JR'S Free Thought Pages
Was Columbus a Racist Christian Terrorist?
Preface: In recent years I have done intensive research on my Cree ancestors (my great grandmother was a Northern Alberta Cree) concerning the sad story of indigenous peoples of the Americas in general. Over a pitiless sordid period of four centuries, they experienced their own horrific holocaust at the hands of the good Christian white man. In light of what I have to say below, perhaps Columbus Day in the United States should be renamed Indigenous People's Day and celebrated from a totally different perspective.
"First we had the land and they had the Bibles, now we have the Bibles and they
have the land" - Chief Dan George
"They came with a Bible and their religion - stole our land, crushed our spirit - and now tell us we should be thankful to the ‘Lord’ for being saved." - Chief Pontiac
Read what follows - and weep!
Rewriting History: Was Columbus as a Racist Christian Terrorist?
There is no more glaring distortion in the history learned by generations of Americans—in textbooks, in schools, in the popular culture—than in the story of Christopher Columbus. He is universally portrayed as a heroic figure, a brave adventurer, a skilled seaman who crossed the ocean not knowing what he would find, and stumbled on an unknown continent.
All that may be true. But what is missing from that story is that, when he landed in the Bahamas Islands, Columbus and his crew of “good Christian white men”, greeted by peaceful and generous natives, set out on a ruthless quest for gold that led to enslavement, misery, and death for that population.
Profit was the driving force behind Columbus’ expedition and behind his actions after he landed. His expedition had been financed by the king and queen of Spain, with the hope that crossing the ocean would bring him to the gold and spices of Asia. There had been overland expeditions to Asia, by Marco Polo and others, but now the Turks, who had conquered the eastern Mediterranean, were a barrier to Asia, and so the Spanish needed a sea route.
Columbus was promised, if he brought back gold and spices, ten percent of the profits and governorship over newfound lands. He never arrived in Asia, because although he knew the world was round, he thought the circumference of the earth was smaller than it really was. But one fourth of the way to Asia he came unexpectedly on land.
Seeing the natives he encountered, the peaceful Arawak Indians, as less than human (though in his diary he described them as gentle and generous), he tortured them to force them in to slavery in order to find gold for him. He kidnapped and enslaved hundreds of them, compelling them to work in the mines, under terrible conditions, in the quest for gold. It was the beginning of the annihilation of the Indians on Hispaniola (the island which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). On the island of Hispaniola, site of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Columbus was responsible for the systematic murder of nearly nine million indigenous people over the course of 40 years after his arrival there in the late 15th century. It was the start of the Christian European conquest of the Western Hemisphere that lead to a trail of blood and genocide of native peoples of such magnitude that historians estimate the final count of the slaughter in the Americas to be over 50 million. When humanitarian organizations and negative publicity ultimately forced this appalling holocaust to stop in the later part of the nineteenth century, the cultural genocide then took over. All told, the North American Indian population within the area of the forty-eight contiguous states of the United States alone, an aggregate group which had probably numbered in excess of twelve million in the year 1500, was reduced by official estimates to barely more than 237,000 four centuries later. This vast genocide historically paralleled in its magnitude and degree only by that which occurred in the Caribbean Basin is the most sustained on record. Corresponding almost perfectly with this upper-ninetieth-percentile erosion of indigenous population by 1900 was the expropriation of about 97.5 percent of native land by 1920. The situation in Canada was/is entirely comparable. Plainly, the Nazi style dynamics set in motion by Columbus in 1492 continued, and were not ultimately consummated until the latter part of the 20th century.
While it is arguable that the worst of the genocidal programs directed against Native North America had ended by the twentieth century, it seems undeniable that several continue into the present. One obvious illustration is the massive compulsory transfer of American Indian children from their families, communities, and societies to Euro-American families and institutions, a policy which is quite blatant in its disregard for Article l(e) of the 1948 Convention. Effected through such mechanisms as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school system, and a pervasive policy of placing Indian children for adoption (including “blind” adoption) with non-Indians, such circumstances have been visited upon more than three-quarters of indigenous youth in some generations after 1900. The stated goal of such policies has been to bring about the “assimilation” of native people into the value orientations and belief system of their conquerors. Rephrased, the objective has been to bring about the disappearance of indigenous societies as such, a patent violation of the terms, provisions, and intent of the Genocide Convention (Article I©).
