Columbus, The Original American Hero


By Wade Frazier


The First Voyage, The Discovery

The Second Voyage, The Invasion


Why Do We Celebrate Columbus Day?



Every year, Bill Bigelow, an Oregon high school teacher, plays out the same scene for his students.  He seizes a student's purse and announces that the purse is his.  He holds it.  Is possession enough?  He takes out the lipstick and announces that it is his.  He now knows the purse’s contents; is that enough?  His arguments ring hollow, particularly when the students saw his crime in the making.  They do not yet know that the student whose purse was seized was the teacher's confederate.  When all his arguments have failed to convince, he then asks, "What if I discovered it?"  The students chuckle a little, but reject that argument as well.  Then Bigelow asks, "So why do we say that Columbus 'discovered' America?"  In that spirit, this essay will investigate the feat of Christopher Columbus, the original American hero.

I worked in Columbus, Ohio for five years, and in 1992 during the 500th anniversary of the New World's discovery.  The town mounted a celebration that lasted the entire year.  In Columbus they have a replica of the Santa Maria, the ship Christopher Columbus sailed on during his epic voyage.  The replica is a tourist attraction.  There were even plans to erect a statue of Columbus, hundreds of feet tall.  He is the original Founding Father.

Most Americans are aware of recent significant revision of Columbus' feat.  The celebration of 1992 was starkly different from 1892, the Chicago Columbian Exposition (actually staged in 1893).  The 1893 Exposition was a huge event that attracted 24 million visitors, for the largest event attendance in world history to that time.  In 1992, however, there were protests and events such as Indigenous People’s Days, instead of Columbus Day celebrations.  The year 1992 marked the release of a number of “revisionist” works.  It coincided with research I was already doing into the news and history. 

I originally became aware of blemishes to Columbus' image after reading Howard Zinn’s revolutionary A People's History of the United States.  As a good scholar does, Zinn began his “revisionist” look at Columbus by studying the primary evidence, namely Columbus' log, prepared during his voyage of discovery.  As with so much of history, we know little for sure.

For instance, Zinn did not really read the captain’s log.  He read a translation of a partial copy of the log that Bartolomé Las Casas made nearly 500 years ago.  The original log was lost centuries ago.  Over the centuries there have been many portraits drawn of Columbus, and they all look different because nobody really knows what Columbus looked like.  He may have had no portrait made while alive.  Columbus' birthplace and year of birth have been enduring controversies.  The standard view is that Columbus was born in Genoa, part of today’s Italy, in around 1451, give or take a year, but there are arguments that Columbus was Spanish, Portuguese, Jewish and several other European nationalities.  Debate has raged for centuries over where Columbus first landed in the New World.  His very name means "Christ-bearing colonizer," so was possibly not this birth name, an incredible coincidence, a creative translation or a sign of "God's hand."[1]

The best “revisionist” histories attempt a determination of what may have really happened.  In Zinn's "revisionism," he read the captain's log and reported what Columbus was after: gold. 


The First Voyage, The Discovery

On Friday, October 12, 1492 the ships sighted land and the New World was discovered, although the men aboard did not know it yet.  There was a reward of 10,000 maravedis ($540, a large sum in those days, more than a year’s wages for a typical sailor) from the Spanish Crown to the man who first sighted land.  Columbus claimed the reward because the night land was sighted he thought he earlier saw a light in the West.[2]  It was flimsy evidence, but Columbus stole the reward from the sailor who first sighted land.

According to his log, Columbus thought he had reached Asia and was near Japan and the Chinese Empire.  At dawn, Columbus and his armed Spaniards went ashore, unfurled their flags, planted a cross, and claimed the land in the name of the king and queen of Spain.  That ceremony attended the Spanish wherever they went.  

Immediately after Columbus finished making his announcement (to the empty air) of taking possession, the natives began showing up on the beach.  They were all naked and friendly, and Columbus described those new Spanish subjects at some length.  Some natives carried short wooden spears, but were so unacquainted with weaponry that when Columbus showed a native his sword, the man grabbed the sword by the blade and cut himself.  

On that epic day of first contact, three dynamics were evident that would figure largely in future events.  They obviously had no common language or culture, and Columbus badly misunderstood much of what the natives tried telling him using gestures.  Second was Columbus’ judgment of how easily the natives could be turned into Christians.  Third was the event Columbus finished that day’s log with.  Columbus inferred from native gestures that natives from other islands enslaved them.  He thought those natives would make fine servants himself, so he captured six of them that first day.

On the second day of discovery, Columbus made first mention of the subject that dominated his logs thereafter: gold.  He noticed that some natives had gold jewelry in their noses, so he made the first inquiry, an inquiry that presaged the Spanish obsession for the next century: “Where’s the gold?” 

The standard sequence of events was going ashore to new land, claiming it for Spain, planting a cross and asking where the gold was.  Columbus’ voyage of discovery was really a gold hunt.  In Columbus’ log of December 26, 1492, he made his journey’s purpose clear: to find enough gold to finance another Crusade to conquer Jerusalem. 

While reading Columbus’ log, I was struck by how many times Columbus ordered his men to not steal from the natives.  Columbus made sure the Spaniards would be on their best behavior for those initial encounters.  The natives freely gave all they had, or would trade objects of immense value for baubles.  Columbus continually expressed his amazement that the natives gave all manner of goods to the Spaniards for trinkets, or simply gave it away.  As the boats sailed from island to island, the most common native reaction was fleeing when the Spaniards showed up (some apparently thought the ships were sea monsters, while others timidly fled from the strange men and boats).  The other reaction was warmly welcoming the Spaniards.  Columbus and his men never received a hostile reception.

In his log, Columbus regularly remarked on the astounding beauty of the islands and the natives’ friendly, happy, peaceful nature, but the obsession of his writings was always where the gold was and how the islands’ wealth could be exploited.  A mere three days into his gold quest, on October 14th, Columbus made clear what he thought of the natives' military might.  His log informed his king and queen that, “with fifty men you could subject every one and make them do what you wished.”

On October 15th the ships anchored at an island where the natives “let us go anywhere we desired and gave us anything we asked.”  After staying a couple hours and determining there was no gold, they prepared to leave.  One of the captives then escaped by jumping overboard, as another had done the night before.  Columbus’ men tried capturing the natives, but their boat was too quick.  Columbus indicated to the local natives that his captives were with him because they had harmed him, but that ruse was probably unconvincing. 

After sailing through the islands, visiting and trading with natives who had not fled, the ships came to another island on November 11.  There a canoe with six “youths” in it approached the ship, and five came aboard.  Columbus captured them.  Then he sent his men ashore, where they captured seven women and three children.  Columbus was modifying a standard Portuguese practice used in Africa, one he said he used many times when he was a slave runner: capturing the natives, taking them back to Europe, teaching them his language, and bringing them back as interpreters.  It had not worked well with Africans, because the natives were not happy with their treatment, but Columbus thought that if he abducted entire families, he might have better luck.  That evening, with his slave stock replenished, Columbus was delighted when a man came to the ship and asked to come aboard, as among the new captives were his wife and three children.  Columbus gladly allowed the man to become enslaved with his family.

On November 21, gold fever may have overcome the Pinta’s captain, as he sailed away in search of gold.  Columbus was outraged, but had no option but to continue with his two remaining ships.

After sailing along the coast of Cuba, asking about gold and riches, Columbus reached the island that he named La Isla Española, on December 6, 1492.  Haiti and the Dominican Republic are on that island today.  It was the first place permanently colonized by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere.

As usual, the natives fled when they saw the ships.  Columbus and his men had to work hard at convincing the natives of their friendly intentions, especially when they had captured natives aboard.  As they sailed along the coast, their reception was either friendly or the natives fled.  Columbus began to understand the political order, and discovered men called caciques were leaders of some sort.  It was a hereditary office, with minor similarity to European royalty. 

By “discovering” the Caribbean’s inhabitants, Columbus had stumbled into a civilization about 1500 years old.  Española was the center of that island civilization, and a people known today as the Taino dominated it.  They had migrated from South America, along the archipelago of Caribbean islands at about the time Jesus lived, gradually absorbing/displacing a hunter-gatherer culture.  The Taino were Arawakan people.  There were other ethnic groups in the Caribbean, such as the Caribs, Guanahatabey and Ciguayo, although the Taino were by far the largest group and occupied the greatest portion of Caribbean land.  The Taino’s material and spiritual culture was what all other Caribbean groups based their culture on.  The Taino were settled in agricultural communities and possessed a rich and diverse food supply.  Life was easy in the pre-Columbian Caribbean, and if there could be any generalizations made of the Taino, particularly as compared to today, it would be their happiness and gentleness.  Their world was about as close to earthly paradise as human existence has ever come, a fact that was not lost on Columbus, as he often remarked upon it in his log.  He regularly observed that the natives did not seem capable of dishonesty.

On December 25, 1492, with Columbus aboard, the Santa Maria ran aground at night while a boy was steering.  The local village came to the rescue and unloaded the sinking ship.  Columbus was amazed at the natives’ helpfulness, and assured his king and queen that “not even a shoe string [more literally "lace point," used to secure shoes and clothes - Ed.] was lost!”  The cacique of the helpful local village, Guacanagarí, welcomed the stranded sailors. 

Because their largest ship was destroyed, Columbus left behind about 40 Spaniards and they built a fort from the ship’s timbers.  Many of Columbus’ men begged to stay instead of sailing back to Spain.  Columbus admitted that no fort was necessary among such friendly and peaceful people, but he could not put aside his European conditioning.  Columbus wanted to condition the natives to obey their new Spanish overlords (although they did not know they had overlords yet) out of “love and fear.”[3]  So Columbus had a lombard and musket fired in a demonstration of power, frightening those happy, helpful natives. 

The Pinta eventually rejoined the Niña, its captain’s gold quest profitably concluded.  The captain claimed he was innocently separated from the other ships, which may have been true.  Columbus felt the explanation was a lie, but could do nothing about it, so he did not punish the Pinta’s captain.[4]  On January 16, 1493, the ships were sailing back across the Atlantic, soon after they had murdered two natives while trading on January 13th.[5]  Columbus described those murdered natives and their people as “evil, and I believe they are from the island of Caribe, and that they eat men.”[6]  That characterized the attitude that prevailed during the second voyage and beyond.  If the natives were friendly and welcoming, they were the gentle Taino.[7]  If they were less than welcoming or were unfortunate enough to be murdered by the Spaniards, they were cannibalistic savages, deserving whatever fate the Spaniards could dish out.

