From Sun Oct 8 10:32:37 2000
From: Sadanand, Nanjundiah (Physics) <>
To: Mike Alewitz <>
Subject: Columbus Day should be a day of atonement
Date: Fri, 6 Oct 2000 11:40:35 -0400

Columbus and the Native Americans

Los Angeles Unified School District, Haskell by the Month, October, Columbus Day, n.d.

On October 12, 1492, Columbus and his crew arrived at an an island in the Bahamas inhabited by the Arawak Indians. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, the Arawaks ran to greet them bringing food and gifts. Columbus wrote the following 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 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 would make fine servants...With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

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 these parts.

Flat or Round?

To make a better myth, American culture has perpetuated the idea that Columbus was boldly forging ahead while everyone else, even his own crew, imagined the world was flat. The superstitious sailors ... grew increasingly mutinous, according to The American Pageant, because they were fearful of sailing over the edge of the world. In truth, few people on both sides of the Atlantic believed in 1492 that the world was flat. Most Europeans and Native Americans knew the world to be round. It looks round. It casts a circular shadow on the moon. Sailors see its roundness when ships disappear over the horizon, hull first, then sails.

In return for bringing Spain gold and spices, Columbus was promised 10% of the profits, governorship over new-found lands, and the fame that would go with a new title: Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

Columbus reported to the Court in Madrid that he had reached Asia and an island off the coast of China. He asked for ships and men for a second expedition and promised to bring as much gold as they need... and as many slaves as they ask.

But they found no gold fields, so they went on a great slave raid. They rounded up 1500 Arawak men, women, and children and kept them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs. When the Spaniards were ready, they picked the 500 best specimens to load onto the ships. Of those 500, only 300 survived the trip. When they arrived in Spain they were put up for sale.

But too many of the slaves were dying. So Columbus became more desperate to fill his ships with gold. In Cicao on Haiti, Columbus and his men ordered all Indians to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they turned over the gold, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Any Indian found without a token had their hands cut off and bled to death. The Indians' task was impossible. The only gold around was bits of dust in the streams. So they fled, and many were hunted down and killed.

The Arawaks attempted to put together a resistance army, but they faced Spaniards with armor, muskets, swords, and horses. Mass suicides among the Arawaks began.

When it became obvious to the Spaniards that there was no gold left, they worked the Indians at a ferocious pace as slave labor on estates called encomiendas.

Las Casas describes the Spaniards becoming more conceited every day. Ater a while they refused to walk any distance. They rode the backs of Indians or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays (they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others fan them with goose wings.)

The Spaniards thought nothing of knifing Indians... and cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades. 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' atempt 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.

Columbus's purpose from the beginning was not mere exploration or even trade, but conquest and exploitation, for which he used religion as a rationale. Typically, after discovering an island and encountering a tribe of Indians new to them, the Spaniards would read aloud (in Spanish) what came to be called the Requirement. Here is one version:

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 war 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 accompany me. footnote #1


1. The Requirement has been widely reprinted. This translation is from 500 Years of Indigenous and Popular Resistance Campaign (n.p.: Guatemala Committee for Peasant Unity, 1990).