An even clearer example is a program of involuntary sterilization of American Indian women by the BIA’s Indian Health Service (IHS) during the 1970s. The federal government announced that the program had been terminated, and acknowledged having performed several thousand such sterilizations. Independent researchers have concluded that as many as forty-two percent of all native women of childbearing age in the United States had been sterilized by that point. That the program represents a rather stark and very recent violation of Article I(d) of the 1948 Convention seems beyond all reasonable doubt.
More broadly, implications of genocide are quite apparent in the federal government’s self-assigned exercise of “plenary power” and concomitant “trust” prerogatives over the residual Indian land base pursuant to the Lonewolf v. Hitchcock case (187 U.S. 553(1903)). This has worked, with rather predictable results, to systematically deny native people the benefit of their remaining material assets. At present, the approximately 1.6 million Indians recognized by the government as residing within the U.S., when divided into the fifty-million-odd acres nominally reserved for their use and occupancy, remain the continent’s largest landholders on a per capita basis. Moreover, the reservation lands have proven to be extraordinarily resource rich, holding an estimated two-thirds of all U.S. “domestic” uranium reserves, about a quarter of the readily accessible low-sulfur coal, as much as a fifth of the oil and natural gas, as well as substantial deposits of copper, iron, gold, and zeolites. By any rational definition, the U.S. Indian population should thus be one of the wealthiest if not the richest population sectors in North America.
Instead, by the federal government’s own statistics, they comprise far and away the poorest. As of 1980, American Indians experienced, by a decided margin, the lowest annual and lifetime incomes on a per capita basis of any ethnic or racial group on the continent. Correlated to this are all the standard indices of extreme poverty: the highest rates of infant mortality, death by exposure and malnutrition, incidence of tuberculosis and other plague disease. Indians experience the highest level of unemployment, year after year, and the lowest level of educational attainment. The overall quality of life is so dismal that alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse are endemic; the rate of teen suicide is also several times that of the nation as a whole. The average life expectancy of a reservation-based Native American male is less than 45 years; that of a reservation-based female less than three years longer.
It’s not that reservation resources are not being exploited, or profits accrued. To the contrary, virtually all uranium mining and milling occurred on or immediately adjacent to reservation land during the life of the Atomic Energy Commission’s ore-buying program, 1952-81. The largest remaining enclave of traditional Indians in North America is currently undergoing forced relocation in order that coal may be mined on the Navajo Reservation. Alaska native peoples are being converted into landless “village corporations” in order that the oil under their territories can be tapped; and so on. Rather, the BIA has utilized its plenary and trust capacities to negotiate contracts with major mining corporations “in behalf of” its “Indian wards” which pay pennies on the dollar of the conventional mineral royalty rates. Further, the BIA has typically exempted such corporations from an obligation to reclaim whatever reservation lands have been mined, or even to perform basic environmental cleanup of nuclear and other forms of waste. One outcome has been that the National Institute for Science has recommended that the two locales within the U.S. most heavily populated by native people, the Four Corners Region and the Black Hills Region, be designated as “National Sacrifice Areas.” Indians have responded that this would mean their being converted into “national sacrifice peoples”
Even such seemingly innocuous federal policies as those concerning Indian identification criteria carry with them an evident genocidal potential. In clinging insistently to a variation of a eugenics formulation dubbed “blood-quantum” ushered in by the 1887 General Allotment Act, while implementing such policies as the Federal Indian Relocation Program (1956-1982), the government has set the stage for a “statistical extermination” of the indigenous population within its borders. As the noted western historian, Patricia Nelson Limerick, has observed: “Set the blood-quantum at one-quarter, hold to it as a rigid definition of Indians, let intermarriage proceed...and eventually Indians will be defined out of existence. When that happens, the federal government will finally be freed from its persistent ‘Indian problem’.” Ultimately, there is precious little difference, other than matters of style, between this and what was once called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.”
