As the 15th century of the Christian Era drew to a close, an Italian mariner, former slave trader, and would-be Holy Crusader named Christopher Columbus, who along with several other Europeans of that day believed that the earth was actually round and that therefore he should be able to reach the valuable spices of India by sailing west from Europe, went looking for someone who’d be willing to underwrite such an attempted voyage.
Finally persuading the Spanish Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand II of Aragón and his wife Queen Isabella I of Castile to provide him with what he needed, he set out with his two brothers Bartolomeo and Diego in August of 1492 with three ships and the understanding that he was sailing for the Crown of Castile, which would receive the lion’s share of whatever spices that he might bring back from India; and also for the Catholic Church, which looked forward to gaining many new converts in that exotic, faraway land.
And three months later, when he finally made landfall on an island in the Bahamas that the native Taíno people called Guanahari—which he estimated to be just off the coast of India—he duly planted a cross in the ground, claimed the place for the Church, and then for his Catholic sponsors back in Spain.
Subsequently noting that none of the ‘Indians’ that he encountered seemed to object to the cross or even to his presence among them, he immediately seized a half dozen like the old slave trader that he was and imprisoned them on his ship to bring back to Spain as examples of the docile Indian people; went on to describe them in his journal as natural servant material who could easily be converted to Christianity since they appeared to have no religion of their own; and in closing this entry, dared to suggest that he should tell the Ferdinand and Isabella that they could order as many of them from him as they might desire to enslave as various court attendants.
* * *
No religion of their own? Either Columbus didn’t notice, during the winter that he spent on Guanahari and then on some of the Caribbean islands—all of which were inhabited by the Taíno—that they simply called their own deities Zemi; that to the Taíno, the Zemi controlled various natural and cultural forces within the universe, same as had the ancient European gods; that while the Taíno had a strange, matrilineal system of kinship, descent, and inheritance that hadn’t been seen in most of Europe for thousands of years, they were actually governed by village chiefs known as caciques if they were male, cacicas if female, with both genders inheriting their position through the mother’s line; that these village heads alone were allowed to wear golden pendants called guanín, live in distinctive, square bohíos instead of the round huts that everyone else used, and sit on wooden stools so as to be above the guests that they frequently received; that Taíno society was divided into two classes: naborias (commoners) and nitaínos (nobles), with the cacique always coming from the latter; that the caciques were advised by priests called bohiques, who were also extolled as healers and for their apparent ability to speak with deities such as the supreme female being Atabeira, the Taíno Earth-mother who was also associated with the sea and its tides, the moon, streams and lakes, and fertility, and to whom Taíno women routinely prayed for a safe and easy childbirth; or he didn’t recognize all that as a people’s religion.
Assuming that he really did remain ignorant of all that during his brief stay in the area, it’s probably too much to expect that he would have heard of Atabeira in her special aspect as Caguana, the deity of love and sex; or in her malevolent manifestation as Guabancex, the fomenter of violent storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Or then, of the twin sons to whom she was believed to have given birth without having had sexual intercourse—a story that he and his accompanying missionaries would undoubtedly have considered blasphemous, and thus requiring the story-teller’s immediate execution.
* * *
The following spring, Columbus built a fort on the northern coast of Hispaniola, left thirty-nine men there as the first European colonists in this strange new world, and subsequently arrived back in Spain with no spices, but stories of possible gold mines and hundreds of ready slaves.
Received by Isabella as a great maritime pioneer and intrepid adventurer, she immediately rewarded him with the title Admiral of the Seven Seas, and then appointed him Governor of the Indies.
After which, he displayed his six captives to the entire Castilian court and made it clear that he could obtain as many more of them as the it might wish to order.
* * *
And that was just the beginning; for that fall, the proud, newly minted admiral sailed out of the Spanish port of Cádiz with his brothers and a fleet of no less than seventeen ships, bearing twelve hundred men—soldiers, farmers, and priests specifically charged with converting the ‘Indians’ to Christianity—plus a generous amount of supplies with which to establish permanent colonies in the Caribbean; while en route, he noted in his journal that the natives’ primitive weapons and ignorance of military tactics made them susceptible to easy conquest; or to actually quote from it, “these people are very simple in war-like matters . . . I could conquer the whole lot of them with fifty men, and then do with them as I please.”
