Front Door to Cuba

The Legend of Hatuey

Hatuey burned at the stake

In 1511, Diego Velásquez sailed from Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic) to conquer and colonize Cuba. Among his soldiers in that expedition was Hernán Cortés, who later conquered Mexico. When he arrived in Cuba, Velásquez founded the island’s first Spanish settlement at Baracoa.

Meanwhile, reports from the Indians of Hispaniola reached Cuba. Hatuey, a Taíno chief, had escaped in canoes with about four-hundred men, women and children, to warn the Cubans about what to expect from the Spaniards. He explained the need to join against their common enemy, the white men who had inflicted so much suffering on his people.

As later recorded by Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, Hatuey showed the Cubans a basket full of gold and jewels. “Here is the God the Spaniards worship,” he said, “for these they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea…

“They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break…”

The Taínos of western and central Cuba could not believe the horrendous message brought by Hatuey, and few joined him.

Hatuey’s strategy against the Spaniards was to attack, guerilla fashion, and then disperse to the hills, where the Indians would regroup for the next attack. For about three months Hatuey’s tactics kept the Spaniards on the defensive, afraid to leave their fort at Baracoa.

Through a traitor, Velásquez was able to surround and capture Hatuey. On February 2, 1512, Hatuey was tied to a stake at the Spanish camp, where he was burned alive. Just before lighting the fire, a priest offered him spiritual comfort, showing him the cross and asking him to accept Jesus and go to heaven. “Are there people like you in heaven?” he asked. “There are many like me in heaven,” answered the priest. Hatuey answered that he wanted nothing to do with a God that would allow such cruelty to be unleashed in his name.

De Las Casas describes the fate of the Taínos. A village of about twenty-five hundred who welcomed the Spaniards, fed them and gave them drink, was immediately wiped out once the feast was over, “they set upon the Indians,” he wrote, “slashing, disemboweling and slaughtering them until their blood ran like a river.”

Of those sent to the mines, he said, the Spaniards “required of them tasks utterly beyond their strength, bending them to the earth with crushing burdens, harnessing them to loads which they could not drag, and with fiendish sport and mockery, hacking off their hands and feet, and mutilating their bodies in ways which will not bear description.”

Aside from being one of the first guerilla-style warriors in Cuba’s history, Hatuey is the first martyr in the struggle for Cuban independence.

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