COLUMBUS, THE INDIANS, AND HUMAN PROGRESS
A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
COLUMBUS, THE INDIANS, AND HUMAN PROGRESS
Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged
from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get
a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his
sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks
ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later
wrote of this in his log:
"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 were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features....
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. They have no iron. 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."
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the
mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say
again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing.
These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance,
dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of
kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and
its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.
"As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I
found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they
might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in
The information Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? He
had persuaded the king and queen of Spain to finance an
expedition to the lands, the wealth, he expected would be on the
other side of the Atlantic -- the Indies and Asia, gold and
spices. For like other informed people of his time, he knew the
world was round and he could sail west in order to get to the Far
Spain was recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states,
like France, England, and Portugal. Its population, mostly poor
peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent of the
population and owned 95 percent of the land. Spain had tied
itself to the Catholic Church, expelled all the Jews, driven out
the Moors. Like other states of the modern world, Spain sought
gold, which was becoming the new mark of wealth, more useful than
land because it could buy anything.
There was gold in Asia, it was thought, and certainly silks and
spices, for Marco Polo and others had brought back marvelous
things from their overland expeditions centuries before. Now that
the Turks had conquered Constantinople and the eastern
Mediterranean, and controlled the land routes to Asia, a sea
route was needed. Portuguese sailors were working their way
around the southern tip of Africa. Spain decided to gamble on a
long sail across an unknown ocean.
In return for bringing back gold and spices, they promised
Columbus 10 percent of the profits, governorship over new-found
lands, and the fame that would go with a new title: Admiral of
the Ocean Sea. He was a merchant's clerk from the Italian city of
Genoa, part-time weaver (the son of a skilled weaver), and expert
sailor. He set out with three sailing ships, the largest of which
was the Santa Maria, perhaps 100 feet long, and thirty-nine crew
Columbus would never have made it to Asia, which was thousands of
miles farther away than he had calculated, imagining a smaller
world. He would have been doomed by that great expanse of sea.
But he was lucky. One-fourth of the way there he came upon an
unknown, uncharted land that lay between Europe and Asia --- the
Americas. It was early October 1492, and thirty-three days since
he and his crew had left the Canary Islands, off the Atlantic
coast of Africa. Now they saw branches and sticks floating in the
water. They saw flocks of birds. These were signs of land. Then,
on October 12, a sailor called Rodrigo saw the early morning moon
shining on white sands, and cried out. It was an island in the
Bahamas, the Caribbean sea. The first man to sight land was
supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for
life, but Rodrigo never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a
light the evening before. He got the reward.
So, approaching land, they were met by the Arawak Indians, who
swam out to greet them. The Arawaks lived in village communes,
had a developed agriculture of corn, yams, cassava. They could
spin and weave, but they bad no horses or work animals. They had
no iron, but they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears.
This was to have enormous consequences: it led Columbus to take
some of them aboard ship as prisoners because he insisted that
they guide him to the source of the gold. He then sailed to what
is now Cuba, then to Hispaniola (the island which today consists
of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). There, bits of visible gold
in the rivers, and a gold mask presented to Columbus by a local
Indian chief, led to wild visions of gold fields.
On Hispaniola, out of timbers from the Santa Maria, which had run
aground, Columbus built a fort, the first European military base
in the Western Hemisphere. He called it Navidad (Christmas) and
left thirty-nine crew members there, with instructions to find and
store the gold. He took more Indian prisoners and put them aboard
his two remaining ships. At one part of the island he got into a
fight with Indians who refused to trade as many bows and arrows
as he and his men wanted. Two were run through with swords and
bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the
Azores and Spain. When the weather turned cold, the Indian
prisoners began to die.
Columbus's report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He
insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the
coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact,
"Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and
pastures, are both fertile and beautiful ... the harbors are
unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the
majority contain gold ...
There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other
The Indians, Columbus reported, "are so naive and so free with
their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would
believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say
no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone...." He
concluded his report by asking for a little help from their
Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage
"as much gold as they need ... and as many slaves as they ask."
