- Historic Sites
Columbus And Genocide
The discoverer of the New World was responsible for the annihilation of the peaceful Arawak Indians
October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
This was all Columbus needed to establish a steady supply of slaves. He no longer would have to maintain the fiction that they were cannibals. Despite the fact, even acknowledged by Ferdinand, that the slain Spaniards had justly earned their mortal hatred, Columbus led an expedition against the defenseless Indians that was incredibly savage in its slaughter of the naked islanders and destruction of their villages. The heavily armed Europeans were accompanied by ferocious greyhounds each of which, Las Casas wrote, “in an hour … could tear 100 Indians to pieces because all the people of this island had the custom of going … nude from head to foot.” Many people were taken alive, and five hundred were sent as slaves to be sold in Castile. They were carried in four ships that Antonio de Torres had brought, and they left for Castile on February 24, 1495.
Michele de Cuneo, an Italian compatriot of Columbus, accompanied the admiral as a gentleman adventurer on the second voyage and has left a lively eyewitness account of that trip. He was a passenger on Torres’ slave-laden fleet on the 1495 voyage back to Spain. He related that sixteen hundred Indian captives, male and female, had been gathered in lsabela, the island capital. Five hundred or more of the more salable “pieces” were loaded aboard the ships, and the rest were parcelled out to the colonists. When the fleet reached the colder European waters, about two hundred of the wretched captives died of exposure, and their bodies were thrown into the sea. The survivors were consigned to Juanoto Berardi, Columbus’ Italian business agent in Seville, for sale in the slave market there.
“The ships brought back 500 souls of Indians, men and women all of good age from 12 to 35,” wrote Columbus’ good friend, the historian Andrés Bernáldez. “They came thus to this land as they had been born to their own and with no more embarrassment than if they were wild animals, of which all were sold and this proved to be very bad as they all died, being unfitted for the land.”
Thus the island was “pacified” by favor of the Lord, says Ferdinand in his biography of his father: Two squadrons of infantry assaulted the multitude of Indians, putting them to rout with crossbow shots and guns and before they could rally they attacked with horses and dogs. By these means those cowards fled in every direction and the destruction was so great that in brief time the victory was complete. …
Not only did His Divine Majesty’s hand guide him [Columbus] in achieving the victory but He also imposed such a severe shortage of food and such varied and grave infirmities that the Indians were reduced to a third of the number they had been before, so it is clear that from His divine guidance such a marvelous victory ensued. …
Now an ingenious plan occurred to Columbus for imposing profitable servitude in situ of the entire native population. He decreed that every Indian over fourteen years of age inhabiting the two large areas of Cibao and Vega Real, where gold had been found along the riverbeds, must pay tribute every three months of enough gold dust or grains to fill a hollow cascabel (hawksbell). Those living some distance from the sources of gold would be allowed to substitute an arroba (about twenty-five pounds) of cotton.
To ensure compliance with the order Columbus devised a metal disk to be hung around the neck of each native, showing whether he was up to date with the tribute. Those in arrears were punished; any who rebelled or tried to flee were hunted down and sold into slavery in Castile.
Washington Irving, from whose pen came the most eloquent account of the plight of the unhappy islanders, wrote: In this way was the yoke of servitude fixed upon the island and its thralldom effectually insured. Deep despair now fell on the natives when they found a perpetual task inflicted upon them. … Weak and indolent by nature, unused to labor of any kind and brought up in the untasked idleness of their soft climate and their fruitful groves, death itself seemed preferable to a life of toil and anxiety. They sawno end to this harassing evil which had so suddenly fallen upon them; … no prospect of a return to that roving independence and ample leisure so dear to the wild inhabitants of the forest. The pleasant life of the island was at an end. … They were now obliged to grope day by day with bending body and anxious eye along the borders of their rivers, sifting the sands for the grains of gold which every day grew more scanty; or to labor in the fields beneath the fervour of a tropical sun to raise food for their taskmasters or to produce the vegetable tribute imposed upon them. They sunk to sleep weary and exhausted at night, with the certainty that the next day was to be a repetition of the same toil and suffering. …
Thus by his own authority and in virtual defiance of the mandate that his royal patrons had given him, Columbus established slavery in the New World.