2202112 English Two                                                                     Supplementary Reading/U 10


Until recently, most American school textbooks told only part of Columbus’s story, and that part made him look like a brave hero. He was presented as the man who discovered the "New World". But a more balanced presentation would have shown another side to the story: it would have described some values and beliefs that Columbus shared with most European travelers of that time and with kings and queens of their nations in the "Old World". First of all, they were hungry for gold and were willing to do anything to get it. Second, they believed that they had the right to claim other people’s land for their own European nations (especially if the inhabitants of those lands were not Christians, were "uncivilized," and looked very different from them). Finally, they believed that they had a right to do anything they pleased with the native inhabitants of those lands. Let us see what part Columbus played in the history of early European contacts with the people of the Americas.

On his first voyage, Columbus claimed all the lands that he found for the king and queen of Spain. He gave Spanish names to many of the islands that he "discovered" (such as Hispaniola), though he kept the native names for other islands (such as Cuba and Jamaica). He took ten Indians captive and forced them to return to Spain with him, but four of them died on shipboard. During their captivity the remaining six were taught Spanish, and Columbus took them back to America on his second voyage to serve as interpreters.

From the very first voyage, Columbus suggested the possibility of enslavement of the Indians to the king and queen of Spain. He wrote in his journal, "But, should Your Majesties command it, all the inhabitants could be taken away to Castile [in Spain], or made slaves on the island. With fifty men we could… make them do whatever we want." He repeated this idea in the report that he wrote at the end of the voyage: "I will bring back… as many slaves as [you] ask."

On the second voyage he put this idea into practice in the most brutal way possible. Author Hans Koning describes the scene in his book Columbus: his Enterprise.

We are now in February 1495. Time was short for sending back a good ‘dividend’ on the supply ships getting ready for the return to Spain. Columbus therefore turned to a massive slave raid as a means for filling up these ships. The brothers rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak [Indians] – men, women, and children – and imprisoned them in pens in Isabela, guarded by men and dogs. The ships had room for no more that five hundred, and thus only the best specimens were loaded aboard. The Admiral then told the Spaniards they could help themselves from the remainder to as many slaves as they wanted. Those whom no one chose were simply kicked out of their pens. Such had been the terror of these prisoners that (in the description by Michele de Cuneo, one of the colonists) "they rushed in all directions like lunatics, women dropping and abandoning infants in the rush, running for miles without stopping, fleeing across mountains and rivers."

Of the five hundred slaves, three hundred arrived alive in Spain, where they were put up for sale in Seville… "As naked as the day they were born," the report… says, "but with no more embarrassment than animals."

"Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful… the harbors are unbelievably good ad there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold… There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals."

- from Columbus’s report to the king and queen of Spain at the end of his first voyage.

Why did he say this about the spices and the gold mines?

The slave trade immediately turned out to be "unprofitable, for the slaves mostly died." Columbus decided to concentrate on gold, although he writes, "Let us… go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."

Koning adds that the only reason the slave trade was stopped by the king and queen of Spain was because there was no money to be made in it, since the slaves soon died of such treatment. But by then it was too late to save the Arawak Indians.

Columbus always believed that the lands he had "found" were in Asia, and that they were rich in gold, even though he never saw much of it and was never able to locate the source of it. The natives wore a few small ornaments of gold in their noses, and they occasionally used it to make parts of masks. But Columbus wanted gold so much that he believed that it was here even when it was not. He actually wrote false reports of great amounts of gold to the king and queen of Spain so that they would continue to send him back to these new lands. During his second voyage, he was governor of the Spanish colony on the island of Hispaniola (which today contains the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). He was so sure that the gold existed that he set an impossible task for the native people to carry out, and punished them with extreme cruelty when they were unable to give him what he wanted. He required every Indian over the age of about fourteen to bring him a hawk’s bell full of gold dust, one every three months. In return for the gold, he gave the Indian a piece of copper stamped with the month. If an Indian was found without a copper token – or with an outdated one – his or her hands were cut off.

Because there really was almost no gold on the island, some of the Indians tried to escape to the mountains, but the newcomers followed then, caught them, and burned them to death, or hanged them. In response, many of the Indians committed suicide rather than wait for the white settlers to kill them. By the end of two years, about half the native population of Hispaniola had died either at their own hands or at the hands of the colonists.

Because the natives were not able to bring in gold, Columbus decided to make use of them in a different way. He divided up the island among his men. Any Indians who were living on a settler’s land belonged to him and could be used – or misused – any way he wished. Such uses included forced labor and forced sex. Many Indians were killed for sport, and there are even reports that their bodies were sold to the colonists as food for their dogs. By 1540 the entire native population of Hispaniola was dead.

For obvious reasons, then, native American Indians do not see Columbus as a hero, nor do they see any reason to celebrate "Columbus Day," October 12, as a holiday in the same way that many white Americans celebrate it. To them Columbus was an extremely cruel man whose coming marked the end of their freedom and traditional way of life – and marked the beginning of many millions of native deaths at the hands of the Europeans in North America, Central America, the Caribbean area, and South America. In fact, today many Americans from all ethnic groups, including European-Americans, have begun to question the one-sided way that Columbus has traditionally been presented in school textbooks, and are insisting that a more balanced picture be given. No one questions his accomplishments in sailing across the Atlantic and in opening up contact between Europe and Americas, but many people want their children to learn the whole story in school – the ugly side as well as the good.

The Spanish government set aside $500 million to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in America – a million dollars for every year since the first voyage. In contrast, native Americans from Alaska and Peru met at the Teotihuacan pyramids in Mexico and celebrated "500 years of survival." In Mexico City, people went to a public statue of Columbus and hung round its neck a sign that read "Five Centuries of Massacre." Thousands of native Americans demonstrated in Bolivia and Chile, and in Argentina, a three-day hunger strike was timed to end on "Columbus Day," October 12. Visitors to Managua, Nicaragua, were confronted with a poster proclaiming Christopher Columbus as "a great thief, murderer, racist, torturer, oppressor of native people, and instigator of the great lie." Instead of celebrating Columbus Day on October 12, Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano recommended celebrating October 11 as "the last day of Indian independence."

After You Read

Identify all the references for the words in italics.

In which paragraph can you find:

1. a description of a ‘slave raid’?

2. a punishment for not bringing in gold?

3. a description of Columbus’s values?

Comprehension Questions

1. The American continents have existed for as long as Europe. Why do you think they were called the "New World" and Europe the "Old World"?

Who called them that?

Who didn’t?

2. In paragraph 5 who was ‘the Admiral’?

3. What uses did Columbus have for the Indians that he found?

4. Why did Columbus believe that there was a great deal of gold on the island of Hispaniola even though there was no evidence of it?

5. What lie did Columbus tell to the king and queen of Spain?

6. What "impossible task" did he require the natives to do?

Why was it impossible?

What was the punishment for not doing it?

7. How many Arawak Indians are living on the island of Hispaniola today?

8. In what ways was Columbus a brave hero?

In what ways wasn’t he?

9. Why do you suppose that children’s history books used to tell only one side of the story?

Whose side did they tell?


Contrast Columbus’s values with the Arawak Indians’ values. What was important to Columbus? What was important to the Arawaks? Can you think of a way that heir differences could have been respected so that each side could have gotten something of what they wanted? In the best of all possible worlds, what should have happened?