Friday, December 28, 2018

Annatto to Redskins

A small red seed that became controversial to outsiders.

The current popular impression of "annatto" is that it is just a "condiment and food coloring derived from the seeds of the achiote tree native to tropical [America] from Mexico to Brazil" and the Caribbean. However, to some Tropical American Amerindians it is a part of a complex belief system in which the color red is one of the most powerful elements on the spiritual plain. Today, this color on the Amerindian skin has become a part of a hard-fought political battle and demonstrations by some Native Americans against Washington, DC's famous football franchise, the "Redskins", currently described in the dictionary as "a derogatory word".

The ancient “onoto” berry (achiote in Mexico and annatto in Jamaica), although its waxy seed coloring agent was seen first in use by the arriving Spanish, adorning the skins of the Lucayan Taino in the Bahamas, created a controversy that has lasted until today. It’s not that Europeans were unaccustomed to facial skin painting; it’s just that in these exotic islands the practice appeared to be naively novel. Specifically, the English with their white face paint later coined the derogatory term “Redskin” to describe Native people in North America. Their familiarity with Native Americans (a term reserved only for indigenous North Americans) was first among the Algonquian speakers of Virginia whose use of bloodroot mixed with bear fat, served the same purpose as onoto in the Caribbean. There in Virginia, the English associated red skin paint with “Savage.”

Red skin to the Amerindian was the most sacred colors of the Four Directions’ blood and the Sun’s source of life.

The Onoto:

Also annatto (a-nah-toe) 1. From the Island Carib (Kalinago) onoto. 2. Also called achiote (Nahualt, Mexico) or roucou (Tupi "urucú"). 3. The dark orange-red berries which fill the pods of this tropical American tree. 4. The dye obtained from the waxy red coating of the berries of the annatto pod used in the coloring of foods and the preparation of a cordial. 5. A low, shrubby tree cultivated extensively on both the tropical American islands of the Caribbean and on mainland South America.

Redskins 1. The color ascribed to the "red race" and probably originating among Island Caribs of the Caribbean. From the annatto color rubbed on the skin of Island Caribs and some Tropical American Amerindians as a sun block and insect repellent. 2. An often derogatory name similar to "Red Indians" applied to Native Americans. 3. The controversial name for a Washington, D.C. football team.

Annatto berries are found in pods which grow in clusters on a medium sized tropical American tree. The tree grows wild in the tropical forests of the mainland Americas and is cultivated in the Caribbean as a food coloring. The red pigment from the berries was rubbed on the skin of the early peoples of the Caribbean as it still is by many indigenous Amerindians in mainland rain forests. Anatto was also used in Taíno and Carib cooking and was the source of the red color used by them to "paint" their bodies.

On Friday morning, October 11, 1492 Christopher Columbus observed and noted the following in his log: 
"Many of the natives paint their faces; others paint their whole bodies;
    some, only the eyes or nose. Some are painted black, some white, some red;
    Others are of different colors."

Painting the body is an ancient ritual which may satisfy social or spiritual needs. The patterns or colors used by individuals identified them as members of specific families, clans or societies. In the case of the Taíno, according to their Origin Myth, black pigment which came from the sacred genep (genapa) tree was associated with the original ancestors who arrived on to the earth’s surface from within a specific primordial cave.  

Red is probably the most ancient color known to humans. It represented blood and was, therefore, associated with the life force. To the Taíno it was one of the four most important colors. Red represented east, the cardinal direction from where the sun rose. The preferred ancient color, red, was also used by other indigenous Americans as body paint which caused them to be called "Red Indians" by early Europeans. Body painting also had practical biological purposes. Some indigenous North Americans used other red pigments mixed with bear geese as an insect repellent and sun block. In our contemporary societies body painting is mainly confined to the face. Face painting. Body painting may be reserved for drama.


Top: Dried annatto pod. Left: Commercial jar. Note it is spelled "ANNATTO", another derivation of the word. Right: Annatto seeds. Not shown here are Annatto oil and paste.   


So, remember when you eat a pastry with a natural orange or yellow coloring you are partaking in an ancient ritual of the onotto's life force.

Sunday, December 23, 2018


©2018 Michael Auld

How Discovery Is Misplaced

As stated above, Montezuma II (c. 1460–1520), ninth Aztec emperor, was the first person of importance to fully appreciate the beauty of the Cuetlaxochitl. The local Mexica (Aztec) named their flower, whose white, sticky sap provided them with a cure for fever and flowers a source of red and purple dye. 

In 1824, Pointsett, "during his stay in Mexico as the American Ambassador, wandered the countryside looking for Mexican plants that he had never seen. While walking down a road, he came across someone's large plant growing on the corner of their property." 

