The following is the last in a four part series by historian Dr Claudius Fergus on the enduring—and arguably unjustifiable—heroic standing of Christopher Columbus in modern society:
Socialist thinker Karl Liebknecht compared European imperialism to a cyclone spinning across the globe, driven and sustained by its militarism that “crushes people and sucks their blood like a vampire.”
This was exactly the case with the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean. Native peoples, including babies, were murdered en masse; women and girls were constantly raped and molested to satisfy the lust of the predominantly male invaders; and the region’s natural resources were stripped away to enrich and aggrandise the peoples of Europe.
The first reports of these atrocities under Columbus reached Spain during his third voyage. But it was Las Casas’ Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, published in 1552, that brought the greatest public awareness of them. Although Las Casas did not name any official, his description of events of the 1490s certainly indicted Columbus and his brother, Bartholomew.
Historian Tony Martin ridiculed the imperialist tendency to downplay human agency in the genocide while prioritising European-borne diseases. Decimation by diseases was never based on empirical evidence. Neither Columbus nor his brothers nor Francisco de Bobadilla reported an epidemic.
The earliest reference to an epidemic was 1507; other sources cite 1518. This suggests that the outbreak at the former date, if it happened, might have been rapidly contained.
Nevertheless, the decimation of the population was so evident by 1500 that the Crown issued the first decree allowing the importation of enslaved Africans from Spain to alleviate the labour shortage that was affecting gold production.
The invaders’ lust for gold, procured by tribute, was the major cause of genocide in Hispaniola. Sixteenth-century historian, Francisco López de Gómara, attested that Columbus consolidated his conquest of Hispaniola by distributing more than 1,000,000 natives among his brothers, his soldiers, the settlers and the public servants of the Crown.
According to Gómara, the main purpose of this repartimiento, sometimes called encomienda, was to procure gold and sustenance for the invaders. In effect, Columbus’ repartimiento was the prototype for the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, with similar consequences.
Before the first census was conducted, native population figures were merely estimates. Accordingly, figures varied widely. From the earliest descriptions, however, Hispaniola was heavily populated. Whether it was as high as 3,000,000, as estimated by Las Casas, or as low as 300,000, by 1508 it had declined to 60,000 and by 1514 to just 14,000.
Some islands in the Bahamas and later, Barbados, were completely depopulated by violence and slave raiding. Unlike the mainland where the population began to recover after 150 years, the Caribbean lacked the capacity for recovery because of the tiny pockets of survivals in some islands, continually corralled by plantation development.
According to Las Casas, Columbus and his successors treated the natives “not as Beasts… but as the most abject dung and filth of the Earth.” To procure gold and food, the earliest Spaniards unleashed every conceivable form of savagery upon the indigenes.
Columbus reported that in 1500 an individual invader was making from 110 to 250 castellanos per day (Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro. One castellano equalled 4.6g of gold).
By 1503, Spain was already extracting in excess of 59,000 ducats of gold; in 1518—before the shift to the continent—the value of Caribbean gold sent to Spain was 120,000 ducats. The Spaniards also bled Haiti of its resources in salt, brazil wood, amber, silver and “other metals” (Francisco de Gómara).
Natives of Trinidad were an important factor in Spain’s predatory capitalism in the Greater Antilles. For one hundred and fifty years the island was the most intensely raided by traffickers from Santo Domingo to provide slave labour in the gold mines of Hispaniola and Cuba and to dive for pearls off the coast of Margarita.
Scholars estimate the population of Trinidad at 30,000 to 40,000 in 1498 (popular sources claim a lot more). By the first permanent foreign settlement in 1592, it had declined by 50 per cent; by the start of the British takeover two hundred years later, it was facing extinction (Bridget Brereton, A History of Modern Trinidad).
Ironically, the introduction of captured natives from other islands for encomienda labour might have been a critical element of the surviving Trinidad population of 1,802.
Columbus did not visit Tobago, but its natives were not spared the terrors unleashed against all “canibales” (“cannibals”) during his voyages. In 1511, King Ferdinand issued a royal proclamation authorising slave raiders of Santo Domingo to attack the “canibales/Caribs” of Tobago and enslave them. The new proclamation invoked Isabella’s earlier decrees of 1503 and 1505 authorising the raiding and enslaving of the peoples of Trinidad.
