"Christopher Columbus is a symbol, not of a man, but of imperialism.
... Imperialism and colonialism are not something that happened decades
ago or generations ago, but they are still happening now with the exploitation
of people. ... The kind of thing that took place long ago in which people
were dispossessed from their land and forced out of subsistence economies
and into market economies -- those processes are still happening today."
John Mohawk, Seneca, 1992
[The following appeared on a full page of the Rocky Mountain News on Saturday, October 8, 1994.]
An Open Letter From the AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT of Colorado and Our Allies
When the Taino Indians saved Christopher Columbus from certain death on the fateful morning of October 12, 1492, a glorious opportunity presented itself for the cultures of both Europe and the Americas to flourish.
What occurred was neither glorious nor heroic. Just as Columbus could not, and did not, "discover" a hemisphere already inhabited by nearly 100 million people, his arrival cannot, and will not, be recognized by indigenous peoples as a heroic and festive event.
>From a Native perspective, Columbus' arrival was a disaster from the beginning. Although his own diaries reveal that he was greeted by the Tainos with the most generous hospitality he had ever known, he immediately began the enslavement and slaughter of the Indian peoples of the Caribbean.
Defenders of Columbus and his holiday argue that critics unfairly judge Columbus, a 15th Century product, by the moral and legal standards of the late 20th century. Such a defense implies that there were no legal or moral constraints on actions such as Columbus' in 1492. In reality, European legal and moral principles acknowledged the natural rights of Indians and prohibited their slaughter or unjust wars against them.
The issue of Columbus and Columbus Day is not easily resolvable by dismissing Columbus, the man. Columbus Day is a perpetuation of racist assumptions that the Americas were a wasteland cluttered with dark skin savages awaiting the blessings of European "civilization." Throughout this hemisphere, educational systems and the popular media perpetuate the myth that indigenous peoples have contributed nothing to the world, and, consequently, we should be grateful for our colonization, our dispossession, and our microwave ovens.
The racist Columbus legacy enables every country in this hemisphere, including the United States, to continue its destruction of Indian peoples, from the jungles of Brazil to the highlands of Guatemala, from the Chaco of Paraguay to the Western Shoshone Nation in Nevada. Indian people remain in a perpetual state of danger from the system begun by Columbus in 1492. The Columbus legacy throughout the Americas keeps Indian people at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator. We are under continuing physical, legal and political attack, and are afforded the least access to political and legal remedies. Nevertheless we continue to resist and we refuse to surrender our spirituality, to assimilate, or to disappear into Hollywood's romantic sunset.
To dignify Columbus and his legacy with parades, holidays and other celebrations is repugnant. As the original peoples of this land, we cannot, and we will not, tolerate social and political festivities that celebrate our genocide. We are committed to the active, open, and public rejection of disrespect and racism in its various forms--including Columbus Day and Columbus Day parades.
For the past five years the American Indian Movement of Colorado and our allies have been compelled to confront and resist the continuing Columbus legacy in the streets of Denver. For every hour spent organizing non-violent opposition to the Columbus parade, we have lost an hour that we were not able to use in assisting indigenous treaty rights struggles, land recovery strategies, and the advancement of indigenous self-determination.
However, one positive benefit of our efforts was the public debate over Columbus Day that has spread into the public schools as an educational tool for students and their teachers. Overall, we view the demise of the Columbus Day Parade in Denver as a welcome opportunity to move beyond the divisive symbolism of the past.
We therefore suggest the replacement of Columbus Day with a celebration that is more inclusive and that more accurately reflects the cultural and racial richness of the Americas. We also suggest that the community support a more honest portrayal of social evolution in this hemisphere and a greater respect for all people on the margins of the dominating society. There is no more appropriate place for this transformation to occur than in Colorado, the birthplace of the Columbus Day holiday.
When Taino Indians saved Christopher Columbus from certain death on the fateful morning of Oct. 12, 1492, a glorious opportunity presented itself. The cultures Europe of and the Americas could have merged and the beauty of both races could have flourished.
Unfortunately, what occurred was neither beautiful nor heroic. Just as Columbus could not, and did not, "discover" a hemisphere that was already inhabited by nearly 100 million people, his arrival cannot, and will not, be recognized as a heroic and celebratory event by indigenous peoples.