In recent years, the idealized, romanticized picture of Christopher Columbus has begun to be reconsidered, perhaps because Indigenous peoples began to assert their importance as the original inhabitants of the American continent. This became more vociferous after the “celebration” of Columbus’ 500th anniversary in 1992. With that reconsideration, Columbus has been seen in a different light, as the first representative of European Imperialism in the Western Hemisphere, as a person who, while hypocritically presenting himself as a devout Christian, kidnapped, maimed and killed the indigenous people of Hispaniola in pursuit of gold.
To put things in perspective, the Vietnam War was waged in precisely the same imperialist spirit that Christopher Columbus represents, whether we call it stopping the spread of communism, opening up new markets, or discovering the New World. In the cases of both Vietnam and the Americas and here we can quietly mention Iraq as well the sovereignty and intelligence of people who inhabited invaded lands was considered a moot point by outsiders who presumed to know best and acted accordingly. In such cases, you can be sure that the deaths of natives will always far exceed those of the invaders, and native life will inevitably be made more difficult in the aftermath.
To wit, the American phase (1965-73) of the Second Indochina War (1960-75) killed some 1,700,000 natives, as well as 58,000 U.S. military personnel. Bathed in the blood of imperialism, the entire war destroyed 3,500,000 lives. So far (as of 2005) the Iraq War has killed between 26,000 and 30,000 civilian Iraqis, according to the conservative estimates of Iraq Body Count, although the British medical journal The Lancet reported a year ago that the war had already caused a possible 100,000 "excess deaths." Such numbers are getting worse; Robert Fisk recently reported that 1,100 Iraqi civilians died in Baghdad alone last July. The US military death toll is rapidly approaching 2,000, of which a full quarter has been reservists, and that latter statistic is multiplying: in August and September of this year, a full 56% of the US military dead have been reservists.
As for the death toll legacy of our old friend Columbus, for years demographers have argued over how to estimate the pre-Columbian Native population and its subsequent reduction, with informed guesses ranging anywhere from 8 to 100 million Indians killed as a result of Columbus's "discovery." Personally, I've always been partial to Howard Zinn's account in A people's History of the United States whop appeals to geographer William Denevan's reasonable 1976 "consensus count" of 54,000,000 dead Indians, but that's probably because I like to think of myself as a moderate. Whether attributed to unlivable conditions of life caused by colonialism, or to outright genocidal military campaigns, the fact is these obscene numbers would not exist were it not for the man Americans celebrate each October. Nor would our more current and depressing array of statistics that consistently rank today's Indians at the very bottom of every single social indicator of well being, from health, to education, to crime, economy, and more.
Liberals and Progressives should always resist the symbol of Columbus, no matter how colorful the clothing folks might try to put on him. Not only because of what Columbus means as a symbol namely, the origin of so much suffering and death for imperialism's victims, be they Native Americans to Vietnamese to Iraqis but even more so because of what Columbus Day does to the people who celebrate it.
Columbus was obviously not an American himself but a slave-trading explorer who saw all non-Europeans (and a good many Europeans beneath his own class position) as lesser beings given to people like him for exploitation by the grace of God. As for values, to the extent that American identity in, say, its Jeffersonian ideal, might be tied to enlightened values like freedom, liberty, and equality, to what values would a Columbian imperialist identity be linked? Discovery, even though discovered lands somehow always seem to be occupied? White supremacy, by virtue of an idea called "civilization" that posited as "savage" all non-whites? How about male dominance? Slavery? Land theft? Genocide?
So it seems more than just a passing fancy for anyone who detests imperialism to appreciate Indian protestations of Columbus Day as the moral objection of a group whose history is elided in its celebration and support efforts to replace it with Indigenous People's Day. A national commemoration like the latter would obviously invoke a different set of identities and values for Americans to assume, as well as produce new festivals and initiate important dialogues. Indigenous People's Day would flip the script of Multicultural Columbus: that is, rather than globalizing the very embodiment of imperialism, it would give progressive internationalism a distinctly American face.
