Buckle up, folks, because here’s another long post. This time, about Christopher Columbus and Trump’s latest proclamation, trying to put Columbus back atop a flawed pedestal.
On October 9th, Trump issued “Proclamation on Columbus Day, 2020,” wherein he says:
“Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister.”1
I wonder if Trump realizes that when he says “radical activists,” he’s referring to written historical documents and evidence clearly laying out that Columbus’s legacy is one of genocide, rape, kidnapping, and slavery. In reality, us “radical activists” are shining light on this “great Italian,” to use Trump’s words of admiration, and what he did to the peoples and lands he “discovered.”
First off, let’s set the stage for how the Spanish explorers typically handled new peoples they encountered for the first time.
Europeans in Columbus’s time were fanatical about spreading the good word of Jesus and Christianity to everybody they could. So when Spanish explorers came across a new tribe of peoples who were unknown to them, they would read what they referred to as “the Requirement” to these new people. One version recorded by history reads as follows:
“I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make ware everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves. The deaths and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that company me.” 2
Oh, teensy important note on the reading of the Requirement. It was read to these new people in Spanish, which as you could imagine, sounded like gibberish to tribes of native peoples who had their own dialect and zero experience with Europeans, let alone, the Spanish language.
In 1492 when Columbus “discovered” the Americas, which he thought was India, the first people he observed turned out to be those of the Arawak tribe, which apparently inhabited most of the islands in the Caribbean.
Columbus wrote in his journal, on October 13, 1492, saying in closing, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.” And he set out to do just that on his second voyage (more on this in a moment). Before setting sail back to Spain at the end of his first voyage, he kidnapped roughly 10-30 natives and took them back to Spain. Only 7 or 8 of his victims survived the voyage and arrived on Spanish shores alive.
Columbus was rewarded for his exploration and the kidnappings by being provided with another 17 ships, plus upwards of 1,500 men, weapons, cavalry, and attack dogs for a second voyage, by Ferdinand and Isabella.
During his second voyage in 1493 to what is now Haiti, Columbus demanded whatever the natives had that he wanted (i.e.: gold, spun cotton, food, etc.), including demanding sex with native women (read: raping native women). Any Arawaks who refused were punished. Columbus also made examples of any natives who committed even minor offenses by cutting off their ears and/or noses then sent them back to their villages to serve as examples of what happens if you don’t give the Spanish what they want.
As one can imagine, the natives got tired of this treatment and attempted to rebel by doing what they could – refusing to plant crops and growing food which they knew the Spanish would just steal from them. This gave Columbus an excuse to wage war on the Arawaks.
Columbus’s own son, Ferdinand Columbus, wrote in the biography of his father, describing the battle(s):
“The soldiers mowed down dozens with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and with God’s aid soon gained a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed.”
One of the goals of Columbus’s second voyage was to return with much of Haiti’s rumored gold, to give to Spain. Mining the gold prosed a problem for Columbus who came up with a solution, so as to not return to Spain empty handed: slaves. Columbus and the Spanish rounded up 1,500 Arawaks. Through some means of evaluation, 500 Arawaks were deemed the best specimens, and were stolen from their homeland and brought back to Spain (200 of which died en route). Another 500 were taken as slaves by the Spaniards staying behind in Haiti. The remaining 1,000 Arawaks were supposedly released.
Columbus also implemented a system of tributes where natives were required to pay tributes to the Spanish every three months. When a tribute was paid, the individual would be given a bass or copper token which must be worn around their neck to indicate they were safe (for lack of a better term) for three months. If a native person was caught without a token, they were punished by having their hands cut off.
Other forms of domination of the natives by Columbus and the Spanish included being forced to carry the Spanish wherever they went and forcing the “Indians” to work in the gold mines to provide riches for Spain instead of being able to tend to their crops, which lead to widespread malnutrition among the Arawaks since there was not enough food left behind once the Spaniards took what they wanted.
A man named Pedro de Cordoba wrote in a letter to King Ferdinand in 1517, “As a result of the sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians choose and have chosen suicide. Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide. The women, exhausted by labor, have shunned conception and childbirth…Many, when pregnant, have taken something to abort and have aborted. Others after delivery have killed their children with their own hands, so as not to leave them in such oppressive slavery.” 3
To put the genocide of the indigenous peoples who fell victim to Columbus’s “discovery” into a different perspective, consider this:
“Estimates of Haiti’s pre-Columbian population range as high as 8,000,000 people.” (Source: James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me). Benjamin Keen wrote, “thanks to the sinister Indian slave trade and labor policies initiated by Columbus, only some 12,000 remained,” (Source: Benjamin Keen, “Black Legend,” in The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia) and Las Casas states that fewer than 200 “Indians” were alive in 1542 and that by 1555, they were all gone. 4
It makes sense why Trump said what he did in his proclamation, “These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions.” Because Donald Trump is a man who desperately wants to go down in history as a great man, a brilliant man, and a savior of America.
Donald Trump wants us to talk of Columbus’s “achievements,” “contributions,” and “discoveries,” and ignore his “failings,” “atrocities,” and “transgressions.” This is foreshadowing.
Donald Trump is afraid that history will judge him for his countless failures, transgressions, and atrocities. THAT is why Trump wants Americans to ignore the genocide, rape, scheming, kidnapping, and slavery committed and condoned by Columbus.
He wants us to ignore his own tear gassing of peaceful protesters for an abomination of a photo op.
He wants us to ignore his gross ineptitude, lies, cover ups, and lack of leadership which directly lead to the deaths of over 210,000 Americans from Covid-19 (as of the time of this writing).
He wants us to ignore his policy of separating desperate refugee families and locking children in cages.
He wants us to ignore that he sent unidentified troops into American cities to kidnap protesters.
He wants us to ignore his repeated defense of white supremacists and his inexcusable support of racism.
He wants us to ignore his admiration and imitation of the world’s vile dictators.
Donald Trump does not want history to show him for what he is: An embarrassing stain on the tapestry of American history.
“The integrity of men is to be measured by their conduct, not by their professions.” – Junius
Footnotes & Sources
- This translation from “500 Years of Indigenous and Popular Resistance Campaign.” Guatemala Committee for Peasant Unity, 1990
- De Cordoba letter in Williams, Documents of West Indian History
- Las Casas cited by Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise