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Christopher Columbus: Setting the Record Straight

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Painting of Christopher Columbus by John Vanderlyn

Columbus landing in the "New World," claiming the land under Spanish ownership.

Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Few stories in American history are as monolithic as the story of Columbus's "discovery" of America, and American children grow up believing a tale that is largely a fanciful fabrication characterized by uncertainty if not deliberate untruths. But history is always a matter of perspective, dependent upon who is doing the telling and for what reason, existing within the context of national culture. Far from being a heroic tale of a wayward explorer who happens upon lands previously unknown to other civilizations, the Columbus narrative usually leaves out some very troubling details which are very well documented but usually ignored. In reality, the story reveals a far darker side of Euro-American settlement and America's project to promote national pride at the expense of exposing the truth of the brutality of its founding leads to whitewashed, sanitized versions of the Columbus story. For Native Americans and all indigenous peoples in "the New World," this is a record that needs to be set straight.

Columbus was Not the First "Discoverer"

The term "discoverer" is itself highly problematic because it implies something previously unknown to the world in general. But the so-called primitive people and lands which Columbus theoretically "discovered" had ancient histories known obviously to them, and in fact had civilizations that rivaled and in some ways surpassed those of Europe. Additionally, there is a plethora of evidence pointing to numerous pre-Columbian expeditions to what we now call the Americas dating back hundreds and thousands of years before Columbus. This busts the myth that in the Middle Ages Europeans were the only ones with technology advanced enough to cross oceans.

The most striking examples of this evidence can be found in Central America. The existence of massive Negroid and Caucasoid stone statues constructed by the Olmec civilization strongly suggests contact with Afro-Phoenician peoples between 1000 BC and 300 A.D. (simultaneously raising questions about the kind of advanced technology such construction required). It is also well known that Norse explorers had penetrated deep into the North American continent around 1000 A.D. Other interesting evidence includes a map found in Turkey in 1513 which is thought to be based on material from the library of Alexander the Great, showing coastline details of South America and Antarctica. Ancient Roman coins have also been found by archaeologists all over the Americas leading to conclusions that Roman seafarers visited numerous times.

The Malevolent Nature of Columbus's Expedition

The conventional Columbus narrative has us believe that Christopher Columbus was an Italian navigator with no agenda other than to expand his knowledge of the world. However, while there is some evidence that he was from Genoa, there is also evidence that he wasn't, and as James Loewen notes, he doesn't seem to have been able to write in Italian. He wrote in Portuguese-influenced Spanish and Latin, even when he wrote to Italian friends. Some evidence even points to Columbus being a converted Jew (known as a "converso" at a time when Spain was vigorously persecuting Jews).

But more to the point, Columbus's journeys took place within the larger context of extremely violent European expansionism (by then under way for hundreds of years) aided by an arms race based on ever-advancing weapons technology. The goal was the amassing of wealth, especially land and gold, at a time when the newly emerging nation-states were controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, to whom Isabella and Ferdinand were beholden. By 1436 the church was already in the process of claiming lands not even yet discovered in Africa and dividing them among the European powers, especially Portugal and Spain, declared by a church edict called the Romanus Pontifex. By the time Columbus had contracted with the church-backed Spanish crown, it was already understood that he was claiming new lands for Spain. After word of Columbus's "discovery" of the New World reached Europe, in 1493 the church issued a series of Papal Bulls confirming Columbus's discoveries in the "Indies." The notorious bull Inter Caetera, a document that not only granted all of the New World to Spain, laid the groundwork for justifying the subjugation of indigenous inhabitants to the church (which would later define the doctrine of discovery, a legal precept still in use today in federal Indian law).

Far from being an innocent journey of exploration seeking spices and new trade routes, Columbus's voyages turned out to be little more than pirating expeditions with the intent to plunder other people's lands under the self-granted authority of the Roman Catholic Church. By the time Columbus set sail on his second voyage he was well armed technologically and legally for a full scale assault on indigenous peoples.

Columbus the Slave-Trader

What we know about Columbus's voyages is taken largely from his journals and those of Bartolome de Las Casas, a Catholic priest who was with Columbus on his third journey, and who wrote vividly detailed accounts of what happened. Thus, to say that the transatlantic slave trade began with Columbus's voyages is not based on speculation but on the piecing together of well documented events.

The greed of the wealth-building European powers needed a work force to support it. The Romanus Pontifex of 1436 provided the needed justification for the colonization of the Canary Islands, whose inhabitants were in the process of being exterminated and enslaved by the Spanish at the time of Columbus's first voyage. Columbus would simply continue the project that had already begun for developing a transoceanic slave trade. On his first voyage, Columbus set up base at what he named "Hispaniola" (today's Haiti/Dominican Republic) and kidnapped between 10 and 25 Indians, with only seven or eight of them arriving in Europe alive. On his second voyage in 1493, he was equipped with seventeen heavily armed ships (and attack dogs) and 1,200 to 1,500 men. After arriving back on the island of Hispaniola , the subjugation and extermination of the Arawak people began with a vengeance.

Under Columbus's leadership, the Arawaks were forced under the encomienda system (a system of forced labor that sidestepped the word "slavery") to mine for gold and produce cotton. When gold was not found, the irate Columbus oversaw the hunting of Indians for sport and dog food. Women and girls as young as nine or 10 were used as sex slaves for the Spanish. So many Indians died under the encomienda slave system that Indians from neighboring Caribbean islands were imported, and eventually from Africa. After Columbus's first kidnapping of Indians, he is believed to have sent as many as 5,000 Indian slaves across the Atlantic, more than any other individual.

Estimates for the pre-Columbus population of Hispaniola range between 1.1 million and 8 million Arawaks. By 1542 Las Casas recorded fewer than 200, and by 1555 they were all gone. Hence, the uncensored legacy of Columbus is not only the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, but the first recorded instance of full scale genocide of an indigenous people.

Columbus never set foot on the North American continent.

References

Getches, Wilkinson and Williams. "Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law, Fifth Edition." Thomson West Publishers, 2005.

Loewen, James. "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong." New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, First Edition.

Zinn, Howard. "A People's history of the United States." New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.

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