Christopher Columbus has been presented to many children in our schools as a brave explorer who "discovered" America, as if those indigenous natives on the Caribbean Island in the Bahama's, called the Taino, had no history or culture of their own. Many American cities have re-evaluated Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous People's Day as more appropriate when the true history of exploitation, enslavement, and torture unfolded. The native Taino people of the island were systematically enslaved via the encomienda system implemented by Columbus, which resembled a feudal system in Medieval Europe.
Disease played a significant role in the destruction of the natives; however there is no record of any massive smallpox epidemic in the Antilles until 25 years after the arrival of Columbus. The truth is the natives' numbers declined due to extreme overwork, other diseases, and a loss of will to live after the destruction of their culture by the invaders. When the first pandemic finally struck in 1519 it wiped out much of the remaining native population. According to the historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes by 1548, 56 years after Columbus landed, fewer than five hundred Taino were left on the island.
Columbus' treatment of the Hispaniola natives was even worse as his soldiers raped, killed, and enslaved them with impunity at every landing. When Columbus fell ill in 1495, soldiers were reported to have gone on a rampage, slaughtering 50,000 natives. Upon his recovery, Columbus organized his troops' efforts, forming a squadron of several hundred heavily armed men and more than twenty attack dogs. The men tore across the land, killing thousands of sick and unarmed natives. Soldiers would use their captives for sword practice, attempting to decapitate them or cut them in half with a single blow.
Howard Zinn writes that Columbus spearheaded a massive slave trade. For example, in 1495 his men captured in a single raid 1500 Arawak men, women, and children. When he shipped five hundred of the slaves to Spain, 40% died en route.Historian James W. Loewen asserts "Columbus not only sent the first slaves across the Atlantic, he probably sent more slaves – about five thousand – than any other individual... other nations rushed to emulate Columbus." When slaves held in captivity began to die at high rates, Columbus switched to a different system of forced labor. He ordered all natives over the age of thirteen to collect a specified amount (one hawk's bell full) of gold powder every three months. Natives who brought the amount were given a copper token to hang around their necks, and those found without tokens had their hands amputated and were left to bleed to death.
The Arawaks attempted to fight back against Columbus's men but lacked their armor, guns, swords, and horses. When taken prisoner, they were hanged or burned to death. Desperation led to mass suicides and infanticide among the natives. In just two years under Columbus' governorship more than half of the 250,000 Arawaks in Haiti were dead.The main cause for the depopulation was disease followed by other causes such as warfare and harsh enslavement.
Samuel Eliot Morison, a Harvard historian and author of a multi-volume biography on Columbus writes, "The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide." Loewen laments that while "Haiti under the Spanish is one of the primary instances of genocide in all human history", only one major history text he reviewed mentions Columbus' role in it.There is evidence that the men of the first voyage also brought syphilis from the New World to Europe. Many of the crew members who served on this voyage later joined the army of King Charles VIII in his invasion of Italy in 1495. After the victory, Charles' largely mercenary army returned to their respective homes, thereby spreading "the Great Pox" across Europe and triggering the deaths of more than five million people.
Columbus was involved heavily in the Sex Slave business. On his way back to Spain to stand trial for accusations of abuse of Spaniard colonists, he wrote a letter to the nurse of the son of Ferdinand and Isabella, pleading his case. Among it he wrote:
"Now that so much gold is found, a dispute arises as to which brings more profit, whether to go about robbing or to go to the mines. A hundred castellanos are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid."
No wonder after learning of these revelations many cities have changed Columbus Day into Indigenous People's Day.The idea of replacing Columbus Day with a day celebrating the indigenous people of North America first arose in 1977 from the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, sponsored by the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.At the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance in Quito, Ecuador, in July 1990, representatives of Indian groups throughout the Americas agreed that they would mark 1992, the 500th anniversary of the first of the voyages of Christopher Columbus, as a day to promote "continental unity" and "liberation."
After the conference, attendees from Northern California organized to plan protests against the "Quincentennial Jubilee" that had been organized by the United States Congress for the San Francisco Bay Area on Columbus Day, 1992, to include, among other things, sailing replicas of Columbus' ships under the Golden Gate Bridge and reenacting their "discovery" of America. The delegates formed the Bay Area Indian Alliance, and, in turn, the "Resistance 500" task force,which advocated the notion that Columbus was responsible for genocide of indigenous people.
In 1992, the group convinced the city council of Berkeley, California, to declare October 12, a "Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People", and 1992 the "Year of Indigenous People", and to implement related programs in schools, libraries, and museums. The city symbolically renamed Columbus Day to "Indigenous Peoples' Day" beginning in 1992 to protest the historical conquest of North America by Europeans, and to call attention to the demise of Native Americanpeople and culture through disease, warfare, massacre, and forced assimilation. Performances were scheduled that day for Get Lost (Again) Columbus, an opera by a Native-American composer. Berkeley has celebrated Indigenous Peoples' Day ever since.Beginning in 1993, Berkeley has held an annual pow wow and festival on the day
In the years after Berkeley's move, other local governments and institutions have either renamed or canceled Columbus Day, either to celebrate Native Americans, to avoid celebrating actions of Columbus that led to the colonization of America by Spanish conquistadors, or due to controversy over the legacy of Columbus.Two other California cities, Sebastopol and Santa Cruz, now celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day.
This Fourth of July we should read Professor Paul Finkelman's excellent article after many incidents of recent racial hatred, gun violence, and President Obama's eulogy at Charleston, S.C. for the victims of another senseless racially motivated killing at a Bible study inside a sanctuary. It had been the target of racists before. We might look at the third president of our country and see where some of these roots derive from despite the traditional reverence accorded to Jefferson because of his role in writing the Declaration of Independence. Even the flag of the confederacy has provoked many to act to bring it down or request that governors consider that. Obama mentioned in his eulogy bringing it down would not be an act of political correctness, nor would it detract from those who fought in the civil war, but rather that the purpose the South fought to preserve slavery was wrong. Perhaps now we can face the need to make it harder to put guns into the hands of people not fit to handle a gun. Here are some sobering thoughts on one of our national heroes who was a slaveholder when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. You may be surprised to find his behavior fell far short of what we now expect of our leaders, yet in his time, and even now, he was, and is, revered for his passionate embrace of independence and the American Revolution.
By PAUL FINKELMAN NOV. 30, 2012
THOMAS JEFFERSON is in the news again, nearly 200 years after his death — alongside a high-profile biography by the journalist Jon Meacham comes a damning portrait of the third president by the independent scholar Henry Wiencek.
We are endlessly fascinated with Jefferson, in part because we seem unable to reconcile the rhetoric of liberty in his writing with the reality of his slave owning and his lifetime support for slavery. Time and again, we play down the latter in favor of the former, or write off the paradox as somehow indicative of his complex depths.
Neither Mr. Meacham, who mostly ignores Jefferson’s slave ownership, nor Mr. Wiencek, who sees him as a sort of fallen angel who comes to slavery only after discovering how profitable it could be, seem willing to confront the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite.
Contrary to Mr. Wiencek’s depiction, Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.
There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.
But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.
Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.
Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.
Jefferson also dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote racial equality. As a state legislator he blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.
As president he acquired the Louisiana Territory but did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into that vast “empire of liberty.” Jefferson told his neighbor Edward Coles not to emancipate his own slaves, because free blacks were “pests in society” who were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” And while he wrote a friend that he sold slaves only as punishment or to unite families, he sold at least 85 humans in a 10-year period to raise cash to buy wine, art and other luxury goods.
Destroying families didn’t bother Jefferson, because he believed blacks lacked basic human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”
Jefferson claimed he had “never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” or poetry among blacks and argued that blacks’ ability to “reason” was “much inferior” to whites’, while “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” He conceded that blacks were brave, but this was because of “a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”
A scientist, Jefferson nevertheless speculated that blackness might come “from the color of the blood” and concluded that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”
Jefferson did worry about the future of slavery, but not out of moral qualms. After reading about the slave revolts in Haiti, Jefferson wrote to a friend that “if something is not done and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” But he never said what that “something” should be.
In 1820 Jefferson was shocked by the heated arguments over slavery during the debate over the Missouri Compromise. He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to “perpetrate” an “act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”
If there was “treason against the hopes of the world,” it was perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation on the road to liberty for all. No one bore a greater responsibility for that failure than the master of Monticello.
Paul Finkelman, a visiting professor in legal history at Duke Law School, is a professor at Albany Law School and the author of “Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson.”