Recently, a Facebook friend posted the link to a Los Angeles Times article that reported that the Los Angeles city council has decided to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. Columbus Day, a public holiday across the United States, is celebrated on the second Monday of October every year.
Christopher Columbus, of course, was the Italian explorer who set off to find a sea route to India, landed in the Bahamas in 1492, and believed that he had reached his destination. His fundamental working principle was correct—that, since the world is round, if you keep sailing west from Europe, you will reach India, but he had no clue that the vast landmass of the Americas lay in between.
Columbus is generally remembered today as a great adventurer, a master sailor and a tenacious and passionate entrepreneur—he lobbied various European kings to fund his voyage for five years, before the Spanish Crown decided to take a chance on him. Most history textbooks across the world tell his story in an admiring tone. But what was Columbus actually, and should he be remembered as a hero? And why did the city of Los Angeles rename the day dedicated to him?
Simply put, Columbus was a rapacious looter and mass murderer. The primary objective of his voyage was to find gold—the Spanish Crown had agreed that he could keep 10% of the gold he transported to Spain. And he was willing to torture and kill any number of “savages” to achieve his goal.
When Columbus’s lead ship, the Santa Maria, reached the coast of the Bahamas, he and his crew were welcomed with gifts by the Arawak tribespeople who inhabited the islands. The Arawaks lived in village communes and did not know the concept of battle. So, they had no weapons, and joyously extended every courtesy to the Europeans.
Columbus wrote in his log: “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 when I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron… They would make fine servants... With fifty men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
He kidnapped some “savages” and took them to his ship, and interrogated them on what the island had. Since they knew nothing about any gold, he kept them prisoner and sailed to Hispaniola, the island which today consists of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Here, he found traces of gold, killed some natives, took more prisoners and set sail for Spain, leaving behind some of his crew to find gold and store it. On the way to Spain, winter set in, and many of the prisoners died of cold.
Back in Madrid, Columbus painted a highly exaggerated picture of what he had seen and requested the royals to finance another expedition. His bluff worked, and he set off again—this time with 17 ships and more than 1,200 men. Now his mission was two-fold—to bring back not only gold, but also as many slaves as he could.
He captured 1,500 Arawak men, women and children, selected the 500 healthiest among them, and loaded them on his ships. 200 of them died on the way to Spain. But Columbus wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
But he had to find some gold, otherwise his investors would be very unhappy. So, as the historian Howard Zinn writes in his classic A People’s History of the United States, “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.”
The Arawaks of Haiti tried to build an armed resistance against the Spaniards, but it was easily crushed—the Europeans had armour, guns and horses, while their opponents had only swords made of cane. Mass suicide began among the Arawaks; infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. As Zinn puts it: “In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.”
Within a century-and-a-half, none of the original Arawaks or their descendants were left on the island.
Bartolome de las Casas was a young priest who accompanied Columbus to Cuba, and has left behind a horrifying account of the crimes the great explorer and his men committed on that island. All natives were treated as slaves, and even made to carry Spaniards around on their backs. 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 writes 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 natives were used as slave labour in the gold mines. A third of the men died of sheer exhaustion. Their wives and children were no better off. The women were made to work the fields till they dropped dead. When they gave birth, they were so weak from overwork and near-starvation that they had no milk to nurse their babies. Las Casas notes that, in a period of three months, he saw 7,000 infants die.
Yet Christopher Columbus is still celebrated nearly 500 years after his death, and no one talks about his butchery of innocents and the destruction of an entire people.
It’s time history books all around the world set the record straight. The Los Angeles city council has shown the way.
Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com.
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