Yesterday was the day some people recognize and celebrate as Columbus Day in the United States. In Canada, it was the federally recognized holiday of Thanksgiving. In both countries however, there are others (myself included) who recognize and celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. For us, this is a day of reconciliation, education, acknowledgement, celebration and accompliceship.
The Black community and the Indigenous communities of North America have shared painful similarities for a very long time. Both of our communities experienced slavery at the hands of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish and Portuguese. On January 16, 1493 when Columbus was sailing back to Spain from Ayti (Haiti) which he later renamed to La Isla Española (Hispaniola), he had enslaved over 1500 Taino indigenous people and were bringing them back to be sold for gold in Spain. He was determined to take back both material and human cargo to his sovereigns and for himself, and this could only be accomplished if his sailors continued looting, kidnapping, and committing other violent acts, especially on Hispaniola. Columbus seems to have thought that Hispaniola might be Cipango (Japan, where he originally was attempting to sail to); and if not Cipango, he thought maybe it was one of the legendarily rich isles where the biblical King Solomon’s fleet brought back gold, gems, and spices to Jerusalem, according to biblical text. Alternatively, he reasoned that the island could be related to the biblical kingdom of Sheba (Sabaʾ). Columbus found at least enough gold and prosperity to save him from scorn and ridicule upon his return to Spain. Going back to Spain with his material wealth and enslaved people, he convinced everyone including his monarchs of the need for a rapid second voyage. Columbus was now at the height of his popularity, and he led at least 17 ships out from Cádiz on September 25, 1493. Colonization and Christian evangelization were openly included this time in the plans, and a group of friars sailed out with him. The presence of about 1,300 salaried men with another 200 private investors and a small troop of cavalry show the eagerness of the Spanish kingdom to conquer, colonize and spread Christianity by any means necessary. Because Columbus had reported a plethora of Indigenous people for slaves, “rivers of gold and fertile pastures” to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, he was given the ships and men to finance his next expedition; however, Columbus had to deliver. In the next few years, as he was desperate to fulfill those promises, hundreds of Indigenous enslaved people died on their way back to Spain and the gold was not as bountiful as expected.
I must confess, I had no idea that Indigenous people had been enslaved prior to Africans being enslaved until I started researching Columbus for this article. While I had learned about him in 6th grade, along with all of the other Portuguese and Spanish “explorers,” I was never taught or shown anything about this part of his history. I had no idea that thousands of Taino/Arawak Indigenous people had been enslaved and sold into slavery for profit. I had no idea that the enslaving of Indigenous peoples from the Caribbean islands is what started the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and not the capturing and enslavement of African people. There is so much about our history that has been completely warped and in some cases, left out totally. But one thing is clear: Christopher Columbus was a monster. He was an inhumane, sick, twisted person who was driven by greed, power and social standing. The stories of his atrocities as retold by the young priest Bartolome de las Casas paint a very clear picture of what Columbus and his men did. In the provinces of Cicao, he was so convinced, mistakenly, that there was a plethora of gold, fields and fields of it that the natives were hiding, that he decreed all persons over 14 had to supply at least a thimble of gold dust every three months and were given copper necklaces as proof of their compliance. Those who did not fulfill their obligation had their hands cut off, which were tied around their necks while they bled to death. Over 10,000 Indigenous people died handless. The natives had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down by dogs, and were killed. In the span of two years, approximately 250,000 Indigenous people on Haiti were dead. Many deaths included mass suicides or intentional poisonings or mothers killing their babies to avoid persecution. When it became clear that there was no gold left, the remaining Indigenous people were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were probably about 50,000 Taino people left. By 1550, there were 500. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Columbus and his men did to the Arawak Indians of Haiti. In the earlier years of his conquests, there were butcher shops throughout the Caribbean where Indigenous bodies were sold as dog food. There was also a practice known as the montería infernal, the infernal chase, or manhunt, in which natives were hunted by war-dogs. These dogs, who also wore armor and had been fed human flesh, were a fierce match for the Indigenous people. Live babies were also fed to these war dogs as sport, sometimes in front of horrified parents. Under his rule on Haiti, Columbus’ settlers sold 9- and 10-year-old Indigenous girls into sexual slavery. He also kidnapped a Carib woman and gave her to a crew member to rape. He created an environment for the Spanish settlers that allowed them to literally get away with murder. After a while of living in Haiti, the Spaniards refused to walk any distance. As recounted by the priest Las Casas, they literally “rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry” or were carried on hammocks by Indigenous people running in relays. “In this case they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings.”