Unlike the Western tradition, which presumes some absolute concept of objective truth, and consequently, one "factual" depiction of history, the indigenous view recognizes that there exist many truths in the world and many legitimate recollections of any given historical event, depending on one's perspective and experiences.
From an indigenous vantage point, Columbus' arrival was a disaster from the beginning. Although his own diaries indicated that he was greeted by the Taino Indians with the most generous hospitality he had ever known, he immediately began the enslavement and slaughter of the Indian peoples of the Caribbean islands. As the eminent Columbus biographer Samuel Eliot Morison admits in his book, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Columbus was personally responsible for enslavement and murder of indigenous peoples. He was personally responsible for the design and operation of the encomienda system that tied Indians as slaves to the lands stolen from them by the European invaders.
As detailed in the American Heritage Magazine (October,1976), Columbus personally oversaw the genocide of the Taino Indian nation of what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Consequently, this murderer, despite his historical notoriety, deserves no recognition or accolades as a hero; he deserves no respect as a visionary; and he is not worthy of a state or national holiday in his honor.
Defenders of Columbus and his holiday argue that indigenous peoples unfairly judge Columbus, a 15th century actor, by the moral and legal standards of the late 20th century. Such a defense implies that no moral or legal constraints applied to individuals such as Columbus, or countries, in 1492. As Roger Williams details in his book, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought, not only were there European moral and legal principles in 1492, but they largely favored the rights of indigenous peoples to be free from unjustified invasion and pillage by Europeans.
Unfortunately, the issue of Columbus and Columbus Day is not easily resolvable with a disposition of Columbus, the man. Columbus Day as a national, and international, phenomenon reflects a much larger dynamic that promotes myriad myths and historical lies that have been used through the ages to dehumanize Indians, justifying the theft of our lands, the attempted destruction of our nations, and the genocide against our people. Since the 15th Century, the myth of Columbus' discovery has been used in the development of laws and policies that reek of Orwell's doublespeak: theft equals the righteous spread of civilization, genocide is God's deliverance of the wilderness from the savages, and the destruction of Indian societies implies the superiority of European values and institutions over indigenous ones.
Columbus Day is a perpetuation of racist assumptions that the Western Hemisphere was a wasteland cluttered with savages awaiting the blessings of Western "civilization." Throughout the hemisphere, educational systems perpetuate these myths - suggesting that indigenous peoples have contributed nothing to the world, and, consequently, should be grateful for their colonization and their microwave ovens.
As Alfred Crosby, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Jack Weatherford have illustrated in their books, not only was the Western Hemisphere a virtual ecological and health paradise prior to 1492, but the Indians of the Americas have been responsible for such revolutionary global contributions as the model for U.S. constitutional government, agricultural advances that currently provide 60 percent of the world's daily diet, and hundreds of medical and medicinal techniques still in use today.
If you find it difficult to believe that Indians had developed highly complex and sophisticated societies, then you have been victimized by an educational and social system that has given you a retarded, distorted view of history. The operation of this view has also enabled every country in this hemisphere, including the U.S., to continue its destruction of Indian peoples. From the jungles of Brazil to the highlands of Guatemala, from the Chaco of Paraguay to the Supreme Court of the United States, Indian people remain in a perpetual state of danger from the systems that Christopher Columbus began in 1492.
Throughout the Americas, Indian people remain at the bottom of every socioeconomic indicator, we are under continuing physical attack, and are afforded the least access to economic, political, or legal redress. Despite these constant and unbridled assaults, we have resisted, we have survived, and we refuse to surrender any more of our homeland or to disappear into the romantic sunset.
To dignify Columbus and his legacy with parades, holidays and other celebrations is intolerable to us. As the original peoples of this land, we cannot, and will not, countenance social and political festivities that celebrate our genocide. We are embarking on a two- pronged campaign in the quincentenary year to confront the continuing racism against Indian people.
First, we are advocating that the divisive Columbus Day holiday should be replaced by a celebration that is much more inclusive and more accurately reflective of the cultural and racial richness of the Americas. Such a holiday will provide respect and acknowledgement to every group and individual of the importance and value of their heritage, and will allow a more honest and accurate portrayal of the evolution of the hemisphere. It will also provide an opportunity for greater understanding and respect as our societies move ahead into the next 500 years. Opponents to this suggestion react as though this proposal is an attack on ancient time-honored holiday, but Columbus Day has been a national holiday only since 1971 - and in 1991, hopefully, we can correct the errors of the past, moving forward in an atmosphere of mutual respect and inclusiveness.
