Columbus And Genocide

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This narrow-minded approach to the problems of making an honest ducat would have discouraged anyone less determined to have his own way and less adept at achieving it than Columbus. The sovereigns were well-meaning, of course, but they didn’t understand the situation too well. He would have to humor them up to a point, but it was no great problem.

On the outward passage of the second voyage Columbus’ fleet of seventeen sail discovered and named a number of the islands of the Lesser Antilles in the southwestern Caribbean. These islands were inhabited by a warlike people called Caribs who had the reputation, whether or not deserved, of dining on the prisoners they took in raids on their peaceful Arawak neighbors to the north.

Columbus and his company had a brief skirmish with these cannibals on the island of Santa Cruz (St. Croix), one of the Virgin Islands. A Spaniard was killed by an arrow, and a few of the natives were taken prisoner. The exact number is difficult to establish from the three rather confusing eyewitness accounts we have of this encounter, but it couldn’t have been more than a dozen or so, including three or four male adults and some women and children.

But they were enough to give Columbus an inspiration for carrying on his proposed traffic in slaves without hindrance from his sentimental sovereigns. Just call his merchandise cannibals and who could object? Who cared what happened to cannibals?

On February 2, 1494, two and a half months after the skirmish on Santa Cruz and about eight months after the sovereigns had forbidden any kind of coercion of the natives, a cargo of slaves departed from Isabela, the new Spanish colony on Espanola (Haiti). They were in twelve ships under the command of Antonio de Torres, a brother of the governess of the crown prince of Castile. They were dispatched by Columbus to be sold in the slave market of Seville.

Four days earlier he had given Torres a lengthy written memorandum instructing him as to how he was to explain the shipment of slaves to Their Highnesses and laying the groundwork for more of the same. “You must say and supplicate on my behalf to the King and Queen, our Lords, the following,” Columbus wrote Torres: Item, say to their Highnesses that because there is no language by means of which this people can understand our Holy Faith … thus are being sent with these ships the cannibals, men and women and boys and girls, which their Highnesses may order placed in the possession of persons from whom they can best learn the language.

Item, say to their Highnesses that the profit from the souls of the said cannibals would suggest the consideration that many more from here would be better and their Highnesses would lie served in this manner: that in view of the need for cattle and beasts of burden for sustaining the people who are here … their Highnesses could give license to a number of caravels sufficient to come here each year and bring the said cattle and other provision; … for which payment would be made in slaves from these cannibals. …

There is no record of the number of slaves sent with Torres, but from all indications there were considerably more than the handful of Caribs taken in the skirmish on Santa Crux, Columbus’ only known encounter with these fierce natives on his second voyage. Most of Torres’ wretched cargo must have been made up of the inoffensive inhabitants of Espanola, whose meekness, so highly praised at first by Columbus, was being strained to the breaking point by the strong-arm tactics of the European invaders, including Columbus’ own periodic kidnappings of groups of natives “to learn the secrets of the land.”

Eleven weeks after the departure of Torres with the first shipment of slaves, Columbus beetled off to other parts of the Caribbean in another vain pursuit of his obsession for gold. He left the dull and frustrating routine of administering the new colony on Espanola to his younger brother Diego, who, from all accounts, was a well-meaning nonentity. To a hidalgo named Pedro Margarit he entrusted the command of the armed forces during his absence.

 

Columbus returned to Espanola four months later to find affairs on the island in chaos. Margarit had thrown up his captaincy and returned to Spain, leaving the soldiers under his command to roam the countryside, raping the native women, robbing the villages, and, in the words of Ferdinand Columbus, “committing a thousand excesses for which they were mortally hated by the Indians.” (Ferdinand was Columbus’ illegitimate son, who wrote a biography of his father that was largely a panegyric.) The tormented natives finally turned on their oppressors, and ten Christians were slain in ambush.