Columbus Day: American Holocaust and Slave Trader
By Roy Cook

In 1492 Columbus' ships appeared off the coast of San Salvador. The Taino Indians greeted Columbus with unimaginable hospitality. Columbus reported to his queen: "So tractable, so peaceable, are these people, that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy." Columbus soon lost sight of the generosity and kindness of the Taino people. (Note A)

Contrary to popular legend, Columbus did not prove that the world was round; educated people had known that for centuries. The Egyptian-Greek scientist Erastosthenes, working for Alexandria and Aswan, already had measured the circumference and diameter of the world in the third century B.C. Arab scientists had developed a whole discipline of geography and measurement, and in the tenth century A.D., Al Maqdisi described the earth with 360 degrees of longitude and 180 degrees of latitude. The Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai still has an icon that was painted 500 years before Columbus and which shows Jesus ruling over a spherical earth. Nevertheless, Americans have embroidered (This is a polite word for stitching lies together.) many such legends around Columbus, and he has become part of a secular mythology for schoolchildren. Autumn, Indian Summer, would hardly be complete in U.S. elementary schools without construction-paper replicas of the three ships that Columbus sailed to America. (C)

On April 17, 1492, before his first voyage to the Americas, Columbus negotiated a business contract with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, entitling him to 10% of all profits. In this contract, the Spanish sovereigns agreed:

"that of all and every kind of merchandise, whether pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and other objects and merchandise whatsoever, of whatever kind, name and sort, which may be bought, bartered, discovered, acquired and obtained within the limits of the said Admiralty, Your Highnesses grant from now henceforth to the said Don Cristóbal [Christopher Columbus] ... the tenth part of the whole, after deducting all the expenses which may be incurred therein." [1]

After his fourth and final voyage to the Americas, Columbus summed up his feelings about gold in a July 7, 1503, letter to Ferdinand and Isabella: "Gold is most excellent; gold is treasure, and he who possesses it does all he wishes to in this world." [2]

After Turning Out the Jews

Beyond profits, Columbus sought to convert native people to Catholicism. In the prologue to his journal of the first voyage, Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella:

"YOUR HIGHNESSES, as Catholic Christians and Princes who love the holy Christian faith, and the propagation of it, and who are enemies to the sect of Mahoma [Islam] and to all idolatries and heresies, resolved to send me, Cristóbal Colon, to the said parts of India to see the said princes ... with a view that they might be converted to our holy faith … Thus, after having turned out all the Jews from all your kingdoms and lordships ... your Highnesses gave orders to me that with a sufficient fleet I should go to the said parts of India .... I shall forget sleep, and shall work at the business of navigation, so that the service is performed." [3]

The Enslavement of Native People

On October 12, 1492 (the first day he encountered the native people of the Americas), Columbus wrote in his journal: "They should be good servants .... I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses." These captives were later paraded through the streets of Barcelona and Seville when Columbus returned to Spain. [4]

From his very first contact with native people, Columbus had their domination in mind. For example, on October 14, 1492, Columbus wrote in his journal, "with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them." [5] These were not mere words: after his second voyage, Columbus sent back a consignment of natives to be sold as slaves. [6]

Yet in an April, 1493, letter to Luis de Santangel (a patron who helped fund the first voyage), Columbus made clear that the people he encountered had done nothing to deserve ill treatment. According to Columbus:

"they are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts." [7]

Nonetheless, later in the letter Columbus went on to say:

"their Highnesses may see that I shall give them as much gold as they need .... and slaves as many as they shall order to be shipped." [8]

Pope Gives the Americas to Spain

Following Columbus' discovery, Pope Alexander VI issued a May 4, 1493, papal bull granting official ownership of the New World to Ferdinand and Isabella. To these monarchs, the Pope declared:

"We of our own motion, and not at your solicitation, do give, concede, and assign for ever to you and your successors, all the islands, and main lands, discovered; and which may hereafter, be discovered, towards the west and south; whether they be situated towards India, or towards any other part whatsoever, and give you absolute power in them." [9]

This decree did not go unchallenged. Francis I of France, for example, later quipped: "The sun shines on me as well as on others. I should be very happy to see the clause in Adam's will which excluded me from my share when the world was being divided." [10]

Nonetheless, the Pope's declaration ultimately had dire consequences for native inhabitants of the Americas. Beginning in 1514 Spanish conquerors adopted "the Requirement," an ultimatum in which Indians were forced to accept "the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world" or face persecution. If Indians did not immediately comply, the Requirement warned them:

"We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do all the harm and damage that we can." [11]

Often the Requirement was read to Indians without translation, or in some cases even from ships before crew members landed to kill Indians and take slaves. [12]

Columbus Day: A National Holiday

Since 1971 Columbus Day has been celebrated in the U.S. as federal holiday, and on October 9, 2002, President George W. Bush issued a presidential proclamation celebrating "Columbus' bold expedition [and] pioneering achievements," directing that "the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of Christopher Columbus." [13]

