Christopher Columbus is one of the world's most well-known figures, whose individual actions changed the course of history. His ambitious cross-Atlantic voyages may be seen as brilliant or as folly, but his collision of the Old World with the New World set both the European and American continents on dramatically different courses. His own direct interaction with Native Americans is less-widely discussed and begs further consideration.
Columbus and his three ships famously left Spain in the summer of 1492 and made landfall in the New World on Oct. 12. Landing in San Salvador -- believed to be in the modern-day Bahamas -- Columbus's initial interactions with the natives was relatively peaceful. He visited several other islands, including what is now Cuba and Haiti, and founded the small settlement of La Navidad on the island of Hispaniola. He secured what he believed was an agreement with the local Taino chieftain to allow Columbus to leave men in this permanent settlement.
After returning to Spain and informing his Spanish benefactors of his discovery, Columbus headed back to the Caribbean in fall of 1493. He arrived to find La Navidad destroyed and its European inhabitants killed by the natives. Still believing he was in islands off the coast of Asia, perhaps Japan, Columbus did not want to start a war with a potentially lucrative trading partner in the Tainos and chose not to retaliate. Instead he established a new coastal settlement and a fort on the island. He did however choose to take slaves from the rival Carib tribe and transported several hundred of the captured natives back to Spain in chains.
By Columbus' third voyage in 1498, he was desperate to see a financial return on his explorations and began to attempt intense exploitation of the local natives for gold. He established a system of gold tribute owed to the Spanish settlements that was punishable by death if unmet. His behavior was seen as tyrannical even by his fellow Spaniards, and upon his return, the complaints resulted in Columbus' arrest and imprisonment for his cruel mismanagement.
After his release from prison in 1502, Columbus journeyed to the Caribbean for a final time. He sought a passage to the Indian Ocean and proof that the lands he discovered were part of Asia, but he was thwarted by the lack of any connection between the Atlantic and Pacific in Central America. Throughout the explorations, he sought the large amounts of gold he believed to be in existence in the area and was consistently willing to use threats and violence against the natives. Famously, he earned the trust of a native group in Jamaica by predicting an upcoming lunar eclipse using European astronomical tables.
Columbus' contact with the New World can only be seen as a disaster for the native populations. Not only were the Caribbean people ruthlessly overworked in a futile search for gold, successive epidemics of European diseases like smallpox wiped out as many as 90 percent of natives within a generation of Columbus's arrival. His brutal, exploitative treatment of them became, unfortunately, the norm rather than exception in European-native encounters.
- "Christopher Columbus, Mariner"; Samuel Eliot Morison; 1955
- "First Things"; The Crimes of Christopher Columbus; Dinesh D'Souza; November 1995
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