The history of Christopher Columbus is inundated with heroic stories of marvelous adventures. He is credited as the discoverer of the New World, but his real history is hidden from the history textbooks and the national historical/political discourse. His history of plunder, murder, slavery, rape, and genocide is concealed from the majority. Christopher Columbus’s name reverberates bloodshed and nothing else.
The Europe of the Renaissance was a cutthroat existence. Driven by the desire for profits, Europeans searched far and wide for new territories to subdue and exploit. This is what sent Christopher Columbus to the Americas. He had presented his case to the king and queen of Spain – they had to finance an expedition to the lands under the impression there was vast mineral wealth as well as spices on the other side of the Atlantic.
Spain was emerging as the new power in Europe alongside the unified, modern states such as England, France, and Portugal. On a quest for more relevance in Europe, Spain sought gold – the new mark of enormous wealth. The previous expeditions by Marco Polo centuries before had proved that there was gold in Asia, as well as silks and spices. A sea route was needed to Asia, and the overzealousness of the Spaniards led them to take a huge gamble.
Columbus was a merchant clerk from the Italian city of Genoa, as well as being a skilled weaver. He was also an expert sailor.
For bringing the gold and spices, Columbus was promised 10 percent of the profits and governorship over the new lands. Above all, he would be bestowed with the honor and fame of being called “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.”
He set out to China with 3 sailing ships, but he would have never made it to China. The great expanse of the sea would have defeated him. With luck on his side, he landed in what is now known as the West Indies (the Americas) – unchartered land between Europe and Asia.
They first arrived on an island in the Bahamas on 12 October 1492. As they approached the land, carrying swords, they were given a warm reception by the Arawak Indians, who swam to greet them. The Arawaks brought Columbus and his sailors' food, water, and gifts.
He wrote about this in his log saying, “They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They would make fine servants…with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” He took their welcoming attitude for naivety.
The Arawaks lived in village communes and centered their existence on agriculture, specializing in the cultivation of yams, cassava, and corn. They could spin and weave but did not own horses or work animals. Neither did they have iron. However, they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears. This was to have extremely fatal consequences for them.
From here Columbus took some inhabitants as prisoners aboard because he wanted them to guide him to the source of the gold. After that, he sailed to Cuba, then to Hispaniola (the present-day island comprising of Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
When he arrived on Hispaniola, the bits of visible gold in rivers led him to have wild imaginations of goldfields. A local Indian chief had even presented a gold mask to Columbus. Reporting back to Madrid, he gave a larger-than-life account of the land saying, “Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful…There are many spices and great mines of gold and other metals…”
Speaking about the Indians, Columbus noted, “[they] are so naive 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 never say no. On the contrary, they offer to share with anyone...” Basic human values of decency and kindness shocked Columbus to the core because this was not the case in Europe. Western Civilization was hell-bent on seeking profits.
He asked for more help from the monarchy, under the condition that he would supply them with more gold and slaves. His second expedition was granted and this time it had 17 sailing ships, and more than 1,200 men. The genocidal carnage in the Caribbean was about to begin. The goal was unambiguous – get gold and slaves.
From his base in Haiti, Columbus sent more men into the interior. But they found no gold fields as they had imagined and had to fill the ships returning to Spain with some sort of profits. In 1495, 1,500 Arawaks (men, women, and children) were rounded up in a slave raid and were put in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs. The 500 best specimens were loaded onto ships, and 200 perished en route.
Many of the slaves captured died in captivity. Columbus had to impress the investors in Spain who had financed his expeditions with gold. Desperate moves had to be employed.
Vast, infinite goldfields that were imagined in the province of Cicao in Haiti were non-existent. The only gold around was bits of dust gathered from the streams. All persons above 14 were ordered to hand over large quantities of gold to the Spanish or face death. When they brought this gold, they were given a “stamped copper or brass token to wear around their necks in what became a symbol of intolerable shame.” Indians found without such token had their hands cut off and bled to death.
With little gold around, the Indians had been given a Herculean task. To fight for their survival, they fled. But it was in vain because they were hunted down with dogs and killed. When it became evident that there was no gold, the Indians were taken as slave labor on enormous estates known as “encomiendas”.
They worked at a furious rate and perished by the thousands. By 1515, there were about 50,000 Indians left, and by 1550 there were 500. In 1650 it was reported that none of the Arawaks or their descendants were left on the islands.
The Spaniards established total control in the Americas, and this was accompanied by the cruelty of epic proportions. They “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” On Hispaniola, a member of Columbus’s crew cut off an Indian’s ears to shock others into submission. This was after more than 2,000 Indians had attacked the Spaniards.
The Indians could not defend themselves and had no one else to turn to for help in the universe. They died in large numbers because they were worked to death.
Bartolome de las Casas, who was a young priest, documented the horrors he saw. “…Mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them.”
“Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides…they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them…Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation…in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk…and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile…was depopulated.”
When Las Casas arrived on Hispaniola in 1508 he wrote, “There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it…” Las Casas later became a vocal critic of Spanish cruelty (even though he had participated in the conquests and at one time had owned a plantation, which he later gave up).
A book by Laurence Bergreen titled ‘Columbus: The Four Voyages’ chronicles some of the atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus and his men. At one point, Columbus kidnapped a Caribbean woman and gave her up to a crew member to rape. He also mentions the fact that about 50,000 Indians committed mass suicide rather than complying with the Spanish. The Indians destroyed their stores of food so that neither them nor the invaders would be able to eat it. Some fell off the cliffs, others poisoned themselves with roots and others starved themselves to death. This was the gravity of Columbus’s rule on these islands.
Settlers under Columbus sold girls as young as 9 and 10 into sexual slavery, something which Columbus admitted himself to a friend of the Spanish queen. He wrote, “There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages, a good price must be paid.”
Christopher Columbus has been absolved from his atrocities through Columbus Day, which is a United States annual holiday celebrating his landing in the Americas on 12 October 1492. But nothing is told about the genocide he created, about the slavery, about the wanton murders and sexual violations he committed. Columbus decimated the indigenous populations of the Americas. His expeditions did not even enrich the people of Spain, as all wealth was concentrated in the hands of the Kings.
The early capitalism of Europe had devastating results for the Arawaks, the Aztecs, the Incas, Powhatans, the Pequots, and other indigenous populations. They capitulated to the delirium for gold, slaves, products of the soil so that the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions could be paid back. As well as propping up “monarchical bureaucracies rising in Western Europe.”
As such, Christopher Columbus should not be celebrated. His real history must be taught without fear and abandon the selective amnesia that leads many to think Columbus was the saint. Instead, some have advanced the notion that Columbus Day should be replaced with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It should be made clear that the name Christopher Columbus is only synonymous with bloodshed.