Despite an attempt to glorify the explorer with a mythologized history, Christopher Columbus was a brutal profiteer who slaughtered countless unarmed natives and enslaved tens of thousands, all in the name of fame and fortune.
By David Todd McCarty | Monday, October 12, 2020
America has a tenuous grasp on reality when it comes to its own history, and a long tradition of creating myths that better support a more politically or economically advantageous narrative. Many of the heroic stories of our national heritage were created out of whole cloth, often by imaginative scribes with no direct knowledge of the person or proceedings, and usually miles and decades removed from actual events or persons.
We created stories about the bravery of pioneers, the divinity of political systems of government, and the inherent integrity of statesmen, often simply in order to sell the public on the need to tame the West for economic expansion, adopt a system of government that served the wealthy, or maintain support for the ruling class to avoid popular uprising. It was not a new strategy, this idea of manipulating the masses for economic security, but Americans turned out to be particularly bold and inventive in its implementation.
The story of Christopher Columbus comes to us early in American education, where we learn in primary school that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” We learn of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, the three ships that made the initial voyage in search of a more cost-effective, westerly, sea-born route to India. We tell children that Columbus discovered America, as if he sailed up the Potomac and stepped off somewhere near the Lincoln Memorial, which isn’t even remotely true, but makes for a much better story for kids than the brutal truth.
Columbus’ expedition was a purely commercial effort, not some humanitarian enterprise for the expansion of knowledge. It was conceived as a way to give the Spanish an economic advantage and bypass all the middlemen along the immensely profitable trade route to India. It was a bold, audacious plan that was undertaken at a time when success was far from certain, and literally nothing was known about what may lay west of the great Atlantic Ocean. It was assumed by then, at least by some, that the world was indeed round and that by sailing west, one could reach the far east. The fact that the planet was so much larger than anything anyone had imagined, would prove somewhat sticky in determining where they actually ended up landing.
When Columbus and his sailors finally did arrive in the New World, they found aboriginal tribes already living there in well established communities. The Spanish arrived wearing armor and carrying swords, and were greeted by the mostly naked natives with food, water and gifts.
Almost immediately, Columbus ordered a few of them taken by force in order to interrogate them and discover what riches they held, and to determine what sort of resistance they might harbor. Columbus quickly learned that they would not be a serious threat as he later wrote in his ship’s 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.”1
After learning that there were no rivers or fields of gold on the Islands of the Caribbean where Columbus had ultimately landed, but only bits here and there found in their streams, and unthinkable that he would return empty handed, Columbus rounded up shipfulls of natives, and took them back to Spain to be sold as slaves.
“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.’”1
There are dozens more accounts of their brutality including cutting off hands and feet for simple transgressions and slaughtering many other for mere amusement. They were particularly harsh to those who failed to produce the fields of gold they’d hoped to find.
Columbus didn’t just mistreat the natives he found. He wasn’t even fair to his own men. The first man to spot land was promised a reward of $10,000, but rather than paying the first man to spot it, Columbus insisted instead that he had himself had seen a light the night before. Columbus collected the reward.1
Despite finding very little of value, other than harmless natives, Columbus boasted of a land rich in gold and natural resources. He spun tales of fabulous wealth to rationalize the continued support of his benefactors.
“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….”1
Meanwhile, back in the islands, more fun and games were taking place. Much of what we know of this period comes from the hand of Bartolomé de las Casas, a young priest who was part of the conquering of Cuba and documented what he saw there.
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.”1
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 turn for help.”1
Rather than the brave and noble Italian explorer we teach our children about in schools, when we look at the real history, we discover white supremacy, brutality, and avarice beyond the pale of anything we could rationalize today as moral or reasonable.
According to historian Matthew Dennis, “Within 50 years of 1492, the Greater Antilles and Bahamas saw their population reduced from an estimated million people to about 500.”2
Writer Washington Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828, “is the source of much of the glorification and myth-making related to Columbus today and is considered highly fictionalized.”2
The celebration of Columbus as some sort of conquering hero dates back to American Independence in the mid 1700’s, when America was sometimes referred to as Columbia.
Italians didn’t begin immigrating to America in significant numbers until the late nineteenth century and there was quite a lot of anti-Italian sentiment. As Andrew Rolle wrote in his book, The Italian Americans: Troubled Roots, Italians were often portrayed as “short of stature, dark in complexion, cruel and shifty.”2
Establishing Columbus as a national hero of Italian descent, gave Italian-Americans a legitimacy in America that they otherwise lacked. So it was all the more important that they clean up his image as a benevolent and courageous explorer. It’s understandable that immigrants wanted a hero to call their own that was believed to be integral to establishing America as an up and coming world power, but using one form of oppression to justify another is morally corrupt.
But sure, let’s give kids the day off from school, and hold automobile and mattress sales, erect countless monuments, and name our capital after him, as well as numerous cities and prestigious schools, as we celebrate the genocide of an aboriginal people at the hands of white Europeans. We wouldn’t want to do anything that would get in the way of a good story.
If nothing else, it’s on brand.
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States . Harper Perennial.