**The following article is the second in a two-part series titled Christopher Columbus: father of modern-day white supremacy. To read part one click here.
The European reemergence from out the ashes of hundreds of years of bitter religious warfare and anti-Muslim crusades gave rise to new aspirations of global domination and economic supremacy, and nowhere was this clearer than in Christopher Columbus’s first encounter with the Arawak people of the Bahamas. The Arawaks, just as the Africans on the Guinea Coast before them, greeted these pale-skinned foreigners not as enemy invaders, but as guests visiting from a far-away land. They brought Columbus and his men gifts made from gold and offered them whatever food and water was necessary. The good Christian Columbus, rather than seeing these kind and generous acts as signals of a virtuous character, saw them as proof that these were a naïve people worthy of his condescension. To King Ferdinand and Isabella he wrote that the Arawaks were “so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.” [Zinn, Howard. (1980). A Peoples’ History of the United States: 1492-present, Page 4.] Later the same evening he noted in his diary, “They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They would make fine servants…” “They’ll be easier to conquer than I thought they would be.” [Clarke, John Henrik. (1993). Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: slavery and the rise of European capitalism. Page 30] Far from being appreciative of the gifts they’d bore him, his reaction upon receiving them was to “wonder why they’re bringing such small amounts of gold… I wonder where the mines are.” To find out where the mines were, he decided it best to “take some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever is in these parts.” Those he’d taken captive were Arawaks he’d noticed were wearing tiny golden earrings. Threatening to cut them with his sword, Columbus gave them an ultimatum: if they did not wish to be mutilated they would immediately lead him to the source of the gold. And so the captives obliged, first leading him to what is now known as Cuba, where only small amounts of gold were discovered, and then to Hispaniola. [Zinn, 1-3] On the island nation of Ayiti, now known as Haiti, Columbus found a large and peaceful population known as the Taino. Of them he wrote Queen Isabella that “with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” [Clarke, 67] It was around Christmas time 1492, and Columbus and his crew mates immediately set about erecting a gigantic fortress, which they called Fort Navidad, to serve as a place of storage for any gold obtained from the local mines. Columbus and his crew initially tried to appear as if their goal was simply to set up trade relations with the local peoples. But in an ominous sign of things to come, when some of the Taino people refused to trade away as many of their bows and arrows as Columbus and his men would have liked, two of them “were run through with swords and bled to death.” [Zinn, 4]
It was January of 1493 when Christopher Columbus, five months after leaving Spain in search of a Western route to Asia, finally journeyed back to Spain. (^) He was not returning to Ferdinand and Isabella empty-handed, however. Sailing across the Atlantic with him and his crew were some of Hispaniola’s natives who they’d captured and forced into slavery. In the absence of any measurable amount of gold to bring back to Isabella and Ferdinand, these slaves were brought for the purpose of enticing the Queen and King and convincing them of the need to finance an even larger expedition to return with Columbus to the islands. Meanwhile a total of 39 of Columbus’s companions from the 1492 voyage had been left behind in Haiti, stationed at Fort Navidad to store and keep watch over any gold they came across on the island.
And so, after months of letter-writing, Columbus was finally once again standing face to face with the King and Queen of Spain, and bearing with him news he was certain would sound delightful to the royal monarchs’ ears (the inaccuracy of it notwithstanding). The way he told it, he and his men had discovered such a large quantity of gold in the mines of just one island that the King and Queen simply could not believe it without seeing it for themselves! (As it turns out, they shouldn’t have believed it.) With a promise to bring back his majesties an almost endless supply of gold in addition to more captured slaves to do “whatever we want”, Isabella and Ferdinand entrusted Columbus with seven new ships, carrying a sizable a crew of more than 1,200 Spaniards to accompany him on his journey back to the island. [Zinn, 4]
Meanwhile, as Columbus was making his case before the Queen and King, the 39 men he’d left stationed at Fort Navidid were busy causing an immense amount of trouble on their own. Venturing out into the unfamiliar island, they quickly degenerated into a state of barbarity, breaking into villagers’ homes, raping native Taino women, and kidnapping small children who they used as their sex slaves. This obviously didn’t sit too well with the island’s native inhabitants, and soon local villagers attacked Fort Navidad, freeing the women and children who’d been taken captive. Columbus’s men who were responsible for the kidnappings were summarily executed by the Taino so as to prevent their committing further atrocities. But when Columbus returned to the island from Spain in November of 1493 and discovered his men had been killed, all hell broke loose, and the suffering of the natives of Haiti only intensified from then on out. In a violent sweep of rage, Spanish soldiers rounded up men, women and children from all over the island at gun-point and forced them into outdoor pens. Over time these pens, which were guarded around the clock by ferocious canines and vicious soldiers, became so tightly packed and overcrowded that it was impossible for them to freely move around. By the year 1495 thousands of Hispaniola’s natives were forced to work grueling hours of slave labor in the island’s mines in an unavailing search for gold. Another 500 people were placed on board a ship set sail for Spain, but due to the bitter and desolate climate conditions onboard the ship, 200 of them died before they made it to Spain, where they would have been consigned to slave labor for the rest of their lives.
Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards who accompanied him were hideously ruthless in the way they dealt with the indigenous people. Absolutely nothing was off-limits when it came to their getting hands on the fabled gold, even if it meant the mutilation of young children. In 1494 it was decreed that all persons fourteen years of age and older must work in the ‘gold’ mines from sun-up to sun-down. A gold-quota was set and every individual had to meet that quota or else suffer the extreme consequences. At the end of every three months if an individual had delivered unto Columbus the required amount of gold, he or she was given a copper token to be worn around their neck. If at the end of this period one was discovered not to be wearing a copper token around their neck, however, both of his or her hands were cut off and they were left to bleed to death. Being that Columbus and his men always set such unrealistically high quotas, many of the enslaved were forced to take their chances and run rather than face decapitation. This too ended abysmally, for once they were discovered they were viciously attacked and torn apart by the ferocious canines. Any captive who showed even the slightest hint of rebellion or resistance to Spanish occupancy either was immediately hung, or worse burned alive. Within just two years, 1495-1497, close to 125,000 people on Haiti had died from either “murder, mutilation, or suicide.” [Zinn, 5]
One man bearing witness to many of these most gruesome events was a Catholic Bishop, Father Bartolome de Las Casas, who as a young priest accompanied Columbus on more than a few of his conquests and expeditions. He soon discovered, however, that hearing about Columbus’s journeys while he sat comfortably giving his blessings was a completely different experience from actually witnessing them up close with his own eyes. Over time he would come around to becoming the single most vocal critic against the horrific treatment of the so-called ‘Indians’ by the Spanish explorers. Of the missions that he himself had been a part of, he said they served no other purpose than “to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle, and destroy.” (*) He watched as Spanish soldiers took it upon themselves to literally “ride on the backs of the Indians as if they were in a hurry.” And, rather than having to walk on their own two feet, soldiers forced slaves to take them from one place to another while they lay comfortably in their hammocks. Soldiers “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas even told of one such incident in which two adolescent boys, no older than 10-12 years of age, were needlessly stopped by soldiers and subjected to harassment. Each of the boys was carrying a parrot on his arm. Upon seeing this, the Spaniards snatched them away from the boys and, keeping the parrots as their own, beheaded the two young boys. This the soldiers did “for fun”. [Zinn, 6] In his final assessment, Father de Las Casas cited some figures to help demonstrate how, from one island to the next, indigenous populations were nearly if not completely wiped off the face of the earth. In 1494 it was estimated that nearly 1 million aborigines inhabited the island of Hispaniola. By the time Las Casas arrived in 1508 the population had been reduced to a mere 60,000 people; and by 1514 – two decades after Columbus’s arrival – the population had shrunk to just 32,000.
By no means did this unprecedented amount of genocide and destruction end with Columbus. As it would turn out, Columbus was simply the catalyst who kicked down the door for others to follow in his footsteps, men who were well-versed in the tactics of divide-and-conquer. The same playbook used to tear down the great civilizations of Africa was put to equally effective use in both North and South America, as one great civilization after another was brought to the brink of disaster and led to its eventual demise. After Columbus and the Spanish plowed through the islands of the Caribbean, several conquistadors picked up his mantel and brought the European invasion into the larger American continent. There was Hernando Cortez who in 1521 brought about the collapse of the Aztec Empire. And fresh off the heels of Cortez’s victory was the successful campaign headed by Francisco Pizzaro to liquidate the civilization of the Incas in 1533. [Zinn, 11] It was only through means of causing chaos, wreaking havoc, and bringing about total destruction of once-thriving New World Civilizations that Europeans were able to temporarily snatch the pen of world history and proceed to write it as they saw fit. The Natives of the American landmass, from North to South, East to West, were by no means peoples who were “uncultivated” or “uncivilized” in any way, shape, or form.
