Donal Shannon, TheCostaRicaNews.com
Today in Costa Rica, US expats will be celebrating their history, their native country’s independence day – the fourth of July. Well, July 4th is not only the world famous Independence Day of the United States of America – in Costa Rica, it is also a date that lives in history. 301 years ago, in the central plaza of Costa Rica’s colonial capital, Cartago, the leaders of the last great Indian rebellion were violently put to death and their memory lives on today.
Countless tourists visit the beautiful beaches of the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica every year. They marvel at the beauty of national parks such as Tortuguero and Cahuita, but how much do they really know about the history of this verdant land? How often do tourists and Ticos alike walk the streets of Limon where Christopher Columbus made landfall more than 500 years ago with no thought of the past that has shaped the present?
In front of the offices of the Municipality of Limon stands a statue of the last great cacique who resisted the conquest of this land to the bitter end. His name was Pablo Presbere and here is his story and the story of the brave and indomitable natives of Talamanca.
2009 marked the three hundredth anniversary of the last great indigenous war of resistance in Costa Rica. Three hundred years ago, the inhabitants of Talamanca, the mountain range that separates Costa Rica and Panama, fought their last furious battle for freedom. Faced with the threat of slavery from both Hispanic colonists and English raiders; helpless to prevent and horrified to watch their children die of measles, smallpox, and other Old World diseases; driven into the mountains from their richest fishing and farming grounds; these desperate men and women struck one last blow for their autonomy and independence. The roots of the conflict go back centuries to Spanish assaults along the Telire River to carry back to Cartago Indian slaves and the food stores that they had grown.
The Telire River formed a frontier south of which the Spanish invaders could never establish control. Nonetheless, the native Talamancas lived under the constant threat of death and depredation. At river fords and across hammock bridges, these Amerindians repeatedly resisted invasions from Cartago, and died in defense of their families and fields. Native Americans also crossed the line into the Spanish territory in search of trade and labor opportunities. Only through work in the cacao groves of the Matina Valley or barter with the Indians who lived under colonial control, could the Talamancas obtain highly-prized iron and steel trade goods, such as, axes, machetes, knives, scissors, tweezers, needles, cooking utensils, fish hooks, and arrowheads for pita thread and cotton cloth. A state of fear and hostility reigned for centuries.
Three important events shaped the ultimate destiny of the Talamancas over little more than a century from 1605 to 1711. First, in 1605, the Hispanic colonists established a fort in their midst and began to plunder their gold, extort tribute in labor, and obtain trade goods from the indigenous inhabitants of the region. This usurpation was violently overthrown in 1610, the fort burned, and the Spanish attempt to conquer the region abandoned after bloody fighting. Second, beginning around 1660, the colonists ultimately established a viable agricultural product and trade item, cacao, which was grown with Indian labor along the Caribbean plain and traded to the English and Dutch enemy in Jamaica and other nearby islands. Third, the Barefoot Franciscans, a branch known for a zealotry bordering on insanity, penetrated the rugged mountains of Talamanca. They were accompanied by native auxiliaries and the Cartago militia and sought to gain control of the native population through religious conversion and the threat of force.
Franciscan missionaries and Spanish colonists made repeated attempts to coerce and entice the Talamancas to settle under their control along the upper Telire River and the neighboring Rio Chirripo. One trading expedition in 1663 included two friars and 125 Guetare warriors from the pueblos around Cartago and San Jose. Weapons, supplies, and sufficient trade goods to entice hundreds of Indians into the open were transported on the backs of one hundred and fifty mules and one hundred oxen. As many as several hundred Native Talamancas called Urinamas, Xicaguas, Vicietas, and Ciruros emerged from the mountains, settled around missions built of cane and thatch, and labored in the cacao groves of Matina. The natives supplied Franciscans in their midst with basic necessities, such as food and water.