On that first epic voyage, Columbus began the unfounded myth that the Caribbean natives practiced cannibalism.  About the only evidence there ever was for Caribbean cannibalism came from Columbus’ imagination while he interpreted native gestures.  His misunderstandings correlated with European mythology.  Columbus wrote of savage cannibals, people with an eye in the middle of their forehead (log entries of November 4th and 23rd, 1492), and dog-like noses that drink the blood of their victims after cutting their throats and castrating them (log entry of November 4th, 1492).  Columbus found in native gestures what he expected to find.  For all the writing of what a Renaissance man Columbus was, he had many medieval fantasies.  Late in his life he labored on an apocalyptic work that was eventually titled the Book of Prophecies, which Kirkpatrick Sale says has been “an acute embarrassment to most Columbus hagiographers, since it is so at odds with the scientific Renaissance rationalist they like to depict as the forerunner of European conquest…”[8]

When Columbus arrived back in Spain, his sponsors were pleased to hear of new lands to exploit.  Let there be no misunderstanding their intentions - they were not benevolent.  It is true that Queen Isabella did not want to enslave the natives.  She wanted loyal subjects.  Yet, the sovereigns frowned on slavery only after it became evident that the natives made poor and unprofitable slaves, because they quickly died when shipped to Europe.  In addition, in Europe the difference between slave and subject was sometimes little more than a semantics exercise. 

It is true that “converting” them to Christianity was a goal.  Conversion is a dubious goal for any religion, and the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella was notable for initiating the Spanish Inquisition, which was mainly an attack against Jews who had lived fairly peacefully and prosperously for centuries under Moorish rule.  Jews converted to Christianity in order to continue to live in Spain, at least those who survived the mass murders that dotted Spain over the previous hundred years.

In January of 1492, Grenada, the last city held by the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula, fell to the Spanish armies, ending several centuries of warfare.  The Islamic and Jewish people who had lived there for centuries were given the option of converting to Christianity or being expelled from the country.  The Jews had been kicked out of European countries for centuries, and Spain had been a safe place for them, but no longer.  The Inquisition especially targeted conversos, who were Jews forced to convert to Christianity.  The suspected crime of conversos was continuing to practice their Jewish faith in secret.  For that crime they could be burned at the stake, and thousands were.

What happened to the Canary Islanders off Africa's coast was a preview of the Caribbean Islanders' fate.  The Guanches, who came across the ocean long before Jesus was born, had settled the Canary Islands.  It is believed they came from North Africa, perhaps from Berber stock.  They built step pyramids and made mummies as the Egyptians did.  Many Guanches were tall and blond.  Castile and Portugal were involved in conquering the Canaries.  Pope Clement VI “awarded” the islands to Castile in 1344.  They were first invaded in 1402, but the final Spanish conquest that destroyed the Guanches was mounted during the 1490s, directed by Queen Isabella, who began her campaign in 1477.[9]  The rationale was the same one used for Spain's Reconquest: the people they were conquering were not Christians.  The invasion was to “save their souls.”  That was an audacious rationale for thievery and murder.  The process of saving them destroyed them. 

In 1494, the Spaniards invaded the Canaries' largest island, Tenerife, for the first time.  The Spaniards were defeated decisively by the Guanches, but mounted another campaign in 1496, and that time were successful, aided by an epidemic disease (obviously introduced by the invaders) that swept through the Guanches, killing large numbers of them.  The Guanches were enslaved, the islands deforested, and the settlers flocked there.  In 1504, The Inquisition came to the Canaries to enforce the new faith and hunt Guanches still practicing their pagan faith in secret, and any Jewish settlers who thought they could escape the long arm of Spain.  As a culture, the Guanches were largely extinct by 1600, but genetically their remnants were absorbed into the colonial settler populations, which can still be seen in Canary Islanders today. 

Returning to the Spanish court with the six Indian captives who survived the return voyage (most of his captives had already died, and only two would survive a whole year), along with gold nuggets, parrots and other New World paraphernalia, was Columbus’ finest hour.  He was named Admiral of the Ocean Sea, cut in on 10% of the New World’s loot, and a second voyage was immediately planned.  Before he met with Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus drafted a memorial regarding future colonization plans.  Nearly two-thirds of the document was concerned with how to handle the gold.[10]  Inserted between paragraphs about securing the gold was a paragraph about building a church and converting the Indians.  The sovereigns agreed with the document in principle and the second voyage was planned.  The Spanish names of the sovereigns were Fernando and Isabel, and Columbus’ Spanish name was Cristóbal Colón, but this essay uses their anglicized names.


The Second Voyage, The Invasion

The second voyage was not the three-ship excursion into the unknown of the previous year.  A full-scale invasion was planned, with seventeen ships and far more than one thousand men, including well-armed soldiers, a troop of cavalry lancers, six priests to convert the heathens, man-eating dogs (those infamous dogs of war) and not one woman.  It was no friendly expedition, going to dance and sing with the natives, asking politely if they had gold.  It appears that the second expedition was partly financed by wealth seized from the Jews, as on May 23rd, 1493, the day the second voyage was authorized, the sovereigns issued royal orders stepping up Jewish wealth confiscation.[11]  Not many, if any, of those gentle New World islanders had any idea what the future held, but history was about to be made.

There is no surviving admiral’s log, but others of the invading force chronicled that voyage’s events.  An Italian nobleman, Michele de Cuneo, one of the two hundred “adventurers” on the voyage, wrote a letter in 1495.  A Spaniard, Guillermo Coma, wrote a few letters to the folks back home.  The fleet surgeon, Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, also wrote a letter, and those three accounts are the main surviving primary records of the second voyage.  Columbus’ son Ferdinand wrote a second-hand account of Columbus’ second voyage, writing from Columbus’ admiral’s log, which has since been lost.[12]

The invasion force was prepared for the “inhuman savagery” of the natives.  On the first day land was sighted, November 3, 1493, Coma had this to say, before he had even seen a native (besides those already in Spanish captivity):


“These islands are inhabited by Cannabili, a wild, unconquered race which feeds on human flesh.  I would be right to call them anthropophagi.  They wage unceasing wars against gentle and timid Indians to supply flesh; this is their booty and is what they hunt.  They ravage, despoil, and terrorize the Indians ruthlessly.”[13]


Descriptions such as Coma’s, typical of the European perspective, said far more about Europeans than the natives.  The Spaniards, led by Columbus, had already dehumanized people they had not yet seen.  They were engaging in a time-honored practice of dehumanizing those they were about to prey upon. 

No convincing evidence exists that the natives of the Caribbean were particularly warlike, fierce, or cannibals, even the legendary Caribs, although they raided the Taino islands, generally to take “brides.”  In one of many ironies of the New World’s “discovery,” the second voyage first made landfall at Guadeloupe (after a brief stop for Columbus to “claim” Martinique).  Guadeloupe is considered the island furthest north that the Caribs inhabited.  It was Columbus’ best and nearly only chance to meet a real Carib on that voyage, and it is doubtful that he ever met a Carib in the flesh, except some possibly Carib women and children that he captured during a later voyage, in his standard exploration style.[14]  The fleet stayed at Guadeloupe for a week.  What kind of encounter did the Spaniards have with those fierce cannibals?  The natives all fled inland when the Spaniards showed up, and the Spaniards failed to meet any.[15]  On Guadeloupe, Columbus’ men invaded the island, one party getting itself lost for days, while others seized the women they found, possibly Carib women, but also possibly “bride captured” Taino. 

On November 14, two weeks before the fleet arrived at the fort manned by the forty Spaniards left behind on the first voyage, Columbus, Cuneo, Coma and Chanca recorded a native encounter on St. Croix.  The seventeen ships were anchored off the island, and longboats had gone ashore to capture slaves.  Just then a canoe appeared, paddling along the shoreline.  The canoe held four men, two women and a child.  The sight of the large ships left the canoe's passengers spellbound.  The canoe just sat there for an hour, the natives mutely staring at the ships. 

To the Spaniards, those awestruck natives were merely more slaves to capture.  They sent boats after the canoe, sneaking up on it.  The surprise attack worked, and the natives did not see the boat until escaping the two-dozen armed men was impossible.  Then the men and women shot arrows at their attackers.  One European was wounded and later died.  The natives were captured and brought aboard.  One man was severely wounded, his intestines hanging from his wound.  The Spaniards knew he would not live, so they threw him overboard.  The Spaniards then watched the native hold his intestines with one hand and swim to shore.  Their captive Tainos apparently said they should not let the man escape to tell his people what happened, as they might retaliate.  So the Spaniards caught him on shore and brought him back, where they tied him up and threw him overboard again.  When he amazingly began swimming to shore again, they shot him several times until he died as he struggled for shore.  

Those natives were the first ones the Spaniards met who tried defending themselves.  Accordingly, the invaders called those unfortunate natives “Caribs.”  They were not Caribs, but it was in keeping with the good native/bad native tradition Columbus had already begun on his first voyage.  Whether they were Caribs or not, their treatment ended up the same. 

Cuneo (probably Columbus’ close friend, maybe from childhood) wrote the first recorded account of sexual relations between Europeans and natives.  Cuneo received a “gift” from Columbus.  The gift was one of the captured native women.  In the words of Cuneo:


“While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman the said Lord Admiral 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 fingernails 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 harlots.”[16] 


The fleet left a swath of terror wherever it went, and had not yet arrived at its destination: the fort at La Villa de la Navidad.  On November 28th they arrived, looking for those forty men left behind near Guacanagarí’s friendly village.  The reception was different from what they had envisioned.

When Columbus sailed back to Spain, he gave the men at the fort several admonitions.  They amounted to behaving themselves around their native hosts and finding the gold.  The men at the fort, being creatures of their age, acted normally for fifteenth century Spaniards around naked women and gold.  According to Guacanagarí, they fought with each other the moment Columbus’ ship was out of sight.  Some seized about five women each as their concubines while others marauded across the island in search of villages with gold.  Their infighting climaxed when two Spaniards killed another one, then eleven of them marched across the island to where they thought the gold mines were.  Some had already left the fort for good, striking out on their own in that land of naked women and gold.  Some had already died of illness.  God only knows what predatory excesses accompanied their trek across the island, but their reception in the “mining region” was likely not welcoming, as they encountered Caonabó, the cacique that reigned there.  Caonabó was not a Taino, but from the less gentle Macorix ethnic group.  He did not suffer the predatory Spaniards long.  He had them killed, then marched to Columbus’ fort.  The remaining Spaniards had taken up residence in Guacanagarí’s village with their concubines.  Caonabó had the village burned in a night attack.  Only eleven Spaniards remained, and eight of those died by drowning as they tried escaping.  Guacanagarí tried protecting the Spaniards as his village burned, and was wounded.[17]  

Columbus could not have been too surprised; he had already been handing out captured women as sex gifts to his men.  The only ally the Spaniards had was Guacanagarí, and the head priest on the expedition, Friar Buil, wanted Guacanagarí executed as an example.  Columbus was not about to execute his only ally, church advice or not.  Instead he had the fort site dug up, to see if the men buried any gold they might have seized (as Columbus instructed them to), and they moved off to establish another settlement. 

