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What Lies Hidden Behind the Columbus Myth or How Come We Never Hear About His Second Voyage ?

Message keith brooks

Landing of Columbus
Landing of Columbus
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"The following is derived from a chapter in a book I am writing, MythAmerica.

This is part 2 of a 4 part series on Oped News on the 'Columbus Discovered America' myth. Part one dealt with the nature of the world and people Columbus intruded on, debunking the Eurocentric myth that Columbus "discovered" a land that was barely populated, undeveloped, and an untamed wilderness despite millions of people already living there for thousands of years.

Part 2 here debunks the Columbus-as-hero myth by examining how his genocidal attacks on the indigenous populations of the Caribbean led to the opening of the African slave trade, which is covered in part 3 and how and why all this has been justified over the centuries. Part 4 focuses on the indigenous populations of what came to be the United States and attempts to assess how the European conquest of the Americas can be judged.


"The impressions which history books create are not just of academic interest. They have a powerful effect on the present situation. Every historian has a choice which he exercises, either deliberately or subconsciously, to select from the past so as either to make us satisfied with the record of our national behavior or to make us critical of it. Whether we are satisfied or critical affects our attitudes and our behavior today" ( Howard Zinn, Intro to Harvey Wasserman, History of the United States)

Columbus is still an important figure for many U.S. Americans, particularly of Italian descent, and Columbus day is seen by many as Italian-American Day, a day of pride to recognize the many achievements and contributions of Italian Americans to U.S. history. Columbus day became a national holiday only in 1937 reflecting the growing acceptance and assimilation of Italian-Americans into U.S. society, particularly after experiencing decades of discrimination and prejudice as southern European immigrants. Italians were among those targeted as anti-immigrant sentiment grew, culminating with the 1891 lynching in New Orleans of 11 Italian immigrants. And then there was the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti case, two Italian immigrants widely believed to have been framed for murder and executed in 1927. It is in this atmosphere that Columbus was held up as a historical hero who could give credibility to Italians in American history, as well as counter the sometimes deadly violence of WASP America on their communities.

So attacks on Columbus and demands to abolish it stir up strong emotions among many, although less so for calls for a day to honor the indigenous. But it's certainly no reflection on an Italy which did not exist at the time and therefore played no role in what we're about to uncover. In addition there are many Italians worthy of celebrating for their contributions to U.S. society, in the sciences, politics, music, art and film, sports. So here's the hard part for some where we examine the role Columbus himself actually played on his four voyages to the Americas-and what he paved the way for.

It's important to understand the very uncomfortable truths about what Columbus actually did come mainly from the historical actors themselves. These are primary sources, not secondary accounts nor hear say. We have Columbus's his own words in his journals and diary, as well as his son, his brother Bartholomew, the priest Bartolome de las Casas and Dominican friars Antonio de Montesinos and Pedro de CÃ rdoba, the official historian of the Indies Fernandez de Oviedo, some of his sailors such as Miguel Cuneo and others. Through their writings, we learn how Columbus and the Europeans who came after him saw conquest, gold and god as their main purpose in the Americas and we learn how that was carried out-through enslaving the indigenous populations, the torture and murder of any who resisted, and the spread of disease. There can be no debate about what Columbus actually did-there were too many witnesses. It's a horrific picture, quite the opposite of the fairy tale history we all grew up with. Many still have trouble squaring these truths with the Columbus they grew up with even after learning what really happened.

1492 : The First Voyage

Columbus's first voyage, landing in what is now the Bahamas, moving on to the island he named Hispaniola shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic and then Cuba, is very much the beginning and end of the story still taught in our schools and portrayed throughout our culture. Yes, Columbus sailed to find a short cut trade route by sea to Asia, to spread Christianity, for fame and glory, but above all else, he sailed for power and to get rich-- GOLD. According to Kirpatrick Sale's count in his standout The Conquest of Paradise, there are at least 65 references to gold in his journal. As Columbus wrote, "Gold is the most precious of all commodities; gold constitutes treasure and he who possesses it has all he needs in the world, as also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory and restoring them to the enjoyment of paradise." And Columbus's own words in his log and letters foreshadow the worst that was to come for the indigenous populations :

* His mind set, just two days after landing on October 14th, 1492 : "When your Highnesses so command, they could all be carried off to Castile or be held captive in the island itself, because with 50 men they could all be subjugated and compelled to do anything one wishes...."

