Christopher Columbus was the 15th Century’s Epstein
by Xan Holbrook
Little of the phony gravitas of Christopher Columbus remains nowadays. Not the first man to discover the Americas, nor the one who proved the world was round, nor a pious man, not even a man who loved the land he found… Columbus is an empty icon.
More commonly, he’s remembered as a genocidal, credulous, bootlicking colonialist. A man so despised, even in his own time, that the land he claimed to have found isn’t even named after him, but after an Italian cartographer.
I mention his toadyish manners early, as this gnawing, fawning insecurity was what drove him and his inhuman callousness. A man desperate to curry favor with the Spanish monarchy, he was a man, best described in the words of Terry Deary, who “wanted gold, land, gold, slaves and gold.” His own declared noble pursuit of converting “savages” to Christianity, believing in his own numinous power, seemed to evaporate as base exploitation superseded his other interests.
After his landing in “India” Columbus demanded gold, incessantly, from the natives there. He was told there were more islands where there was more gold than sand. This diversion tactic, which would have succeeded in diverting other potential Aguirres into certain doom, only increased Columbus’ appetite.
With the frenzied drive of an addict, he kept returning in search of treasure, and massacred at will. The demise of the Taíno people over Columbus’ many expeditions and the ensuing Spanish conquests is a horrifying footnote to the wider culture of pillaging he heralded. The reputation he bestowed upon the luckless Caribs, that of cannibals who ate roasted human flesh, is a slur which continues today, both in pulp media and South American government propaganda.
It also inspired him in perhaps his grimmest endeavor: selling Caribs into sexual bondage in Europe.
In a simpering, portentous letter he wrote to the Nurse of Prince Don John of Castile, he wrote of the demand for slave procurement – “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm” – and states that there were plenty of dealers “who go about looking for girls.” One’s heart freezes and stops at their desired age: “those from nine to ten are in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.”
Even in an age where it was not uncommon for women to marry at age fourteen, not everyone was blind to such inhumanity. As Shakespeare has his Lord Capulet say, after Paris implores for 13-year-old Juliet’s hand in marriage:
And too soon marr’d are those so early made.
The earth hath swallow’d all my hopes but she,
She is the hopeful lady of my earth:
But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart,
My will to her consent is but a part;
And she agree, within her scope of choice
Lies my consent and fair according voice.
This revulsion at this chattel system for women extended as far as Columbus’ (née Cristóbal Colón) own crew. Bartolemé de las Casas, who later became a Dominican Friar and an advocate for Native people, wrote a memoir of his experiences in the Caribbean. His book, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, is unsparing and shocking, even now. Of the Spanish conquest he wrote the following:
First, they have waged war on [the native people]: unjust, cruel, bloody and tyrannical war. Second, they have murdered anyone and everyone who has shown the slightest sign of resistance, or even of wishing to escape the torment to which they have subjected him.
This latter policy has been instrumental in suppressing the native leaders, and, indeed, given that the Spaniards normally spare only women and children, it has led to the annihilation of all adult males, whom they habitually subject to the harshest and most iniquitous and brutal slavery that man has ever devised for his fellow-men, treating them, in fact, worse than animals.
Howard Zinn reports of what awaited the infamous second expedition, this time with all pretence of civility and piety cast off:
On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.
Of the five hundred Arawak people who were kidnapped and sent back to Europe, only two hundred survived the journey. Zinn describes what happened next:
The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
The casual way in which Columbus resigned himself to a life of slave trading and state-sanctioned piracy is further proof, as if any were needed, of the moral bankruptcy of his enterprise. I would employ the Grecian adage that ‘God helps them that help themselves’, if it didn’t make me sick to my stomach.
Part of the incredulity and horror of such sordid affairs – like the crimes of Fred and Rose West, the Boston Diocese scandal, Operation Yewtree, Harvey Weinstein and so on – is how people can get away with it for so long. While some official tolerance goes a long way – the friend in a high place, the wider corporate interest – the other key factor is a collective turn away. A common agreement to forget humanity, decency and compassion, in order to preserve comfortable icons, to earn a few bucks. This non-action comes at a tremendous human cost.
It gives me hope that, from the first step he took on foreign soil to now, there have been people willing to challenge and confront the Columbus racket. So, keep up the good work – remember him for what he was, and take his myth apart.