Columbus And Genocide

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So the caravels continued to ply between Espanola and Spain, their holds crowded with miserable cargoes of human cattle. One of the hazards of the traffic was the unfortunate tendency of many of the Indians to die on the way to the slave markets, a circumstance reflected in the higher prices necessary to make a profit out of the survivors.

In one particularly expensive episode Columbus held a fleet of five ships in Santo Domingo Harbor for two and a half weeks beyond sailing time while he negotiated an agreement with a rebel hidalgo named Francisco Roldán. The holds were crammed with slaves to the point of suffocation. Under the hot tropical sun, with the hatchways closed, “unable to breathe, from anguish and the closeness of their quarters, they smothered and an infinite number of these Indians perished,” reported Father Las Casas, “and their bodies were thrown into the sea downstream.”

 

Columbus wrote Roldán to hurry up with his signature on the agreement “because I have detained the ships 18 days beyond their schedule and would detain them longer except for the Indians which they carry were a heavy burden and were dying.”

Of course every business has its drawbacks. Columbus could at least congratulate himself that so far the sovereigns had not interfered in his “profitable” enterprise despite their high-sounding instructions about treatment of the Indians. They were willing to accept his word that the steady shipment of slaves were “cannibals” or prisoners taken in “just wars.”

Now he was emboldened to offer a scheme of regular cropping of slaves as part of the New World’s exportable economy, and he wrote the sovereigns: From here one can, in the name of the Holy Trinity, send all the slaves that can be sold of which, if the information I have is correct, they could sell 4,000 and at a minimum value they would be worth 20 millions, and 4,000 quintals of brasil [wood] which would be worth at least as much, at an expense of six millions. It would appear that 40 millions could be realized … if there is no lack of ships which I believe with the aid of the Lord there will not be if once they are filled on this voyage. … Thus there are these slaves and brasil which appear to be a blessed thing and even gold if it pleases The One who giveth it and will give at His pleasure. … Even now the masters and mariners leave rich intending to return and take back slaves at 1500 maravedis [a unit of Castilian currency roughly worth seven tenths of a penny today] the piece and feed them and pay for them out of the first money they collect; and though it is true that many die it need not always be that way; it was this way also with the first of the Negroes and Canarios and there is an advantage in these: that is to say, the Indians are more profitable than the Negroes.

Columbus was, of course, quite unconscious of the bitter irony of invoking the Holy Trinity as underwriter of this sordid proposal. His God was an accommodating deity who adjusted easily to every whim of his ambitious servant.

But the God of Las Casas was of sterner stuff, and a showdown was imminent between the two conceptions of the Heavenly Majesty that would topple Columbus from his high estate and send him back to Spain in irons and disgrace.

“What greater or more supine hard-heartedness and blindness can there be than this?” raged Las Casas in the Historia . And to cap this he says that “in the name of the Holy Trinity he [Columbus] could send all the slaves which could be sold in all the said kingdoms. Many times I believe blindness and corruption infected the Admiral.”

 

The resolution of events that were to engulf Columbus in their tragic wake was not long in coming. His letter to the sovereigns proposing exportation and sale of four thousand slaves went with the fleet of five ships that left Santo Domingo on October 18, 1498. In the same fleet were several hundred colonists returning to Spain and six hundred enslaved Indians. Each returning colonist had been presented with a slave by Columbus as a token of his good will. Two hundred more had been allotted to the masters of the ships to cover the cost of their transportation.

The arrival of the fleet and Columbus’ letter to the sovereigns could not have come at a worse time for him. Complaints of the chaotic and harsh rule of the three Italian brothers—the admiral and Diego had been joined in Santo Domingo by their brother Bartolomé—had been pouring into the royal court with increasing urgency. And indeed, as the historian Angel de Altolaguirre remarked, “the state of misery which reigned in Espanola was demonstrated by lhe fact that Columbus, for his own profit, and to meet the expenses of the colony, found no other means than to sell its inhabitants.”