Las Casas was quintessentially imperialist. Despite his condemnation of Columbus’ savage policies, he presented him as “aquel ilustre y grande Colon” (“that illustrious and great Columbus”), fated to do God’s work. The restoration of Columbus as hero depended on reactionary historians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Juan Muñoz and Washington Irving, endorsing this portraiture.
EL Joseph was a protégé of Irving. In his History of Trinidad (1837) he dedicated an entire chapter to the admiral, describing him as “the great Columbus.” Unlike Irving, however, Joseph paid no attention to the crimes his hero committed before or after sighting Trinidad. In the later nineteenth century, Lionel Fraser’s History of Trinidad addressed Columbus in just one paragraph, but as “the great discoverer.”
One writer to the Trinidad Guardian of 13 August 2016 chastised the leaders of the newly launched Columbus-Must-Fall campaign: “Part of the misdirected angst against the Columbus monument is possibly due to a complete lack of knowledge about its history.”
Not only do I reject this presumption but also caution those who share such views. There is profound wisdom in the words of CLR James: “What does he know of cricket who only cricket knows?” (Beyond a Boundary). The Guardian writer presented some creditable facts, but truth often lies below the material surface of history.
In 1855, Frenchman Joseph Arthur Compte de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of Human Races postulated that every stage in the history of civilisation was marked by the victory of the “Aryan” race over “inferior races”. The following year the book was translated into English. Columbus was the primary transnational icon to scholars who were converts of this history of racial determinism.
Americans embraced Columbus as the mascot of white supremacy or Aryanism in materialising their ideology of “manifest destiny”, which deployed unmitigated violence against natives “discovered” west of the Mississippi River.
Sociologically, Aryanism became Social Darwinism, which was adopted by France and Britain to justify their invasion and colonisation of Africa and India as “civilisation missions”. They, too, adopted the Columbus mascot, and where appropriate, the Portuguese “discoverer”, Vasco Da Gama.
The embrace of Columbus in Trinidad in the second half of the nineteenth century was also rekindled by the popularity of Aryanism and Social Darwinism. Roselly de Lorgues’ Histoire Posthumus de Christophe Colomb was France’s best effort to position Columbus as “the great discoverer” and mascot of their new imperialism. This book was popular among French Creoles of Trinidad.
Lorgues explained that France had played a major role in casting Columbus to an early oblivion. His biography was, therefore, redemptive. Pierre-Louis Gustave Borde and Hypolite Borde bought into this reactionary narrative to which they added a Trinidad flavour.
Without an understanding of the culture clash between Francophiles and Anglophiles it would be difficult to fully comprehend why Trinidad was one of the first places outside of the USA to erect a statue of Columbus.
The Borde brothers became cultural warriors for the French Creoles, leading a last stand against Anglicisation. The Anglicising of the former Spanish legal-constitutional framework of Trinidad was completed by the second half of the nineteenth century.
Although the culture and language of the French Creole elite were in retreat, they were still a political force with which to be reckoned. The crushing of the African Canboulay and Muslim Hosay festivals in the 1880s accentuated the showdown between the rival plantation elites.
Gustave Borde set out to write Histoire de l’Ile de la Trinidad sous le Government Espagnol (History of the Island of Trinidad Under Spanish Rule, 1876-1882) as a Franco-Hispanic Catholic history of the island. His Preface explicitly blamed Anglicisation for the massive destruction of invaluable documents in the Cabildo archives.
He believed that this loss would effectively cast a shadow on the pre-conquest history of the island in which the French were major players. His Histoire would pre-empt such a development, including the honouring of Columbus as “the discoverer” of America and illustrious hero of global white supremacy.
Part One of Borde’s Histoire was translated into English only in 1932. But its most important impact was to be felt long before. While Gustave was writing his Histoire, Hypolite was busy casting a life-size statue of Columbus, which he strategically placed east of the old wooden Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (Virgin Mary).
In this way, the Borde brothers were harkening back to the very beginning of Columbus’s enterprise—his close association with and dependency on the Church of the Virgin Mary, Santa Maria de La Rábida in Palos, Spain.
