The popular mythology that has surrounded Christopher Columbus for the last five centuries, the exaltation of him as “discoverer” of the Americas a.k.a. the ‘New World’, was still being taught as part of elementary school curriculum and touted as historical fact in classrooms all across America as late as the dawn of the dawn of the 21st century, decades after many scholars had begun unmasking this lie. (*) In this version of history, not only was Columbus the first person of importance to step foot on the American continent, but he was also touted as a man of great distinction and honor. It isn’t until students enter the college-level (if they are so fortunate as to be able to attend college) that their history courses begin delving into the truth of Columbus’s alleged “discovery”, or into the truth about the rest of American history for that matter. By the time they’ve reached this point, however, students have been fed so many tales – like those of Columbus’s “great expeditions”, British Pilgrims landing on “Plymouth Rock”, and their subsequent harmonious feast of “Thanksgiving” with the less-cultivated “Indians” – so many times that they can recite them verbatim. By this time most students have already formed their basic opinions and their political ideology has all but hardened into impenetrable stone. Nevertheless, due to persistent and commendable efforts by scholars of African and Native American descent, in addition to some white and Jewish scholars who came to realize the true nature of European colonialism, the last 50-60 years have seen one blow dealt after the next to the deception that is the Columbus myth. As global populations emerged from underneath the desolate cloud of colonialism in the 20th century, so too did the truth. With that truth comes the stark reality that, if Christopher Columbus is to be recognized as the “founder” or “discoverer” of anything of consequence, it’s the unfortunate discovery that political advantages can be obtained by instilling in people a false belief in white superiority.
Columbus had no part in discovering America in any way, shape or form. The Americas were discovered some 250 centuries ago by travelers from eastern Asia who likely crossed on foot across a theorized land bridge. These people relatively quickly populated the American continent from North to South, numbering anywhere from 50-75 million by the time of Columbus’s first encounter with the Arawak people of the Bahamas in 1492. [Zinn, Howard. (1980). A Peoples’ History of the United States: 1492-present. Page 18] In North and South America alike, people “were using irrigation canals, dams, were doing ceramics, weaving baskets, [and] making cloth out of cotton” for themselves. [Zinn, 19] In many Ancient American societies, as in Ancient African societies, “power was shared between the sexes and the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent…” [Zinn, 20] This Ancient world, which was closer to being a truly egalitarian society than anything we can imagine today, was often referred to as the “New World” by members of the “Old World”, i.e. those living east of the Atlantic. For five-hundred years it has been taught that Christopher Columbus was the first explorer from the Old World to encounter the New World, but even this is a dubious claim. There are reports of everyone from the Ancient Egyptians to the Ancient Phoenicians and even the Vikings having traveled to the New World or at least making contact centuries ahead of Columbus’s expeditions. (**) In fact when he first set sail on a quest for gold, Columbus’s original destination was East Asia, which he believed he’d reach by traveling west and circling the world. Once he’d reached the shores of the Bahamas by way of the Canary Islands, he was certain he’d found a western route to India (thus, the reason he dubbed the islands the “West Indies” and its inhabitants “Indians”). The first time he stepped foot on Cuba he believed he’d come upon the island nation of Japan. [Clarke, John Henrik. (1993). Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: slavery and the rise of European capitalism. Page 31]
In order to adequately tell the story of Columbus’s journey, it’s essential that we first take into account the situation Europe was in at the time he set sail on his most famous voyage – a voyage being financed by none other than Spain’s renowned royal monarchs who, not coincidentally, were the most powerful monarchs in all of Europe. The European continent at the end of the 15th century was in many ways a desolate place. It was still emerging out from under the dark cloud of the Middle-Ages and the Crusades, which had seen Europe’s population drastically reduced by nearly 1/3rd. The marriage between the two Catholic monarchs, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, breathed new life into Spain, which had for the previous 700 years been under the control of the Moors. The Royal couple’s marriage significantly brightened prospects for the future in the minds of many Europeans. For after centuries of Europeans slaughtering each other in the name of religious war between the competing ideologies of Catholicism and Protestantism (today we’d call this religious sectarian violence), Europe began setting its sights elsewhere on the globe. With these ambitions came a new era of European nationalism, nationalism not concerned with any potential havoc it might wreck on other regions of the world. Ferdinand and Isabella desired to accumulate the most gold, prestige and wealth they could obtain, and it was for this purpose that they financed Columbus’s expedition to Asia. In return for discovering and returning the wealth to the Royal House of Spain, Columbus was promised 10% of all the profits gained from the riches he found, governorship of all newfound lands, and he’d officially be knighted “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” The tireless explorer had made plenty of promises, and for him falling short was simply not an option.