On the first voyage, the natives who did not flee were exceedingly friendly, and at times seemed to worship the Spaniards as heavenly beings visiting earth.  The Spaniards’ reputation preceded them then, and most local natives fled before them.  The fort had been built near a shipwreck, so was not a great harbor.  The fleet sailed seventy-five miles away to establish a beachhead, closer to potential gold mines in the island’s mountains.  Columbus picked the new site, yet the harbor was poor and there was no fresh water nearby, among other problems.  That is where Columbus’ ambition became focused, and the town of Isabela (in honor of his queen) was built there.  He even gave his house (one of the few stone structures built there) the ostentatious name of “the royal palace” in case the sovereigns should stay there when surveying their empire.

The town of Isabela lasted two miserable years before it was abandoned in favor of the site at Santo Domingo.  Isabela was plagued with disasters, including greed, famine, disease and violence.  Pigs picked up in the Canary Islands may have carried swine flu, making a third of the Spaniards deathly ill, and killing the natives in droves.  The dead natives lay in great stinking piles, in the words of the Spanish historian Oviedo, so many that “they could not be counted.”[18]  European-introduced disease killed tens of millions of natives during the sixteenth century. 

The Spaniards would always wear out any welcome the New World natives might give them.  The first-contact accounts of Spaniards and other Europeans throughout the New World unfailingly recorded the friendly welcome they received.  When a “first-contact” account recorded a hostile native reception, historians use that as evidence that white men had previously visited, such as Ponce de León’s reception as he invaded Florida, or Coronado’s as he invaded pueblo land.[19]  Spanish cruelty was readily evident throughout the surviving accounts.  In August 1493, as Columbus explored the Españolan coastline, they discovered an uninhabited island populated with seals and birds.  The Spaniards killed eight seals and numerous birds, apparently for no other reason than they could, as those creatures had not yet learned to fear humans.[20]  On his last voyage, one of Columbus’ men shot a spider monkey out of a tree with a crossbow; then cut off one of its arms.  While the monkey was dying, impaled on the arrow with one arm missing, Columbus noted how the sight of the dying monkey frightened one of his dogs and even a native peccary on board.  Columbus then performed an experiment: he threw the monkey and peccary together to watch the reaction.  The monkey grappled and subdued the pig with its tail and remaining arm, and Columbus concluded that the monkey hunted pigs, what was not true.  Columbus reported that event and finding to the Spanish sovereigns.  Hans Koning wrote that such petty cruelty paled beside the human toll that Columbus’ reign and legacy would inflict on the natives, but for Columbus to write of the incident in an offhand, even scientific, way was sad.[21]

Admiral Columbus may have been a good or even great sailor.  That issue is controversial, however.  He lost a number of ships due to poor judgment, and there are other problems with his reputation as a great seaman.  Kirkpatrick Sale takes Columbus' image as a "great seaman" to task numerous times in The Conquest of Paradise.  Whatever his merits may have been as a mariner, Columbus was a grossly incompetent colonial administrator.  Columbus was about forty-three years old, a white-haired sailor for those times, especially to be sailing into adventurous waters. 

Trying to transplant European civilization to new lands is not easy, and Columbus did not exactly bring with him the best people to do it.  They all, probably even the priests, had visions of gold dancing in their heads.  When it came time to build dwellings and other structures, the freebooters who were not sick were not eager laborers.  The ground was not paved with gold, either.  Many of those disappointed freebooters-turned-construction-workers “mutinied” in early 1494, led by the royal accountant (whose job was counting the crown’s loot), and tried seizing ships to sail back to Castile.  They were imprisoned and sent back on the next boat to Spain.  Columbus disfigured those who had stashed away gold by slicing their noses and ears, to little effect.  The thievery was rampant.

Columbus was ill for a few months in late 1493.  When he recovered, he sailed to Cuba in search of the Asian mainland, leaving one of his brothers behind as governor.  Nepotism was a prominent feature of Columbus’ reign.  Columbus sailed to Cuba and Jamaica - killing natives, enjoying a hearty welcome, or both - and he always searched for gold. 

Columbus was so intent on saying that he found Asia that he engaged in a bizarre act in Cuba.  In June 1494, after sailing along the Cuban coast for a month, he compelled his crew to swear that Cuba was not an island but was in fact, “the mainland of the commencement of the Indies.”  He made his crew swear out a notarized statement to that effect, and told them they were subject to a “penalty of 10,000 maravedis and the cutting out of the tongue that each one hereafter should say contrary.”  He also threatened whippings.[22]  Columbus’ hagiographers again have a difficult time explaining such behavior, which was possibly to fulfill royal objectives to search for Asia.  If Columbus could dot that “I” he could go back to Española and keep looking for gold.[23] 

Columbus’ behavior accords well with a devout Catholic of the day.  A little more than a century later, the Inquisition would silence Bruno and Galileo for saying the earth was not the center of the universe (Bruno being burned alive).  Galileo’s crime was demonstrating it to anybody who dared look through a telescope.  Columbus tried to create reality by decree. 

Columbus became ill again in September 1494 and was bedridden for several months.  His men ran wild.  More than a thousand men swarmed across the island, looking for gold, sex and food.  They had been ransacking the island before then, but when Columbus was sick it was a free for all.  They raped, murdered and pillaged without mercy.  Not everybody on the expedition was a fiend.  Some were probably shocked by their comrades’ depravity, but their shock did little to abate the atrocities.  Friar Buil became disillusioned with the New World affair and went home.  Because the battles on the Iberian Peninsula had ended (the Moors had been defeated), many unemployed soldiers and adventurers signed up for the expedition.  It did not turn out as they had hoped, and many died of starvation and disease, alone in an alien world.

When the Spanish eventually invaded Mexico and the Florida region, it was evident that those more urbanized native cultures were more familiar with warfare than the naked Caribbean people.  The mainlanders put up a better fight, but they too were no match for Spanish steel and bloodthirstiness.  Events in the Caribbean were not really a collision of two cultures, as has been written.  One devoured the other. 

By the time Columbus had recovered enough to take control of his men, perhaps 50,000 natives had died, and possibly far more.  By that time, the natives were trying to fight back, but were largely ineffectual against armed and armored men with a lust for gold and murder.  In March 1495, Columbus regained control of his men and mounted an armed expedition that marched across the island.  Hundreds of armed men slaughtered thousands more natives in battle, if “battle” can be used to describe the spectacle of naked people against Spanish swords, firearms, and man-eating dogs.  It was a “pacification” campaign.

The purpose of the pacification campaign was to begin turning the native population into submissive and pliant slaves.  Columbus sold the western voyages on the premise that the return on investment would be great.  Although converting the heathen masses to Christianity was given lip service, nobody should take that notion seriously, and in fact no conversions took place.  As with nearly every other exploration in world history, the bottom line of the expedition was the bottom line: how profitable would such an undertaking be?  Columbus’ extravagant claims of mountains of gold had yet to bear fruit.  In February of 1494, Columbus hurriedly sent back to Spain the expedition’s first dividends: slaves and gold.  All gold taken from the natives was shipped back to the monarchy, to keep their interest up.  Twenty-six natives survived the trip back to the Spain. 

The cleverness of the Spaniards (and a sense of humor?) shines through from time to time.  One anecdote which was funny, in a sick way, was how Columbus’ men captured an uncooperative cacique, Caonabó, who Columbus said was the “principal king of the island.”  Caonabó initiated the killing of those rapacious men at the fort.  The Spaniards had a pair of handcuffs and leg irons polished so they shined.  One of Columbus’ men went to Caonabó with the “gifts.”  Caonabó was told that the handcuffs and leg irons were jewelry of great status.  He was told that the King of Spain wore them.  Caonabó put them on and was shackled in short order.  The Spaniards must have laughed about that one for days.  After being put on display at Columbus’ “royal palace,” he was shipped to Spain with his fancy jewelry.  He died en route, as usual for a native.[24]

In February 1495, Columbus shipped 550 of those “gentle Tainos” to Spain for the slave markets.  Only 350 survived the voyage, and on arrival half of those were dying.  In 1495, Columbus instituted policies that would prove more effective at exterminating the population than pure violence had so far, and would pay handsome dividends to the Crown.

Columbus designed a tribute system.  Spaniards would not deign to dig any gold for themselves, so the natives had to.  Every Taino over 14 years of age was to give a hawk’s bell (about the size of a thimble) of gold to the rulers (Columbus and his men) every three months.  Upon receipt of the gold, the natives were given tokens to wear around their necks as proof of payment.  It was a simple system.  When the Spaniards found Tainos without the appropriate tokens, they chopped their hands off, leaving them to bleed to death and making examples of them.  It is estimated that about ten thousand Taino died handless that way.

The quota was impossible to meet.  The natives had to stop growing food and taking care of themselves to try mining gold.  They began starving, falling prey to European disease and all manner of horror, even if the Spanish did not murder them for “sport.”  The natives fled as far as they could go: across the island, up into the hills, even to other islands.  There was no permanent escape, except by death.  Mothers began killing their children before they took their own lives.  The Tainos had mass suicides by jumping from cliffs and poisoning themselves, yet the Spanish killed far more, and in ingenious ways.  Guacanagarí, Europe’s first ally in the New World, was eventually driven into the mountains himself by the Spanish depredations, dying alone, wandering the mountains of his ruined world.



What happened on La Isla Española in significant ways has no precedent in world history.  Until the gold strike in the island’s mountains in 1499, which made Columbus a rich man and was the first vindication of the whole Indies business, there was no gold found in significant quantities.  Instead of chopping off endless hands, a new variant of a Castilian traditional system was imposed in response to a revolt by Columbus’ men, who wanted land and slaves for themselves.  It quickly evolved into the “encomienda” system.  It was slavery in everything but the name.  The natives were given to Spanish “care” and taught good Christian principles while they were being worked to death, if they were not beheaded on a whim. 

For all of Columbus’ rhetoric, conversion apparently was never implemented on Española, except when they began enslaving the natives in the “encomienda” program.  That is a rich irony, as Columbus immediately began calling himself the “Christ-bearer,” although his efforts did not convert any natives.[25]  “Death-bearer” would have been more apt.  The gold strike of 1499 was when Columbus finally hit pay dirt.  While the natives lasted, there was finally a genuine gold rush on Española, the first of many in the New World

Columbus’ passion for gold was more than mere greed.  He invested it with supernatural, divine, qualities.  A few years before he died he wrote,


“Gold is the most precious of all commodities; gold constitutes treasure, and he who possesses it has all he needs in the world, as also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory, and restoring them to the enjoyment of paradise.”[26] 


Columbus thought that gold was the ticket to heaven.  Apparently, he never heard the words: “You can't take it with you.” 

