Monday, October 12, 2009

What exactly was discovered?

On this day in October, some 517 years ago, ships captained by an Italian explorer who sailed for the Spanish crown caught sight of land after two months at sea. As they approached in boats the shore of what is now believed to be an island in the Bahamas, the native peoples -- Arawak Indians -- came out to greet their guests. A couple days later, Christopher Columbus wrote to the Spanish king:
They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language...I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.
Columbus and his men then set out to find gold, but there was almost none to be had. He did kidnap and bring 25 natives with him when he returned to Spain (though no more than eight survived the trip) and, quite likely, he and his men brought syphilis back to the Old World as well.

On his second trip to the Caribbean, Columbus spent time in Cuba, where he oversaw the murder and enslavement of the Taino people. Tens of thousands were apparently butchered and many of the rest sent back to Europe as slaves. Some committed suicide -- and killed their own children -- rather than get captured. European diseases, especially smallpox, eventually took the rest. Columbus later wrote:
From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold...
On his third voyage, Columbus took along a young priest named Bartolome de las Casas, who would write of what he witnessed:
...in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile... was depopulated ... My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write...
Christopher Columbus, whom we laud today with a federal holiday, was a brilliant navigator and self-marketer. He was the first European to land in what became the Americas since Leif Ericson and other Icelanders settled in eastern Canada around 1000 AD, and Columbus is certainly an historical figure of great import.

However, he did bring with him -- and personally took part in -- a wave of violence, greed and genocide that swept over the New World. That part of the story should not be sanitized when we read, and teach, history. It may be unpleasant to acknowledge, but it is the truth.

7 comments:

Mary said...

Good job, Jim. One of the things I like most about your blog is that you don't engage in revisionist history, such as we were taught in grammar school, high school and, sadly, college.

Michael said...

Reconsider columbus day

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=il5hwpdJMcg

dylan said...

Hail, Columbus, dead white male!

Seriously, I think there are some persons who are angrier about the Christianity that Columbus brought to the New World than they are about the possible-probable contagion of syphilis!

And no, class, the native peoples of this continent were not immaculately conceived. A catalogue of their brutalities (starting with the martyrdom of St Isaac Jogues and his companions) would fill reams.

Can't wait to read your Thanksgiving post! :-)

Jim said...

I welcome the responses, but to be sure: I never said that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were peaceful or that their ways of life were without flaw. I just stated facts and quoted primary sources.

Anonymous said...

Jimbo...FYI the Island is known as San Salvador Island, which is indeed located in the Bahamas.

Anonymous said...

Jim Hates all Italians. I think he is Irish.

Anonymous said...

I think you are a self loathing German.