Columbus And Genocide

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Along with the scenery, Columbus never tired of extolling the docility and peaceful nature of the timid people who had welcomed him and his fellow voyagers with such awe and affection to their island Eden. And he kept turning over in his mind how the meek and artless character of his brown-skinned hosts could be made a source of profit.

On the same day that the expedition landed on Guanahani, Columbus noted that the timid natives “should make good servants.” Several weeks later he remarked in the journal:”… they are very meek and without knowledge of evil nor do they kill others or steal … and they are without weapons and so timid that one of our people can put a hundred of them to flight.”

On Monday, December 3, the admiral assured the sovereigns that ten men could cause ten thousand of the natives to flee, “so cowardly and fainthearted are they and they carry no arms except some rods at the end of which are pointed sticks which are fire-hardened.”

By December 16 his ideas in that respect had taken definite form. “They have no weapons and are all naked without any skill in arms and are very cowardly so that a thousand would not challenge three,” says the journal for that date. “… Thus they are useful to be commanded and to be made to labor and sow and to do everything else of which there is need and build towns and be taught to wear clothes and learn our customs.”

And finally, in a famous letter to Luis de Santangel, his patron at court, he gets right down to business: In conclusion, to speak only of what has been accomplished on this voyage which was so hurried, their Highnesses may see that I can give them as much gold as they will need with very little aid from their Highnesses. And there are spiceries and cotton, as much as their Highnesses may order and mastic in whatever quantity they may order … and slaves in any number they may order and they shall be of the idolaters (i.e., heathens].

Great evils are apt to have small beginnings, or, as Father Las Casas put it, “Men are never accustomed to falling into a single error or committing only one sin.” So it was that on November 11, 1492, the admiral ordered five young male natives, who had come trustingly aboard his flagship, forcibly seized “to take to the Sovereigns to learn our language so that it might be disclosed what is in the land.”

A trifling incident in itself, but to paraphrase Father Las Casas, Columbus was quite ready to multiply his sins.

“Afterwards I sent to a house which is in the area of the river to the west,” Columbus says in his journal, “and they brought back seven head of women, small and large and three children. I did this because the men would comport themselves better in Spain having women from their land than without them.”

The cynical kidnapping of seven “head” of women to keep the male captives docile in their slavery (Columbus used the phrase cabezas de mugeres just as he would say seven head of cattle) was the first act of a tragedy whose last would be the extermination of the Arawak natives of the Antilles. “This,” noted the Spanish historian José Asensio, “was a great abuse and bad judgment on the part of the Admiral which was to set a most lamentable precedent, an act so apparently trifling which was to have fatal consequences.”

The incident set off a series of denunciations by Father Las Casas in his Historia that could not have been more bitter if they had come from Columbus’ worst enemy rather than from his most devoted admirer. “A pretty excuse he has given to explain or justify such a nefarious deed,” wrote the indignant priest. “One might ask whether it was not a most grievous sin to pillage with violence women who had their own husbands. … Who was to give an accounting to God for the sins of adultery committed by the Indians whom he took with him, to whom he gave those wives as sexual partners? For this injustice alone it could well be that he merited before God the tribulations and afflictions which he was to suffer throughout his life. …”

The Catholic sovereigns must have taken more than passing note of their admiral’s burgeoning ideas for exploitation of the natives as part of the exportable assets of the newly discovered lands. In written instructions to Columbus issued from Barcelona on May 129, 1493, the king and queen were explicit in their mandate respecting treatment of the Indians. Not only was Columbus to make their conversion to the Christian faith his first order of business, but the monarchs also firmly decreed that they were not to be molested or coerced in any way. They instructed Columbus as he prepared for his second voyage: And because this can best be done after the arrival of the Meet in good time, the said Admiral shall take measures that all those who go therein and those who have gone before from here shall treat the Indians very well and affectionately without causing them any annoyance whatever … and at the same time the Admiral shall make some gifts to them in a gracious manner and hold them in great honor and if it happens that some persons should treat the Indians badly in any way whatsoever the said Admiral, as viceroy and governor for their Highnesses, shall mete out severe punishment. …