Tuesday, October 15, 2002
: . Goodbye Columbus:
So Columbus Day has come and gone and I barely noticed it. There were no protests on campus, no anti-imperialist messages chalked up on the pavements, nothing but an unseasonable silence. If my mailbox hadn't been eerily empty yesterday afternoon (not even a K-Mart circular!), I wouldn't have even bothered to look at the calendar to check what day it was. (This reminds me of a passage from Lorrie Moore's short story Willing: 'I want to sleep with someone. When I'm sleeping with someone, I'm less obsessed with the mail.' ) Was yesterday even a federal holiday? In any case, here's a tribute to a man who didn't know how to use an astrolabe and who didn't even think the world was round (he thought it was shaped like a woman's breast) but whose bullheadedness dragged all of us to where we are today.
From The Lost Mariner by Elizabeth Kolbert:
- The charge of genocide is generally assumed to be a late-twentieth-century indictment of Columbus, but it was first levelled nearly five hundred years ago, by las Casas. Originally a slaveholder himself, las Casas spent a decade in Hispaniola—the island now occupied by Haiti and the Dominican Republic—before undergoing a conversion. He devoted the next fifty years—he lived to be ninety-two—to trying, in vain, to defend the New World's indigenous peoples. His "History of the Indies" is at once sympathetic to Columbus as an individual and frank about his culpability. Referring to a Taino prisoner whose ears were chopped off during the Second Voyage, las Casas writes, "This was the first case of injustice perpetrated here in the Indies on the mistaken and vain assumption that what was being enacted was justice. It marked the beginning of the spilling of blood, later to become a river of blood, first on this island and then in every corner of these Indies."
Columbus continued to express his fondness for the Taino—"They are a people very generous of spirit, so that they give everything that they are asked for with the best will in the world," he wrote—even as he devised new and more grotesque employments for them. The ostensible purpose of his Second Voyage was to convert the natives of Hispaniola; the real goals were to establish a permanent settlement there and to find gold, of which Hispaniola has very little. Columbus arrived on the island in the fall of 1493, with a fleet of seventeen vessels carrying some twelve hundred men. He then sailed on to explore Cuba. Most of the settlers, meanwhile, turned their attention directly to rape and extortion. Returning to Hispaniola in the fall of 1494, Columbus found the island in chaos, and decided to rectify the situation by further punishing the victims. He shipped five hundred Taino off to the slave market in Seville, then raised an army that marched across the island murdering villagers with guns, swords, and dogs. (Using pack hounds to rip the natives apart was, las Casas wrote, an innovation "thought up, invented, and put into effect by the Devil.") Finally, Columbus imposed a system of tribute under which each adult was required to supply the Spanish with enough gold dust to fill a "Flanders hawk's bell" every three months. It has been estimated that between mistreatment, imported diseases, and outright slaughter, more than a third of the indigenous people of Hispaniola had been killed by 1496...It did not take more than two generations for the entire native population of Hispaniola to be essentially wiped out.