Christopher Columbus – Hero or Villain? Initial Thoughts

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American History I Name: __________________________

Christopher Columbus – Hero or Villain?

Initial Thoughts: What is your initial thought

about Christopher Columbus? What do you remember

learning about? Is he an American “hero”?


What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever

committed against God and mankind and this trade [in Indian slaves] as one of the most

unjust, evil, and cruel among them.”

- Bartolome de las Casas (Member of Columbus' crew)

Excerpts from Lies My Teacher Told Me, 1999.
Columbus's initial impression of the Arawaks, who inhabited most of the islands in the

Caribbean, was quite favorable. He wrote in his journal on October 13, 1492: "At

daybreak great multitudes of men came to the shore, all young and of fine shapes, and

very handsome. Their hair was not curly but loose and coarse like horse-hair. All have

foreheads much broader than any people I had hitherto seen. Their eyes are large and

very beautiful. They are not black, but the color of the inhabitants of the Canaries." (This

reference to the Canaries was ominous, for Spain was then in the process of

exterminating the aboriginal people of those islands.) Columbus went on to describe the

Arawaks' canoes, "some large enough to contain 40 or 45 men." Finally, he got down to

business: "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 from them by signs that by going southward or steering round the island in that direction, there would

be found a king who possessed great cups full of 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 menacing words: "I could conquer

the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased."

On his first voyage, Columbus kidnapped some ten to twenty-five Indians and took them

back with him to Spain. Only seven or eight of the Indians arrived alive, but along with

the parrots, gold trinkets, and other exotica, they caused quite a stir in Seville. Ferdinand

and Isabella provided Columbus with seventeen ships, 1,200 to 1,500 men, cannons,

crossbows, guns, cavalry, and attack dogs for a second voyage.

One way to visualize what happened next is with the help of the famous science fiction

story War of the Worlds. H. G. Wells intended his tale of earthlings' encounter with

technologically advanced aliens as an allegory. His frightened British commoners (New

Jerseyites in Orson Welles's radio adaptation) were analogous to the "primitive" peoples

of the Canaries or America, and his terrifying aliens represented the technologically

advanced Europeans. As we identify with the helpless earthlings, Wells wanted us also to

sympathize with the natives on Haiti in 1493, or on Australia in 1788, or in the upper

Amazon jungle in the 1990s.

When Columbus and his men returned to Haiti in 1493, they demanded food, gold, spun

cotton-whatever the Indians had that they wanted, including sex with their women. To

ensure cooperation, Columbus used punishment by example. When an Indian committed

even a minor offense, the Spanish cut off his ears or nose. Disfigured, the person was sent

back to his village as living evidence of the brutality the Spaniards were capable of.
After a while, the Indians had had enough. At first their resistance was mostly passive.

They refused to plant food for the Spanish to take. They abandoned towns near the

Spanish settlements. Finally, the Arawaks fought back. Their sticks and stones were no

more effective against the armed and clothed Spanish, however, than the earthlings' rifles

against the aliens' death rays in War of the Worlds.
The attempts at resistance gave Columbus an excuse to make war. On March 24, 1495, he

set out to conquer the Arawaks. Bartolome de Las Casas described the force Columbus

assembled to put down the rebellion. "Since the Admiral perceived that daily the people

of the land were taking up arms, ridiculous weapons in reality… he hastened to proceed

to the country and disperse and subdue, 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." Naturally, the Spanish won. According to Kirkpatrick Sale, who

quotes Ferdinand Columbus's biography of his father: "The soldiers mowed down dozens

with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing

Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and 'with God's aid soon gained

a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed.' "

Having as yet found no fields of gold, Columbus had to return some kind of dividend to Spain. In 1495 the Spanish on Haiti initiated a great slave raid. They rounded up 1,500 Arawaks, then selected the 500 best specimens (of whom 200 would die en route to Spain). Another 500 were chosen as slaves for the Spaniards staying on the island. The rest were released. A Spanish eyewitness described the event: "Among them were many women who had infants at the breast. They, in order the better to escape us, since they were afraid we would turn to catch them again, left their infants anywhere on the ground and started to flee like desperate people; and some fled so far that they were removed from our settlement of Isabela seven or eight days beyond mountains and across huge rivers; wherefore from now on scarcely any will be had." Columbus was excited. "In the name of the Holy Trinity, we can send from here all the slaves and brazil-wood which could be sold," he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1496. "In Castile, Portugal, Aragon,.. . and the Canary Islands they need many slaves, and I do not think they get enough from Guinea." He viewed the Indian death rate optimistically: "Although they die now, they will not always die. The Negroes and Canary Islanders died at first."
In the words of Hans Koning, "There now began a reign of terror in Hispaniola."

Spaniards hunted Indians for sport and murdered them for dog food. Columbus, upset

because he could not locate the gold he was certain was on the island, set up a tribute

system. Ferdinand Columbus described how it worked: "[The Indians] all promised to

pay tribute to the Catholic Sovereigns every three months, as follows: In the Cibao,

where the gold mines were, every person of 14 years of age or upward was to pay a large

hawk's bell of gold dust; all others were each to pay 25 pounds of cotton. Whenever an

Indian delivered his tribute, he was to receive a brass or copper token which he must

wear about his neck as proof that he had made his payment. Any Indian found without

such a token was to be punished." With a fresh token, an Indian was safe for three

months, much of which time would be devoted to collecting more gold. Columbus's son

neglected to mention how the Spanish punished those whose tokens had expired: they cut

off their hands.
Beyond acts of individual cruelty, the Spanish disrupted the Indian ecosystem and

culture. Forcing Indians to work in mines rather than in their gardens led to widespread

malnutrition. The intrusion of rabbits and livestock caused further ecological disaster.

Diseases new to the Indians played a role, although smallpox, usually the big killer, did

not appear on the island until after 1516. Some of the Indians tried fleeing to Cuba, but

the Spanish soon followed them there. Estimates of Haiti's pre-Columbian population

range as high as 8,000,000 people. When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain, he left

his brother Bartholomew in charge of the island. Bartholomew took a census of Indian

adults in 1496 and came up with 1,100,000. The Spanish did not count children under

fourteen and could not count Arawaks who had escaped into the mountains. Kirkpatrick

Sale estimates that a more accurate total would probably be in the neighborhood of

3,000,000. "By 1516," according to Benjamin Keen, "thanks to the sinister Indian slave

trade and labor policies initiated by Columbus, only some 12,000 remained." Las Casas

tells us that fewer than 200 Indians were alive in 1542. By 1555, they were all gone.

1. Has this changed your opinion of Christopher Columbus? If so, why did it change? If not,

why not?

2. Most of you learned about Columbus in elementary school, why do you think they left this

part of the history off? What kinds of questions might knowing this information raise for little


3. Why do you think the “myth” of Columbus still exists?

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