F!$k Christopher Columbus
“What’s wrong with Christopher Columbus?” y’all might be wondering. “He discovered America, right? 1492, high five!” Okay, maybe no one is wondering that. Maybe it’s just my past self. As a Tempesta, I apparently swore a blood oath at my birth to play hype man to all Italian-Americans, and according to my dad CC was the original Italian-American. So I had a big mountain to climb before I could clearly see the message that awaited me at the top:
It all started so innocently, right? Just a boy, working for a Spanish monarch, looking for some gold. That’s what schools tell us, anyway.
from Modern World History, a 9th grade social studies textbook (Holt McDougal 2012)
Columbus kept a diary from his famous first voyage. Along with constant screeching from sheer frustration at STILL BEING AT SEA, extolling the natural beauty of the landscape of what we now call the West Indies, railing against his good-for-nothing crew, and fawning over the monarchs who funded his trip, Columbus tells us about his encounters with the people he met on the many islands he visited. And you know what? It’s almost cute. He has a lot to say about how much he likes them: how beautiful they are, and how generous, and how friendly. He likes them so much, in fact, that he ends his description of their first encounter this way:
It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord, I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn our language. (Oct 11, 1492)
Oh, okay! Cool! You like these people so much that you think they would be good servants and you are just going to … steal them!
And of course, he does do that. A lot. Like here:
I do not, however, see the necessity of fortifying the place, as the people here are simple in war-like matters, as your Highnesses will see by those seven which I have ordered to be taken and carried to Spain in order to learn our language and return, unless your Highnesses should choose to have them all transported to Castile, or held captive in the island. (Oct 14, 1492)
from another quarter had arrived a small canoe with a single man, who came to barter some cotton; some of the sailors finding him unwilling to go on board the vessel, jumped into the sea and took him. (Oct 15, 1492)
Even in his own reporting you get a sense of the heartbreak and fear he was causing the Taíno and other indigenous people:
Yesterday a canoe came alongside the ship, with six youths in it. Five came on board, and I ordered them to be detained. They are now here. I afterwards sent to a house on the western side of the river, and seized seven women, old and young, and three children. I did this because the men would behave better in Spain if they had women of their own land, than without them. …The same night the husband of one of the women came alongside in a canoe, who was the father of the three children—one boy and two girls. He asked me to let him come with them, and besought me much. They are now all consoled at being with one who is a relation of them all. He is a man of about 45 years of age. (November 12, 1492)
Columbus loves to steal people. But he doesn’t steal everyone. That guy that he ordered snatched out of his own canoe? He dropped him off on a different island with some different inhabitants, for PR purposes:
I now …gave orders for the canoe which the Nina had in tow to be set adrift. … I looked out after him and saw upon his landing that the others all ran to meet him with much wonder. It appeared to them that we were honest people, and that the man who had escaped from us had done us some injury, for which we kept him in custody. It was in order to favor this notion that I ordered the canoe to be set adrift, and gave the man the presents above mentioned, that when your Highnesses send another expedition to these parts it may meet with a friendly reception. All I gave the man was not worth four maravedis.
Even thought you might want to steal someone so bad, it’s not always the best decision, strategically. Good tips from a professional people-stealer!
And before you think “well, he was a product of his time, not like us modern people,” give a listen to Bartolome de las Casas, a Catholic friar involved in the Spanish colonization of Cuba, and whose brother and father had sailed with Columbus on his second voyage. He wrote a book called A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. This book criticized in the strongest possible terms the horrific treatment of the indigenous Americans after Columbus’ arrival:
It was upon these gentle lambs, imbued by the Creator with all the qualities we have mentioned, that from the very first day they clapped eyes on them the Spanish fell like ravening wolves upon the fold, or like tigers and savage lions who have not eaten meat for days. The pattern established at the outset has remained unchanged to this day, and the Spaniards still do nothing save tear the natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly. (11)
In his diary, Columbus tells us that the people they met looked upon them as gods, and were extremely generous with their gifts of food and goods. But you start to notice, as you read on, that he meets fewer and fewer people. These West Indies are just chock full of abandoned houses, I guess! Weird! De las Casas gives us the lowdown:
As we have said, the island of Hispaniola was the first to witness the arrival of Europeans and the first to suffer the wholesale slaughter of its people and the devastation and depopulation of the land. It all began with the Europeans taking native women and children both as servants and to satisfy their own base appetites; then, not content with what the local people offered them of their own free will (and all offered as much as they could spare), they started taking for themselves the food the natives contrived to produce by the sweat of their brows, which was in all honesty little enough.
Since what a European will consume in a single day normally supports three native households of ten persons each for a whole month, and since the newcomers began to subject the locals to other vexations, assaults, and iniquities, the people began to realize that these men could not, in truth, have descended from the heavens. Some of them started to conceal what food they had, others decided to send their women and children into hiding, and yet others took to the hills to get away from the brutal and ruthless cruelty that was being inflicted on them. The Christians punched them, boxed their ears and flogged them in order to track down the local leaders, and the whole shameful process came to a head when one of the European commanders raped the wife of the paramount chief of the entire island.
Wow, it’s almost like Columbus wasn’t telling the whole truth! Which is weird because Columbus was an extremely devout Christian, and devoted to spreading his religion in these new islands. That’s obviously why he had his people do things like this:
They slaughtered anyone and everyone in their path, on occasion running through a mother and her baby with a single thrust of their swords. They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burn them alive thirteen at a time, in honour of our Saviour and the twelve Apostles, or tie dry straw to their bodies and set fire to it.
De las Casas tells us that in the end,
the despotic and diabolical behaviour of the Christians has, over the last forty years, led to the unjust and totally unwarranted deaths of more than twelve million souls, women and children among them, and there are grounds for believing my own estimate of more than fifteen million to be nearer the mark.
Now hold on. Yes, de las Casas gave up his indigenous slaves in 1515. Yes, he tirelessly advocated for the Taíno and other indigenous peoples and railed against the brutality of Spanish rule. But Bartolome de las Casas was a Spanish Christian. He didn’t want the indigenous people left alone. He didn’t want them to be able to live out their lives in the way they saw fit. He wanted to convert them to Christianity and assimilate them into European culture nonviolently. And he was absolutely all about taking the land and extracting its resources.
He wasn’t even opposed to slavery, y’all. A pillar of his early pro-indigenous platform was that instead of using the indigenous Americans as slaves we should have more African slaves. Don’t get it twisted: all white folks were monsters and pretty much are to this day (but that’s a conversation for another day). I tell you all this so you’ll know that Christopher Columbus was bad. Like, real bad. No, he didn’t personally kill all those 12-15 million people. No, he didn’t personally do everything de las Casas described—not even everything I’ve quoted here. But according to scholars of the period, he FUCKING STARTED IT.
And also, yeah, he personally did some bad shit. He disfigured and murdered people. He fed them to dogs. He sold children as sex slaves. He personally transported more enslaved people across the Atlantic than any other person in history. Because of his brutality, he was fired from his job as governor of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1500 and dragged home in chains. Even his supporters thought he had gone too far. He died in poverty at a kind of young age, but you know, he deserved it.
The Good Place, 2018