It was January of 1493 when Christopher Columbus, five months after leaving Spain in search of a Western route to Asia, finally journeyed back to Spain. (^) He was not returning to Ferdinand and Isabella empty-handed, however.
Sailing across the Atlantic with him and his crew were some of Hispaniola’s natives who they’d captured and forced into slavery.
In the absence of any measurable amount of gold to bring back to Isabella and Ferdinand, these slaves were brought for the purpose of enticing the Queen and King and convincing them of the need to finance an even larger expedition to return with Columbus to the islands.
Meanwhile a total of 39 of Columbus’s companions from the 1492 voyage had been left behind in Haiti, stationed at Fort Navidad to store and keep watch over any gold they came across on the island.
And so, after months of letter-writing, Columbus was finally once again standing face to face with the King Ferdinand and Isabella Queen of Spain, and bearing with him news he was certain would sound delightful to the royal monarchs’ ears (the inaccuracy of it notwithstanding).
The way he told it, he and his men had discovered such a large quantity of gold in the mines of just one island that the King and Queen simply could not believe it without seeing it for themselves! (As it turns out, they shouldn’t have believed it.)
With a promise to bring back his majesties an almost endless supply of gold in addition to more captured slaves to do “whatever we want”, Isabella and Ferdinand entrusted Columbus with seven new ships, carrying a sizable a crew of more than 1,200 Spaniards to accompany him on his journey back to the island.
Meanwhile, as Columbus was making his case before the Queen and King, the 39 men he’d left stationed at Fort Navidad were busy causing an immense amount of trouble on their own.
Venturing out into the unfamiliar island, they quickly degenerated into a state of barbarity, breaking into villagers’ homes, raping native Taino women, and kidnapping small children who they used as their sex slaves.
This obviously didn’t sit too well with the island’s native inhabitants, and soon local villagers attacked Fort Navidad, freeing the women and children who’d been taken captive. Columbus’s men who were responsible for the kidnappings were summarily executed by the Taino so as to prevent their committing further atrocities.
But when Columbus returned to the island from Spain in November of 1493 and discovered his men had been killed, all hell broke loose, and the suffering of the natives of Haiti only intensified from then on out.
In a violent sweep of rage, Spanish soldiers rounded up men, women and children from all over the island at gun-point and forced them into outdoor pens.
Over time these pens, which were guarded around the clock by ferocious canines and vicious soldiers, became so tightly packed and overcrowded that it was impossible for them to freely move around.
By the year 1495 thousands of Hispaniola’s natives were forced to work grueling hours of slave labor in the island’s mines in an unavailing search for gold.
Another 500 people were placed on board a ship set sail for Spain, but due to the bitter and desolate climate conditions onboard the ship, 200 of them died before they made it to Spain, where they would have been consigned to slave labor for the rest of their lives.
Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards who accompanied him were hideously ruthless in the way they dealt with the indigenous people. Absolutely nothing was off-limits when it came to their getting hands on the fabled gold, even if it meant the mutilation of young children.
In 1494 it was decreed that all persons fourteen years of age and older must work in the ‘gold’ mines from sun-up to sun-down. A gold-quota was set and every individual had to meet that quota or else suffer the extreme consequences.
At the end of every three months if an individual had delivered unto Columbus the required amount of gold, he or she was given a copper token to be worn around their neck.
If at the end of this period one was discovered not to be wearing a copper token around their neck, however, both of his or her hands were cut off and they were left to bleed to death.
Being that Columbus and his men always set such unrealistically high quotas, many of the enslaved were forced to take their chances and run rather than face decapitation.
This too ended abysmally, for once they were discovered they were viciously attacked and torn apart by the ferocious canines. Any captive who showed even the slightest hint of rebellion or resistance to Spanish occupancy either was immediately hung, or worse burned alive.
Within just two years, 1495-1497, close to 125,000 people on Haiti had died from either “murder, mutilation, or suicide.
One man bearing witness to many of these most gruesome events was a Catholic Bishop, Father Bartolome de Las Casas, who as a young priest accompanied Columbus on more than a few of his conquests and expeditions.
He soon discovered, however, that hearing about Columbus’s journeys while he sat comfortably giving his blessings was a completely different experience from actually witnessing them up close with his own eyes.
Over time he would come around to becoming the single most vocal critic against the horrific treatment of the so-called ‘Indians’ by the Spanish explorers. Of the missions that he himself had been a part of, he said they served no other purpose than “to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle, and destroy.”
He watched as Spanish soldiers took it upon themselves to literally “ride on the backs of the Indians as if they were in a hurry.” And, rather than having to walk on their own two feet, soldiers forced slaves to carry them from one place to another while they lay comfortably in their hammocks.
Soldiers “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas even told of one such incident in which two adolescent boys, no older than 10-12 years of age, were needlessly stopped by soldiers and subjected to harassment.
Each of the boys was carrying a parrot on his arm. Upon seeing this, the Spaniards snatched them away from the boys and, keeping the parrots as their own, beheaded the two young boys.
This the soldiers did “for fun”. In his final assessment, Father de Las Casas cited some figures to help demonstrate how, from one island to the next, indigenous populations were nearly if not completely wiped off the face of the earth.
In 1494 it was estimated that nearly 1 million aborigines inhabited the island of Hispaniola.
By the time Las Casas arrived in 1508 the population had been reduced to a mere 60,000 people; and by 1514 – two decades after Columbus’s arrival – the population had shrunk to just 32,000.
By no means did this unprecedented amount of genocide and destruction end with Columbus. As it would turn out, Columbus was simply the catalyst who kicked down the door for others to follow in his footsteps, men who were well-versed in the tactics of divide-and-conquer.
The same playbook used to tear down the great civilizations of Africa was put to equally effective use in both North and South America, as one great civilization after another was brought to the brink of disaster and led to its eventual demise.
After Columbus and the Spanish plowed through the islands of the Caribbean, several conquistadors picked up his mantel and brought the European invasion into the larger American continent.
There was Hernando Cortez who in 1521 brought about the collapse of the Aztec Empire. And fresh off the heels of Cortez’s victory was the successful campaign headed by Francisco Pizzaro to liquidate the civilization of the Incas in 1533.
It was only through means of causing chaos, wreaking havoc, and bringing about total destruction of once-thriving New World Civilizations that Europeans were able to temporarily snatch the pen of world history and proceed to write it as they saw fit.
The Natives of the American landmass, from North to South, East to West, were by no means peoples who were “uncultivated” or “uncivilized” in any way, shape, or form.
Caleb G / ABC Flash Point News 2020.