Some believe we should celebrate Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America. Lost and utterly confused about where he was, Columbus thought he had landed on the South Asian subcontinent of India. Hence, it appears, he called the people he saw “los indios.”
While Columbus made no real discovery, he was under immense pressure to bring back wealth. His main supporters, the Spanish royals Ferdinand and Isabella, were nearly bankrupt from recent military adventures. Backed up by the Pope’s Law of Discovery, in four successive voyages Columbus claimed all he saw in the name of the Spanish monarchy. He claimed the land, the resources and the people of the “New World.”
This colossally presumptuous act was directly followed by some of humanity’s greatest crimes. After being greeted with gifts and kindness by the welcoming Tainos/Arawaks, Columbus famously recorded in his journal, “They do not bear arms and do not know them…They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”(1,2)
Columbus sought slaves. He captured 1500 Taino/Arawaks and sent 500 of the best physical specimens back to be sold as slaves in Seville. Two hundred died en route. He put the remaining captives to work as slaves in the mines and plantations established by his men. Any resistance was met with summary mass executions.
In this way Columbus initiated not only the genocide of the First Nations but also the Trans Atlantic slave trade, which soon started a similar genocidal destruction of the African people. Untold millions of Indians were killed by European diseases and by the wanton murders of all who resisted. Abduction, transport and enslavement wantonly killed millions of Africans.
Columbus’s was also preoccupied with finding gold. Indians who failed to bring the amount of gold demanded had their arms cut off and allowed to bleed to death.
This toxic brew of insatiable greed and murder marked the arrival of the modern capitalist world system on the shores of the “New World.”
Columbus’s landings began several trends that continue to poison the US to this day: the racist contempt that underlies US government behavior, both domestic and foreign. The US government incarcerates people of color at far higher rates than it does “whites.” The so-called War on Drugs is actually a war on poor people, especially people of color. And the US government – from all 2 political parties – typically lectures the darker nations of the world on the true meaning of democracy as it declares war on them, invades their lands and forcibly seizes their resources.
This is not a legacy we should celebrate. To change the world today we need to understand how it developed and how our current problems arose. Understanding and exposing Columbus’s legacy is a vital part of any movement for social transformation in America.
- Weatherford, Jack: Examining the reputation of Christopher Columbus http://alturl.com/rqhvv
- Zinn, Howard: A People’s History of the United States excerpt at: http://www.historyisaweapon.com
- Alexander, Michelle: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New Press, 2010.