  • He took a cutting from the plant, shipped it home to South Carolina and grew it in his greenhouse. Renamed for him, the rest is history. Obviously, as it was the custom since 1492, the arriving foreigner who "found" an Amerindian object, had the privilege of either renaming it or being credited with being the "founder". So the Cuetlaxochitl became the Poinsettia.
  • "A nurseryman from Pennsylvania, John Bartram is credited as being the first  person to sell poinsettias under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima
  • In the early 1900's the Ecke family of southern California grew poinsettias outdoors for use as landscape plants and as a cut flower. Eventually the family grew poinsettias in greenhouses and today is recognized as the leading producer of poinsettias in the United States." [Poinsettias of many colors and varieties have become a multi-million dollar industry, worldwide].--
Found around the world today, the Cuetlaxochitl or ... "The poinsettia is native to Mexico. It is found in the wild in deciduous tropical forests at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala. It is also found in the interior in the hot, seasonally dry forests of GuerreroOaxaca, and Chiapas. Reports of E.pulcherrima growing in the wild in Nicaragua and Costa Rica have yet to be confirmed by botanists." --Wikipedia

Back in Jamaica for the Christmas break of 1963 after my first year at a DC university... First thing. Grab some sweet sugarcane, hang out on the front lawn next to the Poinsettia that my dad had planted the year before.  

The Christmas Season has prescribed traditions. However, one Aztec Emperor's love for a local flower became an American annual obsession.

Enjoy the entire SEASON that the flower blooms!

Saturday, December 8, 2018


Three Early European Writers
©2018 Michael Auld

The impact of the Caribbean on the Eastern hemisphere after 1492 was more extensive than has been reported. Many tropical foods like the Taíno anona became the welcoming Colonial American symbol as the “pineapple”. It was traditionally placed above a Kalinago (Carib) door jam for the same purpose. Brought into Williamsburg, VA, a major capital of the British U.S. Pineapples were brought in by sea captains arriving from Europe via the Caribbean. On some large dinners, the exotic complex fruit was rented out as a centerpiece on lavishly laid out tables.

Impressions of “The Indies” on European writers is even less known. Of note, the First was the Spanish novelist Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo who was a Castilian author who published “Sergas de Esplandián”.
The first published novel with Taíno influences. Based on a Taíno epic recorded by Fr. Ramón Pané in 1498 (in "Report about the antiquities of the Indians").
An excellent depiction of Queen Califia on her island of La California_www. Steve Simon
California takes its name from de Montalvo’s novel and the ruler of the mythological Island’s Queen Calafia, who was the “black”, virginal Amazon ruler of La California. It is widely thought that Calafia, which derived from the Latin calipha, was taken from the Arabic khalīf.

Sergas de Esplandián’s Island of La California was populated by amazons whose only metal was gold. The combined source of this “Island of Women” and one of Gold seemed to have come from the Taíno epic hero Guahayona and his travels to Matanino(the Island of Women) and his continued travel on to Guanin (the Island of Gold).

One Taíno word and their reported personality were influential on the Ehglish playwright William Shakespeare and the novelist Daniel DeFoe.


Caliban (Kali-ban)

Etching of a concept for Caliban. This is how the play portrayed a major character in Shakespeare's "Tempest". It is an illustration for the English audience's concept of a Caribbean Amerindian.

Above: Two English interpretations of Caliban. Below: Photograph of an actor's portrayal of Caliban as a Kalinago (Carib Anerindian) from the Eastern Caribbean. What has changed?
  • 1. The ugly, beastlike slave of Prospero in Shakespear's The Tempest. 2. One of the most examined and controversial characters in the 1611 play "The Tempest"  attributed to William Shakespear. Probably from caribalcaribalescanibales,  a European word for the Island Carib of the Caribbean.

Illustration of Friday, Robinson Crusoe's Amerindian companion.

Friday (fri-day)

1. The sixth day of the week derived from Frig (“to copulate”), or Fria (Fria’s Day), the Germanic goddess of love. 2. A character from Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel The Life and Times of Robinson Crusoe.  3. Name given by Robinson Crusoe to his devoted male servant/companion. 4. A devoted male servant, aid or employee, especially having a high degree of responsibility.

  • The Spanish sponsored voyages to the Americas by Italian adventurer Christopher Columbus, had long lasting repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Initial encounters, like most first impressions, were often incorrect and caused irreparable damage to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
  • Amerindian stereotypes have lasted throughout the ensuing centuries. For example, it is not unusual for the words "Red Indian" to be used to refer to people who were neither "red" nor "Indian". Red, from the annatto, or achiote pod, was one of the colors used to protect and adorn the skin of the Tainos and Caribs. "Indio" was a misapplication by Columbus who, for personal reasons, insisted that he had arrived at islands off the coast of India. Centuries of neglect and guilt by the emigres to the hemisphere have made indigenous people the least understood communities throughout the Americas.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas were composed of many ethnic groups which had a wide range of body types, skin colors, languages, and customs. Although Native Americans are genetically close to some "Asiatic" peoples they were not what Western Europeans thought them to be. First written impressions of the Tainos and Caribs came from Christopher Columbus's log of the voyages and letters to his royal backers. Ensuing 15th and 16th century debates about who these people of the Indies where and what were their origins have continued into our century. Writers have either romanticized or defamed them. An example of early attitudes towards indigenous Americans can be seen in The Tempest. Although the authorship of The Tempest by William Shakespear has been questioned, this play is thought to have demeaned Amerindians. Another author, Daniel Defoe, in The Life and Times of Robinson Crusoe, presented the character Friday as a noble savage and his pursuers as American cannibals.

