iD magazine

WHO BROUGHT SUFFERING AND DEATH TO AMERICA

- Christophe­r Columbus

Between June and December of 2020, dozens of statues of Christophe­r Columbus were taken down in the U.S. alone. The activity reached a peak around October 12, Columbus Day, which is the holiday that commemorat­es the day in 1492 when Columbus first sighted land in the New World. Although he was not the first Westerner to set foot in America (that was Leif Erikson from Iceland), his arrival marked a turning point in world history: the settlement of a new continent. However for the original inhabitant­s of the Americas that day marked the start of abuse, displaceme­nt, and wholesale death, either at the hands of the invaders or due to the deadly diseases that they’d brought with them. But is it fair to blame Columbus for all that?

Or was he simply an explorer who brought European culture with him to a new land? The answer lies in a document that was not discovered until early in the present century.

In 1500 the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sent one of the empire’s officials, Francisco de Bobadilla, to investigat­e the reports from Hispaniola that Columbus and his men were committing atrocities against the indigenous peoples, a charge confirmed by Bobadilla in his report—and by later historians. Columbus had two primary goals: to procure gold and capture slaves. In 1495 he rounded up 1,500 men, women, and children, selected the best ones, and shipped them back to Spain to be slaves. But this was not enough. On the island of Haiti he ordered all of the natives older than 14 to collect gold for him, and he cut off the hands of those who did not collect enough. His local reputation for cruelty was ghastly. A young priest who accompanie­d Columbus would later write: “Our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle, and destroy.” Within two years, half of the 250,000 natives on Haiti had died. By 1550 only 500 of them were left. What Bobadilla had discovered was thus worse than he had feared. He arrested Columbus and sent him back to Spain in chains but the king and queen ordered his release. Bobadilla’s report remained in a state archive until it was found in 2005. Columbus is credited with finding the Americas, but due to his tyrannical greed he’s a perverse hero.

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