[Marxism] The violent story of Columbus' forgotten colony

Dennis Brasky dmozart1756 at gmail.com
Thu Aug 18 09:16:29 MDT 2011

The violent story of Columbus' forgotten colony His first settlement, La
Isabela, has been ignored by history -- but its short existence reshaped our

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Although it had just finished raining, the air was hot and close. Nobody
else was in sight; the only sound other than those from insects and gulls
was the staticky low crashing of Caribbean waves. Around me on the sparsely
covered red soil was a scatter of rectangles laid out by lines of stones:
the outlines of now-vanished buildings, revealed by archaeologists. Cement
pathways, steaming faintly from the rain, ran between them. One of the
buildings had more imposing walls than the others. The researchers had
covered it with a new roof, the only structure they had chosen to protect
from the rain. Standing like a sentry by its entrance was a hand-lettered
sign: Casa Almirante, Admiral’s House. It marked the first American
residence of Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, the man whom
generations of schoolchildren have learned to call the discoverer of the New

La Isabela, as this community was called, is situated on the north side of
the great Caribbean island of Hispaniola, in what is now the Dominican
Republic. It was the initial attempt by Europeans to make a permanent base
in the Americas. (To be precise, La Isabela marked the beginning of
consequential European settlement -- Vikings had established a short-lived
village in Newfoundland five centuries before.) The admiral laid out his new
domain at the confluence of two small, fast-rushing rivers: a fortified
center on the north bank, a satellite community of farms on the south bank.
For his home, Columbus -- Cristóbal Colón, to give him the name he answered
to at the time -- chose the best location in town: a rocky promontory in the
northern settlement, right at the water’s edge. His house was situated
perfectly to catch the afternoon light.

Today La Isabela is almost forgotten. Sometimes a similar fate appears to
threaten its founder. Colón is by no means absent from history textbooks, of
course, but in them he seems ever less admirable and important. He was a
cruel, deluded man, today’s critics say, who stumbled upon the Caribbean by
luck. An agent of imperialism, he was in every way a calamity for the
Americas’ first inhabitants. Yet a different but equally contemporary
perspective suggests that we should continue to take notice of the admiral.
Of all the members of humankind who have ever walked the earth, he alone
inaugurated a new era in the history of life.


Long-distance trade had occurred for more than a thousand years, much of it
across the Indian Ocean. China had for centuries sent silk to the
Mediterranean by the Silk Road, a route that was lengthy, dangerous, and,
for those who survived, hugely profitable. But nothing like this worldwide
exchange had existed before, still less sprung up so quickly, or functioned
so continuously. No previous trade networks included both of the globe’s two
hemispheres; nor had they operated on a scale large enough to disrupt
societies on opposite sides of the planet. By founding La Isabela, Colón
initiated permanent European occupation in the Americas. And in so doing he
began the era of globalization -- the single, turbulent exchange of goods
and services that today engulfs the entire habitable world.

Newspapers usually describe globalization in purely economic terms, but it
is also a biological phenomenon; indeed, from a long-term perspective it may
be primarily a biological phenomenon. Two hundred and fifty million years
ago the world contained a single landmass known to scientists as Pangaea.
Geological forces broke up this vast expanse, splitting Eurasia and the
Americas. Over time the two divided halves of Pangaea developed wildly
different suites of plants and animals. Before Colón a few venturesome land
creatures had crossed the oceans and established themselves on the other
side. Most were insects and birds, as one would expect, but the list also
includes, surprisingly, a few farm species — bottle gourds, coconuts, sweet
potatoes — the subject today of scholarly head-scratching. Otherwise, the
world was sliced into separate ecological domains. Colón’s signal
accomplishment was, in the phrase of historian Alfred W. Crosby, to reknit
the seams of Pangaea. After 1492 the world’s ecosystems collided and mixed
as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the
oceans. The Columbian Exchange, as Crosby called it, is the reason there are
tomatoes in Italy, oranges in the United States, chocolates in Switzerland,
and chili peppers in Thailand. To ecologists, the Columbian Exchange is
arguably the most important event since the death of the dinosaurs.

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