Second, and related to the first, is the advancement of an active militant campaign to demand that federal, state, and local authorities begin the removal of anti-Indian icons throughout the country. Beginning with Columbus, we are insisting on the removal of statues, street names, public parks, and any other public object that seeks to celebrate or honor devastators of Indian peoples. We will take an active role of opposition to public displays, parades, and celebrations that champion Indian haters. We encourage others, in every community in the land, to educate themselves and to take responsibility for the removal of anti-Indian vestiges among them.
For people of goodwill, there is no better time for the re-examination of the past, and a rectification of the historical record for future generations, than the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival. There is no better place for this re-examination to begin than in Colorado, the birthplace of the Columbus Day holiday.
Russell Means and Glenn Morris wrote this position statement
in 1991 on behalf of the American Indian Movement of Colorado,
1574 South Pennsylvania St., Denver, CO
1. Question: What's Wrong with Christopher Columbus?
Answer: We've all been lied to about Columbus. Before Columbus sailed the Atlantic, he was a slave trader for the Portuguese, transporting West African people to Portugal to be sold as slaves. Columbus initiated the first Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Columbus, his brother, and his son all continued slave trading of indigenous peoples from the Americas to Europe and from Africa to the Caribbean. Under his administration as viceroy and governor of the Caribbean Islands, 8 million people were killed, making his "contribution" to history the first mass genocide of indigenous peoples. The Columbus legacy is steeped in blood, violence, and death. Public holidays celebrating Columbus not only teach children to honor a cruel and brutal man, they encourage people in this society to ignore, look away, and even support racist practices embedded in today's economic, political and judicial systems.
2. Question: Aren't these accounts of Columbus an exaggerated revision of history?
Answer: No. By conservative accounts based on Spanish surveys, the Taino numbered as many as 8 million in 1493. [Source: Cook and Woodrow, Essays in Population History, Vol. 1, Chapter VI, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971, cited in Churchill].
During Columbus' tenure as "viceroy and governor" of the Caribbean Islands and the American mainland from 1493 until 1500, he instituted policies of slavery (encomienda) and the systematic murder and rape of the Taino population. Dominican priest, Bartolome de Las Casas was the first European historian in the Americas. He was an eyewitness and wrote in painful detail of the tortures he witnessed. In a survey conducted in 1496, he estimated that over 5 million people had been exterminated within the first three years of the Columbus rule. [Actual survey conducted in 1496 by Bartolome de Las Casas, cited in J.B. Thatcher, Christopher Columbus, Vol. 2 [Source: New York: Putnam Sons Publishers, 1903-1904), p. 348ff. cited in Churchill.] Later accounts that gloss over the horrors of the Columbus regime are the revisions of history.
By the time of Columbus' departure, only 100,000 Taino were left, and by 1542, only 200 were left. Within the entire Caribbean Islands, about 15 million indigenous people are estimated to have been exterminated within one generation of Columbus' arrival. This is genocide, the wholesale killing of an entire race of people. These policies, established here, laid the foundation for extermination policies that Europeans used to justify the elimination of over 100 million native people throughout the Western Hemisphere. By any standards those numbers describe a Holocaust. (go to top)
3. Question: Wasn't Columbus just a product of his times? Is it not unfair to judge a 15th Century man by 21st Century standards?
Answer: To view Columbus as violent and racist is not an imposition of 21st century morality. His own diaries reveal his brutality -- a brutality that offered no fair judgment to his victims. Bartolome de Las Casas began his days in the Americas as a beneficiary of the encomienda (slave-holding) system. However, as he watched the horror of human destruction caused as a result of Columbus' actions and decisions, as well as the actions of the soldiers under Columbus' command, De Las Casas repudiated the system. He described in vivid detail the massacre of the Indians, denounced Columbus, and published his findings in Europe in his History of the Indies.
