Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/November 1889/The Lucayan Indians


By Prof. W. K. BROOKS,


IN three years the world will unite in celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of what, from our point of view, is the grandest and most important event in history, the landing of Columbus; but in our consciousness of its profound significance, are we not in danger of forgetting that the Spaniards discovered America in the way that pirates discover a vessel with a helpless crew? While no one can doubt that the world, as a whole, has been benefited, there is reason to question whether any of the islands which Columbus himself discovered have profited by the change. Hayti is almost completely in a state of revolting and hopeless savagery, and recent writers assert that Jamaica is rapidly traveling the same road. The condition of Cuba is by no means encouraging to her friends; and in the Bahamas, abandoned homesteads, costly villas tumbling to ruins, roofless walls, and fields and plantations converted into tropical jungles, testify to anything but prosperity. The population of the Bahamas is less to-day than it was on the day Columbus landed, and it is not increasing.

He found the Bahamas in the possession of a prosperous and happy people who called the islands the Lucayas, and themselves Ceboynas. Twelve years afterward every soul of this population of more than forty thousand men, women, and children had perished in a strange land under the lash of the slave-driver; the race was blotted off the face of the earth, and the only impression which has been left upon our civilization by those who first welcomed it to this continent is a single word, which, together with the luxurious article it designates, has spread over the whole earth. The Ceboynas gave us the hammock, and this one Lucayan word is their only monument.

Nowhere in all the black pages of history is there a darker tragedy than theirs; and while it is eminently proper that we should pay all homage to the transcendent genius and noble nature of the great admiral, and that we should celebrate with all pomp and pride the miraculous growth of our own civilization, does it not also become us to commemorate in some way, at the same time, the story of the unhappy and forgotten Ceboynas, to whom the discovery had a still more profound significance?

How intensely interesting, just at present, is any addition to our knowledge of the other party to the transaction! The writer has recently spent two seasons in zoölogical research in the Bahama Islands, and has been able to learn a few facts, which are new to the science of anthropology, relating to the bodily structure of the long-lost Ceboynas, and thus to contribute toward the perpetuation of their memory.

There is not much intrinsic interest in a few fragments of human bones, but the Ceboyna skull which stands upon my table as I write gives life and vivid reality to the familiar story in the first chapter of my school history, and calls up in all its details with startling clearness the drama of the Bahama Islands.

To most of us these islands are little more than dots upon the map, but, small and sterile and unimportant as they are, they form one of the fairest landscapes upon earth, for they present all the conditions which are most favorable for intensity of color of earth and sea and sky. Under the combined influence of white soil, intense sunlight, and perfect purity of air and water, they glow with the sparkling colors of jewels. The hot air is loaded with moisture to the saturation-point, like that of the deep, shady recesses of a rocky glen on the edge of a waterfall; but the islands are also as wind-swept as a mountain-top, and the air is absolutely pure, for the ocean breeze brings with it no smoke nor dust, no pollen nor vegetable refuse, nor anything whatever except pure, moist, warm air. As the saturated sea-breeze blows over the thousand islands of the archipelago, the slight difference between the temperature of the changeless ocean and that of the variable land, which heats quickly in the daytime and cools quickly at night, manifests itself by the formation of great, snow-white banks of summer clouds which are as characteristic of the Bahama horizon as the water itself or the deep, pure blue of the sky between the clouds.

The islands stand on the extreme edge of a submerged abyss where the surface falls as suddenly and to as great a depth as it does from the summit of the Andes, and the unfathomable water of mid-ocean is only a few miles away. Some of the out islands are only two miles or so from water more than two miles deep, and the currents which sweep through the sounds and around the islands at each turn of the tide are absolutely pure, and they have the intense color which is found in mid-ocean, or the melted ice of glacial lakes, or in the center of the rocky basin of Lake Superior. In great depths this color is a pure, vivid sapphire blue, darker but more transparent than the blue of the sky. In the shallow sounds, where the intense sunlight is reflected back from the chalky bottom, it glows like a surface of beryl with an intense green lustre totally unlike anything which is met with in other waters, although the center of the Horseshoe at Niagara would be very similar if it plunged over a ledge of white marble under the light of a tropical sun. All these influences combine to give a degree of intensity and vividness which can not exist in a continent to all the colors of a landscape which is wrapped in perpetual spring. Under their dome of blue sky and snowy clouds the Isles of June, in their setting of sapphire, are buried under a mantle of verdure so dense and luxuriant that the vegetation thrives as if in a hot-house, and, abandoning the rocky and sterile ground and contenting themselves with the warm, moist sea-breeze, not only the mosses and ferns and orchids and bromeliads, but large trees as well, grow tier above tier, climbing over each other's heads in their efforts to escape the struggle for existence and to obtain air and sunlight and standing-room.