Highly skilled Indians also played an important role in the support of the friars. In 1666, Friar Pedro de la Hoz, guardian of the Chirripo parish, in the pueblo of the same name on the banks of the Matina River which formed the edge of no man’s land, wrote that he was assisted by a bilingual chasqui (a Quechua word from the Incas meaning courier) named Quiate and a translator named Hernando, without whom “nothing could be done with these unfaithful (Talamanca) Indians.”*
Indigenous converts played an indispensable role in the Franciscan penetration of Cavecara or Urinama pueblos along the Telire River in 1690. Friars Antonio Margil and Melchor Lopez were assisted by an Indian from Teotique, (near Turrialba), Felipe, the indigenous sacristan from San Mateo de Chirripo, and Francisco Chirripo, a Native American who supervised the construction of churches and other buildings in Talamanca. Other Urinama men and boys assisted in construction and served as guides and translators. Only one friar, Pablo de Rebullida, who entered the region in 1695, is identified as multilingual.
While traveling over valleys and across the mountains that separated the Telire, Chirripo, and Matina Rivers, in 1703, the Barefoot Franciscan Friar San Jose encountered Urinamas and other Amerindians in “many ranchos (indigenous dwellings) of one hundred people … children of six or seven and many plantain groves.”** South of the Telire River, the different indigenous nations were at war with each other over diminishing resources and territory. Six years earlier, Fray San Jose had described endemic warfare between the inhabitants of adjacent river valleys: among rival Changuene bands, between Changuenes and Terrabas, and between Terrabas and Cavecaras, Urinamas, and Vicietas. The root of the myriad conflicts was the diminishing resources and space available to the inhabitants of the rugged region.
Additional pressure on the Talamancas came from the English “pirates” and their Mosquito allies who sailed into the Talamanca River Delta and upriver attacking nine times between 1693 and 1709. They captured, carried off into slavery hundreds of natives, and burned the missions. The Talamanca were forced to move from the river delta to higher ground, away from the best areas for fishing and farming.
The Franciscans convinced the Indians that they had supernatural powers akin to those of native shaman. They threatened the Indians with fevers and snakes if the Indians harmed them. The natives were also intimidated by the firearms that the militia possessed. Finally, the friars conducted mass baptisms, probably promising to cure the epidemics that were carrying so many young and old Amerindians to the grave. This last promise they could not keep.
One of those baptized in 1707 was Pablo Presbere. He was the chief or Pa Blu of the pueblo of Suinsui, located on the Rio Coen about three miles from San Jose de Cabecar. In his mid or late thirties, he would organize and lead the last great resistance in Talamanca.
The Talamancas repeatedly resisted the friar’s usurpations. Talamancas wounded one cleric and struck at the image of Christ with pejibaye lances, doused another friar with the holy water that they thought was killing their children, and seized the Franciscan’s clothing, chalice, missal, and bible. They refused to feed the friars and forced them to carry their own burdens, as well as indigenous children, to fetch and boil their own water, wash their own habits, build their own fires, and work in the cornfields like women.
The Spaniards broke such resistance by burning the indigenous palenques and forcing several thousand Indians to settle around 14 missions under Spanish control. The violent resettlement of the Talamancas probably increased the spread of smallpox and measles among the natives. One friar wrote in 1699, that they often confessed the women and children, whom they considered innocents, but that the men could not be saved “because of their adultery, rancor, thefts, drunken sprees, and some implicit pacts with the devil.” They told the Talamancas that if they did not submit to baptism, “demons would inevitably carry them to Hell.”*** In this atmosphere of fear and doom, all hell did break loose.
