Showing posts with label Columbus Day. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Columbus Day. Show all posts

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.