Slavery and Colonialism Make Up the True Legacy of Columbus
Published: November 4, 1989
To the Editor:
I expected that ”The Real Columbus Day, at Last” (editorial, Oct. 12) would explore, however briefly, the real meaning of Christopher Columbus’s accidental encounter with America. Instead, you presented a startlingly ethnocentric view of that encounter’s consequences. To say that Columbus ”forged a lasting link between the civilization of Europe and the largely undeveloped continents of North and South America” suggests that Columbus found mostly empty lands inhabited by a relatively few uncivilized peoples.
To Americans of European descent, this is a comfortable picture, but it diminishes the impact of his tragic legacy on the native peoples of the Americas and Africa. Most school history texts do not tell that Columbus was the first European to bring slavery to the New World.
Two days after he ”discovered” America, Columbus wrote in his journal that with 50 men he could force ”the entire population be taken to Castile, or held captive.” On his second voyage, in December 1494, Columbus captured 1,500 Tainos on the island of Hispaniola and herded them to Isabela, where 550 of ”the best males and females” were forced aboard ships bound for the slave markets of Seville.
Under Columbus’s leadership, the Spanish attacked the Taino, sparing neither men, women nor children. Warfare, forced labor, starvation and disease reduced Hispaniola’s Taino population (estimated at one million to two million in 1492) to extinction within 30 years.
Until the European discovery of America, there was only a relatively small slave trade between Africa and Europe. Needing labor to replace the rapidly declining Taino, the Spanish introduced African slaves to Hispaniola in 1502; by 1510, the trade was important to the Caribbean economy.
If we move from a Eurocentric view of Columbus, we can understand the passions that the 500th anniversary in 1992 arouse. In 1986 in Spain, Basque separatists murdered Adm. Cristobal Colon, a descendant of the discoverer. When the Duvalier regime was overthrown in Haiti, demonstrators, descended from African slaves, tossed the great statue of Columbus into the bay. Attempts in the United Nations to pass resolutions celebrating the anniversary of the ”discovery” have been defeated, largely by protests from third world countries that view Columbus not as a discoverer, but as an invader.
For many Americans and Europeans, Columbus’s legacy is a benign one of ”discovery” and progress, celebrated by holidays, parades and white sales. For others throughout the world, his legacy is colonialism, slavery and the destruction of people and cultures.
–BRYAN STRONG Santa Cruz, Calif., Oct. 16, 1989 The writer is a University of California visiting lecturer in psychology.