08 October 2011

What really happened when Columbus discovered America

by Elizabeth Zelvin

We’re coming up on Columbus Day, and having researched and written two short stories and a Young Adult novel about the events this holiday celebrates, I have quite a different perspective on the matter than most Americans.

The Santa Maria, 1492
For starters, it has nothing to do with Italians. Yes, Columbus was born in Genoa. But the three ships’ crews on the historic first voyage were Spanish. The names of 87 out of 90 have survived. The roster included one Genoese sailor, one Calabrian, one Portuguese, and several Basques. On the second voyage, when the fleet of 17 ships carried more than 1,200 men, the only Genoese, a childhood friend of Columbus, was a rapist and a boor to whose ugly tale I tried to do justice in my novel. Apart from a cabal of Catalans, who at one point mutinied, stole three caravels, and headed back to Spain, these first conquistadores were Spanish, their policies dictated by the needs and desires of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in their drive to unify Spain, fill its coffers, expand its dominion in land and trade, and purge it of any taint of dissension from its Christian faith.

The crime connection in this true story is the genocide of the Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands where Columbus landed, and especially in Hispaniola (Quisqueya to the Taino, Haiti and the Dominican Republic today) where the first settlements were built. It followed the conquest of Granada, the last Moorish (ie Muslim) stronghold in Spain, the expulsion of the Jews on the exact date, August 3, 1492, that Columbus sailed, and the similar extinction of the Guanche, the natives of the Canary Islands, which Spain was in the process of conquering, island by island, at the same time.

The people who greeted Columbus and his crew were peaceable and friendly. They had never seen horses or metal weapons. Columbus described them as “robust and comely.” In a letter to the king and queen, he said: “They are so ingenuous and free with all they have, that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything that they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it.” He was already considering what good servants they would make. When he failed to find enough gold to impress the sovereigns, the Taino morphed in his mind from potential Christian brethren who must be converted to that valuable commodity, slaves.

The Spaniards were convinced that the Taino had no religion, good news in that no former beliefs would form obstacles to their conversion to Christianity. One of the priests who accompanied the second expedition collected what he called folk tales and published them on his return to Europe. How ironic! In fact, the Taino were describing their religion to Fray Pane, and he didn’t get it. These were a people who settled disputes not by war or litigation, but through a ball game, batey, a team sport similar to soccer. Games also had a ceremonial function, and sometimes they were played for fun.

There is a good explanation for the Taino’s generosity. It was the keystone of their ethical belief system. Matu’um, generosity, was a virtue. But the Spaniards didn’t get it, and neither did Columbus. They took all they were offered—water, food, labor, goods, and especially gold, from nuggets to elaborately worked masks—and took whatever they wanted, including sexual favors, with or without Taino consent. But when two Taino took a couple of European shirts, not even keeping them but bestowing them on their cacique (chief), Spanish justice was immediate and cruel: their noses were slit in the presence of their families, and they narrowly escaped execution.

It’s sometimes said that what really killed off the entire Taino people was illness: European diseases to which they were not immune. This is a copout. Within three years of Columbus’s first landing on October 12, 1492, one-third of the Taino population was already dead. Many committed suicide, using cyanide extracted from cassava, their staple food, rather than endure the penalty for failing to pay the monthly “tribute” of gold that they did not have. In February 1495, the point at which my novel ends, the Spaniards rounded up 1,500 Taino and herded the 500 most likely prospects for slavery into ships’ holds no better than those of African slavers in later centuries. More than 200 were dead and dumped overboard before the ships landed in Europe.

Eurocentric culture has long declared the Taino extinct, although some Caribbean Americans who carry Taino DNA identify themselves as Taino, making efforts to reconstruct the language and their cultural heritage.

Happy Columbus Day.


  1. Wow, Liz! Thanks for the grisly treasure trove of information! Really interesting. Maybe your research will confirm or deny something for me:

    In tobacconist circles, it is said that when Columbus first landed on Hispaniola, the Taino chief there offered to share a “Tovacco” with him. This “tovacco” was supposed to have been a large, rough-rolled cigar-equivalent, and Columbus (according to the story) returned with “tovaccos” which he presented to Ferdinand & Isabella – the introduction of tobacco to Europe. Supposedly, this is why the “Wooden Indian” became the symbol of tobacconists.

    Can you tell me if the story rings true? Or is it apocryphal? I’ve always wondered, and after reading your article, I thought you might know.

    And, whether you know the truth behind the legend in question, or not, your article was really interesting.


  2. I listened to and appreciated the podcast of your first story. It's not often we learn while being entertained, Elizabeth.

    Launching those expeditions had to be tantamount to landing men on the moon, even tougher considering sailing masted ships wasn't for wusses.

  3. Dix, the word tobacco is definitely Taino, but I don't know if they brought any home. I think it's unlikely its use spread in Europe at that time. The Spaniards were such lousy botanists that most of what they saw they misidentified. For example, what they thought was aloe (valuable) was not aloe but some other plant (worthless).

