When Columbus made landfall on San Salvador Island, he encountered the Taino people, a part of the Arawak tribe. He called the people Indians because he thought he had reached the fabled Indies. The following accounts describe Columbus’s first interaction with the Taino people:
When the local people, the Tainos, greeted him, Columbus called them los Indios, or “Indians.” He gave them gifts of red caps, glass beads, and bells.
Why do you think Columbus gave the Tainos gifts when he first met them?
Primary Source Account
“As I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force, I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us.”
Why did Columbus actually give the Tainos gifts?
Columbus’s initial impression of the Arawaks is quite different than the one that he would later possess. In a letter to Queen Isabella, Columbus wrote:
“[the Indians] are well built [and] quick of intelligence. They have very good customs…and the king maintains a very marvelous state, of a style so orderly that it is a pleasure to see it, and they have good memories and they wish to see everything and ask what it is and for what it is used.”
How does Columbus view the Arawaks? How do you think this will affect his treatment of them?
Columbus recorded his interpretation of their reaction to him and his men:
“The people kept coming down to the beach, calling to us and giving thanks to God. Some brought us water, some food; others, seeing that I did not wish to go ashore, swam out to us…One old man climbed into the boat, and others, men and women, kept shouting, “Come and see the men who have come from Heaven; bring them food and drink.”
How does Columbus interpret the Arawaks actions?
How does Columbus know what the Arawaks are actually saying?
Why do you think Columbus is writing his observations down? Who do you think he wants to show it to?
Finally, Columbus revealed his true motivations for seeking out the new land:
“I was very attentive to them, and strove to learn if they had any gold. Seeing some of them with little bits of metal hanging at their noses, I gathered form them by signs that by going southward or steering around the island in that direction, there would be found a king who possessed great cups full of gold.”
What was Columbus searching so eagerly for?
What do you think Columbus was planning on doing once he found the gold?
At dawn the next day, Columbus sailed to the other side of the island, probably one of the Bahamas, and saw two or three villages. He ended his description of them with these words:
“I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.”
Does it seem like Columbus’s mood has shifted at all? How so?
Do you think Columbus sees the Native Americans as a threat or a challenge?
Columbus kidnapped some ten to twenty-five Indians and took them back with him to Spain
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella provided Columbus with seventeen ships, 1,200 to 1,500 men, cannons, crossbows, guns, cavalry, and attack dogs for a second voyage
When Columbus and his men returned to Hispaniola in 1493, they demanded food, gold, spun cotton, and anything else that the Indians had that they wanted
To ensure cooperation, Columbus used punishment by example
When an Arawak committed even a minor offense, the Spanish cut off his ears or nose and was sent back to his village as living evidence of the brutality the Spaniards were capable of
The attempts at resistance gave Columbus an excuse to make war. On March 24, 1495, he set out to conquer the Arawaks:
“Since [Columbus] believed that the Arawak were gathering their weapons to prepare for battle, ridiculous weapons in reality…he rushed to proceed to the country and put down, by force of arms, the people of the entire island…For this he chose 200 foot soldiers and 20 cavalry, with many crossbows and small cannon, lances, and swords, and a still more terrible weapon against the Indians, in addition to the horses: this was 20 hunting dogs, who were turned loose and immediately tore the Indians apart.”
Why do you think Columbus responded to the Arawak threat the way that he did?
Having found no fields of gold, Columbus had to return some kind of payment to Spain:
“Among them were many women who had infants…in order to escape us, they left their infants anywhere on the ground and started to flee like desperate people…since they were afraid we would turn to catch them again. In the name of the Holy Trinity, we can send from here all the slaves and brazil-wood which could be sold.”
How did Columbus make money off of the natives?
Columbus not only sent the first slaves across the Atlantic, he probably sent more slaves—about 5,000—than any other individual.
Other nations rushed to participate in the slave trade
In his later writings, Columbus described the Native American peoples as:
“cruel and stupid…a people warlike and numerous, whose customs and religion are very different from ours.”
Why do you think Columbus’s description of Native American people changed after his harsh treatment of them?
How did Columbus’s conquest of the New World change Europe’s trade interests worldwide?
The arrival of Europeans in the Americas set in motion a series of complex exchanges between Europe and the New World—known as the Columbian Exchange
1. Which goods that went from the Americas to Europe do you think had the biggest impact on European life?
2. Which goods that went from Europe to the Americas had the most negative impact on Native Americans?
“The Truth About Columbus” Homework
1. When Columbus landed in the Americas, why did he think that he had arrived in the Indies?
The population had massive amounts of gold.
His maps were borrowed from the Vikings.
The natives knew the language and had libraries.
He thought he had sailed far enough west to reach the Indies.
2. Which statement describes an impact of the Columbian exchange on the lives of Europeans?
The combination of new products and ideas promoted economic growth.
Native Americans immigrated to Europe and competed with Europeans for jobs.
Millions of Europeans were killed by new American diseases.
Introduction of the Native American religions resulted in the decline of the Roman Catholic Church.
3. “…(It) brought the potato, the pineapple, the turkey, dahlias, sunflowers, magnolias, maize, chillies and chocolate across the Atlantic. On the other hand, tens of millions died in the pandemics of the 16th century, victims of smallpox, measles and the other diseases brought by Europeans (and don’t forget that the African slave trade was begun by the Europeans, to replace the work force they had decimated).”…
— Michael Wood, BBC History (adapted)
Which historical development is being described in this quotation?
establishment of the line of Demarcation
creation of the Hanseatic League
5. Based on your knowledge of Christopher Columbus, do you believe he should be celebrated and honored with a federal holiday? Be sure to support your opinion with historical evidence.