The first native converts to Christianity in the Americas were baptized on September 21, 1496, on the island of Hispaniola in what is now the Dominican Republic and claimed the palms of martyrdom for the faith less than two years later. Sadly, this first willing acceptance of the Gospel by native peoples in 1496 has gone relatively unstudied by theologians and historians alike.1 The lamentable void may be partially explained by the enigmatic character of the evangelization of the Taino natives of the Caribbean, which is overshadowed by the successes of missionary efforts among the natives of Mexico a generation later. If we are to understand the special character of the first native conversions in 1496, I do not think we can use as guideposts the evangelization after the Caribbean experience.2 Instead, we should turn to the evangelization which came before 1492, even if this means we must trespass the disciplinary boundaries between Americanists and medievalists.3 The quickening pulse of medieval Christendom in the twelfth century had brought contact with China and other non-Christian kingdoms, necessitating a reformulation of how Christendom viewed "the other".4 This impetus to evangelization converged with Atlantic exploration after 1351 when the Canary Islands became the laboratory for conversion of native peoples who were neither Jews nor Muslims.5 It has become increasingly clear that Columbus' voyage is best understood as part of medieval Europe's exploration of the Atlantic.6 I would attach study of evangelization in the Caribbean to this paradigm of a fifteenth-century Atlantic world.
Columbus' first description of the native Tainos of the Caribbean compares them to the natives of Gran Canaria. It should not be surprising that the Canaries were the analogue for the Admiral's narrative, since Columbus' first voyage in 1492 occurred midway between the subjugation of Gran Canaria in 1488 and the conquest of Tenere in 1496.7 But the physical appearance of the natives was not the only similarity between the Canary and the Caribbean Islands for the Admiral. His insistence upon feudal rights to govern the islands he had "discovered" placed Columbus in the mold of the fourteenth-century colonizers of the Canaries who had tried to reproduce medieval society by placing themselves as lords over the natives as serfs.8 These entrepreneurial hidalgos clashed with missionaries who preferred to leave the chiefs in power, because even if the mission was vulnerable to native rebellions like the massacre of 1483, Christianization was longer lasting when a converted native ruler imposed the faith upon his own "vassals" without Spanish arms.9
The Spanish monarchs, Fernando and Isabela, who settled Spain's claim to the Canaries in 1479, insisted that evangelization and colonization go hand in hand,10 and intervened as arbiters between friars and hidalgos in the frequent conflicts over native rights. Imposing what might be called a "speak softly but carry a big stick" approach, the crown offered native chiefs a stark option: feudal vassalage or Spanish attack. The condition for vassalage was acceptance of baptism, sort of a Catholicism-as-citizenship, and the crown found this combination of evangelization and conquest a more efficient way of dealing with the natives than allowing friars and hidalgos to act independently and, more often than not, adversarially.
This mixture of religious goals and political advantages should not be viewed cynically. The chiefs, called menceyes on Tenerife and guanartemes on Gran Canaria, came to realize that they could remain rulers by professing obedience to a far-off monarch. In effect, they were thus elevated to feudal status, equal--rather than subordinate--to the conquering hidalgos, who were likewise bound by fealty to the crown. Moreover, the chiefs were showered with the resources of European culture, which they often used as prestige items to enhance their rule over the native people. …