Once again, it’s time to celebrate Columbus Day. Yet, the stunning truth is: If Christopher Columbus were alive today, he would be put on trial for crimes against humanity. Columbus’ reign of terror, as documented by noted historians, was so bloody, his legacy so unspeakably cruel, that Columbus makes a modern villain like Saddam Hussein look like a pale codfish.
Question: Why do we honor a man who, if he were alive today, would almost certainly be sitting on Death Row awaiting execution?
Columbus’ Jewish Secret
Columbus Day was conceived by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Fraternal organization, in the 1930s because they wanted a Catholic hero. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the day into law as a federal holiday in 1937, the rest has been history. The irony is that Christopher Columbus was not Catholic, but was secretly Jewish and was in search of a land far from persecution. But Columbus became a persecutor.
During Columbus’ lifetime, Jews became the target of fanatical religious persecution. On March 31, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella proclaimed that all Jews were to be expelled from Spain. The edict especially targeted the 800,000 Jews who had never converted, and gave them four months to pack up and get out.
The Jews who were forced to renounce Judaism and embrace Catholicism were known as “Conversos,” or converts. There were also those who feigned conversion, practicing Catholicism outwardly while covertly practicing Judaism, the so-called “Marranos,” or swine.
Tens of thousands of Marranos were tortured by the Spanish Inquisition. They were pressured to offer names of friends and family members, who were ultimately paraded in front of crowds, tied to stakes and burned alive. Their land and personal possessions were then divvied up by the church and crown.
On the second Monday of October each year, Native Americans cringe at the thought of honoring a man who committed atrocities against Indigenous Peoples.
Columbus Never Landed on American Soil
Not in 1492, Not Ever. Columbus didn’t land on the higher 48—ever. Columbus quite literally landed in what is now known as the Bahamas and later Hispaniola, present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The natives living on the island that would come to be called Hispaniola were peaceful and not trained in military tactics. In the Pre-Columbian era, other Caribbean tribes would sometimes attack the island to kidnap people into slavery. However when Columbus arrived in 1492, slavery on the island turned into a major business: colonists quickly began establishing sugar plantations dependent on slave labor. The practice of slavery was so devastating to the native population that the Spanish began importing African slaves. In the Spanish New World colonies would become so large scale in Spain’s colonization of the Americas that imports of African slaves outnumbered Spanish immigration to the New World by the end of the 1500s.
When Columbus arrived in what is today Haiti in December 1492 and met the native Taino Arawak people, they were friendly, exchanging gifts with the Spaniards and volunteering their help. When Columbus first saw the Native Arawaks that came to greet him and his crew he spoke with a peaceful and admiring tone.
“They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things… They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Columbus was already planning to enslave them. He wrote in a letter to Queen Isabella of Spain that the natives were “tractable, and easily led; they could be made to grow crops and build cities”.
When Columbus returned to Europe in 1493, 30 of his soldiers stayed to build a fort there called La Navidad. They began stealing from, raping, and enslaving the natives—in some cases they held native women and girls as sex slaves. Finding gold was a chief goal for the Spanish; they quickly forced enslaved natives to work in gold mines, which took a heavy toll in life and health. In addition to gold the slaves mined copper, and they grew crops for the Spaniards. In response to the brutality, the natives fought back. Some Taino escaped into remote parts of the island’s mountains and formed communities in hiding as “maroons”, who organized attacks against Spaniards’ settlements. the Spanish responded to the native resistance with severe reprisals, for example destroying crops to starve the natives. The Spaniards brought to the island dogs trained to kill the natives and unleashed them upon those who rebelled against enslavement. In 1495 Columbus sent 500 captured natives back to Spain as slaves, but 200 did not survive the voyage, and the others died shortly afterwards. In the late 1490s he planned to send 4000 slaves back to Spain each year, but this expectation failed to take into account the rapid decline the native population would soon suffer and was never achieved.
It is not known how many Taino people were on the island prior to Columbus’s arrival—estimates range from several thousand to eight million—but overwork in slavery and diseases introduced by the Europeans quickly killed a large part of the population. Between 1492 and 1494, one third of the native population on the island died. Two million had been killed within ten years of the Spaniards’ arrival, and by 1514, 92% of the native population of the island were killed by enslavement and European diseases. By the 1540s the culture of the natives had disappeared from the island, and by 1548 the native population was under 500.
The rapid rate at which the native slaves died necessitated the import of Africans, for whom contact with Europeans was not new and who therefore had already developed some immunity to European diseases. Columbus’s son Diego Columbus started the African slave trade to the island in 1505. Some newly arrived slaves from Africa and neighboring islands were able to escape and join maroon communities in the mountains. In 1519 Africans and Native Americans joined forces to start a slave rebellion that turned into a years-long uprising which was eventually crushed by the Spanish in the 1530s.
Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas spoke out against the enslavement of the natives and the brutality of the Spaniards. He wrote that to the natives, the Christianity brought by the Spaniards had come to symbolize the brutality with which they had been treated; he quoted one Taino cacique (tribal chief), “They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters.”
Las Casas commented that the Spaniards’ punishment of a Taino man by cutting off his ear “marked the beginning of the spilling of blood, later to become a river of blood, first on this island and then in every corner of these Indies.” Las Casas’ campaign led to an official end of the enslavement of Tainos in 1542—however it was replaced by the African slave trade. As Las Casas had presaged, the Spaniards’ treatment of the Tainos was the start of a centuries-long legacy of slavery in which abuse such as amputating body parts was commonplace.