* * *
Shortly after they arrived, one of Columbus’ boyhood friends who was happy to accompany him on that voyage, Michele da Cuneo, wrote in his own journal, “While we were in the boat [going ashore], we captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the Admiral gave to me. When I took her to my cabin, she was naked—as was their custom. I was filled with desire to take my pleasure with her, and attempted to satisfy it. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I’d never begun. But—to cut a long story short—I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought that she had been brought up in a school for whores.”
* * *
Returning to Hispaniola in late October, Columbus found his fort in ruins—destroyed by the Taíno—along with the remains of eleven of the thirty-nine men that he’d left behind.
He then sailed some sixty miles further east along the same coast and established a new settlement—which turned out to be poorly located, with the result that it too ultimately failed.
But he didn’t consider that voyage a complete loss, since after sailing from island to island and seizing as many natives as he could catch everywhere he went, he ultimately found himself with some fifteen hundred men, women, and children, placed them in a pen on Hispaniola, and then selected about a thousand of the handsomest and strongest looking to bring back to Spain and sell to the European aristocracy.
The fact that two hundred died along the way failed to dampen his enthusiasm for the enterprise one bit; in his return journal he wrote the following: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on [gathering] all the slaves that can be sold.”
* * *
As though captivity and death weren’t enough, Columbus and his men had a well-deserved reputation for cruelty. Bartolome de las Casas, a young priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba and wrote a history of the Indies, describes the treatment of the natives: “Endless testimonies . . . prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives . . . But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then . . . The admiral was so anxious to please the Queen that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians . . . The Spaniards thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of 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.”
* * *
Columbus’ third voyage to the area ended in disaster—sort of. That one was supposed to verify the existence of a continent that King John II of Portugal had suggested was located to the southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. The king had reportedly heard a story about some merchandise-laden canoes that had set out from the West African coast and finally disappeared over that horizon.
In May of 1498, he sailed out of Cadiz with six ships, half of which would bring some much-needed supplies to Hispaniola, while the rest, including his own, would go find out just what might lie south of the area that he’d already visited.
Early in August, they came upon the island of Trinidad, where they replenished their food and water and then stumbled upon the northeastern coast of South America; which due to the enormous amount of fresh water pouring out to sea from the Orinoco River, he immediately recognized as too large a landmass to be a mere island.
Excitedly speculating that he might have stumbled upon the long-lost Garden of Eden, he nevertheless sailed on to Tobago and Grenada before returning to Hispaniola later that month—where he found that many of the settlers of his new colony were now in rebellion against his rule, claiming that he’d misled them about the supposedly bountiful riches of the area.
Moreover, a number of returning settlers returning to Spain had lobbied against him at the Spanish court, accusing him and his brothers of gross mismanagement. Fearing that he might lose his governorship over this, he appeared to remain on top of the matter by simply blaming everything on ‘some disobedient crew members’ and promptly hanging them.
But there was more; for some priests also complained that because of his economic interest in keeping the Hispaniola natives enslaved, he hadn’t been all that eager to see them baptized.
That was too much for his royal patrons. In 1500, they replaced him as governor of the West Indies with Francisco de Bobadilla, who’d been on the island for some time tasked by the king and queen with investigating rumors of Columbus’ rumored brutality.
When an outraged Columbus refused to accept his replacement, Bobadilla had no trouble arresting him, along with his brothers, and sending them back to Spain in chains; where they languished in jail for six weeks before his patrons relented, and were actually persuaded to sponsor his fourth, and last voyage to the New World—but this time, as just another mariner, if one at least nominally now in search of a strait that would lead to the Indian Ocean.
