Columbus Day

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Oct 8 08:36:43 MDT 1999


---October 7, 1999---


This week we take time out from our series on "the meaning of
sustainability" -- or perhaps merely extend it in a new direction -- to
celebrate Columbus Day. I use "celebrate" in the dictionary sense of "to
proclaim or broadcast for the attention of a wide public." Examining the
nation's heroes may tell us something fundamental about our goals and
values. Christopher Columbus has been a genuine American hero since at
least 1792 when the Society of St. Tammany in New York City first held a
dinner to honor the man and his deeds.

Columbus Day -- first observed as a U.S. national holiday in 1892 and
declared an annual day of national celebration in 1934 -- commemorates the
re-discovery of North America, by Christopher Columbus and his band of 90
adventurers, who set out from Palos, Spain just before dawn on August 3,
1492 intending to find Asia by crossing the Atlantic Ocean in three small

Columbus made four voyages to the New World.[1] The initial voyage reveals
several important things about the man. First, he had genuine courage
because few ship's captains had ever pointed their prow toward the open
ocean, the complete unknown. Secondly, from numerous of his letters and
reports we learn that his overarching goal was to seize wealth that
belonged to others, even his own men, by whatever means necessary.

Columbus's royal sponsors (Ferdinand and Isabella) had promised a lifetime
pension to the first man who sighted land. A few hours after midnight on
October 12, 1492, Juan Rodriguez Bermeo, a lookout on the Pinta, cried out
-- in the bright moonlight, he had spied land ahead. Most likely Bermeo was
seeing the white beaches of Watling Island in the Bahamas.

As they waited impatiently for dawn, Columbus let it be known that he had
spotted land several hours before Bermeo. According to Columbus's journal
of that voyage, his ships were, at the time, traveling 10 miles per hour.
To have spotted land several hours before Bermeo, Columbus would have had
to see more than 30 miles over the horizon, a physical impossibility.
Nevertheless Columbus took the lifetime pension for himself.[1,2]

Columbus installed himself as Governor of the Caribbean islands, with
headquarters on Hispaniola (the large island now shared by Haiti and the
Dominican Republic). He described the people, the Arawaks (called by some
the Tainos) this way:

"The people of this island and of all the other islands which I have found
and seen, or have not seen, all go naked, men and women, as their mothers
bore them, except that some women cover one place only with the leaf of a
plant or with a net of cotton which they make for that purpose. They have
no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they capable of using them, although
they are well-built people of handsome stature, because they are wondrous
timid.... [T]hey are so artless and free with all they possess, that no one
would believe it without having seen it. Of anything they have, if you ask
them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it,
and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the
thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever
little thing of whatever kind may be given to them."[3,pg.63;1,pg.118]

After Columbus had surveyed the Caribbean region, he returned to Spain to
prepare his invasion of the Americas. From accounts of his second voyage,
we can begin to understand what the New World represented to Columbus and
his men -- it offered them life without limits, unbridled freedom. Columbus
took the title Admiral of the Ocean Sea and proceeded to unleash a reign of
terror unlike anything seen before or since. When he was finished, eight
million Arawaks -- virtually the entire native population of Hispaniola --
had been exterminated by torture, murder, forced labor, starvation, disease
and despair.[3,pg.x]

A Spanish missionary, Bartolome de las Casas, described first-hand how the
Spaniards terrorized the natives.[4] Las Casas gives numerous eye-witness
accounts of repeated mass murder and routine sadistic torture. As Barry
Lopez has accurately summarized it, "One day, in front of Las Casas, the
Spanish dismembered, beheaded, or raped 3000 people. 'Such inhumanities and
barbarisms were committed in my sight,' he says, 'as no age can
parallel....' The Spanish cut off the legs of children who ran from them.
They poured people full of boiling soap. They made bets as to who, with one
sweep of his sword, could cut a person in half. They loosed dogs that
'devoured an Indian like a hog, at first sight, in less than a moment.'
They used nursing infants for dog food."[2,pg.4] This was not occasional
violence -- it was a systematic, prolonged campaign of brutality and
sadism, a policy of torture, mass murder, slavery and forced labor that
continued for CENTURIES. "The destruction of the Indians of the Americas
was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the
world," writes historian David E. Stannard.[3,pg.x] Eventually more than
100 million natives fell under European rule. Their extermination would
follow. As the natives died out, they were replaced by slaves brought from

To make a long story short, Columbus established a pattern that held for
five centuries -- a "ruthless, angry search for wealth," as Barry Lopez
describes it. "It set a tone in the Americas. The quest for personal
possessions was to be, from the outset, a series of raids, irresponsible
and criminal, a spree, in which an end to it -- the slaves, the timber, the
pearls, the fur, the precious ores, and, later, arable land, coal, oil, and
iron ore-- was never visible, in which an end to it had no meaning."
Indeed, there WAS no end to it, no limit.

As Hans Koning has observed, "There was no real ending to the conquest of
Latin America. It continued in remote forests and on far mountainsides. It
is still going on in our day when miners and ranchers invade land belonging
to the Amazon Indians and armed thugs occupy Indian villages in the
backwoods of Central America."[6,pg.46] As recently as the 1980s under
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush the U.S. government knowingly gave
direct aid to genocidal campaigns that killed tens of thousands Mayan
Indian people in Guatemala and elsewhere.[7] The pattern holds.

