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Thief, Slave Trader, Murderer: Christopher Columbus and Caribbean Population Decline

From: Wicazo Sa Review
Volume 23, Number 1, Spring 2008
pp. 25-50 | 10.1353/wic.2008.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Thief, Slave Trader, Murderer:
Christopher Columbus and Caribbean Population Decline

Is Christopher Columbus guilty of genocide?1 Of murder? On the date of the columbian quincentennary in 1992, marking the five-hundredth anniversary of the misadventure of Columbus (Cristóbal Colón), some 20,000 italian people took to the streets in Genoa, Italy, in protest.2 While the italian event was largely ignored in the United States, there was enough protest of the quincentenary among American Indians and their allies of all races that any celebration of the event was significantly muted in the United States, where the largest protest saw a cohort of 3,000 protesters in Denver, Colorado. The official observance of this day began here a hundred years ago and was the first state to proclaim a columbus day holiday. After several years of negotiating unsuccessfully with columbus day parade organizers to try and change the tenor of their parade, citizens took to the streets in Denver and succeeded in stopping what was originally scheduled as a massive celebration of the 1492 european invasion of the Americas.3 The Denver protest continues again this year as parade organizers have hardened their insistence of celebrating the columbian event as a triumphant act of free speech—compounded by the reality of state, national, and implicit city of Denver support. For their part, those who have protested continue to insist that any celebration of Columbus and his deeds is in fact a celebration of the genocide of native peoples in the Americas. The continuing debate in the local and national press in the United States is whether, indeed, Columbus's act of "discovery" constitutes a [End Page 25] genocidal act at all. This essay seeks to take away the flimsy excuses for the continued celebration of a violent historical figure, empire, and genocide. We will present the facts of the case as bluntly as possible in the interests of promoting some genuine dialogue and healing between contemporary White Americans and the descendents of the original owners of this land.

To this end, we must examine the evidences for the decline in indigenous population of the island of Española under the eight-year governorship of Columbus and to demonstrate his immediate responsibility for that precipitous decline. The essay will then move to argue that much of north american history since Columbus consists of events that are firmly based on a narrative created in the public consciousness about Columbus (which begins with Columbus's conquest) and the ensuing narrative (cultural and legal) developed by american jurists, historians, politicians, movie makers, and the general public to justify their own conquest and genocide of indigenous populations. Part of this american national narrative, of course, is a loosely conceived denial of its own history of violence, which is repeated each year to promote the idea of american exceptionalism at the cost of the truth of the American Indian genocide.

That Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón (to give him his proper spanish name), was a slave trader is a matter of historical fact. He cut his nautical teeth sailing under a portugese flag engaged in the african slave trade a dozen years before 1492. When easy wealth in the form of gold proved not readily available in the Caribbean, Colón resumed his slave-trading occupation by loading the holds of his ships with Indian human cargo headed for the slave market in Seville. That he was a thief is equally self-evident, however a high-level thief he may have been. The law of tribute that he instituted in the island he called Española sometime in 1495 forced Indian people on the island to surrender goods, including gold ore, can only be classed as armed robbery. And we will argue in this essay that Colón was indeed a murderer, culpable for those crimes against humanity as the head of an authoritarian regime just as readily as Adolph Hitler is held accountable for the murder of some six million Romas (the so-called Gypsies), Jews, and gays in Nazi Germany. We know that Colón's law of tribute effectively resulted in the murder...