* On his third day : "They would make fine servants...With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want..."

* "I took some of the natives by force... It is possible..to sell all the slaves..here there are so many of these slaves... they are as good as gold"

Before leaving for Spain, Columbus kidnaped as many as 30 Tainos, "to take to the Sovereigns to learn our language so that it might be disclosed what is in the land...Afterwards I sent to a house ... and they brought back seven head of women, small and large and three children. I did this because the men would comport themselves better in Spain having women from their land than without them." (Quoted in Edward F. Stone, American Heritage, "Columbus And Genocide").

The Doctrine of Discovery, or
What's European Land Doing Under Native American Feet ?

Columbus wrote in a 1493 letter " I have taken possession of all these islands for their Highnesses...who can command them as absolutely as the kingdoms of Castille".

But by just what right did Columbus set foot on lands unknown to him, declare that they belonged to Spain, and proceed to kidnap those Taino as booty when he returned to Spain, only 2 of whom survived ?

He did so with the express understanding that he was authorized to take possession of any lands he discovered that were "not under the dominion of any Christian rulers", following an already well-established tradition of 'discovery' and conquest. When Columbus declared all the populated lands he set foot on now belonged to Spain, he was following the Doctrine of Discovery (DD)-- the edicts set by the Catholic church, first promulgate in 1453 and further updated in 1493 and used by European monarchs as a means of legitimizing the colonization of lands outside of Europe. The DD allowed Christian explorers to lay claim to territories uninhabited by Christians, "allowing for the capture, vanquishing, and subduing of the saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ," to "put them into perpetual slavery". Non-Christian meant non-human. Their only hope-if that-was conversion.

The fact that the indigenous and their ancestors had
"Lived on and developed those lands for tens of thousands of years gave the native inhabitants no claim to them whatsoever, and if they didn't hand them over to their rightful owners, they were criminals and savages that needed to be dealt with accordingly..today...five centuries later - the United States government still uses this archaic Judeo-Christian doctrine to deny the rights of Native American Indians." ( Steve Newcomb, "Five Hundred Years of Injustice." Shaman's Drum. Fall 1992, p. 18-20)

So in these sparsely-populated- primitive- undeveloped- lands of savages, it was entirely justifiable that they were up for grabs by whichever Euro-Christian ship captain happened to be the first to come across them and plant a cross to claim them on behalf of their monarch. Over the next several centuries, the DD was used by the nations of Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland to carve up the Americas.


C's first voyage set the stage for the real horror of what was to come and continue unabated for hundreds of years. When Columbus brought back those captive Tainos to Spain, Queen Isabella instructed him that in the interests of their conversion to Christianity, her new subjects could not be enslaved. Despite this, C's exaggerated tales of gold for the taking led the royals to outfit a second voyage with 1200 men on 17 ships, with cannon, attack dogs, cavalry and horses. Columbus's orders were to expand the settlement on Hispaniola, convert the natives to Christianity, establish a trading post, and continue his explorations in search of China or Japan. The fleet set sail on October 13th, 1493, and landed on November 3rd :

"The Spanish monarch invested in his excursion, but only on the condition that Columbus would repay this investment with profit by bringing back gold, spices, and other tribute from Asia. This pressing need to repay his debt underlies the frantic tone of Columbus' diaries as he raced from one Caribbean island to the next, stealing anything of value... Columbus decided to pay for his voyage in the one important commodity he had found in ample supply -- human lives."
(Jack Weatherford, "Examining the Reputation of Columbus")

Intending to sell the Taino to be used as a slave labor force for Europeans, Columbus loaded 500 people on his ships to Spain in 1495; 200 died during the trip. Thousands more were to follow.