* * *
Bobadilla’s 48-page report to Isabella—built around the testimony of twenty-three people, including both enemies and supporters of Columbus, since even his close friends had to admit the atrocities that had taken place—was completed in 1500, and only recently found in the national archive of Simancas, Spain.
The report, reveals that no sooner had Bobadilla come ashore than he’d been met with complaints about all three of the Columbus brothers, and that during Columbus’ seven year rule over Hispaniola’s colony, his government had apparently been characterized by tyranny.
That he’d once put down a native revolt by first ordering a brutal crackdown in which many natives were killed, and then parading their dismembered bodies through the streets in an attempt to discourage further rebellion.
That he’d once punished a man found guilty of stealing corn by having his ears and nose cut off and then selling him into slavery.
That when his brother Bartolomeo had overheard a native woman disparaging Columbus’ lowly birth, he’d ordered her paraded naked through the streets and then had her tongue cut out; while afterward, Columbus had congratulated him for defending the ‘family honor’. And so on.
* * *
Around the time that Columbus died in 1506, a Spanish gentleman of some means named Bartolomé de las Casas arrived in Hispaniola as a colonist and new landowner.
* * *
Initially participating in the routine abuses of the natives, he soon came to oppose such treatment, gave up his own slaves, and became a Dominican friar who began writing about the Indians’ situation.
According to his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, when slaves held in captivity began to die at high rates, Columbus ordered all natives over the age of thirteen to pay a hawk’s bell full of gold powder every three months.
Natives who brought this amount to the Spanish were given a copper token to hang around their necks. The Spanish cut off the hands of those without tokens, and left them to bleed to death.
In his History of the Indians, he tells how in 1511, a Taíno cacique named Hatuey and about four hundred of his best warriors set out in canoes from Hispaniola to warn them that one Diego Velásquez and a great many of his soldiers were coming to conquer themes , steal all their gold, and sieze as many of them as they could transport back to Hispaniola and sell into slavery.
Hatuey is reported to have also shown a basket of gold to his Cuban counterpart in the village of Caobana and told him, “Here is the God that the Spaniards worship. For this they fight and kill; for this they persecute us, and that is why we have to throw them back into the sea… They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob us of our belongings, seduce our women, and violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break.”
Hatuey offered his help; but most of the Cubans were lukewarm at the prospect of joining him in a fight against the Spanish. So Hatuey and his warriors took them on alone, adopting guerrilla tactics, managing to kill a few and even contain the rest for awhile, until the Spanish, using torture spearheaded by the fierce growls and angry bites of giant mastiffs, forced enough information out of the Cubans to bring about his capture.
On February 2nd, 1512, they tied him to a stake at Yara, near the modern Cuban city of Bayamo, and burned him alive.
Las Casas tells us that before Hatuey was set ablaze, a priest asked him if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven; and then he adds: “[Hatuey], thinking a little, asked the religious man if Spaniards went to heaven. The other answered yes… The chief then said without further ado that he didn’t want to go there, but to hell so as not to be where the Spanish were and . . . see such cruel people.”
In modern Cuba, where Hatuey has long been considered a national hero, a lifesize statue of him along with a plate bearing the words, “To the memory of Chief Hatuey, unforgettable native, precursor of the Cuban liberty, who offered his life, and glorified his rebellion in the martyrdom of the flames on 2/2/1512” stands on the spot where he was burned; while a town, a beer, a non-alcoholic beverage, a cigar, and a soda cracker are all named after him—in fact, the company logo on the cigar band bears his likeness.
As for Las Casas, he eventually became a priest who advocated for the Indians at the court of Spain’s King Charles I and a short time afterward, found himself appointed by Spain’s Cardinal Cisneros as both the first resident Bishop of Chiapas and the first officially recognized Protector of the Indians.
* * *
Modern estimates for the native population of pre-Columbian Hispaniola vary from several hundred thousand to more than a million; yet barely half a century after Columbus first landed there, fewer than five hundred were left alive on the island.
But while Columbus’ shipping them out as slaves certainly had something to do with that, the first pandemic of European diseases that struck Hispaniola in 1519 had far more.
