“[…] the way this history is taught and culturally remembered casts a shadow over our collective consciousness, reifying imperialism and white supremacy … the idealisation of Columbus’ so-called discovery means romanticising oppression, corruption, mass murder and rape…”
The following is a joint submission from the Warrao Nation, Partners for First Peoples Development and the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project on the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean:
For the last 200 years, Christopher Columbus has been one of the most revered symbols in the Americas with more places and monuments dedicated to him than any other historical figure. During this period, he has been praised as the great explorer and credited, as irrational as it sounds, with the discovery of our hemisphere, known as Abya Yala in the Guna language.
On 12 October 2020, the anniversary of the day Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean in 1492, the Warrao Nation, Partners for First Peoples Development and the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project highlighted five inconvenient truths about his life that have devastated this legacy and changed forever the perception of monuments like those in Port of Spain and Moruga.
1. He set the stage for enslavement and genocide
On Columbus’ first voyage he landed in what we now call the Bahamas. In his diary, he described the Indigenous Americans he encountered as ‘hospitable and well-built, with handsome features’. Without the hesitation of someone with half a conscience, he added: ‘They would make fine servants … with 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want’, setting the stage for enslavement and genocide of Indigenous people—one of the greatest crimes in human history.
2. He began trans-Atlantic human trafficking
Though Columbus took five indigenous people captive at the conclusion of his first voyage, historians tend to highlight the 500 he transported back to Spain in pens at the end of the second as the beginning of the trans-Atlantic traffic in human beings for the purpose of enslavement—another one of the greatest crimes in human history.
3. He was responsible for the rape of Indigenous women and girls
It has been noted by University of Vermont history professor Dr James Loewen that ‘As soon as the 1493 expedition got to the Caribbean…Columbus was rewarding his lieutenants with native women to rape including children.’ A letter from one of Columbus’ crewmen Miguel Cuneo describes how he got his own sex slave as ‘a gift from Columbus’. He wrote that she ‘resisted with all her strength’, leaving him no other choice but to ‘thrash her mercilessly and rape her’. In 1500, Columbus himself noted that ‘girls, from 9-10 (years old) are now in demand.’
4. His brutal rule led to mass suicides
Under Columbus’s genocidal rule as Viceroy of the Indies and Governor of Hispaniola, life for the indigenous people on the island, known today as Haiti and the Dominican Republic, became so bad that many resorted to mass suicide. After one day in which Bartolome de las Casas saw Columbus’ soldiers ‘dismember, behead or rape 3,000 natives’, he penned: “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that I now tremble as I write.”
5. He was inhuman to Indigenous and European people alike
In 2005, a 48-page report by Francisco de Bobadilla, which gathered testimony from both the enemies and supporters of Columbus’ seven-year reign, was discovered in a state archive in the Spanish city of Valladolid. It revealed that Columbus was not just wicked to Indigenous Americans but to Europeans as well. According to Spanish historian Consuelo Varela, who has studied the documents: “Columbus and his brothers come across as tyrants … punishments included cutting off people’s ears and noses … and selling them into slavery … even those who loved him had to admit the atrocities that had taken place … a woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule.” Varela said Bartolomé (Columbus’ brother) ordered that her tongue be cut out, adding: “Christopher congratulated him for defending the family.”
In her essay Columbus: Gone, But Not Forgotten, the esteemed African-American professor, feminist and social activist known as bell hooks joined the array of luminaries around the world, including those from the Caribbean such as Professor Hillary Beckles, the late Robert Nesta Marley and Winston Bailey who have urged us to rethink the meaning of Columbus’s legacy. She believes that the way this history is taught and culturally remembered casts a shadow over our collective consciousness, reifying imperialism and white supremacy.
She asserts that the idealisation of Columbus’ so-called discovery means romanticising oppression, corruption, mass murder and rape. We concur and invite people to consider that this is doubly absurd and perverse in the Caribbean: the actual locus of his historic crimes.