The City of True Peace—and Euphemisms
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.