Another interpretation of the placement of the statue was to replicate as closely as possible the burial of Columbus in the Church of Santa Maria in the Dominican Republic. More than a mascot of Franco-Hispanic Catholicism, Borde’s Columbus was existential supremacism.
The Bordes were determined to control the historical narrative of Columbus not only as the initiator of colonialism in Trinidad but also the progenitor of Roman Catholicism in this part of the world. The record of his evil deeds was never alluded to in either of their projects.
According to Bridget Brereton, “[Gustave] Borde wanted the youth of Trinidad to go back to the island’s early history to find their heroes, to exercise their imaginations on the vivid personalities and episodes of the Spanish period.”
We now know that the Borde brothers sold us a villain, who was not yet honoured with a statue in the land of his birth, Italy, or his adopted homeland, Spain, up to the time of the publication of Histoire and the erection of the Columbus statue.
Today we know that the real heroes of “the Spanish period” in Trinidad were Baucunar, Hyarima, Goanagoanare and others who tried valiantly to defend their sovereignty and save their people from destruction under Spanish conquistadors, slave raiders and colonisers.
The veneration of Columbus expanded from a French Creole elite fringe to “nationwide” celebration shortly after the successful New York quadricentenary celebrations of the arrival of Columbus; but more so, after the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Perhaps the biggest victory of Trini-Columbians was the celebration of Trinidad’s “Discovery Day”. In the same month that the colonial government proclaimed 24 May 1902 as Britain’s first Empire Day to be celebrated as a public holiday in Trinidad and Tobago, the Legislative Council received a “Petition from Inhabitants of Trinidad… praying that Discovery Day the 31st of July, be declared a Public Holiday”.
Because of the coronation of King Edward Vll, the first proclamation was postponed to 1903, making Trinidad and Tobago one of the first places to celebrate Columbus’ visit with a public holiday. This was six years before New York state, which pioneered the erection of Columbus monuments.
In his independence gift to his country, The History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, author and Prime Minister, Eric Williams, did nothing to dispel the myth of Columbus “the discoverer”; nor did he disclose his criminal acts.
It is to Williams’s credit, however, that his later historical survey of the Caribbean, From Columbus to Castro (1970), began by rejecting the very notion of “discoverer”. Bridget Brereton would do the same in her History of Modern Trinidad ten years later.
The post-colonialist context of From Columbus to Castro resonated in the Black Power movement and Jamaican reggae, beginning with Peter Tosh’s seminal recognition of the psychological damage of imposing Columbus as superhero on the youths of the Caribbean.
Notwithstanding this trend, other influential minds were engaged in remodelling the colonialist ideals through the veneration of imperialist figures, regardless of their track record in crimes against humanity. This was the case with Count de Lopinot and Viscount Milner; it was also true for Columbus.
Writing in the mid-1970s, Michael Anthony even injected a “Gentle [Jesus]” motif into the sanitised portraiture of Columbus. In attempting to explain native Trinidadian hospitality toward Spanish intruder Antonio Cedeño, Anthony writes, “No doubt this was in the part of the island where the gentle Columbus had made his appearance, and was probably remembered” (The Making of Port of Spain).
The gentility of Columbus in Trinidad waters is pure fantasy. He personally recorded an episode wherein he deliberately capsized a canoe in the Gulf of Paria, throwing the four occupants into the water in order to kidnap them.
Furthermore, he had already kidnapped natives for trafficking on his first voyage and unleashed terror against the natives of Hispaniola on his second voyage.
Las Casas testified that Columbus oversaw the snatching of young babies from their mothers’ breasts and the smashing of their skulls against rocks.
This type of history, therefore, is a classic example of the “paralysis of mental slavery” already explored in Part One of this series of articles. It is the kind of history that feeds into the emotional defence of Columbus’ statue here and in other polities that are determined to end this idolatry.
The retention of the Columbus statue is a relic of a colonial era dedicated to white supremacy.
Our youths need monuments to historical figures that speak to their humanity and honour our historical struggles against oppression. They do not need monuments that glorify oppression and historical figures that treated the indigenous peoples as “dung and filth of the earth.”
Editor’s Note: Click HERE for part one as historian Dr Claudius Fergus judges Christopher Columbus through the lens of history and explains why his statue should be an affront to Trinidad and Tobago.