Complete control led to absolute cruelty. According to Las Casas, the Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” The Tainos attempts to defend themselves failed. So, Las Casas reports, “they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help.” After each six or eight months’ work in the mines, which was the time required of each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died. While the men were sent many miles away to the mines, the wives remained to work the soil, forced into the excruciating job of digging and making thousands of hills for cassava plants. As a result, husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides that they stopped having children. As for the new born babies, they died early because their mothers, overworked and starving, had no milk to nurse them. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation. As a result, the cycle was husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk. In a short period of time, the land that was so great, so powerful and fertile was completely depopulated. All of the history and culture of the Tainos of Haiti is all but destroyed and gone forever…all because of one man.
As a Black woman learning about this history of the Indigenous people of the Caribbean, which is similar to stories of what explorers did to Indigenous people everywhere, my heart breaks into a million pieces. Not just because all of these atrocities are so disgusting to write, much less stomach that they really happened; but more so because there are people in America who legitimately want to continue celebrating Columbus Day, as if he is some sort of hero that we should look up to and aspire to be. I’ve heard Americans try to justify the day by saying it’s a celebration of Italian pride and heritage in America as Columbus was from Genoa, Italy and once upon a time, Italian Americans were discriminated against in this country. But this is one of the many problems with white privilege. It’s this idea that simply by turning a blind eye to all the atrocities perpetrated by this one man and celebrating his “adventurous spirit” and his “contributions to nautical history” that we can still keep this holiday and “acknowledge his shortcomings.” To be clear, Christopher Columbus was a greedy, pedophilic, xenophobic repugnant racist. He was a liar and an immoral social and political climber who literally decimated and wiped out an entire culture of people, all for gold and status within the Royal court. Unfortunately, what Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas and Haiti, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots. They used the same tactics for the same reasons: for the frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe for gold, for slaves, for products of the soil, to pay the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions, to finance the monarchical bureaucracies rising in Western Europe, to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism, and to participate in what Karl Marx would later call “the primitive accumulation of capital.” These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business, politics, and culture that would dominate the world for the next five centuries, according to Howard Zinn, the acclaimed author of A People’s History of the United States.
So my sincerest hope and prayer is that after reading this, you will no longer celebrate Columbus Day or Thanksgiving in either the United States or Canada. While I understand, especially as immigrants, that many of us and our parents believe Thanksgiving is about practising gratitude and thankfulness, it decidedly is not. It was and continues to be a celebration of the genocide and wiping out of not only North American Indigenous people and culture, but also by virtue of the person, Caribbean Indigenous people and culture. It should not take a specific day of the year to be grateful or thankful for the things we have. Gratitude and appreciation is a state we should aspire to live in every single day of our lives. If nothing else this pandemic has taught us all, it is to be grateful and thankful for every little good thing going right in your life, because there is so much shift and change happening in the world at large. I hope North America universally adopts Indigenous People’s Day as a federal holiday to recognize, acknowledge, reconcile, educate, reflect and celebrate what remains of Indigenous culture. So much of it has been lost or stolen away so the least we can do, as immigrants and guests of Turtle Island is take a day to respect and remember all the Indigenous lives lost as a result of European colonization and slavery. We owe it to every single Native person of this land to recognize their sovereignty and give them back their dignity which was stolen from them.
To every single Indigenous person reading this, please know you have not just an ally in me but a real accomplice. I am committed to doing the work of unlearning and re-educating myself properly on your true history. there is so much to learn and so much work to do. But know every single day, I stand in solidarity with you and will back it up with not just words but actions. Actions, as we know, always speak louder than words.