Columbus eventually fell out of favor with the Crown, and Francisco de Bobadilla and Nicolás de Ovando succeeded Columbus as the governor of Española in 1500 and 1501.  The devastation of Española continued unabated, and Ovando was even more ruthless than Columbus.  The mines were being worked furiously, and natives were dying at an incredible rate.  In 1503, the island's southeastern and southwestern regions had not been completely conquered.  Presiding over the southwestern region, known as Xaraguá, was Anacaona, the highly respected widow of Caonabó, the cacique who received the gift of those shiny manacles. 

In 1503, Ovando went with 360 soldiers to Xaraguá for the stated purpose of improving relations with the Taino.  Anacaona graciously welcomed Ovando and his men, housing and feeding them.  All the region’s caciques were summoned to welcome the Spaniards.  The natives were either amazingly forgiving, or naïve.  During that celebration, at a sign from Ovando, his soldiers fell upon their unsuspecting hosts.  They slaughtered everybody in sadistic fashion - cutting children’s legs off, etc.  After enough people had been killed to satisfy the Spanish bloodlust, the soldiers herded the remaining caciques into the royal hut and set it ablaze, burning them to death.  What Anacaona must have felt, after the deceitful capture of her husband years before, can only be imagined.  Ovando had some warped sense of honor.  Instead of disemboweling or burning Anacaona alive, they hanged her.[27]  Eighty-four caciques (nearly all the region’s leadership) died in the massacre, and that region was swiftly conquered.  The next year the southeastern region of the island was “pacified” using standard Spanish brutality, and there was not much resistance from the fast-dwindling native population, although in their twilight years a native named Enrique eventually created a native stronghold in the mountains that held out for years, and they easily defeated the Spanish attacks while demonstrating vastly greater humanity than the Spaniards.

The dogs the Spaniards brought were large, strong breeds such as mastiffs and greyhounds, trained to kill.  Dogs had been used in European warfare clear back to the ancient Romans, Greeks and Persians, which is where the phrase “let loose the dogs of war” came from.  In Europe, the warfare was against armored opponents, and the dogs often wore armor themselves.  In the Caribbean, where the people were naked, and in the New World in general where warfare was practically unknown in the European sense (large battles of extermination), the dogs were murderously effective.  The invaders would let loose the dogs and they would easily kill and maim the terrorized people. 

Infants’ bodies are soft, and were quite a tasty treat for the dogs, so the Spaniards regularly fed infants to their dogs, alive, and at times while the horrorstricken parents watched.[28]  The Spaniards had contests to see who could cut a living person in half with one stroke of the sword.  They would test the sharpness of their blades by beheading the nearest handy native.[29]

During the Western Hemisphere's rape during the next century, natives often became nothing more than dog food.  An Inca conquistador described a dog food storage technique:


“…when I came from Cartagena, I saw a Portuguese named Roque Martín, who had the quarters of Indians hanging on a porch to feed his dogs with, as if they were wild beasts…”[30]


There were butcher shops throughout the Caribbean region during the years of conquest, where Indian bodies were sold as dog food.[31]  One practice, used on the Guanches as another prelude to New World events, was known as the montería infernal, the infernal chase, or manhunt.  Instead of hunting foxes, the conquistadors would hunt natives with their dogs in a jaunty outing.  The dogs feasted on their hapless prey.  The montería infernal became a favorite pastime of many conquistadors, such as Hernando de Soto.  Another event to pass the time and provide entertainment was to pit a naked native, sometimes armed with a stick, against a dog.  It was reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum.  The dogs killed their human prey by disemboweling them, although jugular attack was also used, sometimes leading to decapitation.  The natives came to fear being thrown to the dogs more than any other fate.[32] 

For various reasons, the New World’s natives had few domesticated animals.  The llama of South America was the New World's largest domesticated animal.  Parrots, turkeys, ducks, guinea pigs and a small dog the Aztecs raised for food were about the only other domesticated animals in the New World.  There were no domestic herds of cattle, horses, goats, sheep or pigs for the Spaniards to slaughter.  The natives were largely vegetarian, especially those not living near the oceans.  The Spaniards took herds of European pigs with them as a cafeteria on the hoof, as Hernando de Soto did in southeastern North America.  Those were exceptions, not the rule.  When the Spaniards invaded and plundered the native people, the most available dog food was human flesh.  Those dogs had been trained to kill human beings, and there were already instances in Europe of feeding the enemy to the dogs of war.

Ironically, the other animals the Spaniards took along for food were the dogs themselves.  When the Spaniards found themselves starving in uninhabited territory while looking for natives to plunder, the dogs became the food of last resort.  No historian has yet made this point (that I am aware of), but as the Spaniards made many unsubstantiated accusations of native cannibalism, they ate human-fed dogs.

As those acts became known and were seized upon by Spain’s European rivals for propaganda purposes, the term “Black Legend” came into being to dismiss such events as mere propaganda.  The events were used to score propaganda points, but that did not make them less true.  As David Stannard and others have made the case, the Spanish genocidal temperament was far from unique.  The English and their political descendants, the Americans, had attitudes every bit as genocidal as the Spanish.  They just had fewer opportunities for slaughter.[33]

To Spanish credit, there were some people who lamented the slaughter, the priest Bartolomé Las Casas most prominent among them.  He was the chief critic and most prominent witness of the Spanish atrocities.  Las Casas and people like him were an extreme minority in Spain, although his and other Dominican efforts affected Spanish royalty, which resulted in some laws of limited effect, such as the Laws of Burgos in 1512 (which also spawned the insane, legalistic Requerimiento).  Las Casas’ attitude hinted at the Spanish attitude towards the natives: the Spanish generally saw them as human beings (when not using them for dog food), although of an “inferior” race and culture.  At least on paper sometimes, the Spanish wanted to civilize the natives and turn them into “good Christians,” whatever that may mean.  The English, on the other hand, generally felt the natives were subhuman.  There is no record of a native advocate among the English, one who remotely approached the effort of Las Casas, who became known as the “Apostle of the Indians.” 

Las Casas is the primary chronicler of the Caribbean's devastation.  He came to the Caribbean in 1502 as a conqueror.  He lived in Cuba with his own Indian slaves.  He was prosperous.  He had a breakthrough of conscience in 1514 that was a long time in coming, but when it did, he gave away his Indians and dedicated the rest of his life to the natives’ welfare, becoming their most outspoken advocate among the Europeans.  He wrote a number of tracts and books, and no account of what happened in the Caribbean is complete without some of Las Casas’ descriptions of what he saw.

One event that Las Casas witnessed is recorded in his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, the classic, polemic account of how the Spaniards treated the natives.  A cacique named Hatuey escaped the butchery on Española and fled to Cuba after the 1503 massacre at Xaraguá, taking his people with him.  In 1511, the Spaniards were looking for new lands to plunder after Española had been devastated, and they invaded Cuba.  Diego Velázquez, one of Ovando’s captains at the Xaraguá massacre, led the first invasion of Cuba, partly because they knew Hatuey and his people fled there.  Velázquez became Cuba’s governor. 

When Hatuey heard the Spaniards were coming, he gathered his people, telling them that the Spaniards had a god, and they would kill to get their hands on it.  The Spanish god was a basket of gold jewelry.  Hatuey and his people honored the Spanish god with a dance.  Hatuey said that the only safety from the Spanish was not having their god around, so they threw the jewelry into the nearest river. 

That strategy did not save them.  After fleeing across Cuba, Hatuey was captured by Velázquez and his men, while his people were slaughtered and enslaved.  Las Casas was a Dominican priest and witnessed a Franciscan brother doing his duty at Hatuey’s execution.  Hatuey was tied to a stake, to be burned alive in the Christian style.  The Franciscan tried converting Hatuey as he stood there, tied to the stake.  If Hatuey converted to Christianity, they would merely have executed him with a sword, and the Franciscan would have “saved” one more soul.  The priest told him about heaven and hell, of eternal rest or damnation, depending on the choice Hatuey took.  Hatuey carefully considered the priest’s words.  He asked the priest if Christians went to heaven.  When the priest said that the good ones did, Hatuey replied that he would rather go to hell than be around those monstrous Christians.[34]  Then the flames took him.

Multitudes died in the horrific mine conditions.  During the early 1500s, the Spaniards were faced with a new problem: it was becoming difficult to find enough natives to do the work.  In 1496, when the tribute system was still in place, Columbus’ brother Bartolomé, the acting governor while Columbus returned to Spain, apparently surveyed the population to get an idea of how much tribute would pour in.  The count tallied 1.1 million people.  That was just counting the adults, in the region the Spaniards controlled at that time, which came after two years of severe population decline from violence, starvation, disease, etc.[35] In 1508, the count tallied 60,000 people.  By 1535, the original inhabitants of La Isla Española were virtually extinct, and were completely extinct a generation later.  The Taino were completely exterminated throughout the entire Caribbean long before the year 1600. 

Today, there is a revival of the Taino people, and there are stories and some evidence of some mixed-blood survival in mountainous pockets in the Greater Antilles and survivors who fled to South America, but by 1600 the Taino were extinct for practical purposes in the Caribbean.  Today’s prevailing estimate is that they numbered somewhere between two to three million in 1492, but they may have numbered more than ten million.  It is history’s only complete extermination of millions of people.  There is nothing to compare it to.  Some of the Old Testament's Jewish battles of extermination are quite bloody, but the complete extermination of millions of people is unique.  The 1,500 years of Taino inhabitation of the Caribbean was plenty of time to have populated the islands with numbers in the millions, and with the perfect climate, nearly zero violence, zero epidemic disease, superior agriculture and other benefits that Europe did not remotely enjoy, to number less than millions would be surprising.

The pre-European-contact headcount on La Isla Española and the entire Western Hemisphere is a matter of fierce academic controversy.  The notion of the Western Hemisphere as a primeval wilderness waiting to be tamed is a fantasy.  With archeology coming into its own during the past fifty years, today's evidence is that people have been living in the Western Hemisphere possibly as long as they have in Europe.  North and South America comprise about sixteen million square miles, only slightly less than Asia, which has more than seventeen million square miles.  People have been living in the New World for tens of thousands of years.  The “primeval wilderness” myths were partly self-serving lies invented by Europeans to make the New World's rape look more benign.  Americans are not alone with those delusions.  South Africa is another “settler-state” (where the Europeans invaded and stayed) that conjured similar myths to soothe their national conscience.  The pre-invasion head count is consequently probably underestimated, perhaps severely so, in all “settler states.”  

The Western Hemisphere’s natives were reverent towards nature, whereas Europeans were afraid of it, and the European goal (so obvious even today in the Western mentality) was to conquer and subjugate it.[36]  Although the natives rarely raped the land as the Europeans did, it is illogical to think they did not have many children, and increased their population. 

