THE ARAWAK INDIANS who greeted Columbus lived in villages and practiced agriculture. Unlike the Europeans, they had no horses or other work animals, and they had no iron. What they did have was tiny gold ornaments in their ears. Those little ornaments shaped history. Because of them, Columbus started his relationship with the Indians by taking prisoners, thinking that they could lead him to the source of the gold. He sailed to several other Caribbean islands, including Hispaniola, an island now divided between two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. After one of Columbus’s ships ran aground, he used wood from the wreck to build a fort in Haiti.
Then he sailed back to Spain With news of his discovery, leaving thirty-nine crewmen at the fort. Their orders were to find and store the gold. The report Columbus made to the royal spanish court was part fact, part fiction. He claimed to have reached Asia, and he called the Arawaks “Indians," meaning people of the Indies. The islands Columbus had visited must be off the ‘left’ Bartolome de Las Casas coast of China, he said.
Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful . . . the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. . . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals.
If the king and queen would give him just a little more help, Columbus said, he would make another voyage. This time he would come back to Spain with “as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.”
Columbus’s promises won him seventeen ships and more than 1,200 men for his second expedition. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, capturing Indians. But as word spread among the Indians, the Spaniards found more and more empty villages. When they got to Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at the fort were dead.
The sailors had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves, until the Indians had killed them in a battle. Columbus’s men searched Haiti for gold, with no success. They had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with something, so in I49 5 they went on a great slave raid. Afterward, they picked five hundred captives to send to Spain. Two hundred of the Indians died on the voyage. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by a local church oflicial. Columbus, who was full of religious talk, later wrote, Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
But too many slaves died in captivity. Columbuswas desperate to show a profit on his voyages. He had to make good on his promises to fill the ships with gold. In a part of Haiti where Columbus and his men imagined there was much gold, they ordered everyone over the age of thirteen to collect gold for them. Indians who did not give gold to the Spaniards had their hands cut off and bled to death. The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of gold dust in streams. So they ran away. The Spaniards hunted them down with dogs and ldlled them. When they took prisoners, they hanged them or burned them to death. Unable to fight against the Spanish soldiers’ guns, swords, arrnor, and horses, the Arawaks began to commit mass suicide with poison. When the Spanish Search for gold began, there were a quarter of a million Indians on Haiti.
In two years, through murder or suicide, half them were dead. When it was clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were enslaved on the Spaniards’ huge estates. They were overworked and mistreated, and they died by the thousands. By 1550, only five hundred Indians remained. A century later, no Arawaks were left on the island.
Telling Columbus’s Story
WE KNOW WHAT HAPPENED ON THE Caribbean islands after Columbus came because of Bartolomé de Las Casas. He Was a young priest who helped the Spanish conquer Cuba. For a while he owned a plantation Where Indian slaves worked. But then Las Casas gave up his plantation and spoke out against Spanish cruelty. Las Casas made a copy of Columbus’s journal, and he also wrote a book called History of the Indies. In this book, he described the Indians’ society and their customs. He also told how the Spaniards treated the Indians:
As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished [starving], had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7,000 children died in three months. 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. . . . My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write.
This was the start of the history of Europeans in the Americas. It was a history of conquest, slavery, and death. But for a long time, the history books given to children in the United States told a different story-a tale of heroic adventure, not bloodshed. The way the story is taught to young people is just beginning to change.
The story of Columbus and the Indians shows us something about how history gets written. One of the most famous historians to write about Columbus was Samuel Eliot Morison. He even sailed across the Atlantic Ocean himself, retracing Columbus’s route. In 1954 Morison published a popular book called Christopher Columbus, Mariner. He said that cruel treatment by Columbus and the Europeans who came after him caused the “complete genocide” of the Indians. Genocide is a harsh word. It is the name of a terrible crime-the deliberate killing of an entire ethnic or cultural group. Morison did not lie about Columbus. He did not leave out the mass murder. But he mentioned the truth quickly and then went on to other things, By burying the fact of genocide in a lot of other information, he seemed to be saying that the mass murder wasn’t very important in the big picture. By making genocide seem like a small part of the story, he took away its power to make us think differently about Columbus. At the end of the book, Morison summed up his idea of Columbus as a great man. Columbus’s most important quality, Morison said, was his seamanship. A historian must pick and choose among facts, deciding which ones to put into his or her work, which ones to leave out, and which ones to place at the center of the story. Every historian’s own ideas and beliefs go into the way he or she writes history. In turn, the way history is written can shape the ideas and beliefs of the people who read it. A view of history like Morison’s, a picture of the past that sees Columbus and others like him great sailors and discoverers, but says almost nothing about their genocide, can make it seem as though what they did was right.
People who write and read history have gotten used to seeing terrible things such as conquest and murder as the price of progress. This is because many of them think that history is the story of governments, conquerors, and leaders. In this way of looking at the past, history is what happens to states, or nations. The actors in history are kings, presidents, and generals. But what about factory workers, farmers, people of color, women, and children? They make history, too.
The story of any country includes fierce conflicts between conquerors and the conquered, masters and slaves, people with power and those without power. Writing history is always a matter of taking sides. For example, I choose to tell the story of the discovery of America from the point of. View of the Arawaks. I will tell the story of the U.S.
Constitution from the point of view of the slaves, and the story of the Civil War from the point of view of the Irish in New York City.
I believe that history can help us imagine new possibilities for the future. One way it can do this is by letting us see the hidden parts of the past, the times when people showed that they could resist the powerful, or join together. Maybe our future can be found in the past’s moments of kindness and courage rather than its centuries of warfare. That is my approach to the history of the United States, which started with the meeting between Columbus and the Arawaks.