It’s well past time to mothball Columbus Day. Today is also known as the Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity), which is odd, given its history. Officially, here at home, we still honor Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, credited with “discovering” the New World.
When Columbus made landfall, he noted in his journal, “I took some of the natives by force so that they […] might give me information.” The Spanish crown had guaranteed Columbus 10% of whatever bounty he could capture. The “parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things” the indigenous people brought out to trade were not going cut it. Columbus decided to take prisoners aboard his ships, to learn where they were hiding the gold he coveted (some of the natives wore small bits of gold as earrings).
If you’ve never read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” you really should. No, really. You’d learn that when Columbus couldn’t find the gold he had promised the Queen, he pushed on to Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic — and took more prisoners as slaves.
After returning to Spain, Columbus told tall tales of his discoveries — fields of gold (and multitudes of slave labor). Chris informed his benefactors he’d found a new route to Asia. It was ultimately the cartographer, Amerigo Vespucci, who figured out that Columbus was wrong — and so we get our name from him … but I digress.
Columbus had “discovered” a new cargo to harvest from the New World, and returned with seventeen slave ships when he returned. As he noted in his journal, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” Those not captured as slaves, were forced to search for gold. If they failed to meet their quota, they “had their hands cut off and bled to death.”
Before you start to think of Columbus as some sort of slave-trading monster (he was), you should also know that he believed he was – to borrow a phrase from The Blues Brothers – ‘on a mission from God.’ He wrote “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.” There’s a modern day political analogy here, but if we start down that road, it’ll be TL;DR before you know it. His religious fervor, perhaps, explains why the first military fort established in the New World was called “Navidad.” Merry Christmas, everybody!
Christopher Columbus was selective, at first. After capturing fifteen hundred men, women, and children, he shipped only “the five hundred best specimens” (of which only 300 survived the voyage to Spain).
The slave trade from the New World continued for years and years — and yes, the locals fought back. During one attack on Fort Navidad, the indigenous people slaughtered all Europeans garrisoned inside; they ultimately were outmatched by the armor-plated, sword-wielding soldiers. It became commonplace for the natives to kill their children, to spare them a life of bondage. Mass suicides become commonplace among the Arawak people.
The slave trade Columbus “discovered,” thrived on the plantations of Haiti. By the sesquicentennial of the “discovery of the New World” (1492-1650) — every man, woman and child of the original Arawak tribe (approximately a half million souls) were dead. Happy Columbus Day! I hear there’s a big sale on flat-screen TVs today.