Unfortunately, Columbus and the Spaniards were not unique. They conquered
Mexico and what is now the Southwestern U.S., with forays into Florida, the
Carolinas, even into Virginia. From Virginia northward, the land had been
taken by the English who, if anything, had even less tolerance for the
indigenous people. As Hans Koning says, "From the beginning, the Spaniards
saw the native Americans as natural slaves, beasts of burden, part of the
loot. When working them to death was more economical than treating them
somewhat humanely, they worked them to death. The English, on the other
hand, had no use for the native peoples. They saw them as devil
worshippers, savages who were beyond salvation by the church, and
exterminating them increasingly became accepted policy."[6,pg.14]

The British arrived in Jamestown in 1607. By 1610 the intentional
extermination of the native population was well along. As David E. Stannard
has written, "Hundreds of Indians were killed in skirmish after skirmish.
Other hundreds were killed in successful plots of mass poisoning. They were
hunted down by dogs, 'blood-Hounds to draw after them, and Mastives
[mastiffs] to seaze them.' Their canoes and fishing weirs were smashed,
their villages and agricultural fields burned to the ground. Indian peace
offers were accepted by the English only until their prisoners were
returned; then, having lulled the natives into false security, the
colonists returned to the attack. It was the colonists' expressed desire
that the Indians be exterminated, rooted 'out from being longer a people
uppon the face of the earth.' In a single raid the settlers destroyed corn
sufficient to feed four thousand people for a year. Starvation and the
massacre of non-combatants was becoming the preferred British approach to
dealing with the natives."[3,pg.106]

In Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey extermination was officially
promoted by a "scalp bounty" on dead Indians. "Indeed, in many areas it
[murdering Indians] became an outright business," writes historian Ward

Indians were defined as subhumans, lower than animals. George Washington
compared them to wolves, "beasts of prey" and called for their total
destruction.[3,pgs.119-120] Andrew Jackson -- whose portrait appears on the
U.S. $20 bill today -- in 1814 "supervised the mutilation of 800 or more
Creek Indian corpses -- the bodies of men, women and children that [his
troops] had massacred -- cutting off their noses to count and preserve a
record of the dead, slicing long strips of flesh from their bodies to tan
and turn into bridle reins."[5,pg.186]

The English policy of extermination -- another name for genocide -- grew
more insistent as settlers pushed westward. In 1851 the Governor of
California officially called for the extermination of the Indians in his
state.[3,pg.144] On March 24, 1863, the ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS in Denver ran
an editorial titled, "Exterminate Them." On April 2, 1863, the SANTA FE NEW
MEXICAN advocated "extermination of the Indians."[5,pg.228] In 1867,
General William Tecumseh Sherman said, "We must act with vindictive
earnestness against the [Lakotas, known to whites as the Sioux] even to
their extermination, men, women and children."[5,pg.240]

In 1891, Frank L. Baum (gentle author of the WIZARD OF OZ) wrote in the
ABERDEEN (KANSAS) SATURDAY PIONEER that the army should "finish the job" by
the "total annihilation" of the few remaining Indians. The U.S. did not
follow through on Baum's macabre demand for there really was no need. By
then the native population had been reduced to 2.5% of its original numbers
and 97.5% of the aboriginal land base had been expropriated and renamed the
land of the free and the home of the brave. Hundreds upon hundreds of
native tribes with unique languages, learning, customs, and cultures had
simply been erased from the face of the earth, most often without even the
pretense of justice or law.

Today we can see the remnant cultural arrogance of Christopher Columbus and
Captain John Smith shadowed in the cult of the "global free market" which
aims to eradicate indigenous cultures and traditions world-wide, to force
all peoples to adopt the ways of the U.S. Global free trade is manifest
destiny writ large.

But as Barry Lopez says, "This violent corruption needn't define us.... We
can say, yes, this happened, and we are ashamed. We repudiate the greed. We
recognize and condemn the evil. And we see how the harm has been
perpetuated. But, five hundred years later, we intend to mean something
else in the world." If we chose, we could set limits on ourselves for once.
We could declare enough is enough. So it is always good to celebrate
Columbus on his day.


Penguin Books, 1969). ISBN 0-14-044217-0.

[2] Barry Lopez, THE REDISCOVERY OF NORTH AMERICA (Lexington, Kentucky:
University Press of Kentucky, 1990. ISBN 0-8131-1742-9.

NEW WORLD (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). ISBN 0-19-507581-1.

(translated by Herma Briffault) (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1992). ISBN 0-8018-4430-4.

THE AMERICAS, 1492 TO THE PRESENT (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997).
ISBN 0-87286-323-9.

CONTINENT (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993), pg. 46. ISBN 0-85345-876-6.

[7] For example, see Mireya Navarro, "Guatemalan Army Waged 'Genocide,' New
Report Finds," NEW YORK TIMES February 26, 1999, pg. unknown. The TIMES
described "torture, kidnapping and execution of thousands of civilians" --
most of them Mayan Indians -- a campaign to which the U.S. government
contributed "money and training." See

Louis Proyect


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