Columbus And Genocide


On April 17, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs of Castile, signed the Capitulations of Santa Fe, the agreement by which Christopher Columbus, one-time wool-weaving apprentice in Savona, Italy, undertook a voyage of discovery to the western Atlantic.

Columbus was in his forty-first year. After forsaking his father’s loom in Savona he had spent some nine years in obscurity in Portugal, where his only known occupations were those of petty trader in sugar for an Italian commercial firm and maker and purveyor of maps and marine charts in collaboration with his younger brother Bartolomé. During this period he married a poor but aristocratic young Portuguese woman who bore him a son; he also supposedly made one or more sea voyages in an unidentified capacity.

Some time in those years he had conceived his enterprise of discovery. Finding no acceptance of it in Portugal, he had come to Castile in the early months of 1485 after his wife’s death. There he had eked out a precarious living as an itinerant peddler of books and maps, existing partly on charitable handouts from noble patrons whom he had managed to interest in his enterprise.

Now the fruition of his dream was at hand. The Capitulations provided that:

  1. Columbus was to be admiral of “all those islands and mainland in the Ocean Sea which by his hand and industry he would discover and acquire,” the title to be hereditary and the office to be equal in pre-eminences and prerogatives to that of the High Admiral of Castile.
  2. He would be “viceroy and governor general of all the said islands and mainland.” In a subsequent royal provision signed a few days later, Columbus was specifically granted the power, as admiral, viceroy, and governor, to “hear and dispatch all civil and criminal proceedings pertaining to the said offices of the admiralty, viceroyalty and governorship” and to “punish and castigate the delinquents.”
  3. For his personal enrichment he was to have 10 per cent of all the removable assets of the newly discovered lands, including gold, silver, pearls, and precious stones, and the trade therein was to be a crown monopoly under his control. He was to receive an additional 12½ per cent in return for his pledge to contribute an eighth part of the cost of the expedition.

How a ragged and indigent foreigner whose only known experience at sea had been as a travelling commercial agent and earlier as a common seaman and who had not set foot on a ship in the seven years he had been in Spain could thus acquire by the stroke of a pen a station equal to that of the highest-ranking officer of the Castilian navy—indeed, how he could have wrung from these two powerful and able sovereigns such extraordinary concessions—is a fascinating story in itself, but it need not detain us here. [See “Christopher Columbus, Mariner,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , December, 1955.] Of far more significance in their tragic portent were the provisions of the agreement that gave to the former weaver’s apprentice the absolute power of life and death over tens of thousands of innocent human beings. His incapacity to discharge that responsibility justly and humanely would be distressingly demonstrated in the years that were to follow.

The somber chronicle of the events that ended in the genocide of the peaceful Arawaks of the Caribbean islands is amply documented in Columbus’ own letters and journals and in the pages of his most ardent admirer, Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, the great contemporary historian of the West Indies who believed Columbus had been divinely inspired to make the Discovery. But Las Casas was a thoroughly honest writer, and he did not hesitate to pass harsh judgment on his hero for initiating and carrying on the wholesale enslavement for profit of the gentle natives who had affectionately welcomed Columbus and his fellow argonauts to the New World. Throughout his long life Las Casas was an impassioned crusader for the rights and survival of the hapless Indians—his “poor innocents,” as he called them—whose cruel oppression by the Spanish invaders he laid square at Columbus’ door.