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Columbus and Caonabó: 1493–1498 Retold
Andrew Rowen, author
Columbus assured Spain’s Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand that “Española” would be conquered with little opposition from its inhabitants, but he soon discovered the promise ominously false. A historical novel, Columbus and Caonabó: 1493–1498 Retold dramatizes his invasion of Española and the bitter resistance mounted by its Taíno peoples. Based closely on primary sources, the story is told from both Taíno and European perspectives, including through the eyes of the conflict’s principal Taíno chieftain and leader, Caonabó, and Columbus. Chief Caonabó opposes any European presence on the island and massacres the garrison Columbus left behind on his first voyage. When Columbus returns, the second voyage’s twelve-hundred settlers suffer from disease and famine and are alienated by his harsh rule, resulting in crown-appointed officers and others deserting for Spain. Sensing European vulnerability, Caonabó establishes a broad Taíno alliance to expel the intruders, becoming the first of four centuries of Native American chieftains to organize war against European expansion. Columbus realizes that Caonabó’s capture or elimination is key to the island’s conquest, and their conflict escalates—with the fateful clash of their soldiers, cultures, and religions, enslavement of Taíno captives, the imposition of tribute, and hostile face-to-face conversations. As the two men battle, Caonabó’s wife Anacaona anguishes and considers how to confront the Europeans if Caonabó is killed. The settlers grow lawless when Columbus explores Cuba and Jamaica, and his enslaved Taíno interpreters witness them forcing Taínos into servitude, committing rape, and destroying Taíno religious objects. Chief Guarionex, whose chiefdom neighbors Caonabó’s, studies Christianity with missionaries and observes the first recorded baptisms of Natives in the Americas but ultimately rejects his own conversion. All question or ascribe the spirits’ or Lord’s design as epidemic diseases ravage the island’s peoples. Isabella and Ferdinand are disturbed when Columbus initiates slave shipments home, but they deliberately acquiesce—and the justification for the European enslavement of Native Americans begins to evolve. The novel is the sequel to Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold, which portrays the lives of the same Taíno and European protagonists from youth through 1492.
Historical novelist Rowen captivates in his powerful standalone sequel to Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold, following Columbus’s ongoing subjugation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic as well as the desperate attempts of Caonabó, a storied Taíno cacique, to defend his chiefdom and protect his people. After leaving behind an unruly fleet with instructions to appropriate the island’s gold in the name of Spain, Columbus invades a second time–assured in his belief that the indigenous peoples will welcome conversion to Catholicism while handing over their treasure without a fight. The Taíno leaders are astounded at Columbus’s arrogant assumptions, and choose distinctive ways to combat his conquest, most remarkably Caonabó’s unrelenting attacks and refusal to give up his people’s freedom.

Rowen’s writing brims with striking historical detail, and he offers welcome maps and illustrations of the main characters and events, but as a storyteller he never loses sight of the heart of this conflict: the devastation wrought by Columbus and Spain’s power-hungry monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand. Despite his promises of an easy annexation and wealth beyond imagining, Columbus fails to deliver more than disease, starvation, and Taíno slaves–and most of the “pale men” he places in strategic forts around the area spend their time raping Taíno women, spreading deadly bacterial infections among the indigenous tribes, and meting out punishment as they see fit: “No heathen can escape the consequence of murdering Christians,” one declares. Columbus himself struggles with mutiny, the hardships of survival in an unknown land, and the distrust of nobles back in Spain. He never loses his conviction to force Christianity on the Taíno people or his assessment that “slavery is the fate of those who resist me.”

Historical fiction readers will applaud Rowen’s candid, albeit heartbreaking, account of the travesty of Columbus. Caonabó—and his wife, Anacaona, who emerges as a brilliant strategist and freedom fighter—are trailblazers in their war against the invaders. Rowen weaves bravery and treachery and pits truth against myth in this sweeping tour de force.

Takeaway: A meticulously researched and intensely tragic novel of Columbus’s offensive against the Taíno people.

Great for fans of: Mary Glickman’s An Undisturbed Peace, Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A