For everywhere that the Spanish, and eventually other European settlers went, they brought a disease that the natives had never seen before and hence were biologically unprepared to deal with: smallpox.
According to most estimates, at least two-thirds of the local natives were wiped out by smallpox before they’d even had a chance to put up much of a fight against the Europeans. On Hispaniola alone, the most populous island in the ‘West Indies’, the Taíno lost more than fifty thousand.
* * *
In 1513, the Spanish jurist Juan López de Palacios Rubios of Castile composed the following and required that it be read upon the planting of the cross on each new island in the New World, now that the Taíno could understand a fair amount of Spanish.
Specifically known as ‘the Requerimento‘ in the historical records, it reads (in the interest of clarity, I’ve sought to condense its mind-boggling verbosity and also modernize its speech and punctuation as much as possible), “On behalf of the King, Don Fernando, and of Doña Juana I, Queen of Castile and León, we their servants make known to you that the Lord our God created the Heaven and the Earth and one man and one woman, of whom you and we are descendants. But on account of the multitude that has sprung from this man and woman in the five thousand or [maybe] even more years since the world was created, it was necessary that some people should go one way and some another, and that they should be divided into many kingdoms. Of all these, our Lord gave charge to one man, called St. Peter, that he should be lord of and superior to all the [people] in the world; that all should obey him, and that he should be the head of the whole human race. One of the [Popes] who succeeded St. Peter made a donation of these isles to the aforesaid King and Queen and to their successors. So their Highnesses are lords of these islands, and you are obliged to serve their Highnesses in the way that subjects ought to do, with good will, and without any resistance. [You are also obliged] to receive and obey the priests whom their Highnesses [have] sent to teach you our Holy Faith. Wherefore we ask and require that you consider what we have said, and that you take the time necessary to understand and deliberate upon it; and that you acknowledge the [Pope] as the ruler and superior of the whole world, and in his name, [acknowledge] the King Don Fernando and Queen Doña Juana I as superiors and lords of these islands by virtue of the said donation; and that you consent and give place to the religious fathers who would teach you all of the the aforesaid. (Following italics mine.) [While] if you do not do this and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that with the help of God, we shall enter into your country, and make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, [but] refuse to receive their lord and [only] resist and contradict him; and the deaths and losses [that] shall accrue from this [will be] your fault, and not that of their Highnesses or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us . . .”
* * *
In 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa burned the Maya’s sacred books en masse—thereby not only enraging the natives of the New World with whom he was supposed to be establishing peaceful relations, but depriving future anthropoligists and other historians of much valuable information about the culture of that highly advanced Mesoamerican people.
* * *
According to an eyewitness, “The Spaniards in the Maya lands found pleasure in inventing all kinds of odd cruelties . . . They built a long gibbet, long enough for the toes to touch the ground to prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen [natives] at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the twelve Apostles . . . then, straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive.”
Also, “The Spaniards would cut off the arm of one, the leg or hip of another, and from some, their heads at one stroke like butchers cutting up beef for market. Six hundred, including the cacique, were thus slain . . . Vasco [de Balboa] ordered forty of them to be torn to pieces by dogs.”
* * *
Nor was it much different up north, where boatloads of English families fleeing religious persecution in their home country began to settle in Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay area in the early 17th century.
Not that they worried all that much about the ‘Indians’. Indeed, some of the Pilgrim fathers noted in their writings that wars among the Indians themselves were rather harmless compared to European standards, and that occasional minor raids notwithstanding, they were usually fought to avenge some insult, rather than to gain land; or in their own words, “Their warres are farre less bloudy . . . ” so that there’s usually “no great slawter [on either] side . . . they might fight seven yeares and not kill seven men.” Nor did they usually kill women and children.
Nonetheless, the newcomers soon set out to expel the local natives from their homeland and claim it for their own—or as necessary, simply exterminate them.
