The First American Freedom Fighter

A half millennium ago this Feb. 2, the Spaniards felt they had put an end to the first major resistance to the European/Christian conquest of the Americas by executing Hatuey, an Indigenous freedom fighter who fought them on Hispaniola and Cuba. But Hatuey’s spirit of independence survived, as William Loren Katz notes.

By William Loren Katz

Little is known about Hatuey, a Taino Cacique [leader], not his date of birth, nor exactly when he first led his forces into battle. But key elements of his story have come down to us from Bishop Las Casas, the Dominican priest who became Spain’s “Defender of the Indians.” On Feb. 2, 1512, Las Casas was in Cuba when Hatuey died at the hands of the European invaders.

Hatuey’s armed resistance had begun on the island of Hispaniola [today’s Haiti and the Dominican Republic] during the age of Columbus and probably increased after 1502 when a fleet of 30 Spanish ships brought over the new Governor Nicolas de Ovando along with hundreds of Spanish settlers and a number of enslaved Africans to pursue Spain’s search for gold.

Monument to Hatuey in Cuba

But oppression rarely goes as planned. Before the year was over Governor Ovando complained to King Ferdinand that the enslaved Africans “fled among the Indians, taught them bad customs, and could not be captured.”

The last four words reveal more than his problem with disobedient servants or his difficulty of retrieving runaways in a rainforest. Ovando is probably describing the formation of the first American rainbow coalition: Hatuey and his followers are greeting and embracing the runaway Africans as allies.

In 1511, after about a decade of armed resistance in Hispaniola, Hatuey and 400 of his followers climbed into canoes and headed to Cuba. His plan was not escape but to mobilize fellow Caribbean islanders against the bearded intruders, their lust for gold, and the slavery, misery and death their invasion brought.

In Cuba, Hatuey’s clear message was recorded by Las Casas: the intruders “worship gold,” “fight and kill,”  “usurp our land and make us slaves” For gold, slaves and land, “they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea.”

Hatuey’s forces had no sooner begun to mobilize Cubans when well-armed Spaniards under Diego Velázquez landed in Cuba. (One was Hernán Cortés who would conquer Mexico.) Hatuey’s strategy to attack in guerrilla fashion and then retreat to the hills and regroup for the next attack kept the Spaniards pinned down at their fort at Baracoa for at least three months.

But finally a Spanish offensive overwhelmed Hatuey and his troops. On Feb. 2, 1512, Hatuey was led out for a public execution. Las Casas described the scene:

“When tied to the stake, the cacique Hatuey was told by a Franciscan friar who was present something about the God of the Christians and of the articles of Faith. And he was told what he could do in the brief time that remained to him, in order to be saved and go to heaven.

“The Cacique had never heard any of this before and was told he would go to Inferno where, if he did not adopt the Christian faith, he would suffer eternal torment. [He] asked the Franciscan friar if Christians all went to Heaven. When told that they did, he said he would prefer to go to Hell.”

Hatuey was then burned alive.

As the first freedom fighter of the Americas, Hatuey not only united Africans and Indigenous people against the invaders, but in bringing his fighters from Hispaniola to Cuba, he initiated the first pan-American struggle for independence from colonialism.

Today a statue in Cuba celebrates Hatuey as a national hero, its first great liberator. He was more than that. He was the first of the heroic American freedom fighters whose contributions led to 1776, to the revolution in Haiti, and to Simon Bolivar who also sought to liberate all of the Americas from Spain.

One could argue that Hatuey was the first to have ignited a spirit of liberty and independence that would circle the globe for the next 500 years.

William Loren Katz adapted this essay from his just published and updated edition of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. His website is:

3 comments for “The First American Freedom Fighter

  1. Bettie Jones
    February 8, 2012 at 21:17

    Thank you for this article!!!! I claim my Indian, morally!! I cannot claim it legally because I have Indian on all sides of families heritage. All four of my great Grandmothers were Indian. The Indian blood goes back to the 1600’s, I believe!!

    I am so proud of the man who this is about but even more proud of the author!! So many have had to de3ny their Native American. I know of one family who burned their family Bible because one member of the family had recorded a marriage to an Indian woman!! My maternal grandfather always bragged that he was a half-breed, even when it endangered his life in the late 1800,s! I strongly prefer to claim that my religion is from my Native American heritage, They never fought a war over religion!! They respected the rights of others to call the Grandfather of all Grandfathers by whatever name their tradition taught the!!

  2. HusbandofMoonlight
    February 6, 2012 at 16:10

    We here at North American Intertribal Missions have dedicated ourselves to providing ancillary services to Native American Children, rendered to the custody of any entity outside of their Tribal jurisdication.
    We fight daily for the rights of all Native People, and indigenous rights the world over. The USA, has much to answer for since by the violation of their own constitution’s Art 6, “All treaties are supreme Law”; they are currently in illegal possession of more than 60% of their geographic territory, and trillions of dollars that the illegal possession has “netted” the USA’s wealth; making the USA the “wealthiest” nation if not one of them.
    Currently, the “fight” continues; and our only consolation is our strength of unity, and our common purpose; and our common ancestry—-our DNA is exceptionally unique.
    Science currently reveals that “we” have been present in the “Americas” for more than 15K years,preceeding even the most ancient of other civilizations; long before the ‘Chinese thought of themselves as the “Chinese”–before the “others” invented themselves, before the Jews and the Christians and the Muslims began fighting over thier jealous, vindictive “God”— the ‘Americans and America’s’ are simply a “mark on the wall of our evolution”—painful; but simply a mark on the wall of 15 possibly 17 thousnd years of evolution here—-ON OUR LAND. Five hundred years is a stroke in time——The Americans appear to be very busy making themselves “extinct”.
    The sooner the better for the rest of the life forms on the planet; as well as the Native People who long before the Europeans arrived; had learned how to live in harmony with their planet. Those of us who do not believe in that jealous, vindictive
    “God”; will not miss those who do; and taking into consideration the “events of the last 500 years; “we will not miss spending an eternity in ‘Heaven’ with those who do”.
    “If the USA were any other criminal nation, the ‘Americans’ would invade the USA to keep the world safe; and they would be justified”.

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