In His Own Words

For decades, the United Church of Christ has recognized Indigenous People’s Day in place of Columbus Day.  Still, many states and communities—not to mention the federal government—still struggle with the idea of setting aside the celebration of Christopher Columbus.

Maybe this will help.

Columbus kept an extensive journal about his expeditions.  In his entries, he did not mince words about his intentions toward the Arawak natives in the Bahamas in 1492.

After his first encounter with them, he described the meeting this way:

“They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things … They willingly traded everything they owned … They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features …. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance.  They have no iron.  Their spears are made of cane. … They would make fine servants. … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Later he added: “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”

Columbus made his voyages with two goals in mind: to find slaves and gold.  After his first trip to the Caribbean, Columbus returned with 17 ships and 1,200 men. 

In 1495, in a large slave raid, Columbus and his men rounded up 1,500 Arawak men, women, and children, and put them in pens. They selected what they considered the best natives and loaded them onto ships back to Spain. Two hundred died en route.  After the survivors were sold as slaves in Spain, Columbus later wrote:

“Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

The Spanish monarchy expected Columbus to return with gold.  Columbus and his men mistakenly believed that there were gold fields in the province of Cicao on Haiti.

He and his men ordered all natives in that area 14 years or older to collect a certain amount of gold every three months. Natives who didn’t collect enough gold had their hands cut off.  It was an impossible task because there was no gold to speak of in the area.  Many natives fled and were consequently hunted down and killed by the Spaniards.

Father Bartolome de las Casas, a young priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba and wrote a history of the Indies, adds further description regarding the treatment of the natives:

“Endless testimonies … prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives. … But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…. The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians …“

Las Casas describes how Columbus’ men rode on the backs of natives and how they “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.  Two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.”

Facing extermination, the Arawaks attempted to fight back against the Spaniards but with little success.  The Spaniards hung or burned the Arawaks that they took captive.

By this point, the Arawaks began committing mass suicides. They fed poison to their infants to save them from the Spanish.  In two years, half of the 250,000 natives on Haiti were dead, either through murder, mutilation or suicide.

By 1650, the Arawaks had been completely wiped out from the island.

Why do we continue to celebrate this man?  Even the elementary school premise is incorrect: “Columbus discovered America.”  He wasn’t in what we consider to be “America” today and, even if he were, other Europeans had been there first.  (And that is setting aside the truth that you can’t “discover” a place where people have been living for generations!)

He and his men were, however, the first Europeans to commit horrendous atrocities against America’s indigenous people including pillaging, torture, murder and genocide.

Maybe most troubling of all is that these crimes against humanity were committed in the name of our faith.

It is long past time to jettison this terrible “holiday” and replace it with a solemn time of remembrance to honor those who were taken into slavery, killed or forced to commit suicide to escape the hell the Columbus brought.

In Christ,

–Rev. Dominic

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