The City of True Peace—and Euphemisms

Steven Newcomb

In Sir Arthur Helps’s book The Spanish Conquest in America (1855), we find a memorable and heart wrenching story of Spanish cruelty and treachery.” A female Indian leader named Anacaona of Xaraga, whom Helps calls “a queen,” lived on the island of Hispanola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

It was July, 1503, only eleven years after Cristobal Colon’s first voyage to the Caribbean. Anacaona had warmly greeted Cristobal Columbus’s brother Bartolomé Columbus, and, as a result, was initially said by the Spanish to be “a wise woman, of good manners and pleasant address.”

The story concerns the Spanish Governor Nicholas de Ovando, and a number of conquistadors who had been filling the governor’s head with rumors of an Indian revolt. Ovando arranged a meeting with “the Queen.” Anacaona and her brother received Ovando “with all courtesy and honour.” At a previous gathering, another such greeting was described as involving “many dancings, singings, maskings, runnings, wrestlings, and other trying of masteries.”

Not long after his arrival, “on a certain Sunday, after dinner,” Ovando ordered his cavalry men to mount their horses on the pretext of a tournament. The infantry prepared for action. Ovando began to play a game of quoits, and was suddenly interrupted by his men coming to him and “begging him to look at their sports.” Helps continues:

The poor Indian Queen hurried with the utmost simplicity into the snare prepared for her. She told the Governor that her Caciques [fellow leaders], too, would like to see this tournament, upon which, with demonstrations of pleasure, he bade her come with all her Caciques to his quarters, for he wanted to talk to them, intimating, as I conjecture, that he would explain the festivity to them.

Secretly, Ovando gave his cavalry men an order to surround the building, and to place “the infantry at certain commanding positions.” While talking with the Caciques, Ovando signaled his men by placing his hand on the badge of knighthood he wore on his chest. Upon receiving the signal, the men rushed into the room and captured Anacaona and the Caciques. Helps continues:

All these deluded Indian chiefs and their queen were secured. She alone was led out of Ovando’s quarters, which were then set fire to and all the chiefs burned alive. Anacaona was afterwards hanged, and the province was desolated.

Later, in Xaraga, Governor Ovando gathered together the former followers of a conquistador named Roldan. These were the very same Spaniards who had spread the rumor that Anacoana and her Caciques were planning a revolt. At the very place where he had destroyed Anacaona and her people, Ovando formed a town.

With an Orwellian-style inspiration, Ovando named the town “The City of True Peace” (La villa de la vera  Paz). A writer during Arthur Helps’s time said that a more accurate name for the city would have been “Aceldama, the field of blood.” Helps commented: “I observe that the arms assigned to this new settlement were a dove with the olive branch, a rainbow, and a cross.”

This story of the murder of Anacaona and her Caciques, and the destruction of her people illustrates the dehumanization used to achieve what René Maunier termed “occupation with domination.” It also demonstrates the way positive imagery is used to mask or veil acts of intense cruelty and heartlessness. The Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus characterized the Roman Empire’s capacity for destroying other peoples in a manner comparable to the Spanish, “they make a desert, and they call it peace.”

What are we to make of the title “The City of True Peace” and the symbols that the Spaniards erected? They involve benign sounding words, images, and euphemisms that mask horrific acts such as the murder of Anacaona and her Caciques, and the wasting of her people and village.

“Civilization” and “progress” are two other euphemisms that draw our awareness away from the underlying structure of domination and subordination at the core of the above story. Bishop Berkeley’s famous poetic line “westward the course of empire takes its way” is just a positive sounding way of saying “westward the course of domination takes its way.” The story of Anacaona demonstrates that what has been characterized as “development” and “progress” has been, from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective, the successful expansion of Christian European destructiveness across the continent and throughout the hemisphere.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.




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Two Bears Growling's picture
The Spanish were the most bloodthirsty invaders since the Vikings landed on the east coast of the USA. The Spaniards raided, plundered, enslaved, stole & murdered in the name of the Church & the king of Spain. They murdered untold numbers of peoples & destroyed whole civilizations. Never satisfied with what they had. I believe these treasures being pulled out of the seas being claimed by Spain should be instead turned over to the peoples it was originally stolen from such as the decendants of the Aztecs, Inca's, among others, etc. Why should Spain be able to claim what they stole to begin with? They shouldn't! Native peoples of these lands sue the Spanish government for the return of YOUR valuables plundered through, theft, enslavement & murder! Two Bears Growling Buffalo's Thunder
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
It makes me sad but grateful to be alive I pray for all nations to keeps spreading tradition to your children my grandmothers and grandfathers died this way firs along with each of your nations , each nation shares this story of ambush and betrayal I pray for all spirits who died for no reason for me and you I send my love and respect to all who accept it Shaun A Acu (Taino Arawak/kiche')
Anonymous's picture
Very upsetting.
Anonymous's picture
What's the difference from this to Black Friday where shoppers get trampled on and killed for a TV set on sale? What we see here in human nature at its worst. Civility and Culture are semantics used to describe the movement of universal time, not progress. Even as children one will naturally bully the other, human nature in action, survival skills at work. We know so little about the true nature of human existence, and how it's evolving. Some spiritualist call Earth "Soul School", here we are spirits learning. Cosmically being trained and discipline for something greater. Rodney King said it best, "Can't we all just get along?" I think "Healing" is OUR first lesson!!!! Many native indigenous tribes and Chiefs have always forgave with the gift of compassion. Kilauea in Hawaii, has erupted and destroyed in order to renew, and bring in a rebirth. That is the natural order of the plant and the universe. As human beings we see this time in time again,even today in Syria with their Civil War, people there are also being" Ethnic Cleansed". Euphemisms ................We are infants in the scheme of things, when will we learn to all just get along? Sunshine (Navajo, Apache, Inuit)