Thursday, October 8, 2015

Happy Columbus Day, Part 1.

In this set of two essays I explain why we should hate Christopher Columbus rather than revere him, and why the celebration of Columbus Day is an insult to all human decency.

First, about Columbus. I have used William Least Heat-Moon’s book Columbus in the Americas as the immediate source of this information, but have confirmed much of it elsewhere. Christopher Columbus made the first European contact with Native Americans on October 12, 1492. It was, from the very start, genocide. Here are the reasons.

Columbus’ deep motives. Christopher Columbus seemed fascinated by his first encounter with what he insisted all his life was India. It seemed like a Garden of Eden to him, and he wrote glowingly about the sweetness of the flowers, which is something that single-minded conquistadors do not generally do. He also admired the Tainos, the Natives who lived in the vicinity of his first landfall. He marveled at their friendliness and their willingness to give him gifts, which further enhanced the image of a Garden of Eden. This does not sound like the writings of a man whose immediate thought was to kill them. He also admired some of their technology, most notably hammocks and canoes (the latter word coming from the Taino language). Perhaps most significantly, the Tainos showed great empathy and energy when they helped Columbus and his men gather up the wreckage of the Santa Maria to use for constructing the first European city in the New World, La Navidad.

But, right from the start, Columbus did have the subjugation of the Tainos in mind. From his very first encounter with them, he wrote that they would make good servants for the Spaniards, and he speculated that fifty armed Spaniards could easily conquer them. Therefore he immediately began thinking of them as resources, not persons. And it was not merely the gold and servitude that they could provide to the Spaniards that fascinated Columbus. He noted glowingly that most of the women were entirely naked. Historians concede that, were it not for Tainos sharing their food, all the Spaniards would have starved. Columbus noted, “They love their neighbors as themselves,” but rather than reflecting on how much more Christian the Taino behavior was than the behavior of the Spaniards, he seems to have considered this evidence that they were ripe for easy enslavement.

And while Columbus himself apparently did not go around raping and pillaging, he was certainly complicit in these actions. One of his men was a childhood friend, Michele de Cuneo, whom Columbus allowed to capture a Native woman. Apparently she was Carib, rather than a compliant Taino, and she screamed and scratched when de Cuneo tried to rape her in his room. De Cuneo beat her with ropes until she complied. Once she complied, she might have thought that she could get more resources from de Cuneo by pleasing him, and, in de Cuneo’s words from a letter he wrote home, “She seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots.”

Was Columbus’ motivation to establish a colony for Spain? No, it could not have been. Even with his fourth and final voyage, there was no pre-planning for agriculture. A few colonists came, but the people were overwhelmingly men who wanted gold and slaves. The cities that Columbus and his men established were called “trading posts” precisely because of this objective. The entire motivation was rapine and plunder. Colonization came later, after the Natives were slaughtered and, for some tribes, sent into extinction.

Columbus’ actions. While Columbus seems to have made sincere efforts on his first voyage to create goodwill and cooperation with the Natives, his motivation seems to have entirely disappeared by his second voyage. He used war dogs to kill resistant Tainos, and captured as many Tainos as he could. He sent 500 Tainos to the Seville slave market under cramped fetid conditions that most people associate only with the African slave trade. He gave another 500 Tainos to his men for whatever use they desired to make of them. And he allowed about 500 to flee into the mountains.

And Columbus was extremely brutal in his punishments. A Native caught pilfering could have his ears cut off or be beheaded. But the most horrifying example of Columbus’ cruelty is the story I am about to relate. If you have a sensitive stomach, stop reading now. As a matter of fact, if you have a sensitive stomach, you have no business learning anything at all about the realities of history. You should just spend your time fantasizing about what a blessing the whites have been to the rest of the world.

Columbus required each Taino male over 13 years of age to bring in a hawk’s-bell volume of gold each three months. Those who failed to do so had one of their hands cut off.

Think about that. Columbus must have intended this as torture and terrorism. Cutting a man’s hand off will not make him better able to gather gold. You would have to be fucking stupid to believe that. Columbus was not stupid. He knew what he was doing. I can only conclude that Columbus, perhaps slightly less so than his men, got a sensual thrill out of torturing Natives.

The net result of Columbus’ direct and indirect actions was, according to his son Ferdinand, that a Spaniard could go anywhere on Hispaniola that he desired and take all the food and women he wanted, without fear of danger. And the effect on the population of Natives was predictable, not only because Spaniards killed them but because the natives killed themselves out of despair. The basic food of these Natives was cassava, which has to be processed to remove bitter poison. Many Natives drank the poison rather than to become slaves. Also, in one case on a later voyage, when Natives were locked into a slave hold on a ship, they found ropes and hung themselves, even though there was not enough headroom to do this: they had to hold up their knees while the ropes suffocated them. Here are the population figures for Natives on Hispaniola:

                        1492                300,000
                        1496                200,000
                        1508                60,000
                        1548                500
                        Before 1600    Extinct

Columbus’ binary classification. Columbus classified everyone into two categories: the Europeans, whom God was blessing, and the “Indians,” whom God was delivering into the hands of Europeans. He noted, but gave no importance to, the differences among tribes.

The main distinction Columbus saw right away was between Tainos and Caribs. The Caribs were cannibals who preyed upon the Tainos. The Caribs would capture Taino women and children. They would caponize the boys (cutting off their genitals) so that they would grow up tender. But they would impregnate the women in order to produce the ultimate Carib delicacy: roast baby. In at least one instance, Columbus rescued Tainos from Carib captivity. Once his men captured a naked Taino woman, but Columbus ordered her sent back (clothed) to her tribe as an act of goodwill. (The fact that the Caribs were evil people does not make their enslavement and eradication justified.) Native Americans had as much diversity as Europeans. But in the end Columbus, despite his initial admiration of the Tainos, treated all natives the same; it was Taino captives whom he sent to the Seville slave market.

Spain’s motives. Even though Columbus appeared to have a streak of decency, Spain did not. Ferdinand and Isabella barely gave Columbus enough resources to launch his first voyage, because they were skeptical of his prospects. But they richly endowed his second voyage with lots of ships and resources. The reason was that Columbus had proven to them that “India” was a promising source of gold and slaves. There appears to have been very few resources dedicated to starting up an agricultural economy and a self-sustaining Spanish colony. The Spanish cities, of which only Santo Domingo continues to exist, were meant as places for gathering slaves and gold. Had it been otherwise, the ships of the second voyage would have been provisioned differently. The main nonhuman animals on the ships were war dogs, which the Spaniards could unleash on Natives to kill them. Incidentally, the money to fund the second voyage came from resources taken from the recently-expelled Jews.

It didn’t take long for the Natives to resist. Before returning to Spain on his first voyage, Columbus established La Navidad. When he returned he found it had been destroyed. He discovered the reason for it: the Spaniards had raided Taino villages and stolen women as sexual slaves; each Spaniard had four or five sex slaves.

Another aspect of the Columbus story that is interesting to scientists is that Columbus used a method often called “cherry-picking” to prove that he had, indeed, reached Asia. He ignored all contrary evidence. And he grabbed at any shred of evidence that could be construed to prove he was in Asia. He assumed that one Taino place name was a variant of Mangi, a province in China. And when he heard of a tribe whose leader wore a white tunic, he assumed this man was a descendant of Prester John. But Columbus went beyond this. He forced all his men to sign a deposition stating that they were, in fact, in Asia; and the punishment for a man saying that they were not in Asia was that his tongue would be cut out. This was Columbus’ scientific method of determining truth.

Next entry: how conservatives sanitize and sanctify Columbus.

No comments:

Post a Comment