Violette's Page
Patriotically Incorrect since 1999

Christopher Columbus


-Public Enemy

Columbus meets the Native Americans

On October 12, 1492, Columbus and his crew arrived at an an island in the Bahamas inhabited by the Arawak Indians. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, the Arawaks ran to greet them bringing food and gifts. Columbus wrote the following 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 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 would make fine servants...With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

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.

In return for bringing Spain gold and spices, Columbus was promised 10% of the profits, governorship over new-found lands, and the fame that would go with a new title: Admiral of the Ocean Sea...

God, Slavery, or Gold?

Columbus's purpose from the beginning was not mere exploration or even trade, but conquest and exploitation, for which he used religion as a rationale. Typically, after "discovering" an island and encountering a tribe of Indians new to them, the Spaniards would read aloud (in Spanish) what came to be called "the Requirement." The captured Indians were told that if they would immediately convert to Catholicism, they would be given "many privileges and exemptions." If not, "we shall powerfully enter your country, and shall make war against you... and we shall take you and your wives and make slaves of them... and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can."

Here is one version:

I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves.
...The deaths and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me.

This reading was often a formality because the Indians did not understand Spanish!

Columbus was the first slave trader in the new world. He reported to the Court in Madrid that he had reached Asia and an island off the coast of China. He asked for ships and men for a second expedition and promised to bring "as much gold as they need... and as many slaves as they ask."

But they found no gold fields, so Columbus envisioned an active trade in Indian slaves. In 1495, they rounded up 1500 Arawak men, women, and children and kept them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs. When the Spaniards were ready, they picked the 500 best specimens to load onto the ships. Of those 500, only 300 survived the trip. When they arrived in Spain they were put up for sale. Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1496, "Although they die now, they will not always die. The Negroes and the Canary Islanders died at first..." (Spain was in the process of exterminating the people of the Canary Islands at the time.)

But many of the slaves were dying. And theologians argued that Columbus had no right to enslave the Indians because they had not been taken in war. With the discovery of gold in the New World, the idea of trafficking Indian slaves to the Old World became moot. As many Indians as possible would be needed to work the gold mines.

Greed and Cruelty

The Spaniards were known to cut off and Indian's ears or nose for minor offenses. They hunted Indians for sport and murdered them for dog food. Las Casas describes the Spaniards becoming more concieted every day. Ater a while they refused to walk any distance. They "rode the backs of Indians" or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays (they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others fan them with goose wings.)

The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians... and cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." "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."

In Cibao on Haiti, Columbus and his men ordered all Indians to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they turned over the gold, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Any Indian found without a token had their hands cut off and bled to death. The Indians' task was next to impossible. So they fled, and many were hunted down and killed.

The Arawaks attempted to put together a resistance army, but they had only sticks and stones for weapons while the Spaniards had armor, muskets, swords, and horses. However, this resistance gave Columbus an excuse to make war.

March 24, 1495, Columbus set out to conquer the Arawaks. 200 foot soldiers, 20 cavalry, with crossbows and small cannon, lances, swords, and hunting dogs were used. (The Spanish won.)

When it became obvious to the Spaniards that there was no gold left, they worked the Indians at a ferocious pace on estates. He granted entire Indian villages to individual colonists or groups of colonists for forced labor. This was called the encomienda system.

Mass suicides among the Arawaks began. Many women avoided pregnancy and if they did become pregnant, took something to abort. Others killed their children with their own hands so they would not be subjected to this oppressive slavery.

Information on this page is made up of excerpts from:
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
An Underground Education: The Unauthorized and Outrageous Supplement to Everything You Thought You Knew About Art, Sex, Business, Crime, Science, Medicine, and Other Fields of Human Knowledge by Richard Zacks