On October 12, the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project (CRFP), in collaboration with the Warao and Partners for First Peoples’ Development, staged a protest march against Port of Spain Mayor Joel Martinez’s vacillation on convening a forum for national dialogue on the CRFP’s call for the removal of Christopher Columbus’ statue from Columbus Square.
Leaving the Woodford Square assembly point, the protestors made their first stop in front of City Hall before joining the annual street parade of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community (SRFP) down Frederick Street and onto Brian Lara Promenade.
Chief Ricardo Bharath-Hernandez of the SRFP has unequivocally condemned Columbus for the evils he unleashed in the Caribbean, but reiterated to the CRFP that he could not support removing the statue, unless the anti-Columbus advocates could satisfy his curiosity about the benefits for his people from its removal.
After a heated clash between Chief Bharath-Hernandez and some of the Columbus-Must-Fall leaders, the campaigners proceeded to Columbus Square where the Warao performed traditional rituals.
The clash of views on the Promenade reflects the national division of opinion on the status of the Columbus statue.
There are those who understand the history of the clash of civilisations that decimated the region’s indigenous populations, but see the statue as a symbol of the positive aspects of colonialism. Then there are also those who do not know or wish to know this history and emotionally react to any change to entrenched colonial values; and there are those who understand that a villain such as Columbus ought never to be honoured by public monuments in a country that suffered from his lust for gold and glory.
In his book, The Black Jacobins, CLR James graphically illustrates how enslaved people in Haiti persistently feigned stupidity in the presence of their enslavers, but displayed intellectual acumen when in their own private spaces. This pretence culture, however, had long-term consequences.
As Martin Luther King Jr succinctly stated, “The great tragedy of physical slavery was that it led to the paralysis of mental slavery.” This paralysis might be the cause of the apparent indifference or blindness to the symbolisms of colonial commemorative art.
This article and those to follow will explore the mystique of Columbus from a deeper historical-religious perspective than has so far appeared in local media.
Within the recent past, our daily print media have published several letters and articles from authors who hold the view that Columbus’ first landfall in the Caribbean in 1492 is sufficient reason to perpetuate his glorification through public monuments, even when acknowledging that the sanitised narrative of his relations with the indigenous peoples is flawed.
A common thread in these pro-Columbus essays is the implicit—even if unintentional—validation of the Euro-American white supremacist doctrine that equates European colonisation with the myth of civilising “inferior” races.
Among the reasons advanced in an anonymous article in the Trinidad Guardian of 13 August 2016 for retention of the statue at its present location are the paucity of public monuments in the country and the “fact” that Columbus’ anchor was found in coastal waters in south Trinidad.
These pro-Columbus writers argue that the strident call for the removal of the statue by the CRFP and some leaders of the indigenous community is sacrilegious and tantamount to rewriting or erasing history.
The selective but misguided concern for preserving history is central to the wider public defence of the statue and the puritanical hero-myth of Columbus. These writers do not seem to understand that the colonial version of history was a critical element in their intellectual enslavement after the legislative abolition of chattel slavery.
Professional historians think differently; they know that it is the duty of every new generation of practitioners of their discipline to revisit received historiography with new questions and new tools of enquiry available to them. Those who fail to do so are not worthy of respect as historians.
Seymour Drescher, one of the most respected imperialist historians of the Atlantic world, affirms that colonialist history was as integral to empire building as military conquests.
In explaining the rapid collapse of the British Empire after the Second World War, Drescher contends unequivocally: “One aspect of the demolition was a historiographic revaluation of the great campaign against the slave trade and slavery by the world’s paramount empire [British]. The emblematic work in this process was, of course, Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery” (Abolitionism and Imperialism in Britain, Africa, and the Atlantic, edited by Derek R Peterson).
Drescher explains that Williams’ book was “an explicit devaluation of the significance of morality in the destruction of British slavery and an implicit devaluation of Britain’s use of abolitionism as a justification for imperial rule in the whole of its Afro-American orbit.”
This is a powerful admission because Drescher’s fame as a scholar was based on his obsession with delegitimising the core arguments of Capitalism and Slavery.