Missing from this proclamation was any mention of violence, slavery, religious persecution, or the pursuit of gold. Yet Columbus himself was more forthcoming about how he should be remembered. In a letter penned a few years before his death, Columbus wrote: "I ought to be judged as a captain who for such a long time up to this day has borne arms without laying them aside for an hour." [14]

The Holocaust of Columbus alone killed four million people on San Salvador in four years. The genocide did not stop after this first four million people; they were only the beginning. The missionary Bartolome de Las Casas recorded what he witnessed. Bartolome de Las Casas was born in Seville, Spain, in 1474. In 1502 he went to Cuba, and for his military services there was given an Encomienda, an estate that included the services of the Indians living on it. In about 1513 he had a change of heart and was ordained a Christian priest (probably the first ordination in the Americas), and in 1514 he renounced all claim on his Indian serfs. During the following seven years he made several voyages to Spain to find support for a series of new towns in which Spaniard and Indian would live together in peace and equality. In 1523 he became a Dominican friar and disappeared for a time from public controversy. In 1540 he returned to Spain and was a force behind the passage in 1542 of laws prohibiting Indian slavery and safeguarding the rights of the Indians. He was made Bishop of Chiapas in Guatemala, and returned to the Americas in 1544 to implement the new laws, but he met considerable resistance, and in 1547 he returned to Spain, where he devoted the rest of his life to speaking and writing on behalf of the Indians. He is chiefly remembered for his Brief Report On the Destruction of the Indians (or Tears of the Indians), a fervid and perhaps exaggerated account of the atrocities of the Spanish conquerors against the Indians. The book was widely read and widely translated, and the English version was used to stir up English feeling against the Spanish as a cruel race whom England ought to beware of, and whose colonies in the Americas would be better off in English hands. Sounds too familiar? Sounds like the, English only, B. I A. Bureau of Indian Affairs, U. S of A.!

During Columbus time in Haiti, he and his men hunted the Taino Indians for sport, beating, raping, torturing, killing, and then using the Indian bodies as food for their hunting dogs.

During the following conquest there is documentation that Columbus felt required at least to inform the natives of the terms by which he would steal their lifestyle and life itself; though they could not understand a word he said: "I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us..."

Text quoted from: "El Requerimiento" in Wilcomb Washburn, ed. The Indian and the White Man.

As Hans Koning has observed, "There was no real ending to the conquest of Latin America. It continued in remote forests and on far mountainsides. It is still going on in our day when miners and ranchers invade land belonging to the Amazon Indians and armed thugs occupy Indian villages in the backwoods of Central America." As recently as the 1980s under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. the U.S. government knowingly gave direct aid to genocidal campaigns that killed tens of thousands Mayan Indian people in Guatemala and elsewhere. (B) The pattern holds.

Therefore, on one hand we may see a thin rational for how the US continues
to celebrate this process linked to Columbus and his 'discoveries' but in
reviewing the realities and results upon humanity it seems remarkable that
we can still 'celebrate' these historical events and atrocities. This is the event celebrated each year on Columbus Day. The United States honors only two men with federal holidays bearing their names. In January we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., who struggled to lift the blinders of racial prejudice and to cut the remaining bonds of slavery in America. In October, we honor Christopher Columbus, who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history. (C)

On the other it is readily apparent why Native peoples hold a different attitude
toward these events and the persistent celebration of the conquering
culture and why every Columbus Day, is a Native American Tribal day of
mourning and a continued call to resistance in Native American communities

Sources and notes:

1 Page 79 of Bourne, E. G. (Ed.). (1906). The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503: The voyages of the Northmen, The voyages of Columbus and of John Cabot. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
2 Bourne, p. 412.
3 Bourne, p. 90.
4 Bourne, pp. 111-112; Page 18 of Hanke, L. (1949). The Spanish struggle for justice in the conquest of America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
5 Bourne, p. 114.
6 Hanke, p. 19.
7 Bourne, pp. 265-266.
8 Bourne, p. 270.
9 Page 22 of Southey, T. (1827). Chronological history of the West Indies (vol. 1). London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green.
10 Hanke, p. 148.
11 Hanke, p. 33.
12 Hanke, p. 34.
13 Bush, G. W. (2002, October 10) Columbus Day, 2002: By the President of the United States of America: A proclamation (press release). Washington, DC: The White House.
14 Bourne, p. 381.

A. Bartolome de las Casas, THE DEVASTATION OF THE INDIES: A BRIEF ACCOUNT (translated by Herma Briffault) (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). ISBN 0-8018-4430-4.

B. "Guatemalan Army Waged 'Genocide,' New Report Finds," Mireya Navarro, NEW YORK TIMES February 26, 1999, pg. unknown. The TIMES described "torture, kidnapping and execution of thousands of civilians" -- most of them Mayan Indians -- a campaign to which the U.S. government contributed "money and training."

C. Excerpted selections from above are adapted from an article Professor Jack Weatherford wrote in 1989 for the Baltimore Evening Sun. Essay copyright © 2002, Jack Weatherford.