The violence of Columbus' extermination actions was widely debated in theological and academic circles within Europe. European legal and moral principles tended to favor the rights of indigenous peoples to be free from unjustified invasion, murder and pillage by Europeans. Francisco de Vitoria, professor at the University of Salamanca in the early 1500s and often considered the father of modern international law, wrote extensively on the rights of indigenous peoples. Vitoria and others in Columbus' own lifetime rejected the view that popes and monarchs had the automatic right to enslave indigenous peoples and take their land. The rights of human beings were as much 15th Century issues then, as they are 21st Century issues today.
4. Question: But those events happened a long time ago. How could they possibly matter today?
Answer: Columbus' actions set the foundation for legal and social policies -- still used today in United States, Mexico, Canada, South America and in many countries around the world. These policies justify the theft and destruction of indigenous peoples' lands and knowledge by corporate and government interests. Media, films, judicial systems, educational systems, and other political and social institutions support this continued assault on the natural resources of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples today remain at the margins of technological society -- struggling to overcome the destruction of land, culture and language. In many ways all peoples on this planet are impacted. These attacks on indigenous peoples and their land and their knowledge contribute to the destruction of ecosystems and the erosion of human rights for all people.
5. Question: What does this history of Columbus have to do with protesting the Columbus Day parade?
Answer: From the actions and words of the parade organizers over the years, it is clear that the parade represents more than a celebration of Italian culture, or even of Columbus, the man. It is a glorification of the colonial tradition described above and the privileging of an Italian past that benefited and grew out of that process of subjugation. Moreover, in its celebration it is intended to serve as a reminder of that past, to convey that the genocide for which Columbus was personally responsible is an acceptable cost for the extension of western civilization. If the parade was truly intended to "celebrate" Italian heritage, why begin with Columbus? Why not simply call it the "Italian Heritage Parade?"
Surely, the organizers would draw a wider audience and reflect a broader and more accurate view of Italian culture. However, neither the title nor the actions of the organizers are accidental. Both are intended to convey what the parade organizers find valuable in their interpretation of the Italian American experience; namely, the legacy of racial superiority, conquest, and domination epitomized by Columbus. The Columbus parade is the ultimate opportunity for the parade organizers to champion the invasion of the America's, thereby avoiding any personal or collective responsibility for the genocide that began under Columbus, and that continues today. We can find nothing of value in cultural celebration that elevate the pride of one group by demeaning and disrespecting another. When we allow a parade in honor of Columbus to take place without objection, we are tacitly supporting those values that celebrate subjugation, and we are suggesting that such a parade represents all of our interests. In opposing the Columbus Day parade, we refuse to accept or enable those values and we maintain that our resources, time, and energy, are better invested in expressions of good will, mutual respect, and building collective dignity. (go to top)
6. Question: Doesn't the first amendment protect the right of the Italian organizers to have their parade?
Answer: To be clear, we support and defend the rights granted to all of us by virtue of the first amendment. We strongly affirm the right of all people to create a marketplace of ideas that stimulates and strengthens democracy.
However, we do not accept hate speech, and more specifically, the state-sponsored celebration of Columbus as a valid expression of this right. In particular, the first amendment cannot, and should not, be applied in a capricious or uncritical manner in all circumstances. Doing so overlooks the very real inequalities of power which surround us. These unequal positions of power affect our abilities to access, express, defend and assert our rights (such as the first amendment). What's more they affect the degree to which our expressions are heard, the authority they carry, and the manner in which they impact our society. For example, we would never accept the argument that a slave's actual right to object to slavery was ever equal to the slaveholder's verbal defense of slavery. Similarly, we would not accept that a woman in a hostile work environment possesses an equal ability to exercise free speech with the corporate CEO who is sexually harassing her. As such, it is erroneous to suggest that we all have equal access to the First Amendment.
An absolutist view of the First Amendment ignores the inequalities in political and social power that translates to an imbalance in the application and access of the first amendment. Over the years, we have accepted numerous restrictions on pure speech as a means to correct for the imbalance of power that can take place when the first amendment is arbitrarily applied. For example, we accept limitations on pure speech when it is used to abuse young children, we accept limitations on speech when it is used to threaten or incite danger, and we accept restrictions on pure speech when it is used to sexually or racially harass co-workers.