Who can wonder that, when Columbus found himself in this enchanted fairy-land after the changeless monotony of mid-ocean and all the anxieties of his long voyage into unknown waters, he should have been most profoundly impressed by its beauty, for nowhere on earth can we find a fairer land than these Isles of June. The exciting occupations incident upon his arrival left him little time for writing, but he faithfully jotted down day by day in his log-book in short, crisp sentences which even now are full of graphic interest, the impressions which were still fresh upon him. The United States Coast Survey has recently done good service to history by the publication of an English translation of this rare and almost unknown document, and the extracts in this paper are from this translation. After he set sail on the second day, he says that he saw so many islands that he could not decide to which one he should go first, and the men he had taken told him by signs that they were innumerable. On the fifth day he writes of the island which he named Isabella: "There was in it twelve leagues, as far as a cape which I called Cape Beautiful, which is in the west, and so it is beautiful, round, and very deep and free from shoals; at first it is rocky and low, but farther in it is a sandy beach, as it is along most of our coast. The island is the most beautiful thing I have seen; if the others are very beautiful, this is still more so; it has many trees, very green and Very large, and this land is higher than that of the other islands I have discovered, although it can not be called mountainous. Yet gentle hills enhance with their contrasts the beauty of the plain, and there appears to be much water in the middle of the island. Northeast of this cape there is an extensive promontory, and there are many groves very thick and very large. I wished to anchor off it in order to land, and visit so handsome a spot, but it was shallow and I could not anchor, except far from land, and the wind was very favorable to come to this cape, where I am now anchored, and which I have called the Cape Beautiful because it is so; and so I did not anchor off that promontory, because I saw this cape so green and so beautiful, as are all the other things and lands of these islands, so that I do not know to which to go first, nor do my eyes grow tired with looking at such beautiful verdure; and when I reached this cape the odor came so good and sweet from flowers or trees on the land, that it was the sweetest thing in the world."

Of the Island of Fernandina, he says (October 16th): "The island is very green and level, and exceedingly fertile. . . . I saw many trees whose shape was very different from ours, and many of them which had branches of many kinds, although all growing from one trunk, and one branch of one kind and another of another kind, and so different that the diversity of the kinds is the greatest wonder of the world for instance, one branch had leaves like those of cane, and another like those of a mastic; and thus on a single tree there were five or six of these kinds, and all so different; nor can it be said that they have been grafted, because these trees grow wild in the field and nobody cares for them.

"The fishes here are so different from ours that it is a wonder. Some look like cocks of the finest colors in the world, blue, yellow, red, and all colors, and others variegated in a thousand fashions; their different hues being so exquisite that nobody can contemplate them without wondering, and feeling great delight in seeing them. There are also whales here; but on shore I saw no beasts whatever, save parrots and lizards."

Columbus found all these islands much more thickly inhabited than they are to-day, by a race of people who called themselves Ceboynas, although his misconception as to the nature of his discovery led him to bestow on them the name by which all the aboriginal inhabitants of this continent are now known.

As they had very few artificial wants, and were able to live without forethought or care in a land which knows no change of sea ms, where the harvest ripens without attention, and a tempting fish for the day's dinner can be picked out and speared as if it floated in the clear water of an aquarium, they were totally ignorant of much that the Spaniards regarded as essential for man, and Columbus, mistaking simplicity for destitution, makes the entry in his log-book that he "thought them to be a very poor people." It is true that, except for the "one who wore in his nose a piece of gold of the size of half a castellano, on which were letters," he found no indications of the wealth of India; but before he had been a week in the New World he discovered three luxuries which have been warmly welcomed by the whole civilized world.

