Columbus And Genocide


The sixteenth-century historian Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas—also a great admirer of Columbus—wrote that among the many charges brought by the white residents of Espanola against the admiral was one that “he would not consent to baptism of the Indians whom the friars wished to baptise because he wanted more slaves than Christians; that he made war against the Indians unjustly and made many slaves to be sent to Castile.” And four Catholic missionaries, in separate letters to Cardinal Cisneros, the archbishop of Toledo, accused Columbus and his brothers of actively hindering the efforts of the missionaries to convert the natives to Christianity and furthermore asserted that their cruelty to the Indians was a continual frustration to the friars’ labors in the Lord’s vineyard.

Columbus’ proposal for wholesale enslavement of the natives to meet the economic needs of the new colony not only confirmed the reports the sovereigns had received from other sources but also awakened them for the first time to the real character of his traffic in human beings. And with the awakening came a royal explosion.

“By what authority does the Admiral give my vassals to anyone?” Isabella exclaimed angrily when she learned of the arrival of the returning colonists with their “gift” slaves. She ordered that it be publicly cried in Granada and Seville, where the court then was in residence, that all those who had brought Indians to Castile as a result of Columbus’ largesse return them to freedom in Espanola on pain of death. Las Casas soberly reports that his own father was one of those compelled to surrender slaves.

“I do not know what prompted the Queen with so much anger and severity to order those 300 Indians whom the Admiral had given as slaves, returned,” Las Casas wrote. “… I found no other reason but that, until this latest arrival, I believe the Queen, because of erroneous information which the Admiral sent to the Sovereigns, supposed they were taken in a just war.”

By royal decree from Seville, dated June 20, 1500, the few surviving Indian slaves in Castile—most of the expatriated captives had died—were ordered collected and delivered into custody of Cardinal Cisneros, to be freed and returned to their homeland.

Columbus’ downfall, harsh and humiliating, came within weeks of this decree. The sovereigns summarily removed him from his high estate of viceroy and governor of the New-World colonies and appointed the commendador (commander) Francisco de Bobadilla as his successor. In what many historians regard as an excess of zeal, Bobadilla sent Columbus and his two brothers back to Castile in chains. The sovereigns ordered the brothers released and authorized a fourth voyage by Columbus, but mandated that he never set foot on Española again.


It remained for Father Las Casas to draw the obvious moral: God, who is a just judge, afflicted and cast him down in this life, he and his brothers. I hold it for a certainty that if he had not been impeded by the great adversity to which he came in the end for unjustly and tyrannically making slaves of these people … he would have ended in a very little time in consuming all the people of this island. …

But the sovereigns’ intervention came too late to save the Arawak people. The tragic sequence of events that began on that November day of 1492, one month after the Discovery, had to be played out to the bitter end. “So that with the slaughter from the wars and the hunger and illnesses that resulted from them … with so much sorrow, anguish and sadness, there did not remain of the multitudes of people which were in this island from the year ’94 to ’06 … but a third,” Las Casas wrote. “Great harvest and accomplished in sufficiently short time,” he added acidly.

Today the Arawak community of peoples, those “innocents” of Father Las Casas, who once inhabited in such numbers the larger islands of the Caribbean and who welcomed the white men to the New World, has vanished from the West Indies.

“The race perished,” said Charles Kendall Adams, late president of Cornell University, “and may be said to have left only a single word as monument. The Spaniards took from them the word ‘hammock’ and gave it to all the languages of Western Europe.”