In addition, we no longer accept signs that read "Whites Only," because we know that the sign is not only about speech, but about the power that historically accompanied that message. In short, we've accepted these restrictions with the knowledge that unlimited pure speech coupled with unequal access to power ensures inevitable harm. One very important instance in which the U.S. played an instrumental role in the justifiable limitation of speech was the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal following World War II. Julius Streicher was tried, convicted, and executed after being prosecuted by Robert Jackson, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Streicher's crimes were considered so horrendous that they were termed "crimes against humanity." To first amendment absolutists, Streicher should have gone free, but Justice Jackson and the other members of the Tribunal decided that Streicher 's role as a Nazi propagandist - promoting, inciting, and supporting the extermination of Jews, gays, gypsies, and others- was not and should not be protected speech, even though it was pure speech. Subsequently, international law as reflected in the Genocide Convention, made the promotion, advocacy, or incitement to genocide an international crime. We believe that Columbus Day justifies, promotes, and extends genocidal sentiments and policies against indigenous peoples in the Americas and around the world.
Just as apartheid was denounced by the international community as an unacceptable ideology of racial superiority in South Africa, so should Columbus Day and Columbus celebrations be condemned as the advancement of racial supremacy because they celebrate the destruction of indigenous peoples. In addition, the speech we are discussing in the case of the Columbus Day parade constitutes a combination of pure speech, symbolic speech, and behavior. Because of the potential for harm in this type of speech (because it represents conduct combined with speech) this type of expression has always been subject to greater scrutiny. As such, we see no contradiction or undue burden in having the Columbus Day parade closely scrutinized. In fact, the Columbus Day parade or celebrations of the holiday warrant even closer inspection as they involve state sponsored actions. When the city and state involve themselves in condoning and protecting the parade they purport to act on behalf of all of us, and as such their actions take on greater authority.
Finally a blind application of the first amendment is ultimately problematic because it creates a conflict with other rights granted to us through the constitution. Specifically, the 14th amendment provides us with "equal protection under the law," and protection of our life, liberty, and property via due process, rights that ensure us freedom from hate speech and other types of harassment. While we don't suggest that one amendment be supplanted for another, we object to any conflict between these rights automatically being decided in favor of those in the dominating position. As such, we reject that claims to freedom of speech on behalf of the parade organizers should supercede our freedom to protest, our right to live free from harassment and intimidation, and the desire of people to create a mutually respectful community. (go to top)
7. Scholarship: Columbus Should be Rejected as a National Hero
"The policy and acts of Columbus for which he alone was responsible began the depopulation of the terrestrial paradise that was Hispaniola in 1492…one third were killed off between 1494 and 1496." (emphasis added)
- Samuel Eliot Morrison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (NY: Little, Brown and Co, 1942). pp 492-493
"The two leading researchers here, Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah of the University of California at Berkeley have calculated the population decline [of the island of Hispaniola] after 1496,…with an estimate of the original island population of just under 8 million. [The population declined] from 8 million to 28,000 in just over twenty years. That…is a carnage of more than 99 percent, something we must call closer to a genocide."
- Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (NY: Plume Books, 1991). pp. 160-161.
"The Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against [the Indians]. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged, nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword could split a man in two or could cut off his head…They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags***They made some low, wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims, in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive."
- Bartolome' de Las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account (originally published in 1547) reprinted by Johns Hopkins Press, 1992. pp. 42-45. Las Casas was a Dominican priest, the first European historian in the Americas.
"Columbus proceeded to establish a slave trade with the inhabitants of Hispaniola. And this after he had declared time and time again that the Tainos were the kindest, most peaceful and generous people in the world…But now [Columbus] resorted to the monstrous expedient of sending hundreds of the wretched creatures overseas to the slave mart of Seville."
- Morrison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (see above), pp. 486-487.
STATE OF ALABAMA PROCLAMATION BY THE GOVERNOR
WHEREAS, many of our state citizens are of Native American Indian heritage, and their Traditional Ways have greatly contributed to the Constitution and Foundation of our Nation, as well as, the quality of our American way of life; and HEREAS, the citizens of Alabama are indeed fortunate to be the recipients of our Native American Indians Cultural, Educational and Historical values; and
WHEREAS, the Alabama Indian Affairs entities and individuals are deserving of being hereinafter recognized for their ongoing Educational Programs to our youth and their annual Cultural & Historical events throughout the State; and
WHEREAS, the State of Alabama wishes to Honor our Native American Indians for the contributions of their culture to our citizens;
NOW, THEREFORE, I Don Siegelman, Governor of the State of Alabama, do hereby proclaim the state holiday formerly known as Columbus Day will henceforth be known as American Indian Heritage Day Columbus Day In the great State of Alabama.
Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress
excerpted from a
People's History of the United States
by Howard Zinn
Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
"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 were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... 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 have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.... They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.
"As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts."
The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?
The Indians, Columbus reported, "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. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone...." He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage "as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask." He was full of religious talk: "Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities."
Because of Columbus's exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans' intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.
Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were "naked as the day they were born," they showed "no more embarrassment than animals." Columbus later wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."
But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.
The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.
Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.
When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.
The chief source-and, on many matters the only source-of in formation about what happened on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty.
In Book Two of his History of the Indies, Las Casas (who at first urged replacing Indians by black slaves, thinking they were stronger and would survive, but later relented when he saw the effects on blacks) tells about the treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards. It is a unique account and deserves to be quoted at length:
"Endless testimonies . . . prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives.... But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then.... The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians..."
Las Casas tells how the Spaniards "grew more conceited every day" and after a while refused to walk any distance. They "rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry" or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays. "In this case they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings."
Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." Las Casas tells how "two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys."
The Indians' attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed. So, Las Casas reports. "they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could tun for help." He describes their work in the mines:
"... 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; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside....
After each six or eight months' work in the mines, which was the time required of each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died. While the men were sent many miles away to the mines, the wives remained to work the soil, forced into the excruciating job of digging and making thousands of hills for cassava plants.
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, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 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 . . . and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile ... was depopulated.... My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write...."
When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, "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...."
Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas-even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?) is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure-there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day is a celebration.
The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as "the United States," subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a "national interest" represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.
"History is the memory of states," wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those states men's policies. From his standpoint, the "peace" that Europe had before the French Revolution was "restored" by the diplomacy of a few national leaders.
But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation-a world not restored but disintegrated.
When the Pilgrims came to New England they too were coming not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a "vacuum." The Indians, he said, had not "subdued" the land, and therefore had only a "natural" right to it, but not a "civil right." A "natural right" did not have legal standing.
The Puritans also appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:8: "Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession." And to justify their use of force to take the land, they cited Romans 13:2: "Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation."
The Indian population of 10 million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would ultimately be reduced to less than a million. Huge numbers of Indians would die from diseases introduced by the whites. A Dutch traveler in New Netherland wrote in 1656 that "the Indians . . . affirm, that before the arrival of the Christians, and before the smallpox broke out amongst them, they were ten times as numerous as they now are, and that their population had been melted down by this disease, whereof nine-tenths of them have died." When the English first settled Martha's Vineyard in 1642, the Wampanoags there numbered perhaps three thousand. There were no wars on that island, but by 1764, only 313 Indians were left there. Similarly, Block Island Indians numbered perhaps 1,200 to 1,500 in 1662, and by 1774 were reduced to fifty-one.
Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private property. It was a morally ambiguous drive; the need for space, for land, was a real human need. But in conditions of scarcity, in a barbarous epoch of history ruled by competition, this human need was transformed into the murder of whole peoples.
How Does Columbus compare to some of the most oppressive, criminal regimes in history?
Take our quiz and find out.
___ Benito Mussolini
___ Adolph Hitler
___ Christopher Columbus
___ Pol Pot
___ Josef Stalin
___ Saddam Hussein
___ Jefferson Davis
___ Genghis Khan
A. Eyewitness accounts estimate over 5 million people were exterminated within the first three years of his rule.
B. His followers participated in massacres in which they, “Grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mothers’ breasts, and dashed them headlong against the rocks.”
C. On his first day in the region, he said, “With fifty men I could subdue them all.”
D. During his regime, children who had been executed were used as dog food.
E. Believed his victims were “sub-human” and did not have souls.
F. His soldiers routinely laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes.
G. Initiated the Trans-Atlantic (sex) Slave Trade.
H. “They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burn[ed] them alive.”
I. Implemented a policy that included cutting off the hands of those who did not bring his invading force enough gold.
J. His soldiers “Slaughtered everyone in their path, on occasion running through a mother and her baby with a single thrust of their swords.”