by Rafael Ortiz
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This so-called Top 5 atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus is being used by some people on the internet. Apparently the article is affiliated with the Associated Press somehow. The first thing to notice is that the source for the article is Howard Zinn, who was not a primary historical source, but a history revisionist of the 20th century. Zinn’s arguments have gained popularity lately due to his connections with Hollywood celebrities and many mainstream media outlets before he died.
When it comes to Columbus, Zinn had the bad habit of putting two or more sentences together that have nothing to do with each other, to make it say whatever he wanted you to think it says. That’s what he did for ALL the claims below. So let’s take a closer look at his arguments and then debunk them.
‘We could subjugate them all’
Here is Zinn (mis)quoting Columbus:
“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.”
Zinn wants to give the impression the natives received Columbus with presents (“They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things.”), but it was Columbus who gave them presents instead. Because of Columbus’s generosity, they later returned with gifts and things for trade. Here is the actual account:
“Soon many of the islanders gathered round us. I could see that they were people who would be more easily converted to our Holy Faith by love than by coercion, and wishing them to look on us with friendship I gave some of them red bonnets and glass beads which they hung round their necks, and many other things of small value, at which they were so delighted and so eager to please us that we could not believe it. Later they swam out to the boats to bring us parrots and balls of cotton thread and darts, and many other things, exchanging them for such objects as glass beads and hawk bells. They took anything, and gave willingly whatever they had.” Source: Columbus’ Own Journal translated by John Cummins, Friday, October 12, 1492, p. 94. (Emphases are mine).
When Columbus said the natives “do not bear arms,” he meant they did not have a European style of arms. But they did have weapons, and also “scars on their bodies” because “people from other islands nearby came to capture them and they defended themselves.” Source: Own Journal translated by John Cummins, Friday, October 12, 1492, p. 94.
Also, Columbus did not say the natives “would make good servants.” That’s a lie. Columbus said they “MUST BE good servants,” as one who served a king, and not one who is a slave. Here is the sentence: “They must be good servants, and intelligent, for I can see that they quickly repeat everything said to them. I believe they would readily become Christians.” Source: Columbus Own Journal translated by John Cummins, Friday, October 12, 1492, p. 94.
The natives had both servants and slaves.
As for the statement “With fifty men we could subjugate them all,” it was written 3 days later, on another island and under another context. Zinn added that sentence next to the “servants” quote to give the impression Columbus was thinking about slavery from the very first day he arrived to America. So, what does the “with fifty men” statement mean? Columbus perceived the natives of the first islands he visited were not skillful in battle, therefore he was assuring the queen, to whom his journal was addressed to, that he could defeat them or conquer them with just a few men IF he had to fight them. That’s all he meant.
Though Columbus initially took six or seven natives against their will (to help him travel the uncharted waters), he almost immediately changed the approach, when one of them escaped. He decided to take a native aboard, give him gifts, and then let him go. That way he was telling them his intentions were good. Remember, Columbus did not know their language, and the natives did not know his. Here is the account:
“By now another small almadia was approaching the Niña from a different headland with one man in it who had come to barter a ball of cotton. He did not want to come aboard, so some of the sailors jumped into the sea and captured him. I saw all this from the deck of the sterncastle, so I sent for him; I gave him a red bonnet and put a few little green glass beads on his arm and hung two bells from his ears. I had him put back in his almadia, which had also been taken aboard the ship’s boat, and sent him back ashore. I then made sail to go to the other large island which I could see to the westward, and I ordered the other almadia which the Niña was towing astern to be set adrift. When the man to whom I had given gifts, refusing his ball of cotton, reached the shore I saw that all the others came up to him. He was amazed and thought that we were good people and that the other who had escaped was being taken with us because he had done us some harm. That was my purpose in giving him presents and letting him go: to make them think well of us, so that when Your Majesties send someone else here he may be well received.” Source: Columbus Own Journal translated by John Cummins, Monday, October 15, 1492, p. 98.
From that point, Columbus was received as a hero everywhere he went in the Caribbean. The natives (Tainos) believed Columbus was sent by God to save them from the Caribs, a tribe of cannibals who constantly terrorized them. The Caribs would hunt the Tainos, raping their women, castrating the boys, and killing the men. They cannibalized entire islands before Columbus’ arrival. Ironically, Zinn omitted all that information. At the end of the first voyage, Columbus made a treaty with one of the Taino chiefs of Hispaniola island, named Guacanagari. Columbus promised the chief that he would protect him from the Caribs when he returns for a second voyage. This kind of alliance, where two different groups unite to fight a common enemy, was common back then. Source: The Life of the Admiral by Ferdinand Columbus, Chapters 24-34. See also the accounts by Martyr, Oviedo, Las Casas, Bernaldez, etc.
Slavery and gold
“Columbus 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.’ ”
Zinn’s statement above is false. Columbus’ goals were gold and spices. The Tainos were his allies, and Columbus was commanded by the queen to punish anyone, including Spaniards, who would mistreat them. When Columbus returned to the New World, he fulfilled his promise about the Caribs. He either destroyed their canoes, so they could not sail again to terrorize the Tainos, or would capture them and send them to Spain as prisoners of war. However, when Columbus arrived in Hispaniola, he found 39 of his men, he left there, dead. A rival chief to Guacanagari killed them. Columbus decided to settle in another part of the island and for almost a year, he did everything he could do to keep the peace between him and the rival chiefs. Columbus was forced to arrest some of them later because they started to kill more of his men again. A month later, chief Guacangari asked Columbus to help him fight the rival chiefs, because they killed and kidnapped some of his wives (chiefs were polygamous). Columbus agreed, since they had killed his men. Columbus fought them, defeated them and sent some of them (along with the cannibals) to Spain, as prisoners of war. That is the so-called “slave raid” Zinn claimed happened. When Columbus said, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold,” he meant the cannibals or those who were rivals to his ally, chief Guacanagari, in Hispaniola. Though it is true, many of them died en route, it’s also true that many of the 1,200 people who came with Columbus died as well for a diverse number of reasons. Do you see how much of the story and context Zinn left out? Source: The Life of the Admiral by Ferdinand Columbus, Chapters 47-61.