The voyage popularly known as “Columbus’s first voyage” may not have actually been his first after all. Small bands of Portuguese boats had been sailing up and down the coast of West Africa, which they unsurprisingly called the “Gold Coast”, since at least as early as 1438. Just as Columbus came to the Bahamas in search of the golden treasures of Asia, so too did the first Portuguese explorers wind up on Africa in search of a shorter route to Asia. [Clarke, 60] While it cannot be proved conclusively whether Columbus ever took part in these expeditions, which were in their infancy when Columbus himself was a child, circumstantial evidence exists that seems to suggest that he did. A primary example is an entry in his diary which reads, “As a man and boy, I sailed up and down the Guinea Coast for 23 years.” The only probable reason for him to have been repeatedly sailing back and forth the Coast of Guinea in these formative years was in all likelihood involvement in setting up what would later become the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. [Clarke, 27] And what did these sailors find when they first stepped upon the shores of Africa? Contrary to what’s been repeated and uncritically accepted as fact by some scholars for nearly five centuries, the Europeans did not come upon “savage”, “uncivilized” people who were living in some sort of “primitive” state in the jungles. Far from it, they came upon magnificent civilizations that dwarfed the size of anything found in Europe during the time. As the late highly-esteemed historian John Henrik Clarke put it, “There were, in the African past, rulers who extended kingdoms into empires, great armies that subdued entire nations, generals who advanced the technique of military science, scholars with wisdom and foresight, and priests who told of gods that were kind and strong.” It wasn’t until later, “with the bringing of the African into the New World, every effort was made to destroy his memory of having ever been part of a free and intelligent people.” [Clarke, 82-83] Not only did the people of Africa have their own technologically advanced civilizations, but also religious customs and a belief in a Higher Being that pre-date the development of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and every other major world religion by thousands of years. The justification most often cited by the powers of Europe (and still hinted at by American missionaries today) about spreading “Christian civilization” to “uncivilized” and “godless” nations and peoples are nothing but lies straight from the pits of hell. The only thing advanced about Europeans was that they had developed the gun, and without it they would never have succeeded in conquering the world. With the development of guns came mankind’s power to in effect play God; for with something as simple as pulling a trigger an entire life can be ended.
When the men from Portugal first stepped foot on the West Coast of Africa to what is now the nation of Ghana, they were greeted very warmly by the local population and were an object of immense curiosity. The Ghanaians treated these lost travelers with the utmost respect and dignity, and sought to accommodate them as one would a guest or tourist visiting from a foreign nation. The two peoples apparently became so fond of each other that they eventually established trading relations and the Portuguese were allowed to build several small trading posts along the Guinea Coast. This trading partnership would last for more than four decades. It was also during one of these travels to and from the West Coast of Africa that in either 1441 or 1442 – less than a decade before Columbus was born – several African slaves were brought to the European continent. King Afonso V of Portugal, upon seeing these foreign slaves as they arrived at his Court, mistook them to be visiting royalty from far-away kingdoms because of the clothes they wore and the gifts they bore him, all of it of exceptionally high quality. [Clarke, 27] Indeed, these were not slaves in the modern sense of the word. Europeans however, whose minds couldn’t even begin to grasp the different traditions and customs of Africa, would later use this practice as a means of justifying their own enslavement of Africans.
