Have You Met The Baron? The History of Voodoo’s Creepiest Loa
Death, it’s an integral part of humanity. It’s something we all have to face at one point or other. Symbolically, death deals with transformation-parts of us die all the time to make room for growth. In a way, we’re continually dying, constantly changing and growing from our experiences. The Baron is a symbol of death, yes, but he’s also a symbol of transformation. I’d like to share his story with you.
The Taíno Peoples
To understand the Baron, we need to understand the culture he came from. The island that now includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic was first inhabited about 5000 BCE. Around 300 BCE, we begin to see farming villages pop up. Evidence suggests that the people who inhabited the Caribbean came there by boat from the mainland, the Yucatan Peninsula. The largest majority of the indigenous tribes were known as the Arawak peoples. They’re the ones who begin to develop large communities. Now, the Taíno (Ta-ee-no), who were a subgroup of the Arawak peoples, end up becoming the prominent tribe in the area. These were Indians of the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. The Taíno inhabited Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica.
The Taínos had a complex culture. There were millions of them living in Hispaniola. Their communities were densely populated and well organized. They were inventive peoples. They figured out how to strain cyanide out of yuca, which was an extremely important crop for them. They even developed a pepper gas for warfare and built enormous canoes for ocean travel. When the Spanish discovered their homeland, they become fascinated by the Taíno. Specifically, a game these indigenous people played with a rubber ball. The Spanish had never seen rubber before. Nor, had they seen sport like this.
The Taíno religion centered on the worship of what they called Zemis. These were either gods, spirits, or ancestors. These Zemi controlled various functions of the universe, kind of like the Haitian Loa in Voodoo. We’ll get to Voodoo in a bit. For now, it’s important to note the similarities between the two.
Did you know the Taíno were the people who greeted Christopher Columbus when he “discovered” the Americas? We’ve all heard the “1492 Christopher Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue” song. Well, what you might not know is that is that the Santa Maria (one of his ships) was the first shipwreck of Columbus’ voyage. It ran up on a sandbar, or a reef, off the island of Haiti. Now, the Santa Maria was the biggest ship he had. Columbus and his crew couldn’t get it off the reef. So, they had a decision to make. They used the materials from the shipwreck to build a fort on this new land they discovered. He couldn’t fit everyone from the Santa Maria back on the other two ships. So, they left 39 men on the fort and sailed off. Columbus figured there was a lot of gold on the island. He stationed his men to start negotiations with the indigenous people.
A little over a year later, Columbus comes back on his second voyage to find the fort he’d left nothing but smoldering ashes. His men had been dead at least two weeks, according to a physician on board. Not a great start to the colonization effort for Spain, huh? It didn’t matter though. This time Columbus had more men and more weapons, weapons the Taíno hadn’t seen before. They begin to make demands upon the Taíno. Of course, the Taíno didn’t accept this. They succeed in running Columbus off that part of Hispaniola. It wasn’t a great loss to him, though. He ended up leaving that area and sailed down the coast another 80 miles. This time he makes a settlement when he hits land, the settlement of Isabella. This is the beginning of the end for the Taino. Sickness, slavery, and straight up butchery ensues from here on.
The Spanish brought smallpox with them, which ended up wiping out most the Taíno peoples. However, slavery was just as, if not more so culpable for the near annihilation of these peoples. Remember, the slave trade began shortly after Columbus’ “discovery” of the new world. And, the backbone of the Spaniard’s economic system during their colonization campaigns was the demand they could make on the labor of the Taíno. Basically, if a Taíno did not accept Christianity as their religion, that Taíno could, legally, become a slave. The Taínos were more than overworked at the hands of the Spanish. They were treated like they weren’t even human beings. They used them as labor in the gold mines and plantations. They took them from their families during peak agricultural seasons. They were beaten, enslaved, and there’s even one account by Father Las Casas where he talks about the “River of Blood” in Cuba. This was due to a massacre of the Taínos by the Spaniards.
Remember how many Taínos inhabited Hispaniola? Millions. And yes, they tried to fight back. However, they weren’t a match against guns, bows and arrows, and horses. They’d never encountered this before. Now factor int he countless deaths at the hands of European diseases. It’s no wonder why this culture was destroyed. The situation was so horrific that there are even accounts of some Taínos killing their children and then themselves so they wouldn’t have to endure the tortuous life at the hands of the Spanish. By 1514, their population had dwindled to a mere 30,000. 30,000-from millions. By the end of the 16th century, the Taínos had virtually vanished.