The great Taino indian warrior Cotubanamá defied the Spanish conquistadors and eventually paid the ultimate price. The Spanish tried to wipe both him and his people from history, but they failed; and Cotubanamá’s name will forever be synonymous with Saona island.
This is why…
The year was 1502 and the Taino indians, native peoples of the Dominican Republic, had been decimated by the Spanish conquistadors who landed in the New Word only 10 years prior. The Tainos were not a warlike people – they actually invented the hammock! But some Tainos were forced to fight after the Spanish enslaved their people in their non-stop search for gold.
When Hispaniola’s first governor, Nicolas de Ovando arrived to the island in 1502 he had one goal in mind, pacify the natives and put them to work on Spanish plantations and inside Spanish mines. Unfortunately, he faced almost immediate resistance from the Tainos in the east of the country – in Higuey and on Saona Island. Led by their brave warrior and chief Cotubanamá, the eastern Tainos refused to fully submit to the unwelcomed colonists. With few options, Governor Ovando sent soldiers to try and negotiate with the locals. Negotiations were supposed to be peaceful, but during the talks a Spanish attack dog mauled and killed a lower cacique (Indian chief).
The Tainos were furious with the grotesque and senseless murder of one of their own and Cotubanamá sent out the word of continued rebellion against the Spanish. Not long after the dog attack, a group of Spanish sailors made a pit stop at Saona Island – on their way to the north coast town of Puerto Plata. Could you blame them? It was an innocent decision to simply stretch their legs at this Caribbean paradise of shallow waters and sandy beaches, but the Tainos were watching and were waiting for an opportunity just like this one.
There, a group of Tainos ambushed the Spaniards, killing them all. Not surprisingly, upon learning of the killings, Governor Ovando sent some 500 Spanish soldiers to crush the eastern rebellion and to capture their leader – Cotubanamá. A truce was no longer an option.
What followed, according to Bartoleme de las Casas (a Spanish historian) was, “A massacre in which hundreds of Taínos perished of all sexes and ages.” The natives were no match for the better armed Spanish soldiers. Those Tainos who weren’t slaughtered were enslaved, some having their hands cut off. All those enslaved (approximately 4,000) were sent to Santo Domingo in chains.
Through the torture of captured natives, the Spanish learned that Cotubanamá was holed up, in a large cave on Saona Island, with his family and his ablest warriors. Here, he was planning his counterattack. But, the Spanish were now one step ahead. They quickly surprised Cotubanamá on Saona, taking him and his men captive.
Cotubanamá was transported, by ship, to Santo Domingo and handed to Governor Ovando. His rap sheet was as follows:
Then, by order of Governor Ovando, Cotubanamá was hung in a public plaza for his “crimes”. His name would be lost to time.
But more than 500 years later, on October 8, 2014, Dominican President Danilo Medina signed into law decree 519-14 which officially changed the name of the National Park of the East (where Saona Island is located) to Cotubanamá National Park. A move that finally recognized Cotubanamá’s leadership among the caciques (Taino chieftains) as the first to rebel against Spanish rule and fiercely defend his people.
During the signing of the bill President Medina said it best, “The chief Cotubanamá was a great defender of his race, which is why the National Park must be named after him, in order to immortalize this great Taino chief and warrior.”
Today, Saona is known for it’s awe-inspiring Caribbean beaches that attract thousands of visitors every year. But its Caribbean shores were once home to the native Tainos. Thankfully, the true history was not lost and Saona Island will forever reside within the confines of the aptly named Cotubanamá National Park.
According to Law 519-14, in which the Parque Nacional del Este is renamed Parque Nacional Cotubanamá, it states:
The chief Cotubanamá was a great defender of his race, which is why the National Park must be named after him, in order to immortalize this great Taino chief and warrior 1
TJ MurrayBavaro, Dominican Republic
TJ Murray is a writer/photographer and an expert on travel in the Dominican Republic. He has wandered the country's furthest reaches and smallest corners and has a passion for highlighting his favorite destinations through travel articles and photography. When TJ isn't traveling in the Dominican Republic, he is trekking in South America or surfing where he lives in Bavaro, Dominican Republic.