An interview with Andrew Rowen

In 2017 when you released your first book, it was the 525th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage. Why is it still important for people to understand 1492 and its aftermath, and what do your novels add to our understanding?

The collision of European and Native American peoples that began in 1492 influenced the establishment of—and is fundamental to understanding—the world and societies we live in today. The history of the collision is neither just “a Columbus story,” “a Spanish empire story,” or a “European colonial usurpation story,” but the story of the collision of two proud civilizations—with different social norms and traditions, moral beliefs, and religions. My books are an attempt to tell both sides of that broader story and contribute to a more fulsome appreciation of it. The history includes enslavements and atrocities, and my books depict them based on the historical record.

Can your two novels be read independently? 

Yes. I wrote them to be readable independently because there may be different audiences. “Columbus and Caonabó” depicts events from September 1493 to April 1498 that many people don’t know much about—Columbus’s invasion of Española and the initial Taíno resistance. Its first chapter contains the information a reader of the book needs to understand about both peoples prior to 1493. 

“Encounters Unforeseen” dramatizes the lives of the same Taíno and European protagonists prior to their encounters in 1492—their childhood educations, love affairs and marriages, rises to power or prominence, and religious beliefs in creation and man’s origin—and then their astonishment, fears, and objectives in 1492 and 1493. It’s a deeper bicultural dive into a history most people think they already know. 

Why did you choose to write the series as historical fiction rather than historical nonfiction? 

I’ve written both as historical novels for two reasons. In my view, they had to be novels because the Taínos had no written history and a novel’s greater speculative latitude was necessary to achieve commensurate dignity and gravitas of the Taíno and European protagonists. Just as important, I wanted to write them as novels so that readers could experience the encounters through the eyes of each protagonist, not merely understand events. 

I try to present each participant’s actions and thoughts consistent with my interpretation of the historical record to the extent one exists and—to the extent not—as I speculate likely could have occurred, fictionalizing detail. I stick to history rather than inventing an overarching literary story plot.

What research have you done?

I’ve spent 10 years researching the primary accounts written by the conquering Europeans who witnessed the events, knew the participants, or lived in the 16th century (to the extent credible) and, as they had no written history, studies of the Taínos by modern anthropologists, archaeologists, and other experts. The book contains a fulsome Sources section citing authorities and discussing interpretations of historians and anthropologists contrary to my presentation and issues of academic disagreement.

My research also included extensive onsite investigation, visiting the sites in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Spain, and other places where the protagonists lived, met, or fought. The onsite investigations both added to my understanding of the historical record and inspired creating scenes in the novel.

What can you tell us about the title characters of “Columbus and Caonabó”?

Caonabó was the supreme chief of Maguana, one of the six principal chiefdoms of Española in 1493. He had risen to chieftain before 1492 by virtue of his ability and valor in repelling Caribe raiders, and he was the first chieftain to recognize that the Europeans came to conquer and had to be expelled from the island. In Columbus’s own words, Caonabó was “the most important chief on the island and the most courageous and most ingenious;” “no one is bolder or more daring in war;” and “all the island’s chiefs watch what he does closely and no longer have any fear, being emboldened by his killing of Christians.”

One of history’s most controversial figures, Columbus was a sincerely religious Genoese commoner who rose to be a merchant, an expert mariner, and then nobleman. In the period 1493–1498, he doesn’t understand his geographical theory that one could sail directly from Spain to Cathay (shared by some others in his time) was wrong, and he believes in the right of a conqueror to enslave the conquered (a view shared by some others in his time). The novel traces his anguish and struggle to prove his geographical theory, find gold and Cathay, and bring slavery (in gold’s absence) to Española during this period, as well as his severity with his men and their rebellion. 

How does “Columbus and Caonabó” stray from traditional Columbus narratives? Have you made any historical interpretation that is new or different?

Obviously, the novel differs in concept—presenting the Native story and civilization side by side with the European. Taíno resistance is not the focus of existing historical works.  

The book is very complete thematically, presenting in one book a depiction of the political, social, and religious dimensions of the conflict, as well as the disease transmission and population decline.

I believe my depictions of Columbus’s actions and his men’s atrocities generally reflect the most current research. 

Did you learn anything surprising while researching this time period?

I’ve researched the period and events in primary and secondary sources for 10 years now. While I’m occasionally surprised by specific events or thoughts I stumble upon in these sources, my abiding surprise is the extent to which my boyhood education unqualifiedly professed a rightfulness in Columbus’s invasion and the superiority of European beliefs and ignored or erased the atrocities committed.

How did the Taino people fight back against the settlers?

The Taínos’ principal weapons were spears, arrow-slings, bow and arrows, and wooden clubs. The Europeans had spears, swords, crossbows, muskets, cannons, a small cavalry of horsemen with lances, and twenty attack dogs.

What atrocities did Columbus’s men commit?

Collectively, Columbus’s men forced Taínos into servitude, raped them, destroyed their religious objects, and, when making reprisals against Taíno resistance, enslaved them, burned them at the stake, and butchered non-combatants.

