Every October, grateful Americans get a day off work to, ostensively, celebrate the life of explorer Christopher Columbus. The current President of the United States Donald Trump said in his proclamation:
"The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation. Therefore, on Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith."
Who is Christopher Columbus?Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who set sail for America on 12 October, 1492. The voyage was commissioned by Spanish King Ferdinand, as his wife, Queen Isabella, for the purpose of finding a western sea route to Asia.
It’s difficult to think of a more perverse hero than Columbus, the Spaniard who led Europe’s first landing party in the Americas.
From rape, to pillage, to flat-out murder, Columbus and his men were the first Europeans to commit horrendous atrocities against America’s indigenous people.
The following list describes a sampling of reasons why Columbus was an awful person, with information drawn from Howard Zinn’s "A People's History of the United States."
'We could subjugate them all'In his journal, Columbus didn’t mince words about his intentions after meeting the Arawak natives in the Bahamas in 1492.
He described the encounter thusly: “They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things ... 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.”
Columbus would add: “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.”
Slavery and goldColumbus had two goals in the Caribbean: to find gold and slaves. Columbus returned home to Spain and came back to the Caribbean with 17 ships and 1,200 men.
His men traveled from island to island, taking Indians as captives. In 1495, in a large slave raid, Columbus and his men rounded up 1,500 Arawak men, women, and children, and put them in pens.
They selected what they considered the best natives and loaded them onto ships back to Spain.
Two hundred died en route. After the survivors were sold as slaves in Spain, Columbus later wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."
Blood for goldBut slaves weren’t enough for Columbus or the Spanish monarchy. Columbus needed to bring back gold. Columbus and his crew believed there were gold fields in the province of Cicao on Haiti.
He and his men ordered all natives 14 years or older to collect a certain amount of gold every three months. Natives who didn’t collect enough gold had their hands cut off. But it was an impossible tasks.
There was virtually no gold around; only a little dust in streams. Many natives fled and were consequently hunted down and killed by the Spaniards.
CrueltyIf captivity and death weren’t enough, Columbus and his men had a particular reputation for cruelty.
Bartolome de las Casas, a young priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba and wrote a history of the Indies, describes the treatment of the natives: “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 describes how Spaniards rode on the backs of natives. How 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 adds "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."
Mass genocideFacing extermination, the Arawaks organized and attempted to fight back against the Spaniards. But they were little match against the armor, muskets, swords and horses of the Europeans.
The Spaniards hung or burned Indians that they took captive. By this point, the Arawaks began committing mass suicides. They fed cassava poison to their infants to save them from the Spanish.
In two years, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead, either through murder, mutilation or suicide. By 1550, there were 500 Indians. By 1650, the Arawaks had been wiped out from the island.