth-century Europeans — until he and the Spanish conquistadors initiated the most terrible genocide our planet has ever witnessed. This is the story of the epic encounter between two alien civilizations in the lands that the Spanish renamed Española and Puerto Rico, between a unique culture that would soon vanish from the earth—though its legacy lives on throughout the Caribbean—and a crusading nation whose lust for gold and missionary zeal brought the fires of hell to a new world whose cultures and traditions were old as its own.
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