These first Africans brought to Europe by Portuguese traders were in fact prisoners-of-war who’d been taken captive after being in on the losing side of a battle between warring African families, nations or tribes. This practice was a remnant of the commonly-practiced slavery of the Ancient World, a form of involuntary servitude which, as terrible as it was, bore little resemblance to the slavery emerging with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Slavery in the ancient pre-Columbus world, while by no means ideal or necessarily even tolerable, nevertheless existed at some point in every single region of the globe; in Europe, in Asia, and even the Americas. It was akin to what we now know as “indentured servitude” and was not determined by the amount of melanin in one’s skin. In the system as it was practiced in African cultures in particular, “the slave was usually a loser in a local war. He was not enslaved separately from his family and no slave was sent outside of Africa. Some slaves with talent rose to be kings in the very house in which they had been slaves.” [Clarke, 78] If one tribe or family was on the losing side of a conflict, they were taken captive and made to work for a designated period of time, and when that time was up they were free to return home. In contrast to the European-American system of slavery that followed, one was not born into slavery, nor was he a slave for life, nor were all of his descendants predetermined to be slaves. Most importantly, slavery did not exist on account of one race of people being recognized as inferior or subservient to another race. Without the designation of racial castes the extreme dehumanizing aspect was not altogether present. [Clarke, 51] Neither was there the incessant cracking of the slave-master’s whip, the unspoken rape of the women, the separation of entire families, or the sadistic acts of mutilation and torture of the European trade that are so rarely talked about. Europeans who understood nothing about African culture decided to misrepresent African customs and use them as a tool for propaganda. [Clarke, 97-98] The justification was that “Africans are enslaving other Africans, so why can’t we just enslave them all too?” To this very day there are those who insist that Africans are at least partially responsible for their own enslavement as well as all the other atrocities that have been visited upon their continent. Those who advocate this point of view, however, often brush under the rug the most ruthless tactics Europeans used to force Africans into the slave trade. These tactics were similar to modern-day proxy wars (not coincidentally a tactic often employed by the United States, most recently in Syria), in that the Europeans would pick one side in local conflicts and supply them with arms and ammunition in order so that they would carry out raids on enemy villages, kidnap the inhabitants and trade them off to their arms-suppliers, i.e. the Europeans. This is only part of the story though, because for every tribe that jumped at the chance to capture and trade away their adversaries in exchange for this advanced weaponry, there was another tribe that expressed discomfort at the thought of sending their neighbors off into foreign lands that they knew nothing of. Some altogether refused to take part in it, but many who didn’t wish to take part in this ugly scenario were forced to choose, quite literally, at gun-point. [Clarke, 53] The choice they were given was this: ‘Either you use these weapons to round up and deliver slaves to us, or we’ll just take our guns and ammunition and trade them with the next tribe so that they might use them to capture and enslave you and your family. It’s either them or you!’
This was the atmosphere the Portuguese helped usher in when they returned to the trading posts in 1482 for what Ghanaians assumed was just another one of their many visits. Something was different now, however, and at least one King – Nana Kwamena Ansa – began taking notice of what he felt was a “strange difference” in the attitudes of the Portuguese men. He implied as much when addressing the Portuguese Commander, Diego de Azambuia. On one of their last cordial meetings, Nana Ansa remarked how “a great number [of your crew], richly dressed, are anxious to be allowed to build houses, and to continue to build among us.” This Ansa believed to be an unwise decision, for “the passions that are common to us all men will therefore inevitably bring disputes and it is far preferable that both our nations should continue on the same footing as they have hitherto have done, allowing your ships to come and go as usual; the desire of seeing each other occasionally will preserve peace between us.” [Clark. 45, 60] It wasn’t long after Nana Ansa delivered this warning that the Portuguese began building a huge fortress with the help of the Africans they’d befriended, a fortress to be known as Emina Castle. The Ghanaians did not know that they were being deceived, however, or that these men who professed to be their friends would use this fortress as a warehouse to trap them and their families in cages, stripping them of everything they knew and loved, before shackling them and loading them onboard a ship bound for the West.