When England replaced Spain as the dominant European colonial power in the 17th century, the British proved to be equally as vicious and destructive in their conquest of North America as the Spanish had been in the South. What’s uniquely tragic in regards to the British colonization of North America is the fact that the very people the British described as “Indian savages” were the very same people to whom they owed their very own survival to in these unknown lands. From the first English settlement in what is now the state of Virginia the Brits ransacked and looted entire villages of Native indigenous tribes. When the British settlers first arrived they were so feeble that they would have died of starvation were it not for the generosity of the Native American Indians. And yet, in a betrayal of epic proportions, the Brits soon were torching the Native American Indians’ crops; a sick and sadistic method used to starve and rob them of their resources. [Zinn, 11] And so it was for the next four centuries, starting with the great Powhatan Confederation in Virginia and moving on to the Pequot Tribe in Massachusetts, that each North American Nation or Tribe from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific came face to face with and were assaulted by the European invaders – or their descendants who were calling themselves “Americans” under the banner of the “United States of America.” Many tribes formed Organized Resistance Movements to these attacks on their homeland and way of life, and they continue to fight against the threat of annihilation to the present day. That they have managed to survive against what at times seemed like insurmountable odds is truly a testament to their strength and perseverance as a people. For what was done to them was genocide carried out on such a large scale, the magnitude of it which is hard to comprehend even in our present day. Consider for a moment that approximately 50-75 million indigenous people inhabited the American continent from North to South at the dawn of the 16th century (i.e. the year 1500). Within one-hundred years, in the year 1600, there were only 8 million of these indigenous peoples left on the entire continents, the population having been dramatically diminished due to “European warfare, disease and forced labor.” In North America alone, where prior to Columbus-era ‘New World’ exploration up to 10 million natives had resided, the population shrunk to less than a million indigenous people at one point in time. [Zinn, 16] There are currently close to about 3 million people residing within the United States who are direct descendants of the original indigenous populations. (**)
Over the years Eurocentric historians have tried, to varying degrees of success, to absolve Christopher Columbus of all of his crimes against humanity that his was (and still is) guilty of. They’ve had several methods of doing this. One is by rationalizing his actions by urging audiences to consider “the times” in which he lived. In their view the wave of genocidal massacres and human enslavement he brought about simply doesn’t match up to all the “good” he’s done for the world. They wonder, “How could the fact that he and his followers destroyed numerous civilizations to succeed at their goals negate the fact that he discovered America?” Those who choose to excuse or explain away the attempted annihilation of the original indigenous American population are the same people who in modern times attempt to justify the United States’ never-ending cycle of War, be it in Vietnam, Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq. They are the same people who would attempt to justify Israeli colonization of Palestine, and not so very long ago would have tried to justify racial apartheid in South Africa. What the Portuguese did to the Africans of the continental West Coast and what Columbus and the Spanish did to the Native ‘Indians’ of the Caribbean Islands were precursors to all the atrocities of the world to come. These terroristic campaigns of enslavement and murder brought the world into a new era of Imperialism the likes of which it had never seen before, setting the course for the 1788 British invasion of Australia and the genocide of its original people, centuries of persecution of Africans and their descendants in the Americas – especially in the United States, the use of Atomic bombs to devastate the Japanese populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and so many atrocities too numerous to name. While it is true that all of these events cannot be laid directly at the feet of Columbus alone, it is without question worthy of consideration what kind of world we would live in today had Christopher Columbus never accidentally came upon the ‘New World’. That the world would be a much more peaceful place is painstakingly obvious to any objective observer. In the final analysis, however, it’s best to take Columbus out of the context of being one singular man and instead view him as being emblematic of all of Europe’s hopes and aspirations for global domination and supremacy in the 15th century and the centuries that followed. Europe was, more than any other place in the world at that time, home to the most anti-egalitarian societies imaginable. It was the harshest of all continents to live in, hampered by “famine, pestilence, war and death… from the 14th and 15th century.” The wealth gap between the rich and the poor, as in many countries around the world today, was extraordinary. Because of the ruthless campaigns carried out on behalf of Europe’s wealthy and elite, first by Columbus and then by the conquerors who followed in his footsteps, an entire millennia’s worth of pain, misfortune, inequality and suffering was exported from within the confines of Europe’s borders and spread into every region and corner of the globe. This is the true story of how the world we currently live in came to be.
^ After heading back to Spain in January, 1493 Columbus did not go immediately back to Spain, however. He was stopped (or was it an intentional stop?) in Portugal first and summoned to meet with King Don Juan II (better known to some as John II of Portugal). For an interesting account of why this was so, see Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s classic work, They Came before Columbus: the African presence in Ancient America. Pages 3-20.
* Las Casas is not without some blood on his hands either as he came to realize. He was approached by Christopher Columbus with a request to get the blessing of the Pope for the purpose of kidnapping and enslaving people from Africa to transport to work in the ‘New World.’ Columbus undoubtedly realized that the original natives he’d enslaved were quickly headed on a path towards extinction. Las Casas obliged, and seemed to rationalize his actions by telling himself he was doing the ‘Indians’ a favor by relieving them of their immense suffering. It wasn’t until 35 years later, near the end of his life, that he came to the realization that “it was wrong to enslave the African as well as the Indian.” [Clarke, 98]
** For some interesting background information on how these population estimates for the ancient Americans were reached, see http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/970818/archive_007675.htm .
This is an outstanding series, Caleb. I find it hard to believe that Las Casas didn’t understand the impact of his blessing of the African slave trade. He of all people had witnessed the genocide committed against the Arawaks. Perhaps, he was more interested at the time in providing a new “revenue source” for the Church than appeasing his conscience. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.
That’s a great way of putting it. It’s amazing what peoples’ minds can convince them is true when they need to justify hurting someone, which is of course how the racist science of the 18th-19th century was born. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think de Las Casas’s attempted rationalization was some BS theory about Africans’ bodies being better built to handle forced manual labor or some other foolishness.
That sounds about right although I can’t confirm it. Physical superiority and cognitive (and moral) inferiority were common misconceptions put forth by the dominant culture of the time including the Church. That’s why Frederick Douglass writings and oratory were such powerful repudiations of this notion in the 1800’s.
Indeed, Douglass’s 4th of July Speech when you read it today is still just as powerful in many ways as it was then in calling the United States out for its hypocrisy in the world.