Blood for gold
“But 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 Cibao 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.”
That statement is false too. After Columbus defeated the rival chiefs in battle, sending some of them away to Spain, he made the rest to pay tribute. This was the norm during battles back then. Also, there was gold. EVERY primary source of this era says so. The claim that cutting their hands off was the punishment for not paying the tribute, is a lie as well. However, the tribute was hard to accomplish, which is why Columbus reduced the quota to half. Another important detail about the so-called “slavery” is that it was temporal. Columbus even told the chiefs he arrested, he would restore them back to power. Source: Historia de los Reyes Católicos by Andrés Bernáldez, Cap. CXXXI, p. 331
The reason for the tribute and the temporal slavery was to keep the chiefs from bickering with one another or keeping them from killing more Spaniards. Columbus obtained peace for a while, which was his goal. In the meantime, Columbus punished any Spaniard that mistreated a native, as he was commanded by the queen to do. Source: The Life of the Admiral by Ferdinand Columbus, Chapter 61.
“If 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.’ ”
When Columbus returned to Hispaniola, for his third voyage, he found it in mutiny and revolt. Several Spanish political rivals tried to take over, but failed. They succeeded when they falsely accused Columbus as a cruel man toward both Spaniards and natives. They arrested Columbus without due process, and took the governorship upon themselves. When the king and queen heard about it, they immediately set Columbus free because they did not believe the accusations. In their own way, the king and queen apologized to him. They also arrested those who arrested Columbus first, for mutiny, and the temporal slavery on Hispaniola was suspended. As for Columbus, his titles were restored and he made one more voyage. Source: The Life of the Admiral by Ferdinand Columbus, Chapters 74-87
Zinn’s quote above, who in turn was quoting from Fray Las Casas, belongs to the timeline when the mutineers took over Hispaniola causing all sorts of trouble to the natives. Columbus himself reported to the queen the very same things Las Casas complained about. Las Casas did not believe the accusations that cost Columbus the governorship either. Las Casas even said that even if the accusations were true (that Columbus was cruel toward the Spaniards), then they deserved it, since they were the ones committing all sorts of atrocities. Source: Historia de las Indias by Las Casas, Libro I, Tomo II, Capítulo CLXXXIII, pp. 513-514.
Las Casas’ only disagreement with Columbus was about the few times he fought the natives. Las Casas labeled those battles “unjust wars,” even if justified. As a priest, he believed the natives would go to hell when they die fighting for not knowing the One true God. An “unjust war” was a crime to Las Casas. That’s why Las Casas said Columbus “committed irreparable crimes against the Indians.”
Zinn fails to explain that Las Casas was also the person responsible for creating or propagating the Spanish Black Legend and the Myth of the Noble Savage. That is, the idea that all Spaniards were evil, while all natives were angels. Source: History of the Indies by Las Casas, Introduction by A. Collard.
Las Casas’ works were translated into other languages and were used as political propaganda against Spain. The problem with Las Casas was that he did not distinguish what was war and what was abuse. Eventually Las Casas books were banned by Spain and the Catholic church. The few times Columbus fought native tribes, he did it at the request or with the assistance of other tribes, who were allied with him.
The irony is that Las Casas admired Columbus and he defended his honor against those who were trying to discredit him. In the very same book (History of the Indies), Las Casas described Columbus as: “imposing, good natured, kind, daring, courageous… a pious man… God had endowed him good judgment, a sound memory and eagerness to learn… a God fearing man… ” p. 15. “… the most outstanding sailor in the world, versed like no other in the art of navigation, for which divine Providence chose him to accomplish the most outstanding feat ever accomplished in the world until now.” p. 17. “… he was well-mannered, handsome man and a churchgoing Christian…” p. 19. “ .. well spoken, wise and prudent.” p. 29. “Many is the time I have wished that God would again inspire me and that I had Cicero’s gift of eloquence to extol the indescribable service to God and to the whole world which Christopher Columbus rendered at the cost of such pain and dangers, such skill and expertise, when he so courageously discovered the New World.” pp. 34-35. The last thing Las Casas said about Columbus was that “he was a good Christian.” p. 143.
“Facing 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.”
After Columbus finished his fourth and last voyage, this time exploring Central and South America, he made a last stop on Hispaniola (before he returned to Spain) and noticed that many natives had died. He wrote (again) complaining about how they were mistreated under the Nicolas de Ovando administration. Source: Historia de las Indias by Las Casas, Tomo III, Lib. II, Cap. XXXVII, p. 190.
The reason why some Spaniards behaved so badly was because they were far away from Spain, where no one could see what they were doing. Source: De Orbe Novo by Peter Martyr, Vol. Two, Book IV, p. 272.
As long as Columbus was alive and in charge, he would punish them, arrest them or report them. After Columbus died, the next group of people exposing this kind of corruption were the priests. The problem with Zinn’s quote is that they are about events that happened after Columbus was dead. Every primary source of this era condemned those evil acts, precisely because it was unlawful and against the policies of Spain.
Another problem with Zinn and other revisionists is that they won’t mention that the native tribes were doing the same things they condemned others of doing. That includes wars, civil wars, political cuops, conquest, slavery, mutilations, and genocide (through cannibalism and human sacrifices). I think the Associated Press should label their article as fake news or rename it as the “Top 5 atrocities NOT committed by Christopher Columbus” instead.
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