"He seized 1,200 Taino Indians from the island of Hispaniola, crammed as many onto his ships as would fit, and sent them to Spain, where they were paraded naked through the streets of Seville and sold as slaves in 1495. Columbus tore children from their parents, husbands from wives. On board Columbus' slave ships, hundreds died; the sailors tossed the Indian bodies into the Atlantic."(ibid, Weatherford)

Historian Andres Bernaldez a good friend of Columbus: "The ships brought back 500 souls of Indians, men and women all of good age from 12 to 35...They came thus to this land as they had been born to their own and with no more embarrassment than if they were wild animals, of which all were sold and this proved to be very bad as they all died, being unfitted for the land...Under Columbus thousands of Native people were sent back to Europe in servitude, the remainder were enslaved to the Spanish invaders. So great was the death rate of Native slaves as they were being shipped from one location to the next, that Spanish historian Peter Martyr would write in 1516 that ...a ship without compass, chart, or guide, but only following the trail of dead Indians who had been thrown from the ships could find its way from the Bahamas to Hispaniola."
(Ramon Rivera, Your heroes are not our heroes: A Matter of Perspective, a Matter of Experience, the Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation, 19 July 2001)

So the 2nd voyage became a slave raid, as well as marking the beginning of a large-scale colonization project. It is also on this second trip that Columbus set an impossible task which required the native people to bring him a quota of gold on a regular basis. C's punishment for failing to do so was to have their hands being cut off-- leading to certain death.
Can you imagine the hero Columbus ordering this ?

Columbus' second voyage has perhaps even greater world-historical significance than the first, not just for Columbus's utter barbarism in how he treated the indigenous, but in marking the start of colonialism in the Americas as well as the Atlantic slave trade. Ironically, Columbus initiated the trans-atlantic slave trade, not from Africa to the Americas, but from the Americas to Europe. Columbus became the first man known in history to send the first slaves across the Atlantic. Other nations were soon to follow Columbus.

"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...As soon as the 1493 expedition got to the Caribbean, before it even reached Haiti, Columbus was rewarding his lieutenants with native women to rape. On Haiti, sex slaves were one more perquisite that the Spaniards enjoyed. Columbus wrote a friend in 1500, "... A hundred Castellanos (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained as for a woman as for a farm and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand" James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, 64-65).

As for those captured Taino who could not fit on C's small slave ships they were put to work in mines and plantations throughout the Caribbean, where many would be worked to death within six months. The Taino were also hunted for sport and profit -- beating, raping, torturing, killing, and then using the Indian bodies as food for their hunting dogs. Columbus himself dealt in a sex trade for young girls as he unashamedly bragged in his letter above.
This is a man children are taught to see as a hero ?

Bartoleme De Las Casas

Bartolomeo de Las Casas came to the island of Hispaniola in 1502. Initially supportive of Columbus, when he witnessed Columbus's atrocities it changed his life, becoming a priest and an advocate for the protection of the indigenous populations. His initial objections were limited to the treatment of the Taino while advocating the use of enslaved Africans as their replacement, but Las Casas was to turn against African slavery also. As one of the primary historians of the Columbian era, his mainly eyewitness accounts in A Short Account of The Destruction of the Indies describe the atrocities committed by the conquistadors in the Americas--which included mass hangings, roasting people on spits, hacking children into pieces to be used as dog food. Some have suggested that Las Casas' accounts were exaggerated, but he was far from the only person to bear witness-- Dominican friars Antonio de Montesinos and Pedro de CÃ rdoba had reported extensive violence already in the first decade of the conquest of the Indies, including many massacres of the indigenous.

Another historian of the Indies Fernandez de Oviedo in his Historia General described how the indigenous were victims of the "Conquistadores, who could more accurately be called depopulators...and "private soldiers who like veritable hangman or executioners or ministers of satan cause...innumerable cruel deaths...as uncountable as the stars" (Sale, Conquest p158)
The conquest and colonization of the New World were devastating and deadly for Native Americans: the indigenous population suffered a catastrophic loss of life between 1492 and the mid-17th century, estimated at 80 %. And Columbus's decimation of the indigenous populations opened the door to millions of Africans being kidnaped to the Americas in chains as the labor force replacing them.

The mythic Columbus is portrayed as a brave and daring navigator, but why is so little taught and said about what he and his men, actually did on those four trips to the Americas, all sponsored by the Spanish royals ? Whatever Columbus's navigational skills were, don't they become beside the point when put in the context of the still too often little known truths as to what Columbus actually did ? Is this who should be honored every October 12th, the Christopher Columbus, who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history ?


I have always believed it is important to be precise and measured in describing the myriad atrocities that conquering powers have committed on those they subjugate. Words matter-there are euphemisms, phrases used to prettify or disguise the severity of events, and then there is exaggeration, or hyperbole, used to amplify and overstate what happened. As horrific as they may be, not all slaughters or massacres of human beings are genocides-the killing or murder of an entire group or people, a deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group, inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, among others.