The evidence for this revised view of Columbus comes mainly from Bartolome de Las Casa, who was a contemporary of Columbus and who himself witnessed the scenes on Hispaniola, which he describes in the passages below.
Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies (1542)
Bartolome de Las Casas
BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS (1484-1566)
Bartoleme de las Casas, a Spanish colonist, a priest, founder of a Utopian community and first Bishop of Chiapas, was a scholar, historian and 16th century human rights advocate. Las Casas has been called the Father of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. Others take a more guarded or modest view of his achievements. What there is little or no dispute about is that Las Casas was an early and energetic advocate and activist for the rights of native peoples.
Las Casas came to the Indies early, he knew Columbus and was the editor of the Admiral’s journal. He knew conditions in the Americas first hand. As the reading in our packet indicates, he was present during Spanish genocidal attacks on the native population of Cuba.
After coming to the realization that the Spanish treatment of the native population was unconscionable, Las Casas became a Dominican priest, and began traveling back and forth across the Atlantic. He was in part responsible for the repeal of the laws which allowed the Indians to be used in what amounted to slave labor gangs. This was the econmienda system. Government officials were willing to go along with this attempt to end the system for they feared that a new class of feudal lords would arise in the colonies. The Spanish colonists were outraged at this interference. Las Casas attempted to set up a colony on the coast of Venezuala where the native people would be treated properly. It failed largely because of the bad example set by the colony’s neighbors.
Because of preassures from the colonists, the encomienda system was restored. Las Casas returned to Spain and was eventually able to bring about the great debate of 1550 in the Spanish capital of Valladolid between Las Casas and the advocate for the colonists Juan Gines de Sepulveda. The excerpt in our packet is from Las Casas’ account of the debate.
The advocates of the encomienda system eventually triumphed. When the government realized that it might lose Peru to colonists revolting over this issue, it gave in. Still, Las Casas is a shining example of resistance to the ill treatment of native peoples. His works were translated across Europe. He likely influenced the French essayist Montaigne’s views about the new world.
Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies (1542)
The Indies were discovered in the year one thousand four hundred and ninety-two. In the following year a great many Spaniards went there with the intention of settling the land. Thus, forty-nine years have passed since the first settlers penetrated the land, the first so claimed being the large and most happy isle called Hispaniola, which is six hundred leagues in circumference. Around it in all directions are many other islands, some very big, others very small, and all of them were, as we saw with our own eyes, densely populated with native peoples called Indians. This large island was perhaps the most densely populated place in the world. There must be close to two hundred leagues of land on this island, and the seacoast has been explored for more than ten thousand leagues, and each day more of it is being explored. And all the land so far discovered is a beehive of people; it is as though God had crowded into these lands the great majority of mankind.
And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve. They are by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome. These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world. And because they are so weak and complaisant, they are less able to endure heavy labor and soon die of no matter what malady. The sons of nobles among us, brought up in the enjoyments of life’s refinements, are no more delicate than are these Indians, even those among them who are of the lowest rank of laborers. They are also poor people, for they not only possess little but have no desire to possess worldly goods. For this reason they are not arrogant, embittered, or greedy. Their repasts are such that the food of the holy fathers in the desert can scarcely be more parsimonious, scanty, and poor. As to their dress, they are generally naked, with only their pudenda covered somewhat. And when they cover their shoulders it is with a square cloth no more than two varas in size. They have no beds, but sleep on a kind of matting or else in a kind of suspended net called bamacas. They are very clean in their persons, with alert, intelligent minds, docile and open to doctrine, very apt to receive our holy Catholic faith, to be endowed with virtuous customs, and to behave in a godly fashion. And once they begin to hear the tidings of the Faith, they are so insistent on knowing more and on taking the sacraments of the Church and on observing the divine cult that, truly, the missionaries who are here need to be endowed by God with great patience in order to cope with such eagerness. Some of the secular Spaniards who have been here for many years say that the goodness of the Indians is undeniable and that if this gifted people could be brought to know the one true God they would be the most fortunate people in the world.
