Prior to European conquest, three major indigenous groups, The Taíno, The Caribs, and the Ciboney generally dominated the Caribbean. Of these, the Taíno proved to be one of the most dominant as it controlled the Greater Antilles, present day Cuba Jamaica, Haiti, The Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. They had developed a social structure that was made up of naborias (commoners) and nitaínos (nobles) who were governed by chiefs called caciques (who were either male or female), who were advised by priests/healers known as bohiques. This advanced set of structures, especially the inclusion of women in leadership roles, defined the Taíno’s social and political way of life. They practiced a complex religion that centered upon the worship of different gods that controlled aspects of daily life, such as growing cassava or storms. Gold and shells were used to create jewelry that was worn by many. This advanced society, like many other societies that inhabited America prior to colonization, could not resist or survive the onset of European invaders.
The Spaniards were the first Europeans to arrive in the area and have contact with the Taíno on Columbus’ voyage in 1492. After his introduction to the Taíno, Columbus realized that their use of gold and shells could be exploited and on his second voyage, he began making them pay tributes in the form of bags of gold. If the tributes were not brought within time, the Spaniards would cut off the offending Taíno’s hands and leave them to die. This brutality and exploitation completely changed the ideological and political structures that the tribe had cultivated over the centuries. Where their own leaders and noble classes once ruled the land, there were now Spanish rulers who had control over all of the Taínos, regardless of previous class. Where they were once free to practice their long-standing religion, now Christianity was being forced upon them. Another social change came as the result of the lack of women on the initial voyages to the Caribbean from Spain; many indigenous women were either taken as involuntary wives or experienced high levels of sexual violence. As a generally peaceful group that valued the women of the community, it came as a shock to the Taíno to see how the Spaniards treated women. Not much could be done, however, to prevent the intrusion of the Spaniards into the Taíno way of life due to foreign disease, conflict with invaders, and slavery that had decimated the population by 1548, cutting down a society of almost 500,00 people into a population of less that 1000 in less than 100 years.