There is plenty of evidence for a New World population in 1492 of 100 million people.  There is speculation it could have been higher.  Today, mainstream estimates of ninety million can be found, which is naturally a piece of sophisticated guesswork.[37]  It is estimated that Europe had about 80 million people in 1500 AD, and Asia somewhere around 300 million, with a margin of error of 10 to 25% because there was no census anywhere in the world.[38]  The surface area of the Western Hemisphere is about four times that of Europe.  One early, authoritative “scientific” estimate, which is regrettably still influential today, by Alfred Kroeber of the University of California at Berkeley in 1939, estimated slightly more than eight million people for the entire Western Hemisphere in 1492.  The British Isles alone had nearly five million in 1492.  Spain’s population was about eight million in 1492, or a population equivalent to (in Kroeber’s estimate) the entire Western Hemisphere’s, which had land just as inhabitable or more, people living at about the same level of technology, and often more so, for a preposterous population density about fifty times greater than the New World’s.  One reason for such a low estimate was the now-discredited notion that the natives migrated to the New World only a few thousand years ago, an estimate that was upheld for generations by attacking any scientist who found evidence suggesting otherwise.  A more likely estimate now is 40,000 years, and nobody in academia is arguing for less than 13,000 years ago.[39]

To Kroeber’s credit, he stated that his estimate was based on many guesses, and suggested that detailed scientific work be undertaken.  The challenge was accepted by scholars who also taught at Berkeley, most notably Carl Sauer, Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah.  They used a multidisciplinary scientific methodology to arrive at better estimates, first by doing intensive work on a selected area, for instance, and extrapolating it.  The numbers the “Berkeley School” generated were startling: eight million for Española alone and twenty-five million for Central Mexico, leading Borah to conclude the population of the Western Hemisphere was more than one hundred million.  Based on the higher estimates, the decline of the New World population in the 16th century was by about seventy million people, perhaps more.[40]  The main side effect of the Spanish gold rush that lasted for a hundred years was the extermination of about 90% of the Western Hemisphere’s population. 

The new estimates sparked intense scholarly debate, which has been raging for many years now.[41]  There is no good reason for believing that the Western Hemisphere’s population was orders of magnitude less dense than the other continents in 1492.  There are credible arguments for it being more densely populated than other parts of the world: no epidemic disease, no mass warfare, superior agriculture[42], and idyllic climates and environs for significant parts of the Hemisphere.  All early chroniclers of the New World's invasion remarked on how thickly populated the lands were.

The Caribbean natives lived in a state Columbus described as Edenic during his first voyage.  They did not need clothes, food grew the year-round with crops and environment far superior to Europe's, the ocean was bountiful, epidemic disease was unknown and many of them did not know what a weapon was.  According to Las Casas and others, no Spaniard ever witnessed two Tainos fighting each other.  If Española only had the population density of the hellhole that was England in 1500, with its poor climate, rampant disease, starvation and violence, it would have had more than a million people.

David Stannard, author of the devastating American Holocaust, uses the high end estimates in his book, but for good reason: he has authored the most sophisticated existing pre-contact population estimate for the Hawaiian islands.[43]  Stannard makes the impressive and nearly unchallenged case that the Hawaiian islanders may have numbered about a million people before Captain Cook “discovered” them.  That challenges the conventional wisdom that has put the population at a few hundred thousand at most.  Hawaii has less than one-quarter of Española’s land, with similar climactic conditions.

Las Casas made the estimate of three million people on Española prior to Columbus, as have other scholars.  This essay will use two million for argument’s sake (a million is widely accepted by today’s scholarship[44]), something Stannard would call conservative. 

The depopulation to 60,000 people by 1508 was a 97% depopulation in fifteen years.  That might seem an unparalleled holocaust, but a 95% depopulation ratio is the standard for the world’s natives after contacting the filthy, disease-ridden Europeans.[45]  The major culprits were the disease epidemics that swept through the natives like wildfire.  Across the planet, the cultures that had been isolated from the Asia/Europe/Africa pathogens had a disastrous time when first exposed to them, whether they lived in Iceland, Australia, the South Pacific, Hawaii, or the New World.  The Spaniards obviously killed many thousands of natives, and ended up working and starving thousands (millions?) more to death (or the one-two-three whammy of starvation and overwork leading to susceptibility to disease), but nobody is suggesting that the Spaniards killed two million people on Española with their swords. 

There are numerous accounts of the psychological dislocation that the natives manifested.  Imposing one culture on top of another, with the expressed purpose of eliminating it, as the Spanish priests did for centuries, takes a tremendous psychic toll.  The native responses varied from drunkenness to chronic depression to infanticide to suicide to simply lying down and dying.[46]  Two side effects of those psychological dislocations were a collapsing birth rate and high infant mortality rate.  Even if disease, starvation, overwork and murder did not eliminate the natives, the low numbers of surviving infants may have done the job.[47]  The Spaniards noticed the collapsing infant survival rates, and at times attempted to force the natives to have children.

Kirkpatrick Sale summarized the native puzzlement toward their exterminators:


“It is said, by Las Casas among others, that what perplexed the Tainos of Española most about the strange white people from the large ships was not their violence, not even their greed, nor in fact their peculiar attitudes toward property, but rather their coldness, their hardness, their lack of love.”[48]


The Bahamas, where Columbus first made landfall in the Western Hemisphere,[49] was the home of perhaps a half million happy people.  They became extinct within a few years.[50]  Similar decimation happened to the entire Caribbean region. 

As the natives died by the millions, the slave stock had to be replenished, and the Spaniards raided further and further away, which eventually took them to the mainland.  One more important source of slaves to mine the gold and work the plantations was exploited: Africa.  As the natives became extinct, the Spaniards and Portuguese began importing Africans to the Caribbean.  The African slave trade is another dark chapter in world history.  The European-African-American slave trade killed many millions of million people, perhaps reaching as high as 30 to 60 million people.[51]  For what it is worth, Columbus, who worked in the African slave trade in Europe, and who helped initiate what became the encomienda policy on Española, and was a primary architect of the Caribbean genocide, was not directly responsible for bringing African slaves to the Caribbean.

In Columbus' log of his first voyage, the primary accounts of the second voyage, or Columbus' and others' accounts of his other voyages, the mentality of the conquerors was striking.[52]  Columbus specialized in kidnapping natives as interpreters as he explored the coastlines in and around the Caribbean.  Capturing women for his men to use as sex slaves was typical behavior, when his men were candid enough to admit it (Columbus was writing to the queen, after all).  Getting rich quickly (and/or famous) was the preoccupation of all of them.

The accounts were disquieting when describing the native flora and fauna in one section, as Cuneo did, then casually describing killing more than twenty natives with crossbows and firearms from their ships, as a prelude to "trading" with them.[53]  Columbus made it a policy not to allow his men to leave the ships unchaperoned, because they robbed and raped with abandon when left on their own. 

The Spaniards were quick to suspect their "hosts" were plotting against them.  Then they would then launch a "preemptive" strike against the natives, slaughtering hundreds or thousands of them.  What betrayed the fact that there was likely no plot was that the Spaniards' preemptive strikes nearly always caught the natives by surprise.  The natives were shocked and totally unprepared for the Spanish violence that was unleashed against them.  Nearly 100% of the time, there was no trap about to be sprung.  As with Columbus' fanciful interpretations of Taino gestures, the Spaniards concluded from native gestures what they wanted to find, and justifying a surprise attack on their "hosts" seemed a Spanish penchant.[54] 

In no instance that I have seen or heard of, did anybody in Spain ever question the conquest’s propriety.  It was a universally held concept that conquering the Western Hemisphere was a God-given right.  Not even sympathetic historians, such as Las Casas and Cieza de León, questioned if conquering the natives was justified.  For Las Casas, who was a great admirer of Columbus, the conquest was bringing the light of Christianity.  Las Casas came the closest to asking that Spain bring its ships home, but never quite went that far.  For soldier-historian Cieza de León, conquest was merely what he did for a living.  Although Cieza de León lamented the awesome destruction that the Spanish invasion inflicted on the native populations, the question of whether the Spaniards should have even come across the Atlantic was never given consideration.  It is a revealing commentary that nobody ever asked if invading the New World was "right."  The only debate was whether it could have been done more gently.  Such an assumption can be seen throughout history’s imperial cultures, including the United States.

Much has been made of Columbus over the centuries.  Sailor-historians have worshipped Columbus as one of history’s great navigators, and have engaged in senseless debates regarding where Columbus first landed in the New World.[55]  Others have extolled his renaissance virtues.  During the 19th-century, there was an attempt to make Columbus a saint.  There has also been plenty of vilification, particularly lately.

If it were not Columbus, it would have been another European.  Columbus was little better or worse than his contemporaries, as far as his regard for the human beings he exterminated.  The awesome bloodshed of the first century of conquest was a standard “frontier” situation.  The people who manned the voyages to the New World during the years of discovery were not the best and brightest Europe had to offer.  Soldiers of fortune and “gentleman adventurers” would not make an enlightened first contact with the natives, and the men of the cloth often made things worse.  Many of the New World's early “settlers” had clipped ears and noses, denoting criminal status in Europe. 

After the mercenary elements of European society secured the frontier, then came the “settlers,” also not from European society's premier ranks.  Although they did not usually inflict the bloodshed of the “frontier” warriors and conquistadors, they finished wiping out the native people and their cultures as they made their homes on native lands and fleshed out the system of exploitation.  They became participants in the system and found people below them in society’s hierarchy.  Having natives to exploit moved them up one notch.

What happened on Española is a phenomenon seen many times during the research for this site.  The resources (natives and land) seemed so limitless and abundant that few thought of the consequences of their depredations.  While everybody was trying to get rich by mining gold and turning the Caribbean into one big plantation, the natives and local environments were devastated.  Hardly anybody bothered to extrapolate the trends to see where they would lead until it was too late.  By 1517, the gold had been mined and the Españolan natives were about one percent of their pre-contact population.  Nearly the entire Caribbean had been depopulated by then.  The priests, led by Las Casas, campaigned to have African slaves brought in to do the plantation work, as they had proven heartier than natives in the mines, and there were few natives left. 

By 1518, the priests’ campaign succeeded, and the official policy was to have African slaves replace the native slaves.  The few remaining natives were to be freed and moved into villages to live somewhat as they had before Columbus arrived.  The plan might have worked to rescue the Caribbean natives from the brink of extinction, but fate had another card to play.  European diseases had already killed countless natives, but 1518 saw the first recorded epidemic of smallpox in the New World.  It wiped out more than half of the remaining natives on Española, quickly driving them to extinction.  Thus ends the story of the happy people who greeted Columbus.