Simply put, Drescher was admitting that the case for Caribbean nationhood was not feasible as long as Caribbean intellectuals continued to believe in the history that projected Britain as a moral empire and British imperialism as necessary for the development of colonised people.
Vice-Chancellor of The UWI, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, recently called for the removal of the statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, a defender of the British Atlantic slave trade, from outside the Barbados parliament. In pushing back against accusations of wanting to erase the history of the island, he asserted emphatically, “I am a historian, you cannot remove history—but you can determine whom you will revere in history.”
Like Beckles, the CRFP, led by Shabaka Kambon, has publicly rejected the fallacy that ridding our public spaces of monuments that commemorate the worst villains of imperialism and colonialism is tantamount to erasing history.
The CRFP affirms that colonial historical narratives were deliberately constructed to hide or sanitise the atrocities of imperialism and colonialism, and to justify colonial violence as quid pro quo for European civilisation, while condemning those resisting colonial oppression as criminals and mass murderers.
Colonial monuments were never value-free works of art; they existed as a complement to grand military displays and palatial architecture—the Great House ethic of plantation slavery—to awe the onlooker and subliminally reinforce the pedagogy of colonialists as natural rulers from a higher civilisation.
The CRFP does not underestimate the immense significance of 12 October 1492—and more so, 4 March 1493—when Christopher Columbus returned to Europe after seven months from his transatlantic adventure. Henceforth, the balance of power between Islam and Christianity would remain permanently skewed in favour of the latter.
The Mandinga Muslim Emperor of ancient Mali, Abu Bakari ll, was the equivalent of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator. During his reign, he commissioned two large fleets to cross the same ocean 180 years before Columbus, but they did not return to Africa. The emperor himself commanded the second voyage. Thus, it was Columbus’ return to Europe that was the game changer, not his outward voyage.
One of the immediate impacts of Columbus’ return was the Portuguese race for India—the real one, which they reached in 1498. This race also brought them into the Americas, first into Brazil and shortly after, into the Caribbean, delivering African captives under Spain’s royal contract, the asiento.
Together, these two navigational milestones laid the foundation for Western Europe’s global hegemony—a legacy that persists to this day. To the native people of the region, however, two words capture the impact: genocide and stagnation.
Contrary to the opinion of pro-Columbus advocates, the admiral personally ordered, inflicted or sanctioned every category of atrocity against the natives, while he and his brothers, Bartholomew and Diego, were joint rulers up to 1500.
The report on these horrific crimes, compiled by his successor, Francisco de Bobadilla, was publicly released in Spain only in 2006 for the first time. Interestingly, some contemporary Spanish jurists treated them as crimes against humanity, even if not so described.
Many of these documents were already available to privileged scholars at least since the early nineteenth century. In any case, Bartolomé de Las Casas’ Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552), documenting these atrocities, was always available in Spanish, French and English.
Las Casas was an imperialist thinker, slave owner and coloniser, first as encomendero and then as priest. His father had sailed with Columbus on his first voyage, and he on the third (Bob Corbett, “The Tale of Bartolome de Las Casas”). Although he believed that Columbus was a gift of God to humans, he graphically detailed the evils as a first generation rapporteur, eyewitness and participant.
Washington Irving painfully admitted these atrocities in his biography, Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828. By the end of the century, Irving’s book had gone through over 175 editions, making it the primary source for Anglophone historians. Every history of Trinidad, beginning with EL Joseph’s, published in 1837, acknowledged Irving for their information on Columbus and his “companions”.
Even then the sanitising of the crimes had begun. Not surprisingly, by the time Michael Anthony published his book, The Making of Port of Spain, in 1975, the portraiture of the admiral is that of “a gentle Columbus”—as if he were at least beatified.
Irving describes how Columbus was driven to revenge for the killing of his men he had left behind on his first voyage. Self-guilt fuelled his rage, because he had failed to heed the warning of his deputy, Martin Pinzon, that leaving the 38 men behind was dangerously unwise.
Pinzon obviously understood better than Columbus that those degradados (social deviants) who formed a majority of the crew could not be counted on to show restraint of any kind, and would certainly lead to war with the natives.
Writing a few decades after Columbus, historian Fr Francisco López de Gómara (Historia General de las Indias) affirmed that the caciques had Columbus’ men executed for raping their wives (“porque les forzaban sus mujeres”).