Yet into this sheepfold, into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days. And Spaniards have behaved in no other way during the past forty years, down to the present time, for they are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before, and to such a degree that this Island of Hispaniola once so populous (having a population that I estimated to be more than three million), has now a population of barely two hundred persons.
The island of Cuba is nearly as long as the distance between Valladolid and Rome; it is now almost completely depopulated. San Juan [Puerto Rico] and Jamaica are two of the largest, most productive and attractive islands; both are now deserted and devastated. On the northern side of Cuba and Hispaniola he the neighboring Lucayos comprising more than sixty islands including those called Gigantes, beside numerous other islands, some small some large. The least felicitous of them were more fertile and beautiful than the gardens of the King of Seville. They have the healthiest lands in the world, where lived more than five hundred thousand souls; they are now deserted, inhabited by not a single living creature. All the people were slain or died after being taken into captivity and brought to the Island of Hispaniola to be sold as slaves. When the Spaniards saw that some of these had escaped, they sent a ship to find them, and it voyaged for three years among the islands searching for those who had escaped being slaughtered , for a good Christian had helped them escape, taking pity on them and had won them over to Christ; of these there were eleven persons and these I saw.
More than thirty other islands in the vicinity of San Juan are for the most part and for the same reason depopulated, and the land laid waste. On these islands I estimate there are 2,100 leagues of land that have been ruined and depopulated, empty of people.
As for the vast mainland, which is ten times larger than all Spain, even including Aragon and Portugal, containing more land than the distance between Seville and Jerusalem, or more than two thousand leagues, we are sure that our Spaniards, with their cruel and abominable acts, have devastated the land and exterminated the rational people who fully inhabited it. We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million.
The common ways mainly employed by the Spaniards who call themselves Christian and who have gone there to extirpate those pitiful nations and wipe them off the earth is by unjustly waging cruel and bloody wars. Then, when they have slain all those who fought for their lives or to escape the tortures they would have to endure, that is to say, when they have slain all the native rulers and young men (since the Spaniards usually spare only the women and children, who are subjected to the hardest and bitterest servitude ever suffered by man or beast), they enslave any survivors. With these infernal methods of tyranny they debase and weaken countless numbers of those pitiful Indian nations.
Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits. It should be kept in mind that their insatiable greed and ambition, the greatest ever seen in the world, is the cause of their villainies. And also, those lands are so rich and felicitous, the native peoples so meek and patient, so easy to subject, that our Spaniards have no more consideration for them than beasts. And I say this from my own knowledge of the acts I witnessed. But I should not say “than beasts” for, thanks be to God, they have treated beasts with some respect; I should say instead like excrement on the public squares. And thus they have deprived the Indians of their lives and souls, for the millions I mentioned have died without the Faith and without the benefit of the sacraments. This is a well known and proven fact which even the tyrant Governors, themselves killers, know and admit. And never have the Indians in all the Indies committed any act against the Spanish Christians, until those Christians have first and many times committed countless cruel aggressions against them or against neighboring nations. For in the beginning the Indians regarded the Spaniards as angels from Heaven. Only after the Spaniards had used violence against them, killing, robbing, torturing, did the Indians ever rise up against them....
On the Island Hispaniola was where the Spaniards first landed, as I have said. Here those Christians perpetrated their first ravages and oppressions against the native peoples. This was the first land in the New World to be destroyed and depopulated by the Christians, and here they began their subjection of the women and children, taking them away from the Indians to use them and ill use them, eating the food they provided with their sweat and toil. The Spaniards did not content themselves with what the Indians gave them of their own free will, according to their ability, which was always too little to satisfy enormous appetites, for a Christian eats and consumes in one day an amount of food that would suffice to feed three houses inhabited by ten Indians for one month. And they committed other acts of force and violence and oppression which made the Indians realize that these men had not come from Heaven. And some of the Indians concealed their foods while others concealed their wives and children and still others fled to the mountains to avoid the terrible transactions of the Christians.