Around 1990, as I began to study these areas, I believed that the black-skinned people of today's Caribbean were indigenous people, some kind of equatorial New World natives.  I had no idea that they were all originally from Africa.  The complete genocide of the original Caribbean inhabitants was never emphasized in my schooling. 

Columbus made four voyages to the New World.  He eventually suspected that those islands were not off of Asia, but that he had discovered a new continent.[56]  He was shipwrecked on his fourth voyage, and the natives of Jamaica fed the surviving crewmembers for a year, while Columbus' men had a mutiny and not only killed each other, but natives.  For all his adventures, Columbus died in bed in 1506, in Spain, surrounded by his family, friends and his seven servants, a man made rich from the New World’s plunder. 

There is more to Columbus' story than this essay tells.  He spent one return voyage to Spain in chains (not really as a prisoner, but in a display of self-pity).  He was the first to realize that native genocide would be bad for Spain in the end, as dead slaves cannot do any work.

What this essay presents is not controversial to those who have studied Columbus.  Today, most Americans have some passing acquaintance with the real story.  That Columbus initiated the genocide of the natives is not really debated, even by his admirers.  Washington Irving published a mammoth and hugely popular biography of Columbus in 1828, where he invented, among other myths, the story of Columbus proving that the world was not flat.  There is something significant about a novelist writing the first major American work on Columbus. 

With most good propaganda, most frequent are the lies of omission, not commission.  Nevertheless, some historians deride the work of Sale and Stannard as “ideological.”  Las Casas entered the political arena and Sauer taught at Berkeley.  Some scholars make the case that the New World was not as pristine as “revisionist” scholars would have people believe.[57]  The point made throughout this site’s essays is that we know little for sure. 

With all the uncertainty, there is some warranted confidence regarding what may have happened.  People lived in the Western Hemisphere in large numbers.  They altered the landscape somewhat, and could destroy their environment to where it no longer sustained them, as how the Mayans had a population collapse that ended their "classic" phase a thousand years ago.  Yet, compared to what the Europeans did to their land, the Western Hemisphere generally was pristine.  We can never come close to knowing what it was really like before Columbus showed up, partly because the Europeans actively destroyed the culture they invaded.


Why Do We Celebrate Columbus Day?

Why does America celebrate Columbus Day?  Modern scholarship does not take the heroic image of Columbus seriously, and yet the "revisionists" are taken to task for their critiques of Columbus’ image and other popular myths.

America’s capital is named after Columbus (he jointly holds that honor with another American hero, George Washington), and America was nearly named after him.  Cities, streets, a river and other places are named for him.  According to an official at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, Columbus’ likeness was second place to Jesus in how often it had been produced.[58]

Americans celebrate the “discovery” of the Western Hemisphere because our ancestors erected European-style civilizations on the bones and ashes of its dead inhabitants.  The Columbus Day celebrations are the dysfunctional rituals of a conqueror society.  It is true that there were dark sides to native cultures.  They apparently practiced human sacrifice in some of the New World cultures, sometimes.  Warfare was not unknown.  The people of the New World were human, but in the areas of viciousness and avarice, on a scale of ten the Western Hemisphere's natives probably ranked a two or three, and the Europeans a nine.  America celebrates Columbus Day because Columbus was a "winner."

During the past several centuries, the apologists for Europe’s conquest of the New World have gladly told graphic tales of human sacrifice, cannibalism, torture of captives and other native atrocities.  The record is nearly devoid of a European witness to those acts.

Howard Zinn summed up the position America and its scholarship has taken towards Columbus.  He wrote about the brainwashing American students receive, how they rarely learn differently, and how scholars have abetted the situation.  Zinn wrote:


"Past the elementary and high schools, there are only occasional hints of something else.  Samuel Elliott Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on Columbus, the author of a multi-volume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced Columbus’ route across the Atlantic.  In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: 'The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and his successors resulted in complete genocide.'

"That is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance.  In the book’s last paragraph, Morison sums up his view of Columbus: ‘He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great - his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement.  But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities - his seamanship.’

"One can outright lie about the past.  Or one can omit facts that might lead to unacceptable conclusions.  Morison does neither.  He refuses to lie about Columbus.  He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.

"But he does something else - he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him.  Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer.  To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not important - it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.

"…To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice.  It serves - unwittingly - to justify what was done.

"My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia.  It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality.  But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all) - that is still with us.  One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth.  We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respected classrooms and textbooks.  This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences.  It is therefore more deadly.

"The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) - the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress - is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders.  It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they, - the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court - represent the nation as a whole. 

"…'History is a memory of states,’ wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen’s policies.  From his standpoint, the ‘peace’ that Europe had before the French Revolution was ‘restored’ by the diplomacy of a few national leaders.  But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation - a world not restored but disintegrated."[59].


Zinn's A People's History of the United States is filled with insightful nuggets.  His book should be read in American classrooms instead of the paeans to Columbus. 

What has happened during the past generation, with Columbus’ heroic image being tarnished, is not new facts arising, but looking at the facts objectively.  The picture that then emerged can rightly be called horrifying.  Indeed, what have our ancestors been cheering about?  Yet, we still have a national holiday called Columbus Day. 

We cannot all get on boats and sail back to Europe.  The acts of our ancestors are not pretty, and if we had been born then, we might have done the same.  The past is the past, and we can do nothing about it except learn from it, and perhaps try healing some of the damage that our ancestors inflicted, such as treating the remnants of the native tribes a lot better, even giving back some of the land that our ancestors murderously stole from theirs.  Celebrating what our ancestors did and lying about the past seem the most inappropriate responses, and probably underlie a mass psychosis

Along with Zinn, there have been other efforts to counter the Columbus Myth propaganda.  Hans Koning's Columbus, His Enterprise, was published in 1976, which was Zinn's first inkling that the story that Zinn, a Ph.D. in history, had been taught about Columbus might be a little awry.  My college history textbook also did nothing to try challenging the Columbus Myth.  In the 1991 edition of Columbus, His Enterprise, the final chapter is titled "Columbus in the Classroom," written by Bill Bigelow.  Bigelow described that presentation he makes to his classes every year, and then led them down the inexorable path of understanding that the European "discovery" of the New World was really invasion, murder and theft from the people who had been living here for millennia. 

Bigelow uses Columbus, His Enterprise as a textbook for his class, and the students then studied history textbooks and critiqued their highly slanted presentations of the New World's "discovery."  The people being discovered may as well have not existed as far as the textbooks went.  The focus was all on the Spaniards and their awe of the new land, taking possession of it in the name of the King and Queen, the glory, etc.  Who likes to hear they have been lied to their entire lives?  At least regarding the Columbus Myth, those students began getting their brains unwashed, which helped them cast a critical eye at other myths they had been told.  If only every American history class did the same.

Zinn was a professionally trained historian, ironically earning his doctorate at Columbia, and he openly admits that he did not realize what a whitewash the Columbus story was until he began researching A People's History of the United StatesProfessional American historians have gone their entire lives and never learned about the dark side of Columbus' legacy.  One student said:


"It seemed to me as if the publishers had just printed up some "glory story" that was supposed to make us feel more patriotic about our country.  In our group, we talked about the possibility of the government trying to protect young students from such violence.  We soon decided that was probably one of the farthest things from their minds.  They want us to look at our country as great, and powerful, and forever right.  They want us to believe Columbus was a real hero.  We're being fed lies.  We don't question the facts, we just absorb information that is handed to us because we trust the role models that are handing it out."[60]


In 2006, I heard from a college professor who has used this essay in his class curriculum for several years.  He told me that the information on Columbus in this essay is a shock to about 99% of his pupils.  As James Loewen remarked in his seminal Lies my Teacher Told Me, the real hero in American history textbooks is America itself.  The story is of the state as hero, always right, forever unstained, marching off to greater feats of glory and righteousness.  That is the Big Lie of American "history."  That mentality is needed, however, in order to get boys to march off to distant wars, to defend our great nation from "threats" such as Iraq and Vietnam

America’s entertainment industry has a long-standing tradition of depicting invading armies from other planets, from the 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds to the 1996 movie Independence Day.  The themes of those works of art tap deep into our national psyches and memories.  In those stories, we are the natives.  Unlike War of the Worlds, where invisible disease vanquished the invaders, or Independence Day, where a small group of unlikely heroes pulled off an unlikely upset, the Tainos (and most natives of the Western Hemisphere) were not so fortunate.  Imagine the Martian invasion was successful.  Humanity quickly became a dying species as the invaders “cleared” the land for settlement, while importing their people, culture, crops, animals and technology.  Maybe humanity was not totally exterminated, but small surviving groups were allowed to exist on land the invaders deemed useless, where they barely eked out an existence.  Then imagine the anniversary of the invasion’s first day became a great day of celebration for the conquering extra-terrestrials, their invading fleet’s captain a hero, with their rhetoric stating they had displaced an inferior species, beings who were not properly taking advantage of what their planet offered.  How advanced would such a conquering culture be? 

Or turn the story of Columbus around a little.  Imagine that Native Americans discovered the British Isles in 1492.  They were searching for flint, because they used it as currency.  Because they had a military prowess that nobody could resist, they quickly enslaved the British Isles’ natives, and in a couple of generations had exterminated the Isles’ entire population, while the natives were forced to mine flint.  It was also a mere prelude to invading Europe and killing off about 95% its inhabitants.  The Indians, after they had secured Europe, wrote histories that extolled the virtues of their race and European culture was nearly wiped off the map.  The English and Celtic languages became as extinct as their culture and people, and the Indians could not have cared less, and never even mentioned or cared about the people they exterminated.  Would the Indians therefore be a "great people"?  Or, might some legitimately lament the passing of a people and culture that might have contributed much to humankind?  Imagine a world with no Shakespearean writings.  Would that be something to celebrate, or something to lament?  Some might think it would be have been great, given the course of world history.  Not me.  Everybody can have something worthwhile to offer.  Perhaps the gentle Taino could have taught the world profound lessons about loving one's neighbor, which they may have done better than any other culture.  We will never know.  It is one of history's ironies that Christians completely exterminated them.

Will Americans ever stop celebrating (or overlooking) the murderous acts of our ancestors?  That is something only we can answer.  Progress has been made.  Columbus Day is not the frenzied celebration it was a hundred years ago, or even forty.  The day we unmake that national holiday and replace it with one for native remembrance, for instance, (and maybe give some land back) will be an important one for our progress as a people.  Maybe then we will be on our way to becoming “great.”



[1] See Barreiro, "A Note on the Tainos," in Confronting Columbus, p. 30.  See also Todorov, The Conquest of America, pp. 25-27.

[2] Columbus.  Log of October 11-12, 1492.  Reproduced in Fuson, The Log of Christopher Columbus, pp. 73-74.