He was full of religious talk: "Thus the eternal God, our Lord,
gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent
Because of Columbus's exaggerated report and promises, his
second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve
hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from
island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives.
But as word spread of the Europeans' intent they found more and
more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left
behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the
Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for
gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.
Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after
expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had
to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of
dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid,
rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put
them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five
hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred,
two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and
were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported
that, although the slaves were "naked as the day they were born,"
they showed "no more embarrassment than animals." Columbus later
wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all
the slaves that can be sold."
But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus,
desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to
make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the
province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge
gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or
older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months.
When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang
around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had
their hands cut off and bled to death.
The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold
around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled,
were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.
Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced
Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the
Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to
death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava
poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In
two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the
250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.
When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians
were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as
encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the
thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand
Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the
year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants
left on the island. The chief source --- and, on many matters the
only source of information --- about what happened on the islands
after Columbus came is Bartolome' de las Casas, who, as a young
priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time he owned
a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up
and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. Las Casas
transcribed Columbus's journal and, in his fifties, began a
multivolume History of the Indies. In it, he describes the
Indians. They are agile, he says, and can swim long distances,
especially the women. They are not completely peaceful, because
they do battle from time to time with other tribes, but their
casualties seem small, and they fight when they are individually
moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of
captains or kings.
Women in Indian society were treated so well as to startle the
Spaniards. Las Casas describes sex relations:
"Marriage laws are non-existent: men and women alike choose their
mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or
anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to
the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next
day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as
before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they give
themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering
their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the
whole, Indian men and women look upon total nakedness with as
much casualness as we look upon a man's head or at his hands."
The Indians, Las Casas says, have no religion, at least no
"They live in large communal bell-shaped buildings,
housing up to 600 people at one time ... made of very strong
wood and roofed with palm leaves .... They prize bird feathers
of various colors, beads made of fishbones, and green and white
stones with which they adorn their ears and lips, but they put no
value on gold and other precious things. They lack all manner of
commerce, neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on
their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely
generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the
possessions of their friends and expect the same degree of
In Book Two of his History of the Indies, Las Casas (who at first
urged replacing Indians by black slaves, thinking they were
stronger and would survive, but later relented when he saw the
effects on blacks) tells about the treatment of the Indians by
the Spaniards. It is a unique account and deserves to be quoted
"Endless testimonies ... prove the mild and pacific temperament
of the natives. . - . But our work was to exasperate, ravage,
kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to
kill one of us now and then.... The admiral, it is true, was
blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to
please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the
Las Casas tells how the Spaniards "grew more conceited every day"
and after a while refused to walk any distance. They "rode the
backs of Indians if they were in a hurry" or were carried on
hammocks by Indians running in relays. "In this case they also
had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and
others to fan them with goose wings."
Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards "thought
nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting
slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." Las Casas
tells how "two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys
one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for
fun beheaded the boys."
The Indians' attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they
ran off into the hills they were found and killed. So, Las Casas
reports, "they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in
desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they
could turn for help." He describes their work in the mines:
"...mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to
top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and
carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those
who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs
bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the
mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by
scooping up pansfull of water and throwing it up outside...."
After each six or eight months' work in the mines, which was the
time required of each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to
a third of the men died.
While the men were sent many miles away to the mines, the wives
remained to work the soil, forced into the excruciating job of
digging and making thousands of hills for cassava plants.
"Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or
ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed
on both sides ...they ceased to procreate. As for the newly
born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and
famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I
was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers
even drowned their babies from sheer desperation.... In this
way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children
died from lack of milk and 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...."
When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, "there
were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians;
so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished
from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will
believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness
can hardly believe it .... "
Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European
invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That
beginning, when you read Las Casas -- even if his figures are
exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he
says, or 250,000, as modern historians calculate? -- is conquest,
slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children
in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure---there
is no bloodshed---and Columbus Day is a celebration.
Doug Graham [email protected] My opinions are my own.