Castle Emina, which had a capacity of 1,000 people at a time, would be only the largest of the more than fifty slave posts set up along the the Guinea Coast. From one slave-post alone, located on the tiny island of Goree right off the coast of Senegal, millions of Africans walked through the “Door of No Return” before being loaded onto ships and sent on the nightmarish journey of the ‘Middle Passage.’ (^) Their skins were branded as if they were nothing more than chattel, and the untold number of men, women and children were so tightly packed below the top-deck that it created the most miserably intolerable conditions. The passengers could neither stand up straight nor lie down properly, having less room to move than “a man in his coffin.” Often a captive would have his or her ankle shackled to another captive’s. This was done in order to prevent potential escapes, revolts or suicides. The extreme heat inside the lower decks would for many prove unbearable; the air “reeked of excrement and infected sores.” [Clarke, 79] When the upper deck’s door was occasionally opened for a split-second, the light of the sun shining through must have felt to the prisoners as if they were looking up at the earth’s surface from the deepest darkest pits of hell.
Although Portugal was primarily responsible for the very beginnings of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (^^), the next three centuries would see them followed and superseded by nearly every major European nation that hoped to stake a claim and capitalize off this immensely profitable enterprise. The first slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas by Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500’s. [Gates, Henry Louis. (2011). Life upon These Shores: looking at African American history, 1513-2008. Pages 3-11]. For one hundred years Portugal and Spain enjoyed complete monopoly over the African slave-trading business, but as the 16th century they came to a close they found themselves in an uncomfortably close competition with the Netherlands. Later Denmark and Sweden joined in the business as well, but no nations came anywhere close to rivaling France and Great Britain once they came to dominate the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. And so, after centuries of ravaging, pillaging and raping the entire continent of Africa from the west coast to the east, north coast to the south, Europe came to view Africa as essentially little more than a breeding grounds for slaves, slaves who could be easily exploited and subjugated for Europe’s own financial gain while feeling no remorse at all. What had begun as a singular country’s enterprise had grown into an entire continent’s entire means of obtaining wealth. A viewpoint was born and nurtured over time out of the need to justify these actions, and soon it would become accepted as an undisputed fact. “This is just the way things are and were always meant to be,” people would tell themselves; with Europe the world’s dominant master and Africa its subservient slave. This false reality was propagated and expanded upon until it became for many an undisputed fact. From then on history books would only speak of Africa and its people as if their history had begun only begun with slavery. In reality, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade marked the turning point when Africa’s long history of technological progress, advancements, and place of pre-eminence in the world came to an abrupt halt, submerged in a state of despondency that it’s only recently begun recovering from.
Just how many Africans lost their lives as a result of the slave trade (and later, in Europe’s “scramble for Africa” in the 20th century) is a number too large to ever realistically calculate. The figure most often cited by historians is likely far too conservative an estimate. (*^) 20th century writer John Weatherwax wrote in a short book published in 1963 titled The Man Who Stole a Continent that, of the more than 20 million Africans who were sold into bondage, there were “ten million [sent] to the Eastern Hemisphere and ten million to the Western Hemisphere.” In addition to those millions, some 80 million others died, many in the slave raids on their villages in which “the very young and the very old and the very sick were killed.” Others died “from exposure, disease and grief during shipment abroad, and some by suicide at the water’s edge or in transit.” [Weatherwax, page 3. Also quoted on Clarke, p. 48]
Words cannot express how truly cataclysmic these events were for the future course of the world’s history. Regardless of whatever amount of prejudice and xenophobia might have existed in the world before Columbus, the seeds of modern-day racism were undoubtedly planted during the Europeans’ earliest voyages and came into full fruition with the rapid expansion of slavery. Europeans’ nationalist ambitions and their desire to use and control all of the world’s resources for their own economic benefit resulted in Africa being designated the continent where slaves were born. Henceforth the unenviable role of the slave was to be imposed only on people of African descent; a burden which was to be suffered by them alone. This posed somewhat of a problem for the European man’s conscience, however. How could he, who claimed to be the standard-bearer for everything good and just in the world, justify pillaging and destroying an entire continent, robbing it of its resources, and reducing its inhabitants to a state of eternal subservience? It would require a moral justification that could convince not only those whom he conquered that everything he did was for the cause of righteousness; he also had to convince himself. It was through the Church that this purpose was served. With uncompromising religious fervor, these colonizers set out to make the case that they had come to spread Christian civilization and word of Jesus Christ’s salvation to the meek and lowly of the world. This was the birth of racism and white supremacy.