[3] Columbus.  Log of December 26, 1492.  Reproduced in Fuson, The Log of Christopher Columbus, p. 155.

[4] The side trip the Pinta took was eventually the subject of litigation.  The Pinzón family helped finance the voyage and captained the Niña and Pinta.  Carl Sauer believed the evidence weighed in favor of a mix-up leading to the separation of the Pinta, and Martín Pinzón was not taking a disloyal side-trip to fill his pockets.  See Sauer, The Early Spanish Main, pp. 27-29.

[5] I write, "murdered," because the last the Spaniards saw of them they fled into the jungle with wounds that were probably mortal.  The incident was almost certainly one where the Spaniards interpreted harmless native gestures incorrectly and attacked their hosts.  The "shoot first and ask questions later" (if ever) mentality would characterize European attitudes toward New World natives for the next few centuries.  See Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, pp. 120-121.  See also Fernando Colón’s The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus, pp. 88-90.  Colón’s account is typical in how it projected hostile motivation onto what were likely innocent native activities.  It strains credibility to think that Columbus, just as he was heading back to Spain, received his first hostile response, especially if one reads the accounts of it.  After buying some bows and arrows from the natives, Columbus’ men tried buying more, as Columbus instructed them to.  After selling them some bows and arrows, the natives (they were not the Taino, but the nearby Ciguayo) brought forward some rope to trade, which Columbus’ men interpreted to mean they were going to try to tie them up.  Columbus’ men then ferociously attacked the natives, severely wounding two, who likely died.  The natives fled at the attack by Columbus’ men.  The landing boat’s pilot helped restrain the attacking Spaniards, and prevented it from becoming the first wholesale slaughter of the Columbian era.  Columbus heartily approved of the attack.  He thought them Caribs (they were not), and thought that when word got around that a few Spaniards could chase off more than fifty Caribs, they would fear the Spaniards and leave the men left behind at the fort alone.  It appeared that Columbus and his men were looking for a reason to make an example out of some natives, and found the opportunity just as they were “leaving town.”

[6] Columbus.  Log of January 13, 1493.  Reproduced in Fuson, The Log of Christopher Columbus, p. 173. 

[7] Taino is a name given to the Arawakan people of the Greater Antilles, related to their mainland cousins in South America, from where they originally emigrated.  “Taino” is the name of convention today, and what they called themselves, so I use it on this site.  Columbus called them “Indios,” and believed them to be people of Asia.

[8] See Sale, The Conquest of Paradise.  p. 189.  The Book of Prophecies was not really a book, but a collection of writings that Columbus planned to present to the Spanish sovereigns.  It was largely composed of excerpts from the Bible and other Christian writings.  The general theme was Christian evangelism and the “liberation” of Jerusalem.  Columbus was trying to draw parallels from scripture to his discoveries across the Atlantic Ocean.  To be fair to Columbus, the issue of geography and the Bible was significant then.  Bible scholars before Columbus’ voyages asserted that there could be no other lands than what were described in the Bible, and the Isabella-instigated Spanish Inquisition, with its flaming stakes and hot tongs, enforced the Bible’s certitude.  Columbus, in part, was trying to justify his enterprise with the Bible, draw a line through his discoveries, convert the entire world to Christianity, and mount another Crusade to Jerusalem, and prepare for the coming battle with the Antichrist.  It partly reflected the times he lived in, as well as his ambition and fanaticism.  As Sale wrote, there is little of the Renaissance’s influence evident in that work.  See the scholarly edition of The Book of Prophecies by Roberto Rusconi, translated by Blair Sullivan, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997. 

[9] See Lyle McAlister, Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492-1700. p. 63.

[10] See Columbus' memorial to the sovereigns of April 1493 in Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, pp. 199-202.  

[11] See Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, p. 128.

[12] See Fernando Colón’s The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Keen, translator, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1959.

[13] Coma, in Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, pp. 233-234.

[14] See Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, pp. 130-131.

[15] On Guadeloupe, Columbus may have rescued Taino women the Caribs had "bride captured,” and returned them home (although Cuneo wrote that they were sent to Spain as a "sample").  It may have been one of Columbus' "noble" acts.  Unfortunately, the fate of those women would have been better if he had left them there, and the "rescued" women acted just as the other natives Columbus had captured, jumping overboard to escape when the ship was anchored off Española (see Chanca's letter in Christopher Columbus, The Four Voyages, J.M. Cohen, translator, p. 151).

[16] Cuneo, in Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, p. 212.  Kirkpatrick Sale writes of the encounter, “One longs to know the young woman's version [of events – Ed.].”

[17] See Fernando Colón’s The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Keen, translator, pp. 117-121.  See also Chanca's letter in Christopher Columbus, The Four Voyages, J.M. Cohen, translator, pp. 144-152).

[18] See discussion of the controversy of just what disease it was in Stannard, American Holocaust, pp. 68-69.  Stannard believes swine flu to be the likeliest candidate, with good reason.

[19] See Bitterli’s Cultures in Conflict, p. 22.  See Sauer’s Sixteenth Century North America, p. 301.

[20] See Fernando Colón, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Keen, translator, p. 144. 

[21] See Fernando Colón, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Keen, translator, pp. 240-241.  See also Koning, Columbus: His Enterprise, pp. 108-109.

[22] See Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, p. 147.

[23] That speculation is in Sauer’s The Early Spanish Main, pp. 81-82.

[24] See Sale, The Conquest of Paradise.  p. 154.

[25] Columbus began calling himself the Christ-bearer immediately after the first voyage, but the tally for Columbus' reign was: native deaths = millions; native conversions = zero.  See Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, p. 127.  See Morison’s Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, p. 202.

[26] Written during his fourth and final voyage to the New World, in a letter to the King and Queen.  McAlister, Lyle.  Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492-1700, p. 81.  A different translation is in Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, p. 383, which states, "O, most excellent gold!  Who has gold has a treasure with which he gets what he wants, imposes his will on the world, and even helps souls to paradise." 

[27] It was perhaps not so warped.  The Tainos regarded hanging as the worst way to die.  See Barreiro, "A Note on the Tainos," Confronting Columbus, p. 41.

[28] See Stannard, American Holocaust, pp. 71-72, 83-84.  See Las Casas, The Destruction of the Indies, pp. 74, 125.  See Todorov, The Conquest of America, pp. 138-139.  One phenomenon deserves mention here.  Events on the New World's frontier were sparsely documented.  When an atrocity such as feeding a live infant to a dog was witnessed and recorded by concerned priests, or a historian wrote of seeing Indian parts hanging from a porch, being used for dog food, it is guaranteed those practices happened far more than were documented.

[29] On the Caribbean colonization, the following are some sources I used and liked, where readers can find out more.  Fuson, The Log of Christopher Columbus; Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus; Benjamin Keen, translator, Fernando Colón, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus; J. M. Cohen, translator, Christopher Columbus, The Four Voyages; Koning, Columbus: His Enterprise; Todorov, The Conquest of America; Sale, The Conquest of Paradise; Sauer, The Early Spanish Main; Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies; McAlister, Spain & Portugal in the New World, 1492-1700; Jacobs, The Tainos, The People who Welcomed Columbus; Rouse, The Tainos, Rise and Decline of the People who Greeted Columbus; Stannard, American Holocaust, chapter 3 in particular; Bitterli: Cultures in Conflict, chapter 3 in particular; Zinn, A People's History of the United States, chapter 1; Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, chapter 2; Yewell, Dodge, DeSirey eds., Confronting Columbus.

[30] Pedro de Cieza de León, The Incas.  Translated by Harriet de Onis.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959. p. lix.

[31] Las Casas remarked on herds of natives being used for dog food, and that the more “compassionate” Spaniards would first kill the natives before feeding them to the dogs.  The less genteel ones would just set the dogs on their live food.  For a contemporary reproduction of one of those butcher shops, see Varner and Varner, The Dogs of Conquest, pp. 30-31, which is from a version of Las Casas’ Destruction of the Indies.

[32] These “dogging” practices are documented in Varner and Varner, The Dogs of Conquest.

[33] See Stannard, American Holocaust, chapter 4.

[34] This story is recounted in Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, pp. 27-29.  See also Barreiro, "A Note on the Tainos," Confronting Columbus, p. 42.

[35] A number of modern scholars dismiss virtually all estimates made by the Spanish at that time.  The rationale is that soldiers, “adventurers” and priests (virtually the only European visitors to the New World for many years) wildly inflated the numbers to make their conquests or potential conversions seem grander, or Las Casas inflated his numbers to make the horror greater.  When Cortés estimated the number of warriors he faced in battle, he was almost undoubtedly engaging in that medieval practice, but the count of natives on Española in 1496 was influenced by neither soldierly nor priestly "heroism."  It was a bureaucratic attempt to determine the future flows of gold from the tribute system.  To disregard the number of 1,130,000 adult natives apparently counted on the controlled part of the island is questionable scholarship.  The count may not have been the most accurate of all time, but it is the only count performed back then, and modern scholarship and scientific investigation has determined that number is by no means unreasonable, and neither is such a large population’s collapse.  It may be unreasonable to those trying to minimize the devastation the European invasion inflicted on the New World natives, and those who prefer the myth of an untamed wilderness awaiting the conquering heroes from Europe.  See discussion by Carl Sauer in The Early Spanish Main, pp. 65-67, 200-204.  The Spaniards could certainly count.  They were great at counting up how many pesos of gold they plundered from the New World.  Columbus used a method of navigation on his first voyage known as dead reckoning.  Dead reckoning is sailing without any landmarks, and estimating how many miles you traveled by simply watching the water go by.  Robert Fuson, one of the sailor-historian types, stated that Columbus might have been the “greatest dead-reckoning sailor who ever lived.” (Fuson, The Log of Christopher Columbus, page 29, and his sentiment is held by many others.)  Only fifteen years after “discovery,” the Spanish were taking accurate head counts of the remaining natives.  Angel Rosenblat, the leading minimalist scholar on the pre-contact population of the New World, believes the count of one million was more of Columbus’ hyperbole.  See his argument in Denevan’s The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, pp. 43-66.

[36] Kirkpatrick Sale covers the topic in The Conquest of Paradise, with a good literature review.  For instance, William Leiss' The Domination of Nature and Keith Thomas' Man and the Natural World are two excellent reviews of the European attitude toward the natural world and how they developed it.

[37]Encarta Encyclopedia, 2001 edition, estimates ninety million.  Denevan’s The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, p xxviii, weighs in at fifty-four million, from its 1992 edition.  This site uses an eighty million estimate. 

[38] See Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, p. 57. 

