[News] Hatuey's Rebellion - The First American Freedom Fighter

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Wed Feb 1 13:08:05 EST 2012

February 01, 2012

Hatuey's Rebellion

The First American Freedom Fighter


This February 2nd stands as the 500th anniversary 
of the death of Hatuey, an Indigenous American 
fighter for independence from colonialism not 
mentioned in the same breath as Patrick Henry, 
George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. However, 
Hatuey deserves recognition as their earliest 
ideological ancestor and great forerunner.

Little is known about Hatuey, a Taino Cacique 
[leader], not his date of birth, nor exactly when 
he first led his forces into battle. But key 
elements of his story have come down to us from 
Bishop Las Casas, the Dominican Priest, who 
became Spain’s “Defender of the Indians.” On 
February 2, 1512, Las Casas was in Cuba when 
Hatuey died at the hands of the European invaders.

Hatuey’s armed resistance began on the island of 
Hispaniola [today Haiti and the Dominican 
Republic] during the age of Columbus. It probably 
increased after 1502 when a fleet of 30 Spanish 
ships brought over the new Governor Nicolas de 
Ovando, hundreds of Spanish settlers and a number 
of enslaved Africans to pursue Spain’s search for gold.

But oppression rarely goes as planned. Before the 
year was over Governor Ovando complained to King 
Ferdinand that the enslaved Africans “fled among 
the Indians, taught them bad customs, and could 
not be captured.” The last four words reveal more 
than his problem with disobedient servants or his 
difficulty of retrieving runaways in a 
rainforest. Ovando is probably describing the 
formation of the first American rainbow 
coalition: Hatuey and his followers are greeting 
and embracing the runaway Africans as allies.

After about a decade of armed resistance in 
Hispaniola, in 1511 Hatuey and 400 of his 
followers climbed into canoes and headed to Cuba. 
His plan was not escape but to mobilize fellow 
Caribbean islanders against the bearded 
intruders, their lust for gold, and the slavery, 
misery and death their invasion brought.

In Cuba Hatuey’s clear message was recorded by 
Las Casas: the intruders “worship gold,” “fight 
and kill,”  “usurp our land and makes us slaves” 
For gold, slaves and land “they fight and kill; 
for these they persecute us and that is why we 
have to throw them into the sea

Hatuey’s forces had no sooner begun to mobilize 
Cubans when well-armed Spaniards under Diego 
Velásquez landed in Cuba. (One was Hernán Cortés 
who would conquer Mexico.) Hatuey’s strategy to 
attack, guerilla fashion, and then retreat to the 
hills and regroup for the next attack, kept the 
Spaniards pinned down at their fort at Baracoa for at least three months.

But finally a Spanish offensive overwhelmed 
Hatuey and his troops. On February 2, 1512, 
Hatuey was led out for a public execution. Las Casas described the scene:

“When tied to the stake, the cacique Hatuey was 
told by a Franciscan friar who was present . . . 
something about the God of the Christians and of 
the articles of Faith. And he was told what he 
could do in the brief time that remained to him, 
in order to be saved and go to heaven. The 
Cacique, had never heard any of this before, and 
was told he would go to Inferno where, if he did 
not adopt the Christian faith, he would suffer 
eternal torment, asked the Franciscan friar if 
Christians all went to Heaven. When told that 
they did he said he would prefer to go to Hell.”

As the first freedom fighter of the Americas, 
Hatuey not only united Africans and Indigenous 
people against the invaders, but in bringing his 
fighters from Hispaniola to Cuba, he initiated 
the first pan-American struggle for independence from colonialism.

Today a statue in Cuba celebrates Hatuey as a 
national hero, its first great liberator. He was 
more than that. He was the first of the heroic 
American freedom fighters whose contributions led 
to 1776, to the revolution in Haiti, and to Simon 
Bolivar who also sought to liberate all of the Americas from Spain.

One could argue that Hatuey was the first to have 
ignited the American spirit of liberty and 
independence that would circle the globe for the next five hundred years.

WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author of Black 
Indians: A Hidden Heritage and forty other 
American history books.  His website is www.williamlkatz.com

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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