    Leigh, it was much worse than the moon. The astronauts could see the moon and knew what they were aiming for. :)

  4. I love history and so I thank you for sharing the truths we've not heard before. Great article!

  5. I remember those two short stories about Columbus (in AHMM, right?). I hadn't connected you as the author. I enjoyed them very much. And this iece was fascinating. Ah, the joys of doing research.

  6. Rob, both stories appeared in EQMM: "The Green Cross" in August 2010 and "Navidad" in January 2011. In the latter, I used the amazing true story that on Xmas Eve 1492 (also the second night of Chanukah that year), they managed to run the Santa Maria onto shoals off Hispaniola in dead calm water and full moonlight--after a three-day party during which no one had slept. The helmsman needed a nap so he left one of the ship's boys at the wheel, and guess what happened. The Santa Maria broke up--she never made it back to Spain. BTW, I hated research when I started. It grew on me. :)

  7. Great column, Liz! Really enjoyed this.

  8. The editors of my 8th grade American history book didn’t get the facts wrong; they left them out all together.

    A few years ago, the NiƱa and the Pinta docked here in Knoxville, and I took my grandson to see them. The ships looked awfully small. After reading your informative article, and thinking about how small the ships were, it is surprising that any of the Taino slaves survived.

  9. Siyo dtohitsu, it simply seems so strange to me that you read of the horrors commited, and so calmly say only "ah yes, so facinating". These were humans, in truth far more human, than "Kilumbus" and his crew, eh? Most sorry, if I seem a little upset, but tsitsalagi(I am Cherokee), and perhaps "see" from a very different view point. But to me the unega(white People)who came were monsterous, uncivilized, ungodly, inhuman, inhumane, and filthy(by their own admission)as if one read about Queen Izabella she states "she had two baths in her life, one at birth, one on her wedding day, and THAT was quite enough for anyone". SHE, though MY, Peoples "nasty" , for bathing daily, as did ALL Christians of that time. It was considered a "sinful thing", in MY mind, is WHY, the unega were SO illness prone, eh? But truely, your ever so calm acceptance of such truths? NO, outrage? Leigh, was "entertained"?, by your tale? I, most HUMBLY thank you from my heart for posting this truth, for sharing it with the world, and hope there are many who learn, what has been denied them in the "History books", the REAL truth, and PRAY, they learn for themselves MUCH more of the REAL truth. Such as all the children that were FORCABLY TAKEN from their families here in America, Native American children, beaten, starved, sexually abused, by CHRISTIANS, in the disguize of "civilizeing", teaching, and traing us, but was in truth taking HOSTAGE, so our families behave themselfs, be docile, and be "good little "Indians".
    adadoligi ale nvwadohivnv(peace and many blessings)
    Dekanogi Ulogilv
    (oh, my, I was not supposed to remember that language was I? :)

  10. Thank you for writing and understand that we (or I at least) don't disagree with you. Part Algonquin, I have a foot in both worlds traceable back to Jamestown and Plimoth.

    Writers face a balancing act introducing readers to ideas and facts they might not want to hear without alienating the audience. The method is to let the recipient discover within themselves their own outrage (if they will) without triggering the tripwires of resentment. In that regard, Elizabeth has done remarkably well.

    When I mentioned I was 'entertained' by her podcast, the word might not have been the best choice, but the podcast dealt with anti-Semitic sentiment on the voyage long before the ships arrived in the Americas. As you hear from the podcast, Elizabeth casts a wide net when writing about evils of prejudice.

    You reminded me of misuse of language. My parents were upset that modern white people misunderstood our Algonquin word squa (woman) to mean 'prostitute'. Sadly, the damage is done and thanks to Oprah, it's probably too late to correct.

    Thank you for taking the time to write us.

  11. Dekanogi, I share your outrage--at the genocide of the Taino and other tribal peoples and the Spanish crimes against other non-Christians, including my own people, the Jews, who were being burned at the stake as "heretics" at the same time. As a storyteller, I'm constantly challenged to find ways to persuade readers to empathize with my own--and my characters' --point of view. All the novelists, short fiction writers, and poets I know agree that we can't afford to get preachy when we take on social issues.

  12. Hello Elizabeth , in doing some research for Hispanic history month I came across your story. I'm glad somebody tells it as it is and was. Please let me know where you get the facts for your research. I'm super excited to write an article myself to accompany my artwork. I need it to be completely factual, as it will be displayed in a university. Please let me know if I can quote you? Thank you nadya

  13. Hi, Nadya. My main sources, in addition to the limited primary sources in English (accounts by Columbus and others who were there or knew someone who was), were Samuel Eliot Morison, whose 1942 biography Admiral of the Ocean Sea won the Pulitzer Prize, and radical historian Kirkpatrick Sale, whose 1984 book The Conquest of Paradise tells the story very differently. You can download my short story, "Navidad,"
    on UntreedReads.com. It's fiction, but the events it describes (the sinking of the Santa Maria on Xmas Eve and the building of the fort at which 40 men were left behind) really happened.


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