* * *
John Mason, the Pilgrim who led one of the raids against the Pequot tribe, wrote afterward, ” . . . such a dreadful terror did the Almighty let fall upon their spirits, that they would fly from us and run into the very flames, where many of them perished . . . God was above them, who laughed [at] . . . the enemies of his people . . . making them as a fiery oven . . . Thus did the Lord judge among the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies . . . the Lord was pleased to smite [them] in their hinder parts and give us their land for an inheritance”.
He finished up with a quote from Chapter 20 of the Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy: “Thou shalt leave alive nothing that breatheth, but utterly destroy them.”
One of his comrades in the massacre, observing in his own journal how “great and doleful was the bloody sight to the view of the young soldiers,” felt the need to reassure his readers that “sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish along with their parents”.
* * *
In 1634, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop noted in his journal that more than a century after Columbus, the Indians continued to suffer heavy losses to smallpox, and then added that this was indeed a great sign of “the marvelous goodness and providence of God, [since] the natives . . . are nearly all dead of the [disease] . . . the Lord hath cleared our title to what we [now] possess.”
* * *
The burning of the Pequot villages continued until the tribe had mostly been exterminated and the surviving handful “were parceled out to live in servitude.”
At which point, Governor Winthrop was asked by the man who would succeed him, John Endicott, for “a share of the captives”, specifically “a young woman, or a girle and a boy if you thinke good.”
* * *
The situation in Virginia—where fraternizing, or even expressing sympathy for the Indians was officially discouraged—was no different. In the spring of 1612, several English colonists found life among some nearby friendly Indians so appealing that they left Jamestown and went to live among them; or as Governor Thomas Dale put it, ” . . . being idell . . . did runne away unto the Indyans . . .” So he had them hunted down and executed: hanging some, burning others, breaking the bodies of still others on a wheel, and staking out yet others to be used as target practice for his soldiers.
* * *
Nor did the Puritans have any trouble maliciously lying to the Indians—often making treaties with every intention of violating them, as in this advisory of Virginia’s State Council: “[When] the Indians “grow secure uppon (sic) the treatie, we shall have the better Advantage, both to surprise them and cutt downe theire Corne.”
* * *
In 1624, sixty heavily armed Puritans cut down some 800 defenseless Indian men, women and children.
* * *
When a single massacre-by-burning of some six hundred Indians occurred during the so-called King Philip’s War of 1675-76, an absolutely delighted Cotton Mather, pastor of Boston’s Second Congregational Church, referred to it as “a barbeque”.
* * *
Ever hear of the Abenaki people? Probably not, since today they number no more than a handful. About twelve thousand of them are estimated to have lived in the northern Connecticut River valley before the arrival of the Europeans; within fifty years, 98% of them had been exterminated.
Over the same span, the much more numerous Pocumtuck, Quiripi, and Unquachhog peoles all saw 95% of their populations destroyed, while a tribe called the Massachusetts lost 81%—to name just a few of these long-forgotten peoples.
* * *
In 1703, one of New England’s most esteemed religious leaders, Reverend Solomon Stoddard, formally proposed to the Massachusetts Governor that the colonists be given money with which to purchase and train large packs of dogs so that they could hunt down the remaining Indians “as they do bears.”
* * *
In 1864, former Methodist minister and current church elder Colonel John Chivington—he of the infamous statement, “I long to be wading in gore”—had his troops gun down an entire Cheyenne village of mostly women and children at Sand Creek, Colorado.
Known to historians as the Sand Creek Massacre, some six hundred Cheyenne are reported to have been shot, with at least two-thirds of them actually killed.
Wrote an eye-witness later, “There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded but a few steps when she was shot and killed. All the squaws in that hole were afterwards killed.”
* * *
During that same decade, a Christian missionary in Hawaii, Reverend Rufus Anderson, noting in his writings that since the arrival of the white man on the islands, their native population had been reduced by more than 90%, refused to see it as a tragedy; rather, the almost total die-off of the Hawaiian population was only natural, he said, somewhat equivalent to “the amputation of diseased members of the body.”
(to be continued)
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