Columbus And Genocide

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However controversial this Dominican priest may have been in his lifetime, however subjective and even irritating to his readers may be his interminable moralizing and expounding of God’s will, Las Casas’ monumental history remains without question the greatest single source of our knowledge of that milestone in human affairs. Born to an upper-class family in Seville, Las Casas was eighteen at the time of the voyage of discovery. His father went with Columbus on the second voyage in 1493 and was among the first colonists on the island of Haiti, which the Spaniards called La Isla Espanola (Spanish Island). Young Las Casas joined the colony in 1502 and for a time led the life of a landholder in this first Spanish settlement in the New World. But his sensitive mind and heart were sickened by the cruel oppression of the natives. He took the vows of the Dominican order and resolved to devote the rest of his life to their cause, a resolve he never relinquished until the end of his life, at ninety-two. For three years he was bishop of Chiapas in southern Mexico; he then returned to Spain for the last time in 1547, becoming a permanent resident of the monastery of San Gregorio in Valladolid. He began his Historia de las Indias in 1527, while he was still on Espanola, but did not complete it until thirty years later. He had become well acquainted with Diego, Columbus’ legitimate son and his successor as Admiral of the Indies, and with Diego’s highborn wife, Maria de Toledo, niece of the duke of Alba. They placed all of Columbus’ papers at his disposal, including a copy of the Journal of the First Voyage . Las Casas made an abstract of the latter for his own use, and it remains the only detailed record of the historic voyage. The original of the journal has been lost.

A chilling omen of the fate of the unarmed and inoffensive Arawaks is indicated in Columbus’journal under date of October 14, 1492, two days after the first landing of the expedition on the tiny island of Guanahani in the Outer Bahamas, which Columbus christened San Salvador. “When your Highnesses so command, they could all be carried off to Castile or be held captive in the island itself,” he wrote, “because with 50 men they could all be subjugated and compelled to do anything one wishes.”

On Sunday, November 11, a month after the historic landing on Guanahani, the fleet of discovery was anchored in a harbor along a coast that seemed without limit.

 

The admiral had understood the name of this land to be Colba, and he tentatively identified it as the fabled island of Cipango (Japan). The fleet had reached it October 28 and now lay at the mouth of a large river that Columbus had named Río de Mares.

Four weeks of rather aimless wandering among the myriad islands surrounding the argosy had turned up very little in the way of gold, the sine qua non of the expedition so far as Columbus was concerned. Only a few of the natives wore small articles of gold, which they traded readily for any trifles the Christians offered them.

Where had the gold come from? The artless and naked islanders were eager to please, but the difficulty of communication was great. The sign language Columbus and his company tried to use was awkward and easily misunderstood and did little to identify the source of the gold ornaments that meant so little to their wearers and so much to the odd and powerful beings they believed had come from the sky.

In his frustration Columbus turned his attention to the trees and shrubs, many of which he was certain bore valuable spices. But which trees, and what spices? He had to confess his ignorance in that respect. “… and though I believe there are many herbs and many trees that would be highly valued in Spain for dyes and medicinal spices, most of them I do not recognize which causes me great annoyance,” his journal notes under date of October 19.

By sad irony one of the herbs he failed to recognize was to engender more wealth long after Columbus’ death than all the Golcondas of his dreams. During his sojourn along the coast of “Colba,” or Cuba, he sent two men into the interior on an exploratory mission. On November 6 they returned to the ship to report to the admiral on what they had found. Among other things they related that many of the natives, both men and women, were accustomed to holding a tizón , or firebrand, of yerbas (weeds) in their hands and inhaling the smoke. The journal does not identify the yerbas , but Father Las Casas does in his Historia . Columbus had discovered tobacco. To the end of his life he was totally unaware of the impact this discovery was to make on the world’s economy—if, indeed, he gave the matter a second thought.

No, the road to the expected riches of these exotic lands was not plainly marked. So far Columbus had little more tangible to offer the sovereigns than the beautiful scenery he described in his journal day after day in endless detail. But he was acutely aware that scenery could not be cashed at the bank, and the prospect of another source of revenue that was plainly visible and plainly abundant began to take shape in his mind.