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Today, Christopher Columbus is celebrated as a mythical hero by some – complete with songs, poems, and fictional tales about his great adventure across the Atlantic to explore the majestic land that would eventually be known as the Americas. There are fifty four communities named after the explorer in the United States, including the District of Columbia. “Hail, Columbia” was the United States’ unofficial national anthem until 1931. A federal holiday, “Columbus Day,” is celebrated every second Monday in October.
Despite all of this, historians have begun to tear down the Columbus myth: That he discovered America. That he proved the world wasn’t flat. (That had been well-known for more than a millennium in Columbus’ time. In fact, scholars had a pretty good idea of what the circumference of the Earth was, which was part of the dissent against Columbus making his trip- Columbus thought Asia was bigger than it is and the world much smaller, leading one of the scholars commissioned by the monarchy to investigate the plausibility of Columbus’ journey succeeding to say, it was “impossible to any educated person”). That he came to America in the name of exploration. And, finally, that he came in peace.
Quite simply, most of these “facts” are unequivocally false or half-truths. Columbus sailed the ocean blue to look for wealth and, officially, in the name of Christianity. What he mostly did, though, was enslave and rape the natives he met, sold girls (as young as nine by his own account) into prostitution, and committed numerous acts so heinous that he was forcibly removed from power and sent back to Spain in chains. Christopher Columbus was brutal, even by the standards of his age, leading Bartolome de las Casa, who accompanied Columbus on one of his voyages, to write in his The History of the Indies, “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel… My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”
In August 1492, Columbus departed Spain with three ships – the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Santa Clara (nicknamed “the Nina”). After two months on the high seas, land was spotted. Now, before they had left, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had promised to whoever spotted land first a reward of a silken jacket and an annuity of ten thousand maravedis. The lookout on the Pinta was Rodrigo de Triana and he was the first to spot land. He shouted to the rest of the crew down below, and the Pinta’s captain announced the discovery with cannon fire. When it came time to receive the reward though, Columbus claimed he actually saw a light in the distance several hours prior to Triana’s shout, “but it was so indistinct that I did not dare to affirm it was land.” The reward reportedly went to Columbus.
Upon landing on the island, which he would call San Salvador (present-day Bahamas), Columbus immediately went to work finding gold and enslaving the native populations. Specifically, Columbus, upon seeing the Arawaks (the peoples of the region) come out of the forests frightened of the men with swords, but bearing gifts, wrote in his journal,
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 other European visitors would observe, the Arawaks were legendary for their hospitality and their desire to share. Again saying Columbus about the Arawaks, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.”
Columbus quickly took advantage of this. Seeing that they wore gold studs in their ears, he rounded up of a number of Arawaks and had them lead him to where gold was. The journey took them to present day Cuba and Haiti (but Columbus thought it was Asia), where they found specks of gold in the river, but not the enormous “fields” Columbus was expecting. Nonetheless, he wrote back to Spain saying that, “There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals.” This report earned him financing for a second voyage, this time with 13 ships and twelve hundred men. While he never ended up filling up these ships with gold, he filled them with another “currency” and one that would have a horrendous effect on the world going forward – slaves.
In 1495, Columbus arrived back in the New World and immediately took 1500 Arawaks as prisoners. Of those 1500, he picked 500 to be shipped back to Spain as slaves (about two hundred died on the journey back), starting the transatlantic slave trade. The rest were forced to find what little gold existed in the region. According to noted historian Howard Zinn, anyone over 14 had to meet a gold quota. If they didn’t find enough gold, they would have their hands cut off.
Eventually, when it was realized there wasn’t much gold in the region, Columbus and his men just took the rest as slaves and put them to work on their newly established estates in the region. Many natives died and their numbers dwindled. In the 15th century, modern historians believe there were about 300,000 Arawaks. By 1515, there were only 50,000 left. By 1531, 600 and by 1650, there were no longer any full-blooded Arawaks left on the islands.
The way Columbus and his men treated the women and children of these populations was even worse. Columbus routinely used the raping of women as a “reward” for his lieutenants. For example, here’s an account from one of Columbus’ friends and compatriots, Michele de Cuneo, who accompanied Columbus on his second journey to the New World, on what Michele did to a native “Carb woman.” Michele wrote that,
While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral [Columbus] gave to me, and with whom, having taken her into my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived desire to take pleasure. I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun. But seeing that (to tell you the end of it all), I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams that you would not have believed your ears. Finally we came to an agreement in such manner that I can tell you that she seemed to have been brought up in a school of whores…
Going further, Columbus wrote in a letter from 1500,
A hundred castellanos 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 are now in demand.
As illustrated in a recently discovered 48 page report found in the Spanish archives written by Francisco De Bobadilla (charged with investigating Columbus’ rule at the behest of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who were troubled by allegations of some of Columbus’ acts), a woman who verbally insulted Columbus’ family was stripped naked and made to ride around the colony on a mule. After the trip was done, her tongue was cut out by the order of Columbus’ brother, Bartolomé, who Columbus then congratulated for successfully defending the family’s honor. Needless to say, these and numerous other such acts ultimately resulted in De Bobadilla having Columbus removed from power and sent back to Spain in chains.
After Columbus came, and was forced out, the Spaniards continued his policy of enslavement and violence. In 1552, the Spanish historian and friar Bartolome de las Casas published multiple volumes under the title The History of Indies. In it, he described the collapse of the non-European population. Casas writes that when the men were captured and forced to work in mines looking for gold, rarely if ever returning home, it significantly impacted the birth rate. If a woman did give birth, she would be so overworked herself and malnourished, that she often could not produce enough milk for the baby. He even reported that some of the women “drowned their babies from sheer desperation.”
There are lot more examples, writings, and research that points to one fact – Christopher Columbus was a lamentable individual. Nobody’s perfect- if we restricted celebrated individuals to those who didn’t have any major flaws, we’d have few humans to celebrate- and it’s extremely important to view things in the context of the time individuals lived in. But even in his age, many of his acts were considered deplorable by his peers, which is in no small part why Columbus was arrested for his conduct in the New World. Combined with his truly historic and widespread impact being incidental to what he was actually trying to do (so a little hard to celebrate him for even that side of his life), maybe it is time that we let go of the myths we learned about Christopher Columbus in elementary school and stop celebrating Columbus, the man.
Matt Blitz is a writer in the USA.
Originally published in Today I Found Out