During his second voyage, Columbus sent Don Pedro Margarite on a “military tour” of Hispaniola, during which he used violence to rob innocent natives of food supplies. Those Spaniards who stayed behind formed roving bands that raped and pillaged with such ruthlessness that the native leaders were compelled to launch counter attacks.
From these sorties, Columbus acquired some 500 “prisoners” whom he sent to Spain with his brother Bartholomew in ships commanded by Antonio de Torres. Over 1,500 more were to follow. These natives were to be sold as slaves in Seville.
To his credit, Irving did not cover up the worst villainies of Columbus. Of this slave-trading episode, he writes, “It is painful to find the brilliant renown of Columbus sullied by so foul a stain, and the glory of his enterprises degraded, by such flagrant violations of humanity.”
The historical context of Irving’s condemnation is significant. Irving was an American writer at a time when the US was the biggest player in the expanded transatlantic slave trade. Slave traders of many nationalities flew the American flag to protect them from stop-and-search intercepts by British naval squadrons.
As an apology for Columbus’ inhumanity, Irving linked his human trafficking to Spanish and Portuguese precedents in Africa, “wherein the traffic in slaves had formed one of the greatest sources of profit.”
Columbus’ intention was evidently to pioneer a new west-to-east transatlantic traffic in humans, which he had already tested on his first voyage.
Irving also states that Columbus had the evil example of the capturing of thousands of Moorish civilians in Granada, who were sold into chattel slavery by order of King Ferdinand.
We also know that Columbus had personally participated in the slave trade out of West Africa between 1482 and 1485. It might have been for a longer period, because Columbus stated in his diaries that he sailed the African coasts for twenty-three years (JH Clarke, Christopher Columbus and the African Holocaust).
Irving tells us that in March 1495, Columbus personally led a scorched earth, revenge expedition against an alliance of most of Haiti’s [Hispaniola’s] caciques. He was aided by his brothers Diego and Bartholomew, the latter being Columbus’ Deputy Governor (Adelantado); the fearsome Don Pedro Margarite was in charge of a cavalry of twenty horsemen.
Columbus’ army of about 200 was formidably armed with conventional Spanish weapons as well as twenty “fearless and ferocious” bloodhounds. At one point in the campaign, Columbus let loose the bloodhounds, which seized the natives “by the throat, dragging them to the earth and tearing out their bowels.” After routing his first opponents, Columbus continued to direct ruthless attacks across most of the island.
At least twenty-three witnesses testified that Columbus routinely used torture and mutilation against the indigenes as well as his own men. Las Casas also affirmed that Columbus’ men “snatcht young Babes from their Mothers’ Breasts, and then dasht out the brains of those innocents against the Rocks” (Short Account).
Following his “victory”, Columbus claimed the traditional Iberian rights of a conquistador and imposed two brutal taxes (pechero and tributario) on every native above 14 years old.
Each tributario (tribute payer) had to deliver a fixed amount of gold every three months on pain of severe punishment; where no gold existed, each person had to bring in a fixed amount of cotton every three months. Irving admitted that this tribute system was slavery. A pechero was a servile tax that reduced the highest-ranked native to a lower social status than the meanest degradado from Spain.
The pechero was the first instance of institutional racism in the Caribbean. Even though Chief Guacanagari had allegedly provided invaluable military intelligence to Columbus, his people were not spared this tributary slavery and the pechero. Military violence and tributary slavery decimated the population of Hispaniola from an estimated 1,000,000-3,000,000 in 1492 to 200,000 in 1496.
By 1500, the demographic situation was so desperate that Spain had to sanction the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans to supplement and replace the enslaved Taino. The first of these Africans arrived in 1502, coinciding with Columbus’ final voyage to the Caribbean.
This means that all the evils of colonialism–gubernatorial tyranny, genocide, rapine, murder, torture, oppressive laws, racism, slavery and transatlantic slave trading–were initiated during Columbus’ tenure as viceroy and governor of the colony in Hispaniola.
Editor’s Note: Click HERE for Part Two of Dr Claudius Fergus’ series on the late Christopher Columbus which explores how the Catholic Church became the catalyst in the restoration and beatification of Columbus.