In September 1709, the Talamancas revolted after they saw letters being written and sent to Cartago. They feared that they were to be taken by force out of their native lands and resettled around the Meseta Central. Their suspicions were well founded. In January 1709 one of the friars wrote that in a month, with the aid of 30 militiamen, they would “remove the first three pueblos that we call San Bartolome Urinama, Santo Domingo, and San Buenaventura.”****
Pablo Presbere led Cabecar and Terbi warriors to San Bartolome de Urinama where they killed Friar Rebullida and two soldiers. Antonio Comesala, the chief of Santo Domingo, led a band of Cabecares who killed Friar Antonio de Zamora, two more “soldiers,” as well as one their women and children. Later, a large indigenous force attacked the Cabecar pueblo of San Juan where they slew five additional militiamen. They pursued the one surviving Franciscan and his escort nearly all the way to Cartago. The mutilated corpses, the churches, and their saint’s images were burned. The head of one of the Barefoot Franciscan friars was passed among various bands and the chalices broken into pieces and made into necklaces and arrowheads. Clothing, books, and other sacred objects were destroyed or scattered. Only the two churches in Viceita were unharmed, for this Indian nation refused to lend a hand in the uprising. Apparently their fear of Spanish firepower and revenge was greater than any sense of brotherhood. Along with the Borucas and Chirripos, the Viceita would later assist the Spanish in the capture of Presbere and 700 of his followers.
The Spanish response was swift: a brutal invasion from two directions. From the pueblo of Boruca, on the Pacific plain, Governor Lorenzo de la Grande y Balbin, Friar Antonio de Andrade, 120 militiamen, and their Borucan allies, opened a trail through what is now Buenos Aires de Puntarenas, into the land of the Viceitas. From Cartago, Maese de Campo Don Jose de Casasola y Cordova, eighty militiamen and their Indian allies marched through the Reventazon River Valley and across the Matina River. The two columns met and established camp in San Jose de Cabecar, from where they commenced the bloody round up of the terrified Indians. Presbere and other resistance leaders were captured, but not Antonio Comesala. The latter was never heard from again.
They were well armed for the task. The Audiencia in Guatemala had sent 100 muskets, more than 800 pounds of gunpowder, 4,000 musket balls, and 4,000 pesos in coin. 2,000 natives surrendered and turned over 700 of their own who were taken prisoner. The Talamancas had attempted to flee, burning their palenques, placing stakes and cooking pots along the trails. The latter was a not too subtle message that they would cook and eat the invaders.
The conquering army and prisoners began the tortuous journey back to Cartago after the rainy season had begun. Two hundred of the prisoners died along the way. How many of them were drowned, tied together, in swollen rivers? How many were tortured and killed in revenge? How many Indian women were raped and subsequently murdered? How many escaped or committed suicide? 510 natives reached Cartago and were sentenced to ten years servitude to the Hispanic colonists. Most of these unfortunates died quickly from European diseases and abuse.
Ten of their leaders were tortured and interrogated and, on July 4th 1710, five or more were shot and quartered. Their heads were placed on poles in the center of Cartago. Condemned to death by a firing squad armed with arcabuses were Baltazar Siruro, the cacique (chief) of Urinama whose last name is that of the clan called Tsiruruwak, Antonio Huerascara or Uruskara from the clan of Uruskawak and, at least, two others. Huerascara had served the friars as the constable of the mission town of Santo Domingo. Pablo Presbere, the recognized leader of the revolt, was executed and reputedly faced death with bravery and stoicism.
By 1737, colonial veterans of the campaign testified that nearly all the Talamancan prisoners had died and that a few survivors had intermarried into the Guetare communities of the Meseta Central. Talamanca slipped back into an isolation that did not end until the advent of the United Fruit Company in the twentieth century.
Donal Shannon holds MAs from UCLA and SDSU, and was a teacher and professor in California. He is currently teaching private English classes.
* Archivos Nacionales de Costa Rica Seccion General No.110 1666
** Leon Fernandez Bonilla, Coleccion de documentos para la historia de Costa Rica, Vol. V, p.423
*** Fernandez Bonilla, Coleccion de documentos para la historia de Costa Rica, Vol. v, pp. 387-388
**** http://www. Batichango.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=107:pablo-presbere&catid=34:ultimas&Itemid=70
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