The 1611 play, The Tempest , was based on a real life British shipwreck of the Sea Venture  in the Caribbean in 1609. The ship was wrecked by a Caribbean hurricane while on its way to the new British North American colony of Virginia . The word "tempest" was the English term for "storm". In 1611   the word "hurricane"
  • (from the Taino hurakan ) had not yet entered the English language. In The Tempest   the main characters were Prospero (the European magician) and his virtuous daughter Miranda . They were shipwrecked and marooned on an island inhabited by the creature, Caliban. Caliban was characterized as a vile and inhuman being.  Prospero seized the island and enslaved Caliban (a typical mindset of the period) who came to be despised by the magician. Prospero's superior intellect failed to civilize or humanize Caliban. This curious creature was probably created around popular 17th century rumors about the Island Caribs who Columbus’ men in 1493, had maligned as cannibalistic ( a Kalinago tradition of keeping the bones of revered ancestors in hanging baskets inside the home). Some Shakespearean experts believe that Caliban is derived from the early variation of the words Caribal, Cannibal, Caniba or Carib, from the Taíno “strong men.”. The Island Carib call themselves “Kalinago”.
In colonial Virginia the British were so wary of the Carib's war-like reputation in the Caribbean that they passed a law in the House of Burgess to hang every Carib who was brought to the colony. The Tempest also revealed the prevailing ethnocentric and paternalistic attitudes towards the Caribs. These were common traits exhibited by Europeans towards the indigenous populations in the early forays into the Americas. The British playwright described Caliban as a "weak and deformed slave". Because of his plight Caliban was misidentified in some plays as African or Asian, who themselves were later subjugated by the British Empire.
In later centuries many colonized or subjugated peoples identified with Caliban's dilemma.
Daniel Defoe also based two stories on an actual marooning of a Scottish sailor on the Juan Fernandez Islands off the shore of Chile. In 1704 Alexander Selkirk had a dispute with the captain of the pirate ship on which he was the first mate. Selkirk requested to be put off on the island and was later rescued by anothter English pirate ship in 1709. Defoe's famous stories which were based in this incident were "Treasure Island"  and "The Life and Times of Robinson Crusoe".  Marooned on a tropical island after a shipwreck Defoe's character, Robinson Crusoe, came across some human tracks on the beach. The footprints turned out to be those of another human being who Crusoe named "Friday".  
Both Treasure Island  and The Life and Times of Robinson Crusoe  are envisioned as Caribbean tales. Notorious pirates and shipwrecks by hurricanes were part of the early history of this geographic area. British pirates of the Caribbean were also called buccaneers and often with the clandestine approval of the monarchy, harassed the Spanish in the Americas at will. 
Buccaneers began on an island off the coast of Haiti (Hispaniola). They were French woodcutters employed by the Spanish to harvest exotic Caribbean woods for export to Spain. Expelled from Hispaniola, they set up barbecoa shops on an Island. The French called the barbecue grill a “bucan”. They were called “bucaneers”, men who sold barbecue pork and beef to passing ships. Soon, they began to rob their customers and became roving “buccaneers”.
The turbulent Caribbean was not Defoe's source for his stories and some writers believe that Friday could have been an Inca man escaping   the allegedly "cannibalistic" Puna Islanders. During Defoe's time prevailing attitudes towards the indigenous people of the Caribbean makes it more probable that the character, Friday, was visualized as Taíno and his pursuers were conceived as "cannibalistic" Caribs.
At first, the Caribbean’s idyllic location, its exotic Amerindian people, its imaginative mythology had made an indelible impact on the Eastern Hemisphere. Soon, it also tapped into the deepest fears of homeland Europeans who were already primed with their own macabre tales. They sometimes believed that local tales like The Eternal Fountain of Youth (a type of Medieval Viagra) was realized in the Caribbean. “Las Siete Ciudades de Cibola” became the “Seven Cities of Gold”, believed to be located in New Mexico’s Zuni territory. The pursuit of these myths caused the deaths of many Amerindians and Spanish adventurers. The initial greed was fueled by a drive was a thirst for women and gold. 
The Proof
The high percentage of mestizos and tons of gold and other treasures taken out of the Americas. Case in point: Hernan Cortez's belief in Garci Rodríguez's popular novel, Sergas de Esplandián , is revealed in his actions below. 
The Aztec’s Triple Alliance was defeated. Cortez stood on the dry, cactus strewn landscape of Baja California, looking out at the towering, mountainous “La California Island”, convinced of a nearby paradise with virginal amazons whose only metal was gold...


*Kalinago (Island Carib) of Dominica, Eastern Caribbean

Descendants of the people who were maligned by Columbus' reports and Shakespeare's play live in Dominica, Eastern Caribbean.. 

Center Top: Chief Irvince Auguiste.
Bottom, Left: Hermine, 7th grader.
Bottom, Middle: Filex Francis, basket-maker. 
Bottom, Right: Napoleon Sanford, traditional canoe-maker.
Chief Irvince Auguiste, Carib Reserve, Dominica (1992)