And the Christians attacked them with buffets and beatings, until finally they laid hands on the nobles of the villages. Then they behaved with such temerity and shamelessness that the most powerful ruler of the islands had to see his own wife raped by a Christian officer.
From that time onward the Indians began to seek ways to throw the Christians out of their lands. They took up arms, but their weapons were very weak and of little service in offense and still less in defense. (Because of this, the wars of the Indians against each other are little more than games played by children.) And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!” Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby. They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim’s neck, saying, “Go now, carry the message,” meaning, Take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains. They usually dealt with the chieftains and nobles in the following way: they made a grid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them....
After the wars and the killings had ended, when usually there survived only some boys, some women, and children, these survivors were distributed among the Christians to be slaves. The repartimiento or distribution was made according to the rank and importance of the Christian to whom the Indians were allocated, one of them being given thirty, another forty, still another, one or two hundred, and besides the rank of the Christian there was also to be considered in what favor he stood with the tyrant they called Governor. The pretext was that these allocated Indians were to be instructed in the articles of the Christian Faith. As if those Christians who were as a rule foolish and cruel and greedy and vicious could be caretakers of souls! And the care they took was to send the men to the mines to dig for gold, which is intolerable labor, and to send the women into the fields of the big ranches to hoe and till the land, work suitable for strong men. Nor to either the men or the women did they give any food except herbs and legumes, things of little substance. The milk in the breasts of the women with infants dried up and thus in a short while the infants perished. And since men and women were separated, there could be no marital relations. And the men died in the mines and the women died on the ranches from the same causes, exhaustion and hunger. And thus was depopulated that island which had been densely populated.
The Islands of San Juan and Jamaica
The Spaniards passed over to the islands of San Juan and Jamaica (both of them veritable gardens and beehives of activity0 in the year one thousand five hundred and nine, with the aim and purpose of making these islands a part of Hispaniola.
And on those islands the Spaniards perpetrated the same acts of aggression against the Indians and the wicked deeds described above, adding to them many outstanding cruelties, massacres and burnings of the people, or executing them by flinging them to the fierce dogs, torturing and oppressing the survivors, condemning them to the hard labor of mines, thus eradicating them from the earth, despoiling the land of those unfortunate and innocent people. Before the arrival of the Spaniards there had lived on these islands more than six hundred thousand souls, it has been stated, I believe there were more than one million inhabitants, and now, in each of the two islands, there are not more than two hundred persons, all the others having perished without the Faith and without the holy sacraments.
The Island of Cuba
In the year one thousand five hundred and eleven, the Spaniards passed over the island of Cuba, which I have said is at the same distance from Hispaniola as the distance between Valladolid and Rome, and which was a well-populated province. They began and ended in Cuba as they had done elsewhere, but with much greater acts of cruelty.
Among the noteworthy outrages they committed was the one they perpetrated against a cacique, a very important noble, by the name Hatuey, who had come to Cuba from Hispaniola with many of his people, to flee the calamities and inhuman acts of the Christians. When he was told by certain Indians that the Christians were coming to Cuba, he assembled as many of his followers as he could and said to them: “Now you must know that they are saying the Christians are coming here, and you know by experience how they have put So and So and So and So, and other nobles to an end. And now they are coming from Haiti (which is Hispaniola) to do the same here. Do you know this?” The Indians replied: “We do not know. But it may be that they are by nature wicked and cruel.” And he told them: “No, they do not act only because of that, but because they have a God they greatly worship and they want us to worship that God, and that is why they struggle with us and subject us and kill us.”
He had a basket full of gold and jewels and he said: “You see their God here, the God of the Christians. If you agree to it, let us dance for this God, who knows, it may please the God of the Christians and then they will do us no harm.” And his followers said, all together, “Yes, that is good, that is good!” And they danced round the basket of gold until they fell down exhausted. Then their chief, the cacique Hatuey, said to them: “See there, if we keep this basket of gold they will take it from us and will end up by killing us. So let us cast away the basket into the river.” They all agreed to do this, and they flung the basket of gold into the river that was nearby.