[39] It is one more area of intense debate.  See Adams, Prehistoric Mesoamerica, pp. 20-2; Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, pp. 35-52; Stannard, American Holocaust, pp. 261-266; Churchill, Since Predator Came, pp. 265-296; Mann, 1491, pp. 137-173.  Charles Ginenthal summarizes the political situation regarding the supposed migration date in his The Extinction of the Mammoth, pp. 13-36.  For a generation Ales Hrdlicka, who in 1903 became the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s department of physical anthropology, attacked anybody who questioned his pet theory that mankind did not migrate to the New World earlier than a few thousand years ago.  Even Louis Leakey drew Hrdlicka’s ire.  Scientists’ careers were ruined when they proposed that mankind was here before Hrdlicka’s magic date.  Scientists even suppressed their own data when it suggested an earlier migration date than dogma dictated, in order to preserve their careers.  Such inquisitorial behavior set back the science considerably, and such dogmatism persists in the field today.  The dark journey of Dr. Virginia Steen-McIntyre will serve as an example of that phenomenon.  In the 1960s, a major archeological find was discovered in Hueyatlaco, Mexico, where sophisticated stone tools were unearthed.  Three geologists working for the U.S. Geological survey were given the task of dating the finds.  Steen-McIntyre was one of them.  They used four independent methods of dating the find, including the radioactive decay of uranium.  Their results were startling: an age of 250,000 years.  If valid, such evidence would jeopardize entire bodies of evolutionary and anthropological theory.  The scientific establishment acted predictably: it suppressed the findings' publication.  Worse than that, in the words of Steen-McIntyre, the establishment's efforts “killed my career.”  She lost her university teaching position and was blackballed from the profession.  In a letter written in June of 1995, Steen-McIntyre wrote “…the only work I can get now is as a flower gardener in a local nursing home!”  See Cremo and Thompson, Forbidden Archeology and Cremo, Forbidden Archeology’s Impact for documentation of Steen-McIntyre’s tale.  See also Mary Owen Webb and Susan Clark’s (from Texas Tech University) “Anatomy of an Anomaly,” in Disputatio 6, May 1999.  Today, it is on the Internet.  Unfortunately, hers is far from the only modern account of that type of treatment of anomalous evidence.  Anthropologist Thomas Lee excavated stone implements in glacial till in Canada in the 1950s that were dated to more than 65,000 years old, also challenging the prevailing dogma.  The establishment treated Lee similarly, also documented in Forbidden Archeology.  George Carter, Louis Leakey and others have had their anomalous findings received similarly.  Wipe out all the disquieting evidence, and the theories can survive.

[40] See discussion in Stannard, American Holocaust, p. 95, 305-306.

[41] The classic summary of the situation today is found in William Denevan’s The Native Population of the Americas in 1492.  Denevan took the average of the scholars in the various New World regions that they studied, and arrived at an estimate of the 1492 population of 54 million people in the 1992 edition of the book, with a likely range from 43 to 65 million.  With all the work that has been done, they are no more than sophisticated guesses, as they always will be.  In contrast to Hugh Thomas’ assertion that the maximalists have clouded the issue and largely prevailed, in the United States the minimalists prevailed for a long time.  Denevan admits that 100 million is reasonable.  The crux of the matter is how devastating the first instances of European-introduced disease were.  The numerous studies favor a particularly high mortality rate, with entire regions being quickly depopulated. 

[42] New World natives developed more than half of the world’s crops grown today, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes, cassava, many varieties of beans, and peanuts.  The introduction of New World crops is largely credited with the tremendously expanding world population during the past few centuries.  See Weatherford, Indian Givers, pp. 59-115.  See Rouse, The Tainos, p. 170.

[43] See Stannard, Before the Horror.  See also O. A. Bushnell, The Gifts of Civilization, Germs and Genocide in Hawai'i.

[44] For instance, Denevan uses the estimate of one million for Española in the 1992 edition of The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, down from the two million estimated in the 1976 edition.  The several million estimated for Española is still respected in many scholarly quarters.

[45] See Stannard, Before the Horror, pp.46-47 for a review of twenty examples of comparative depopulations due to Western contact, in Iceland, Australia, Guatemala, etc.  See Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel.

[46] See Jackson and Castillo, Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization. pp. 51-53, 85.  See Stannard, American Holocaust, p. 74.  See Gibson, The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule, p. 7, 150, 409.  See Fogel, Junípero Serra, the Vatican, and Enslavement Theology, pp. 114-164.  See Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas, pp. 350-351.  The same phenomenon happened to the Hawaiians after they were "discovered" in 1778.  There was one hallucinogenic plant in Hawaii, which only the chiefs enjoyed.  Alcohol caught on as the natives underwent the profound psychological dislocations of being introduced to the white man's "civilization," and the natives drank with abandon as they succumbed to the genocide that the white culture and germs inflicted on them.  See O. A. Bushnell, The Gifts of Civilization, Germs and Genocide in Hawai'i, especially pp. 193-194.

[47] See census results of children in the collapsing population of Española in Sauer, The Early Spanish Main, pp. 200-204.  See Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas, pp. 350-351.  See Todorov, The Conquest of America, p. 134.

[48] Sale.  The Conquest of Paradise.  p. 151.

[49] On one Bahaman island, we do not know which.  The sailor-historians have been wrestling about which one it was for hundreds of years.  I suppose the debate is so they can put the monument to Columbus on the correct island.

[50] See discussion in Stannard, American Holocaust, p. 72-73.

[51] See Stannard, American Holocaust, pp. 317-318, n. 9 for a good discussion, referencing numerous research papers, on the issue of the African slave trade's death toll.  Of course, there are lower estimates, such as Basil Davidson’s estimate of nine million deaths between 1650-1850 in his The African Slave Trade.  Stannard's Before the Horror was a groundbreaking study of the pre-discovery Hawaiian population.  A popular scholar whose estimates of the Caribbean pre-Columbian population are among the lowest existing is Sir Hugh Thomas.  Thomas recently wrote The Slave Trade.  He also wrote a recent popular and critically acclaimed account of those early days of Spanish conquest, Conquest, which deals with the Aztec conquest.  Although scholarly and mammoth, some of Thomas’ biases, as with much of mainstream history writing, were evident.  On the subject of Mexico’s pre-contact population, Thomas writes at length, devoting an appendix to the issue.  He semi-humorously portrayed the debate regarding the pre-contact population levels as a battle between the “maximalists” and the “minimalists.”  He concluded his survey by stating that nobody really knows what the numbers were, but when he has made an estimate of the pre-Columbian Caribbean population, he is a staunch minimalist.  On p. 67 he states that the pre-contact population on “Hispaniola…may have been over 100,000.”  That is the lowest existing estimate, and such an estimate neglects (among other things) Bartolomé Colón’s (Columbus’ brother) apparent 1496 estimate of 1.1 million adults on only part of the island, for tribute calculation purposes.  What is difficult to reconcile with Thomas’ minimalist estimate is the fact that after fifteen years of wanton slaughter, disease, starvation, mass suicide, and being worked to death in the mines and plantations, the Spanish royal treasurer took a careful count in 1508 and counted about 60,000 natives (and perhaps only counted the natives of working age.  Sauer, The Early Spanish Main, p. 65-67, 155-156, 200-204).  The trajectory after that count was a swift slide to extinction: less than 30,000 by 1514 (after the entire Caribbean had been scoured for natives to work on Española), less than 20,000 by 1518, and virtual extinction by 1535 (200 counted in 1542, Las Casas, in Sale, p.161.  See also Las Casas The Destruction of the Indies, p. 26 and 27, where he remarked that Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba were similarly depopulated), and total extinction well before the end of the century.  Thomas sides with the scholar Angel Rosenblat and his estimates of more than sixty years ago, estimates considered the ultra-conservative extreme by modern scholars.  See Denevan The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, pp. xvii - xxix.  Even Columbus remarked that more than 80% of the native population alive in 1500 died by 1504 (see Sauer, The Early Spanish Main, p. 155).  Regarding the pre-Columbian population of Cuba, the estimates run from 600,000 to the preposterously low 16,000.  A number of 16,000 is less than half a person per square mile.  Tibet, with one of the planet's most inhospitable climates, is ten times more densely populated than that.  On page 1512 of Cuba, The Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), Thomas states, “The lowest estimate and the one to which I incline is 16,000.”  Thomas is the minimalist’s minimalist.  On page 65 of Conquest Thomas wrote that Columbus’ men “seduced” the native women.  Cuneo’s prey probably would not have called herself “seduced.”  Thomas seemed to consistently side with the Spanish accounts of events, such as the death of Montezuma and the myth of Aztec cannibalism.  All that stated, I read Conquest, though warily, and found it a useful source of history on the Aztec conquest.  In Thomas' The Slave Trade I find no quantification of the African death toll due to the slave trade.  He put a number on how many slaves made it to the New World in his appendices, but not how many died in the process.  For a scholar who is lauded, even knighted, for his scholarship, and whose work is held up for how balanced it is, it consistently minimized or overlooked native suffering due to Europe's devastation of Africa and the New World.

[52] Several are presented in Morison, Journals and other Documents in the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.  See also Christopher Columbus, The Four Voyages, translated by J.M. Cohen.

[53] See Cuneo's account in Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, especially p. 222.

[54] The Xaraguá massacre was one of many.  On the way to Tenochtitlán, the Spanish mercenaries were constantly looking for plotters against them.  Cortés accused the city of Cholula, a religious center, of plotting against him, and virtually destroyed the town while slaughtering several thousand people.  The Spaniards never saw any opposition to their approach, were welcomed by Montezuma, who they quickly kidnapped and held for ransom.  While Cortés was away defeating the army the Cuban governor had sent against him, his men slaughtered thousands of Aztec citizens at their spring festival, once again invoking the “plot” against them.  While the evidence for a Cholula plot was extremely weak, there was absolutely no evidence that the residents of Tenochtitlán were plotting against the Spaniards.  After the slaughter, however, the populace laid siege to the imperial palace, and the Spaniards were caught sneaking out of town and the resultant battle during their flight is today called “The Night of Sorrows” by Spanish chroniclers.  Thomas’ Conquest ably covers those events.

[55] See Fuson, The Log of Christopher Columbus, pp. 201-202 for a listing of several dozen guesses over the past four centuries where Columbus first landed.  Fuson himself weighs in with his theory that it was Samana Cay. 

[56] See Las Casas' abstract of Columbus' third voyage in Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, especially pp. 278-280.

[57] For one example of a summary of the “revisionism” by a mainstream historian, where his opinions are of the establishment variety, see Axtell, James. "Columbian Encounters: 1992-95." The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. LII, No. 4, October 1995.  Ward Churchill takes Axtell’s scholarship to task in his A Little Matter of Genocide.

[58] See Sale, The Conquest of Paradise.  p. 348.

[59] See Zinn, A People's History of the United States, pp. 7-9.

[60] See Bigelow, "Reading the Past," in Confronting Columbus, p. 72.


















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