How many slave shipments did Columbus send to Spain during the five-year period that the novel covers? Who were the enslaved? What happened to them?

Four shipments, involving about roughly eight hundred indigenous people. The first was of about two dozen Taínos and Caribes taken aboard in the Lesser Antilles—Guadeloupe and St. Croix—on the voyage to Española, largely with the intent they be trained in Spain to serve as interpreters and assist missionaries when returned to Española. The other shipments were largely of Taínos captured on Española, shipped to be sold into slavery in Spain to finance the settlement. However, at Isabella and Ferdinand’s order, their sale was conditional, pending a determination by theologians and lawyers whether enslavement of Indians was permissible—which determination wasn’t made during the period of the novel. Many died of European diseases on the ocean crossings to Spain, and many others died of diseases in Spain, either awaiting or after sale.

Columbus’s men in Española also took an unrecorded number of Taínos as slaves for themselves.

What was Isabella and Ferdinand’s reaction to the slave shipments? 

In 1493, Isabel and Ferdinand anticipated that the “Indians” on Española would become their vassals upon the island’s conquest, not their slaves or slaves to Española’s European settlers. From 1493–1498, they consistently denied Columbus’s repeated requests to institute a general slave trade of indigenous peoples. But slavery existed on certain permitted bases in Spain and court financiers were interested in financing overseas conquests by selling conquered peoples. As the woes and financial losses of the Española settlement grew, Isabella and Ferdinand permitted the sales of the captives shipped but imposed the condition that the sales be subject to theologians and lawyers determining permissibility. In 1496, they acknowledged that war captives could be sold.

One of the stated purposes of Columbus’s second voyage was to bring Christianity to the natives. How did you depict the missionary effort and the first baptisms?

Of the 1,200 sailing on the second voyage, about a dozen were missionaries. Their leader, whose appointment was affirmed by Pope Alexander VI, deserted his post in 1494, and the first baptisms of Taínos on Española didn’t occur until 1496. Most contemporary observers, including Columbus and the famous chronicler Bartolomé de las Casas, thought the effort was meager.

That said, there were a few missionaries with genuine zeal, in particular a friar Ramón Pané, a Catalan. I wrote a number of scenes envisioning how Pané tried to surmount the language barrier to teach, how the first baptism unfolded, and Pané’s instruction of the Taíno chieftain Guarionex in Christian doctrine. Guarionex was renowned for his wisdom of the Taínos’ religion and spirits, and he rejected Christianity.

How did you research and depict the staggering Taíno population declines? 

I read the views of historians, population experts, and epidemiologists, who continue to debate the basic magnitude and causes of Taíno death. Much is not agreed and speculative. There’s substantial disagreement over the size of Española’s indigenous population at the invasion’s inception—estimates generally range from one hundred thousand to eight million. Experts also debate the relative extent that its decline should be attributed to Spanish brutality (warfare and the harsh conditions of servitude and slavery), the collapse of the indigenous social system occasioned thereby (famine, flight to remote areas, and suicide), or the ravage of European diseases, and epidemiologists offer varied analyses of the diseases transmitted. 

I don’t try to answer these questions, but the novel presents my interpretations or speculations of the protagonists’ perceptions of the underlying answers. 

“Columbus and Caonabó” includes 42 historic or newly drawn maps and illustrations. Tell us about them.

There’s a newly drawn sketch of Caonabó set beside a historic portrait of Columbus, as well as portraits of Isabella and Ferdinand and a newly drawn sketch of Anacaona. There also are newly drawn maps to show where events took place, and the routes Columbus took at sea are marked on historic maps that were drawn between 1500 and 1516. There are famous de Bry engravings depicting the Spanish conquest of Española and elsewhere, woven into relevant scenes.

What is your opinion of Columbus? Should Columbus Day be celebrated? 

In my books, I try to be analytical and portray what each Taíno and European protagonist—including Columbus—did and thought as validly as I can determine or speculate based on research of the historical record. I also try to present each protagonist’s thoughts within the context of his or her 15th century perspective and to leave moral judgments to each reader.

Columbus did have admirable qualities—perseverance through adversity, rising from a humble origin to nobility, and great skill as a mariner—and many scenes in my books depict those qualities. But he violated the sovereignty of and enslaved Native peoples and men under his command committed atrocities—all facts recorded by contemporaneous chroniclers. The latter actions often are excused on the basis that Columbus was simply a European man of his times; but regardless, from our 21st century perspective, as well as the 15th century Taíno perspective, Columbus did many bad things. 

In my view, federal and state governments shouldn’t observe Columbus Day because doing so honors a historical figure whose legacy—while foundational to our present civilization and possessing some qualities and heritages we admire—is eviscerated by invasion, enslavements, and atrocities we and our governments in the 21st century condemn. Indigenous People’s Day should be celebrated instead. Non-observance of Columbus Day doesn’t deny his role in history; it reflects that our societies have progressed beyond honoring his legacy.

What’s next for you?

There will be at least one more sequel.