Happy Columbus Day

Links for Columbus Day. First, who was the first to spot land after a long arduous voyage?

Between the evening of October 11 and the morning of October 12, a sailor on the Pinta named Juan Rodriguez Bermejo called out, “Land, land!” Isabella had offered a reward to the first person to sight land. However, Columbus said that he had seen a flickering light hours earlier, and he claimed the reward.

An excerpt from Columbus’ log after meeting the indigenous people of the West Indies (Arawaks):

“They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned . . . they do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance . . .. Their spears are made of cane . . . they would make fine servants . . .. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

And of course, Howard Zinn’s essay, “Columbus and Western Civilization

Yes, this was how Columbus saw the Indians–not as hospitable hosts, but “servants,” to “do whatever we want.”

And what did Columbus want? This is not hard to determine. In the first two weeks of journal entries, there is one word that recurs seventy-five times: GOLD.

In the standard accounts of Columbus what is emphasized again and again is his religious feeling, his desire to convert the natives to Christianity, his reverence for the Bible. Yes, he was concerned about God. But more about Gold. Just one additional letter. His was a limited alphabet. Yes, all over the islands of Hispaniola, where he, his brothers, his men, spent most of their time, he erected crosses. But also, all over the island, they built gallows–340 of them by the year 1500. Crosses and gallows–that deadly historic juxtaposition.

In his quest for gold, Columbus, seeing bits of gold among the Indians, concluded there were huge amounts of it. He ordered the natives to find a certain amount of gold within a certain period of time. And if they did not meet their quota, their arms were hacked off. The others were to learn from this and deliver the gold.

Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian who was Columbus’ admiring biographer, acknowledged this. He wrote: “Whoever thought up this ghastly system, Columbus was responsible for it, as the only means of producing gold for export…. Those who fled to the mountains were hunted with hounds, and those who escaped, starvation and disease took toll, while thousands of poor creatures in desperation took cassava poison to end their miseries.”

Morison continues: “So the policy and acts of Columbus for which he alone was responsible began the depopulation of the terrestrial paradise that was Hispaniola in 1492. Of the original natives, estimated by modern ethnologist at 300,000 in number, one-third were killed off between 1494 and 1496. By 1508, an enumeration showed only 60,000 alive…in 1548 Oviedo (Morison is referring to Fernandex de Oviedo, the official Spanish historian of conquest) doubted whether 500 Indians remained.

But Columbus could not obtain enough gold to send home to impress the King and Queen and his Spanish financiers, so he decided to send back to Spain another kind of loot: slaves. They rounded up about 1200 natives, selected 500, and these were sent, jammed together, on the voyage across the Atlantic. Two hundred died on the way, of cold, of sickness.

In Columbus’ journal, an entry of September 1498 reads: “From here one might send, in the name of Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold…”