On the third day he enters in his log that "the men I sent for water told me that the houses were well swept and perfectly clean, and that their beds and coverings looked like cotton nets, which they called hamacas"; and within a few days, as he extended his explorations to the neighboring Antilles, he met with cigars and chocolate. Poor the Ceboynas might be in the matter of useless clothing and arms, but a race which could doze idly in hammocks, under the blue sky, in the warm sea-breeze, idly puffing their Havana cigars, as they gazed out on to the flashing water and waited for their crops to ripen, were not completely destitute and squalid. Civilized man might well covet even a harder life than that of the natives of the lovely Lucayan Islands before the discovery, but every school-boy knows the rude awakening which the peaceful Ceboynas soon received.

Two years ago I enjoyed the delights of a long cruise, in the schooner which carries the mails, through the calm, landlocked sounds which thread in all directions the mazes of the archipelago, and the gentle but unfailing breeze bore me on day after day, while new beauties rose up and unfolded themselves before me as the islands I had passed dropped down toward the horizon behind me and faded away, until there stole over me the feeling that the whole might be some fairy landscape traced by fancy in the summer clouds, and that if I closed my eyes for a minute I might find it all dissolving into air.

As I passed the little inlets, with their lines of white breakers, and beyond them the deep blue of the open ocean fading in the distance into the lighter blue of the sky; or, as I leaned over the rail while the vessel slipped on as if it were hung in mid-air; as I watched the gaudy fishes darting over the white sand many fathoms below, or caught glimpses into the deep dark caves between the great, dome-like coral-heads which swept up in smooth curves from the depths almost to the surface, and overhung cool grottoes hung with gorgeous anemones and sea-fans and sea-feathers, among which innumerable animals in an endless diversity of strange forms could be dimly seen as the vessel slipped by; as I drifted on day after day, and passed one charming spot after another, only to find still more beauty beyond, I could not escape the thought that in this enchanted land of beauty which no brush could paint, where every prospect pleases, man has been unutterably vile, and this not the heathen in his blindness, but the conqueror who, as old Bernal Diaz quaintly but frankly puts it, "Took his life in his hand that he might give light to them who sit in darkness, and satisfy the thirst for gold which all men feel."

Less than fifteen years after the discovery the forty thousand Ceboynas were gone, and the Lucayas were left desolate. For nearly two hundred years every one of these thousands of lovely islands was abandoned to the parrots and lizards, and, except for the visits of Ponce de Leon, in his search for the magic fountain, and an occasional English sailor, no boat moved through these quiet sounds; until at last the peaceful islanders who, as Coumbus writes to Queen Isabella, were the best people on earth, and loved their neighbors as themselves, were replaced by a new population, and the banner of the Jolly Rodger gathered here, from the ports of Europe, the worst human scum which civilization has ever produced. Who could cruise through this earthly paradise without meditating upon the fruit of our civilization as it has here developed itself?

While Columbus had none of the vices of lesser men, he felt bound to fulfill his promise to enrich those who had aided him; and on his first Sunday, October 14th, only two days after his landing, the gentle influences of the Sabbath in this strange and beautiful land moved him to commit his impressions to writing, and, while his pen overflows with the delights of the New World and the loveliness of the people, he enters in his log that he is keeping a keen watch for a place to build a fort; for, he says, "Inasmuch as the people are perfectly defenseless, and totally unacquainted with arms, a force of fifty men could keep them captive in their own island and make them do whatever might be desired," in case the king might not wish them all taken to Spain as slaves.

As he found no gold, except the nose-ornament, worth about a dollar and a half, which the owner refused to barter for glass beads, Columbus soon left the Lucayas, and for a few years they were forgotten. By an accident hardly less probable than the discovery of a new world, he soon actually found rich goldmines in Hayti, and for a time the Spaniards forgot their desire to give light to them who sit in darkness, in their eagerness to slake their thirst for gold. They did not, however, forget the cotton nets of the Ceboynas, and they soon discovered, as all white men in the tropics do, that it is much easier to lie in a hammock puffing a cigar, and to sip chocolate as the days slip by, than to dig for gold, and they then bethought themselves of their duty to enlighten the darkness of the heathen natives of the Lucayas.

The king at once perceived the importance of bringing these people under Christian influences, and in 1509, or less than eleven years after the discovery, he issued an order for the deportation of the whole population of the Lucayas to New Spain, and the work of conversion was at once vigorously instituted with the aid of blood-hounds.

