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On the “Columbus Ships” Sailing Up the Hudson River

This month, July 2017, the replicas of two of the ships sailed by Cristobal Colón (Christopher Columbus) are sailing up the Hudson River and when they dock they will be open for public tours. Built as a floating museum by the Columbus Foundation in the British Virgin Islands, the tours teach about “15th-century life on the high seas.” Archaeology magazine called the Columbus Foundation’s replica of the Niña “the most historically correct Columbus replica ever built.”

In terms of historical accuracy when it comes to the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean and other places where Spain placed its distinctive and bloody stamp on the earth, it would be interesting to see what version of history the Columbus Foundation teaches on its tours. I never ceased to be amazed at the effort to give Spain a historical make-over and to glorify maniacal figures from the past such as Columbus and the era of domination that his voyages represent.

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As theologian Hans Koning stated in his book Columbus: His Enterprise (1976), “Catholic Europe in those days” of Columbus “was ready to call non-Christians ‘idolaters,’ worshippers of idols; that label was a sentence to death or to slavery.” Most people don’t spend much time thinking about Christopher Columbus’s brothers Diego and Bartolomé, but they ought to. On the island of Hispañola, Koning points out, the Columbus brothers “set out to extend their dominion over the entire island and to see to the ‘pacification’ of the Indians.”

Koning wrote that sentence at the end of the Vietnam War. The connection inspired him to write: “This word [pacification] has become familiar to us from our Vietnam War, and was already in use then with the same hidden meaning.” Incredible cruelty had been inflicted on the Native people by two rapacious men, Pedro Margarit and Alonso de Hojeda. Koning says the two were noteworthy for ransacking “the Vega Real for six months, stealing all the gold and the food, enslaving boys and taking girls for concubines.”

Koning says that Admiral Columbus attempted to turn the terrible wrongs committed by the Spaniards into “a system.” Koning continues by discussing February 1495:

Time was short for sending back a good ‘dividend’ on the supply ships getting ready for the return to Spain. Columbus therefore turned to a massive slave raid as a means for filling up these ships. The [Columbus] brothers rounded up fifteen hundred Arawaks—men, women, and children—and imprisoned them in pens in Isabela, guarded by men and dogs. The ships had room for no more than five hundred, and thus only the best specimens were loaded aboard.

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Only three hundred of the five hundred slaves arrived alive in Spain. They were put up for sale in Seville by Don Juan de Fonseca, the archdeacon on Seville. They were, said the archdeacon in a report, “As naked as the day they were born.” He adds that the people had “no more embarrassment than animals.” In any event, the slave trade was judged as being “unprofitable, for the slaves mostly died.” Columbus did not want to be deterred, however, for he stated: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity [the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost] go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

What Koning says next ought to cause one to pause and reflect deeply upon his words: “There now began a reign of terror on Hispanola for which I can find no proper historical parallel.” (emphasis added). Koning adds: “Our world has a long and cruel history, and the word ‘unprecedented’ should perhaps never be used. But the unique horror of Columbus’ new state was that even the blindest obedience could not save the people. What was demanded of them was the impossible.”

This is the dark legacy of the man The Columbus Foundation seeks to honor with its replica ships and its “nostalgic” and “romantic” tours. It is highly doubtful the tour guides know themselves or are allowed to explain the full magnitude of the holocaust the Native peoples of the Caribbean and elsewhere experienced at the hands of the Spaniards. Under the heading “Death of a Nation,” Koning says:

Every man and woman, every boy or girl of fourteen or older, in the province of Cibao (of the imaginary gold fields) had to collect gold for the Spaniards. As their measure, the Spaniards used those same miserable hawks’ bells, the little trinkets they had given away so freely when they first came…Every three months, every Indian had to bring to one of the [Spanish] forts a hawks’ bell filled with gold dust. The chiefs had to bring in about ten times that amount.

The Spaniards made copper tokens, and when an Indian person had brought his or her tribute to the Spaniards, that person was given a token to wear. Koning explains what happened when an Indian was caught without a token.

Whoever was caught without a token was killed by having his or her hands cut off. There are old Spanish prints of (I saw them in the collection of Bishop Voegli of Haiti) that show this being done: the Indians stumble away, staring with surprise at their arm stumps pulsing out blood.

Those Arawak people who tried to run into the mountains “were systematically hunted down with dogs and killed, to set an example for the others to keep trying.” Koning sums up by stating, “All prisoners had been hanged or burned to death. The islands were so well pacified that a Spaniard could go anywhere, take any woman or girl, take anything, and have the Indians carry them on their backs as if they were mules...This was the time when the mass suicides began.” The last thing that such horrific images ought to generate is a sense of romantic nostalgia on Columbus Foundation Tours on the Hudson River, or anywhere else for that matter.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com