Berkeley celebrates Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday of October. This is variously sneered at for its political correctness or even labelled a salvo in a war against white people. Criticizing Columbus Day gets one quickly labelled a revisionist historian, at best.
Columbus Day Celebration? Think again…
Cuneo [one of Columbus’ crew] further notes that he himself took a beautiful teenage Carib girl as his personal slave, a gift from Columbus himself, but that when he attempted to have sex with her, she “resisted with all her strength.” So, in his own words, he “thrashed her mercilessly and raped her.”
While Columbus once referred to the Taino Indians as cannibals, a story made up by Columbus - which is to this day still taught in some US schools - to help justify his slaughter and enslavement of these people. He wrote to the Spanish monarchs in 1493: “It is possible, with the name of the Holy Trinity, to sell all the slaves which it is possible to sell…Here there are so many of these slaves, and also brazilwood, that although they are living things they are as good as gold…”
Columbus and his men also used the Taino as sex slaves: it was a common reward for Columbus’ men for him to present them with local women to rape. As he began exporting Taino as slaves to other parts of the world, the sex-slave trade became an important part of the business, as Columbus wrote to a friend in 1500: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.”
However, the Taino turned out not to be particularly good workers in the plantations that the Spaniards and later the French established on Hispaniola: they resented their lands and children being taken, and attempted to fight back against the invaders. Since the Taino where obviously standing in the way of Spain’s progress, Columbus sought to impose discipline on them. For even a minor offense, an Indian’s nose or ear was cut off, se he could go back to his village to impress the people with the brutality the Spanish were capable of. Columbus attacked them with dogs, skewered them with pikes, and shot them.
Eventually, life for the Taino became so unbearable that, as Pedro de Cordoba wrote to King Ferdinand in a 1517 letter, “As a result of the sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians choose and have chosen suicide. Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide. The women, exhausted by labor, have shunned conception and childbirth… Many, when pregnant, have taken something to abort and have aborted. Others after delivery have killed their children with their own hands, so as not to leave them in such oppressive slavery.”
Eventually, Columbus and later his brother Bartholomew Columbus who he left in charge of the island, simply resorted to wiping out the Taino altogether. Prior to Columbus’ arrival, some scholars place the population of Haiti/Hispaniola (now at 16 million) at around 1.5 to 3 million people. By 1496, it was down to 1.1 million, according to a census done by Bartholomew Columbus. By 1516, the indigenous population was 12,000, and according to Las Casas (who were there) by 1542 fewer than 200 natives were alive. By 1555, every single one was dead.
Christopher Columbus and the Indians
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 information 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.”
Revisionism in defense of accuracy is no vice. I’m proud that my town calls the second Monday in October Indigenous People’s Day in preference to Columbus Day. I’m not pround that in my nation it’s a radical position.
(And, yes, I know full well that some of the societies of the indigenous people of the Americas c. 1492 included terrible violence. Outside of the straw men of right-wing commentary on the subject, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in denial of that.)