For a time the Spaniards seem to have regarded the Antilles as an inexhaustible slave-quarry, and to have thought it cheaper to replenish their exhausted stock of slaves than to care for those they had. They soon found, however, that it was not so easy as Columbus had thought to make the Ceboynas "do whatever might be desired"; and while the people who had never labored for themselves were powerless to escape slavery, they resisted to the death all the efforts of the Spaniards to profit by their labor.

So relentless were the conquerors, and so determined and hopeless the captives, that the unhappy slaves perished by wholesale in the mines of Hayti, under the lashes of their drivers and the steel swords which were often broken over their obstinate heads; and even now the mind recoils from the contemplation of the few facts regarding the fate of the Lucayans which history has preserved.

As an illustration, Las Casas gives, among others, the case of one Spaniard who, three months after he had received three hundred Lucayan slaves, had less than thirty left alive. For a short time this destruction was made good by fresh importations, but the supply was soon exhausted. All the islands were left desolate, and the Lucayan race was as if it had never been. The hammock, the first gift of the New World to civilization, is their only monument, and the word the sole remnant of their language.

Columbus says that, on Saturday, October 13th, the second day, "A great crowd came, each bringing something, giving thanks to God, and entreating or beseeching us to land. We understood that they asked us if we had come down from heaven"; and before the children, who were led to the beach to welcome the celestial visitors who had been borne to them on white wings out of the blue dome which bounded their world, had grown to man-hood, they perished, with all their race, in a foreign land.

Where shall we find a sadder story than this? The evil was done long ago; there is now no remedy; but as the recollection thrills our pulse, and our generous sympathies are awakened, how eagerly do we ask the question: "What manner of men were the Lucayans? What were they like?"

These questions I am now able to answer, at least imperfectly,

and the skull which is here figured once belonged to a person who may possibly have been among those who welcomed Columbus.

Like all coral islands, the Bahamas abound in caves, and these were used in some way by the Ceboynas, perhaps as burial-places, possibly as refuges from the blood-hounds of the Spaniards. The floor of these caves consists of red clay, rich in phosphates and of commercial value, and within recent years it has been removed from most of them and sold. During the excavations many human bones and other relics were found, but they attracted little interest, and most of them were destroyed. I learned, however, during a recent visit to the islands, that a few of the bones had found their way into the hands of thoughtful and intelligent persons, and had thus been preserved. Their custodians at once appreciated my desire to study them, and generously placed them at my service for this purpose, so that I was able to obtain notes for a pretty complete anthropological description of the Ceboynas. The wife of the governor of the colony, Mrs. Blake, a most enthusiastic and able naturalist, whose contributions to science are well known, had herself explored one of the caves—an undertaking which calls for energy and endurance quite incomprehensible to any one who has never attempted exploration in the tropics. She had found fragments of several skeletons in the cave, and she placed them all in my hands as soon as I expressed a wish to study them. Dr. J. C. Alberry, a Nassau physician, was equally generous with a female skull in perfect preservation, which he had in his office, and both he and Mrs. Blake afterward authorized me to deposit these relics of a lost and almost unknown race in one of our great anthropological collections. The Nassau Public Library contains two male skulls which the trustees kindly permitted me to draw and measure.

As the result of my examination of this material, I am now able to state that the Lucayans were large people, about equal in size and stature to the average European, and very muscular and heavy. The bones, especially those of the skulls, are very thick, firm, and heavy, with a surface almost as dense and white as ivory. After examining the skulls, it is easy to credit the statement that the steel swords of the Spaniards were often broken over the hard heads of the Lucayans. The brain was large, and the capacity of the cranium is about equal to that of an average Caucasian skull; but they had protuberant jaws and the powerful neck- and jaw-muscles of true savages, and the outlines of the skulls have none of the softness and delicacy which characterize those of more civilized and gentle races of men. The eyes were very oblique, sloping downward away from the nose, and the orbits are very large and angular. The cheek-bones are broad and high, and the jaws peculiarly massive and square.

The skulls are extremely broad in proportion to their length, and they are among the most brachycephalic, or round-headed, of all known human skulls, the greatest breadth being more than nine tenths of the greatest length.