This cacique, Hatuey, was constantly fleeing before the Christians from the time they arrived on the island of Cuba, since he knew them and of what they were capable. Now and then they encountered him and he defended himself, but they finally killed him. And they did this for the sole reason that he had fled from those cruel and wicked Christians and had defended himself against them. And when they had captured him and as many of his followers as they could, they burned them all at the stake.
When tied to the stake, the cacique Hatuey was told by a Franciscan friar who was present, an artless rascal, something about the God of the Christians and of the articles of Faith. And he was told what he could do in the brief time that remained to him, in order to be saved and go to heaven. The cacique, who had never heard any of this before, and was told he would go to Inferno where, if he did not adopt the Christian Faith, he would suffer eternal torment, asked the Franciscan friar if Christians all went to Heaven. When told that they did he said he would prefer to go to Hell. Such is the fame and honor that God and our Faith have earned through the Christians who have gone out of the Indies.
On one occasion when we went to claim ten leagues of a big settlement, along with the food and maintenance, we were welcomed with a bounteous quantity of fish and bread and cooked victuals. The Indians generously gave us all they could. I hen suddenly, without cause and without warning, and in my presence, the devil inhabited the Christians and spurred them to attack the Indians, men, women, and children, who were sitting there before us. In the massacre that followed, the Spaniards put to the sword more than three thousand souls. I saw such terrible cruelties done there as I had never seen before nor thought to see.
A few days later, knowing that news of this massacre had spread through the land, I sent messengers ahead to the chiefs of the province of Havana, knowing they heard good things about me, telling them we were about to visit the town and idling them they should not hide but should come out to meet us, assuring them that no harm would be done to them. I did this with the full knowledge of the captain. And when we arrived in the province, there came out to welcome us twenty-one chiefs and caciques, and our captain, breaking his pledge to me and the pledge I had made them, took all these chieftains captive, intending to burn them at the stake, telling me this would be a good thing because those chiefs had in the past done him some harm. I had great difficulty in saving those Indians from the fire, but finally succeeded.
Afterward, when all the Indians of this island were subjected to servitude and the same ruin had befallen there as on the island Hispaniola, the survivors began to flee to the mountains or in despair to hang themselves, and there were husbands and wives who hanged themselves together with their children, because the cruelties perpetrated by one very great Spaniard (whom I knew) were so horrifying. More than two hundred Indians hanged themselves. And thus perished a countless number of people on the island of Cuba.
That tyrant Spaniard, representative of the King of Spain, demanded, in the repartimiento, that he be given three hundred Indians. At the end of three months all but thirty of them had died of the hard labor on the mines, which is to say only a tenth of them had survived. He demanded another allocation of Indians, and they also perished in the same way. He demanded still another large allocation, and those Indians also perished. Then he died, and the devil bore him away.
In three or four months, when I was there, more than seventy thousand children, whose fathers and mothers had been sent to the mines, died of hunger
And I saw other frightful things. The Spaniards finally decided to track down the Indians who had taken refuge in the mountains. There they created amazing havoc and thus finished ravaging the island. Where had been a flourishing population, it is now a shame and pity to see the island laid waste and turned into a desert.
Bartolome de Las Casas struggled for many years to persuade the Spanish monarchy to put a stop to the cruelties committed against the Indians. In the year 1550, a debate was arranged between Las Casas and the priest Gines de Sepulveda before the Royal Council of Spain in the city of Valladolid, and the central question was: are the Indians human beings and therefore deserving to be treated that way, or are they sub-humans and so deserving of enslavement?
I highly recommend Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States, not only as a chronicle of the oppression and decimation of native peoples and their subsequent struggles which continue to this day; but also as a history of the struggles of other oppressed peoples such as women, blacks and working people – a history that has been conveniently left out of our schools.