Here is a 1508 journal entry by Las Casas while on Hispaniola :

"From 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it"." Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides " they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation".in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk " and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile " was depopulated". My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write"."

And: "When the Spanish first journeyed there the indigenous population of Hispaniola stood at some 3 million; today only two hundred survive. The island of Cuba... is now to all intents and purposes uninhabited...and Puerto Rico and Jamaica have been similarly devastated. Not a living soul remains on ...the Bahamas...The despotic and diabolical behavior of the Christians has...led to the unjust and totally unwarranted deaths of more than twelve millions souls, women and children among them."( Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 11-12)

Some historians have challenged Las Casas' estimate of 3 million in Hispaniola, but there is good reason to believe that estimate is actually too low ! Columbus's brother Bartolome did a head count on just half of the island, limited to everyone over 14, and excluding the aged and others, which came up with a figure of 1.1. million, making Las Casas estimate more than credible. (Sales, 160)

Columbus's "enterprise" is thus the first recorded instance of full scale genocide of an indigenous people. Some historians argue against the genocide charge acknowledging that while millions died through Spanish torture and murder and through being worked to death in the mines, the main factor decimating the Caribbean populations was the Europeans spreading disease for which the indigenous had no resistance. But it is hard to separate each cause from the other given the catastrophic trauma inflected on people and cultures who were so violently ripped from their daily lives. Many jews died in the concentration camps not from the industrial murder of the gassing or the machine gunning, but by the combination of the unbearable conditions of life they were subjected to.

David Stannard in his American Holocaust addresses that argument :

"The near total destruction of...the native people was neither inadvertent nor inevitable. From almost the first contact...firestorms of microbial pestilence... purposeful genocide began laying waste the American natives....disease and genocide were interdependent forces acting dynamically-whipsawing their victims between plague and violence, each one feeding upon another, and driving countless numbers of ancient societies to the brink and often over the brink-of total extermination" (p xii)

It is hard to fathom the enormity of the holocaust that took place, an entire world being destroyed as if in some science fiction movie where aliens invade the earth and eliminate the entire human populations. Stannard gives further perspective : "In less than the normal lifetime of a single human being, an entire culture of millions of people, thousands of years resident in their homeland had been exterminated... Of all the horrific genocides that have occurred in the 20th century against Armenians, Jews Gypsies, Ibos, Bengalis...and more, none has come close to destroying this many or this great a proportion-of wholly innocent people." (P75)
And unlike those other genocides, those targeted were not a racial or ethnic group, but a population at least as diverse as that of Europe.

One year while teaching about Columbus in my high school class I described what happened to the Taino as a genocide. A student raised her hand and said "That's not true. My grandmother told me we're part Taino". Of course she was right, which then led to a discussion as to whether or not the relatively few survivors of a widespread destruction of people disqualified that usage, which we agreed was not the case. And a recent DNA study further confirms her grandmother's claim of there being surviving descendants of the Taino. (theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/09/what-ancient-dna-says-about-puerto-ricos-history)

What Columbus brought about in the Caribbean-the Bahamas, Hispanolia, Cuba, Jamaica-was a genocide. Even his highly acclaimed scholar-admirer, Samuel Eliot Morison, in his Christopher Columbus, Mariner does not shrink from calling it so : "The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and...his successors resulted in complete genocide."

So there's what Columbus himself perpetrated and then there's the historical forces his voyages spearheaded. As Sales describes, "Surely the chief reason for this was the power of the still young but increasingly vigorous capitalist system...more materialist...than any other economy, more expansionist, more volatile and energetic,...and everywhere without the kinds of moral inhibitions found in the world's other high cultures".

Europe was ripe for conquest, and "What Columbus did to the Arawak ...Cortes did to the Aztec of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Pohatans and the Pequots" (Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p 11)

It was not all Columbus and there's also no doubt that if he had not led they way, it would have been someone else. As the indigenous population was increasingly wiped out, the Europeans who followed him turned to kidnapping Africans to replace them-the very beginning of the African slave trade to the Americas. None of which is a reason to celebrate Columbus...
To be continued. "

(Article changed on March 8, 2020 at 01:04)

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I am a long time antiwar,labor union and community activist/ organizer and a recently retired NYC high school educator. I also taught at Richmond College and at Alternate U (would love to hear from anyone who was there 1968-'70). I've also been (more...)

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