* I can attest to this as a matter of fact as I attended public elementary school in the Southwest region of the Pelican State, Louisiana, beginning 1st grade in the second part of 1995 and finishing 5th grade in the 1st half of the year 2000.
** For the greatest and most detailed examination of the evidence of claims for pre-Columbus travel to America see the late Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s monumental 1976 publication, They Came Before Columbus: the African Presence in Ancient America. The most fascinating of all the claims presented for pre-Columbian contact between the ‘New World’ and the Old is that surrounding an expedition taken on behalf of the Great Malian Empire during the early 14th century. Mali’s mighty emperor King Abubakari II accompanied by a large royal entourage set sail in search of the New World in 1311. That this expedition took place is undisputed fact. What remains a source of controversy, however, is whether or not they ever reached the shores of the Americas.
^ That millions of people were shipped to the West from Goree Island was for a long time accepted as an undisputed fact. But in the 1990’s mainly white historians began challenging the notion that this was even possible and the “historical consensus”, according to them, is that of a far lower number of 30,000 slaves being exported from this port. They concede that there were about “12 million” people shipped out of Africa to the West, but that the bulk of them did not go from Goree Island. These claims have recently been repeated by almost every major American news outlet. One columnist of the Washington Post, Max Fisher, has dedicated an unusual amount of ink to this subject. The Senegalese government has dealt with these claims before, however, when in 1996 the French newspaper Le Monde claimed that “only” 200-300 slaves were sold in Goree a year. Senegal, which was by this time fed up with European attempts to diminish African history, “sponsored an international conference on the history of the island, and scholars produced for the first time original archives from the French port of Nantes that showed that between 1763 and 1775 alone one port had traded more than 103,000 slaves from Goree.” Mind you that high number represents only twelve years out of almost 300 years of slave trade on the island! This should have been the end of these claims by bogus faux historians to diminish the importance of Goree Island to the transatlantic slave trade, and it’s a pity that major news organizations continue to report as if these historians have won the day, ignoring all available historical evidence to the contrary. I will leave with a quote by the man who more than anyone else was responsible for preserving the island’s history for future generations to come, the late Joseph Ndiaye. “Those who claim today that nothing happened in Auschwitz and Dachau, will tomorrow be the same people who claim nothing happened in Gorée.”
^^ It’s worth mentioning that centuries before Christian Europeans became the main benefactors in the trade of African slaves, Arab Muslims from the Arabian peninsula were the main proprietors of this trade. For a more thorough documentation of the often neglected aspect of the slave trade in the Eastern Hemisphere, see the late historian Chancellor William’s 1971 magna opus, The Destruction of Black Civilization: great issues of a race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.
*^ See above note ^. If historians work so effortlessly to minimize the amount of people sold into slavery from Goree Island, then it’s hard to imagine that the numbers they come up with in relation to the entire Trans-Atlantic slave trade would be any more accurate. It seems at times that there is a concerted effort to downplay just how immensely far-reaching this slave trade was, as is true with European colonialism in general. The “official” consensus modern historians have settled upon is that, of more than “12.5 million” Africans shipped to the Americas, about 1.5 million died en route. [Gates, 4] These numbers don’t take into account, however, how many millions of Africans died as a result of the raids upon their villages, in which the incredibly “young, old and weak” were sometimes slain.