We have put aside naive notions of Christopher Columbus as the heroic discoverer of the New World, but on Columbus Day and in general we should continue to contemplate the troubling bases and ramifications of Columbus’ voyages.
Columbus’ voyage in 1492 rested on his contractual agreement with the King and Queen of Spain. In return for spices and especially the gold he anticipated finding, Columbus received financing for three small ships and a combined crew of 40 and also promises of ten percent of all profits, the lucrative governorship of any new-found lands, and the title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” Columbus returned from his first voyages with a few spices, gold he had plucked from native peoples’ ear lobes, and 350 newly enslaved men and women. (An additional 250 had died on the sail back to Spain.) The King and Queen were impressed enough to finance a second expedition in 1493 of seventeen ships with 1200 men–including a full cavalry troop and a half-dozen priests. The fleet raided and plundered the Caribbean islands and was followed by subsequent large expeditions under Columbus’ command in 1498 and 1502.
The indigenous peoples of the Caribbean paid the heaviest price for these ventures.
Scholars estimate that Hispaniola, where Columbus maintained his home base, had a population of eight million in 1492. Extraordinary numbers died of European diseases. Thousands more were executed by Columbus and his men when they failed to produce the gold thought to be hidden on the islands. Still others were enslaved and died working the large estates, later known as “encomenda.” Some Arawak Indians committed mass suicide with cassava poison, and others killed their children to “save” them from the Spaniards. By 1496, the population had dropped to four million, and by 1508 the number was down to 100,000. By 1535, the native population was for all purposes extinct. To quote the historian David E. Stannard, “Among all the horrific genocides of the twentieth century against Armenians, Jews, Gypsies, Ibos, Bengalis, Timorese, Ugandans and more, none came close to destroying this many people and this large a percentage of a population.”
It is of course much too late to prosecute Columbus for crimes against humanity, but time remains to reflect on the human cost of various western cultures’ drive for personal and collective profit, sense of cultural and religious superiority, and assumption that the earth is theirs to control and exploit. Even in the present, we can benefit from recognizing the monstrous developments such ideologies and cultural attitudes can cause.