Contributed Exhibit: Representations of Indigenous People in the Caribbean

About this Exhibit

Representations of Indigenous People in the Caribbean

Representations of Indigenous People in the Caribbean

Chatoyer, chief of the Black Caribs, stands and smokes a pipe while five women (possibly his wives) approach him. All of the people have short hair and wear a white loincloth. One of the women, standing nearest to Chatoyer, has a child strapped to her chest. The other women are carrying packs or baskets on their backs. Two of the women wear white bands at the top of their calves, and Chatoyer has a knife with a carved handle in the shape of a bird's head tucked into his loincloth belt. The group appears to be standing at the base of a cliff overhung with trees, vines, and other foliage.

Exhibit Argument

Prior the the arrival of Columbus, the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean maintained unique and diverse cultures. But after the arrival of colonial Europeans in the Caribbean, indigneous peoples were largely displaced, assimilated, and killed off by disease and warfare. A number of texts that depict the early Caribbean describe the rich culture of the Caribs, Tainos, and Arawak peoples. But most European-authored texts of this period depict the indigneous peoples of the Caribbean as savage, brutes, and even cannibals. These ethnographic texts often characterize every aspect of indigneous peoples as somehow different and marvelous. But these depictions often blur the line between fact and fiction as well.


Aislyn Fredsall

David Medina

Lara Rose


ethnographic images; cannibalism; propaganda; conversion; indigenous culture

A Country of Wild, Naked, Grim, Man-eating People

In Hans Staden's Warhaftige Historia, he describes his captivity among the Tupinamba peoples of eastern Brazil. His sensational narrative of encounter claims that the indigenous peoples of eastern Brazil were ferocious cannibals, and he alleges at one point that the Tupinamba were moments away from eating him.

They Indeed Pay Homage to the Devil

Johannes De Laet’s L'Histoire du Nouveau Monde often provides details about the indigenous populations in an indifferent manner, describing them as he does the terrain: Da Laet includes chapters that focus specifically on the native populations, their customs, and their language. The fact that he takes the time to provide these details might show an interest in the indigenous populations, but like most Europeans at that time, he looks down on them, belittling their customs as “in the manner of savages” or “mean and scanty”.

"Quel roi?"

After France ceded St. Vincent to Great Britain, Sir William Young quickly realized that the most cultivable land was under control of the Black Carib people. In 1768, he sent a proclamation to their settlements to inform them that they were ordered to swear fidelity to the British crown, that their land would be bought for 8 pounds per acre, and that, in five years, they would have to leave the island. Reportedly, when the translator delivered this message to Chatoyer, he responded, “‘Quel roi?’—what king was this, of Great Britain?”

A Peaceful Sunday at Home

This Carib family is depicted in their own settlement, gathered in front of the homes they have constructed from branches of the rich foliage that surround them. In one dwelling, we can see a hammock suspended between the walls. All eight people wear loincloths; one toddler who drinks milk freely from one woman’s breast; while another toddler eats from a bowl. At the far left, a woman carries a heavy basket while a male observes, his back facing the viewer. Despite the obvious artistic richness of the Carib culture, portrayed through the jewelry and textile decorations worn by both men and women, this image likely functioned to promote the necessity of the colonial endeavor to bring Christianity and culture to the Carib “heathens.”

The Curious Case of the Caribs in the Nighttime

The Case of the Caribs in St. Vincent is Reverend Dr. Thomas Coke’s plea to assist the Caribs of St. Vincent, articulated through a letter written by George Davidson. Davidson recounts his understanding of the black Caribs and describes their customs, habits, and the effects of having been under French servitude for a number of years. Davidson’s letter also describes the polygamous marriage practices, religious observations, cassava cultivation methods and other Carib customs.

Pour Gold into Their Mouth and Say, "Eat gold, Christian"

Historia del Mondo Nuovo by Girolamo Benzoni was published in 1565 in Venice. Benzoni has a complicated attitude towards the indigenous population: he condemns the Spanish for their mistreatment and massacre of the natives, inspiring sympathy for the native populations. He also perpetuates harmful stereotypes of cannibalism. Benzoni describes native acts of violence, such as when they would catch Spaniards and “tie the hands and feet, throw them down on the ground, and pour gold into their mouth, saying: ‘Eat, eat gold, Christian’” (73), although he writes that these acts were usually in retaliation to the atrocities of the Spaniards.

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