The Ceboynas flattened their heads artificially in infancy, so that the vertical part of the forehead is completely obliterated in all the adult skulls, and the head slopes backward immediately above the eyes. This flattening was practiced to such a degree that the bones of the child's skull were often broken by the pressure of the bandages, and two out of the four skulls had false joints, which appear to be the result of fracture produced in this way.

The type of the race is extremely well marked, and, after one of the skulls had been examined, it was easy to see at a glance that the others belong to the same people, and their characteristics agree closely with the very short description of the Ceboynas which Columbus gives.

In his log-book, October 13th, he says: "At dawn many of these men came down to the shore. All are, as already said, youths of good size and very handsome; their hair not woolly, but loose and coarse like horses' hair. They have broader heads and foreheads than I have ever seen in any race of men, and the eyes very beautiful, not small. None of them are black, but of the complexion of the inhabitants of the Canaries. All, without exception, have very straight limbs, and no bellies, and very well formed."

This passage, and a few others in his log-book, contain nearly all that is known of the race, for the rapidity with which discovery followed discovery was unparalleled; and the simple Lucayans attracted little interest or attention after the Spaniards found the large fertile islands of the Antilles and the civilization of Mexico.

We know, however, that the statements in the histories to the effect that they were naked, weaponless, and without arts, are incorrect, as they are based upon the impressions which Columbus formed during his first day among them.

It is true that the men who welcomed Columbus were naked and without weapons, and that, as they sat in their canoes, with their stiff, black hair cut straight across their low foreheads and hanging down behind in a long scalp-lock, with their naked bodies painted, "some black and some white and some red, and some whatever they find," they must have seemed like thorough savages. He soon found, however, that they had gardens and neat, well-swept houses, and that they knew how to manufacture cotton cloth, and had such simple clothing as suits the climate. Their large canoes, hewed out of the trunks of single trees, were large enough to hold forty or fifty men each, and "wonderfully built according to the locality," and Columbus says they were skillful boatmen, paddling with wonderful speed, and managing them with great dexterity.

Fragments of pottery, household utensils of carved wood, and rude pictorial carvings have been found in the islands, and the occasional discovery of beautifully polished stone implements proves, like the piece of gold marked with letters, that they were in communication with distant lands, for there is no rock, except soft coral limestone, anywhere in the archipelago. They knew the direction and distance of Cuba and Hayti, and they called the larger island by the name which it still bears. Their language was almost identical with that spoken in these islands, and, while they were upon the extreme edge of the civilization of the Gulf of Mexico, they were not entirely outside its influence, and the discoverers were able to use them as interpreters as far away from their home as Campeachy.

This is about the sum total of our knowledge of the Cebaynas, and does not their share in the discovery entitle them to our remembrance, and bind us to do what we can before November 12, 1892, to preserve them from complete oblivion?

What can we do to perpetuate their memory? There is one thing which would be a most worthy and becoming testimonial if it were practicable. The injury which they have sustained is past and irreparable, but if three years hence we could celebrate the institution of a wise, humane, and consistent method of dealing with the wards of our nation in place of the one which was initiated when Columbus devoted his first Sunday to a search for a fort, the shades of the Ceboynas might accept the sacrifice.

What else is there to be done? Can we not restore to the map the pretty word "Lucayas" as the name for the islands? Surely if Columbus has Columbia for his monument, the Lucayans are entitled to the Lucayas; and while this is only a little thing, it would be a graceful tribute to them.

In the little-known interior of the larger islands there are many caves which have never been disturbed. Canoes, stone implements, carved utensils, and other articles have been found from time to time in the out-islands, and, while the articles have no great archaeological interest, the part played by their owners in the events which are so soon to be commemorated would give great value to any new discoveries.

The delightful climate and the beauty of the landlocked sounds give to the Bahamas the greatest charm as a cruising-ground; and if some yacht-owner were to devote himself to exploration, with a well-equipped and energetic staff of earnest assistants, he might hope to gather a collection of Ceboyna relics which, placed in one of our museums, would be a permanent monument to their memory.

Dr. Eduard Naumann, of Munich, has advanced the theory, in a British Association paper, that the magnetic curves of the earth, wherever a magnetic survey has been made, show a distinct relation to mountain ranges, faults, eruptions, and tectonic disturbances. He urges that the investigation of this subject be taken up at once all over the world.