Regal plaza fit only for ghosts

Columbus's Outpost among the Taínos
March 5, 2004

La Isabela was the first permanent European settlement in the Americas. It was founded on January 6 1494 during Christopher Columbus' second voyage to the Americas (1493-1496) and was named after Queen Isabela of Spain and located on the north coast of Hispaniola in what is today the Dominican Republic. In its five years of life, the town came to embody the worst aspects of European colonisation - depressing history perhaps, but fascinating archaeology.

Columbus's Outpost is a popular distillation of some ten years of archaeological research led by the authors; a more academic version has also been published. It is an insightful account of the historical archaeology of an important European town, and an investigation into the interaction between the Spanish and the indigenous Taíno (Arawak) peoples.

The relationships forged at La Isabela had momentous consequences for both groups and became a poignant and ultimately disastrous template for European dealings with Amerindians throughout the Caribbean.

Excavations have brought to light a wealth of everyday European material culture, from coins and merchants' weights to pieces of Spanish armour. On a larger scale, a Spanish-Moorish pottery kiln was found, as were the only surviving remnants of 15th-century European architecture in the Americas.

In the church cemetery, both European and Ta!no burials were discovered, the former interred, it seems, in a simple shroud.

La Isabela was located on a rocky promontory, close to Ta!no routes to the supposedly gold-rich interior. Its layout followed Spanish urban traditions, with a central plaza, a stone-built church, and some 200 thatch-roofed dwellings. This plan, together with the rigid European idea of settlement that it embodied, seems to have sealed La Isabela's fate.

Little thought was given to the Caribbean climate or the availability of food, shortages of which soon combined with dysentery and influenza to ravage settlers.

Columbus was often away searching for gold and enslaving the natives, returning to find yet more settlers had either died or commandeered ships to return to Spain and blacken his name. By June 1495, La Isabela's population had fallen from 1,700 a year earlier to 630, and soon it was 300. In July 1496, royal permission was granted to build a town near the gold mines at Santo Domingo on the south coast, and from 1498, ships from Spain bypassed the town altogether.

La Isabela was not forgotten. As the authors' investigations have shown, a folk memory of the town's miserable existence populated it with ghosts of those who had suffered. It was raided for building materials up until the 19th century, and its isolation proved attractive to smugglers.

This impressive book is well illustrated and informative. It lays bare a town that briefly stood at the crossroads of history.

Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in material culture, University College London.

Columbus's Outpost among the Taínos: Spain and America at La Isabela, 1493-1498

Author - Kathleen Deagan and José María Cruxent
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 294
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 300 09040 4

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