COLUMBUS, GREED, SLAVERY, AND GENOCIDE. WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO THE AMERICAN INDIANS.
First published in
1492. The arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean changed everything for the people already living there (State Archives of Florida)
Given the conquests and consequences we see unfolding every day in the Middle East, now is a good time to look at the timeless reality of what happens to people who are in the way.
Christopher Columbus never set foot in the land that would become the United States of America. In fact, he never even saw it.
His four voyages took him to the Caribbean, a small detour to Central America, and a hop to the north-east coast of Venezuela. He had no idea the continent of North America existed, or that he had even stumbled into a “New World”. He thought he had found China, Japan, and the region of King Solomon’s fabled gold mines.
What he had categorically not done was “discover” anything, as somewhere between 50 to 100 million people already lived there quite happily, just as they had done for tens of thousands of years. On the other hand, what he did was to start a brutal slave trade in American Indians, and usher in four centuries of genocide that culled them to virtual extinction. Within a generation of Columbus landing, perhaps only 5-10 per cent of the entire American Indian population remained.
People can argue the semantics of what genocide means, and whether it is applicable in this context. But if it sounds fanciful, consider the UN’s Genocide Convention, passed by the General Assembly in December 1948. Although President Harry S Truman handed it to the U.S. Senate the following year, the U.S. only finally ratified it in 1986, along with a “Sovereignty Package” requiring U.S. consent for any actions brought against the U.S.. The key reason for the delay and conditional ratification was the senators’ concern that the U.S. could be pursued in connection with its treatment of the American Indians (and also African Americans).
It should come as no surprise that the term “genocide” is highly controversial in the context of the American Indians. Nevertheless, this article will tell the story of the destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Americas — predominantly by the Spanish conquistadores, British Puritans, and finally the American settlers — and you can make up your own mind. To start, here are two definitions:
genocide. The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group. 1940s: from Greek genos ‘race’ + -cide (Oxford English Dictionary)
Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group: (a) killing; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm; (c) deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births; (e) forcibly transferring children (Article 2, UN Genocide Convention, abbreviated)
On the 3rd of August 1492, Columbus slipped out of Palos de la Frontera on board his flagship, the carrack Santa María. Along with him were two nippier caravels, the Pinta and the Niña. Exactly 10 weeks later, on the 12th of October, he landed on “San Salvador” — a still unidentified island in the Bahamas. By late October he was in Cuba, and on the 6th of December he had landed on the island of Haiti, which he renamed La Spañola (Hispaniola).
He described the islands as “very fertile to an excessive degree”, “beyond comparison”, “most beautiful”, “filled with trees of a thousand kinds and tall, and they seem to touch the sky”. In addition he found: “nightingale and other little birds of a thousand kinds”, “honey”, “a great variety of fruits”, “many mines of metals”, and “rivers, many and great, the most of which bear gold”.
He also described the “innumerable” native Indians who greeted him:
They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they capable of using them, although they are well-built people of handsome stature, because they are wondrous timid. … They are so artless and free with all they possess, that no one would believe it without having seen it. Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the thing be of value or of small price,
However, power and greed soon took over. On the first voyage, Columbus seized men, women, and children to take back to Spain and parade like circus animals. Most died on the voyage, and all were dead within six months.
This spurred him to be more ambitious on his second voyage, in which he selected 550 of the best specimens he could find, and allowed his men to take whoever else they wanted, which turned out to be another 600. The journey back to Europe was so debilitating for the captives that Columbus ended up throwing over 200 corpses overboard. There are no records of what happened to the 600 taken by his men.
Columbus’s second voyage had been on an altogether different scale to the first. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain had kitted him out with 17 ships and 1,200 men, principally soldiers, including a cavalry troop of lancers. When they arrived at Hispaniola, the natives came out to meet them with fish and fruit “as if we had been their brothers”. In return, Columbus dispatched his troops to the island’s interior and the nearby islands to plunder the gold mines.
Columbus never found North America, from J Cohen, Christopher Columbus: The Four Voyages. 1969
Armed with the latest weaponry and armoured mastiffs trained to rip people apart, the Spanish tortured, maimed, raped, slaughtered, and burned the inhabitants in search of gold. Bartolomé de Las Casas, an eyewitness who eventually became a Dominican friar and fought for the Indians’ rights, left a harrowing description:
… whenever the Spaniards found them, they pitilessly slaughtered everyone like sheep in a corral. It was a general rule among Spaniards to be cruel; not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings or having a minute to think at all. So they would cut an Indian’s hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and they would send him on saying “Go now, spread the news to your chiefs.” They would test their swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow. They burned or hanged captured chiefs.
It was an orgy of looting and butchery, faithfully recorded by eyewitnesses. The accounts are too graphic to quote, but they detail the widespread massacres, including of children, dashing out their brains, and even feeding them to the armoured attack dogs. This senseless savagery was described as “pacification”.
A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552)
Wherever Columbus’s men landed, they seized the land outright. His letter back to Ferdinand and Isabella is crystal clear:
… and of them all have I taken possession for Their Highnesses, by proclamation and with the royal standard displayed, and nobody objected.
The physical taking of new territories was farcical. The Indians were summoned, often manacled, and a proclamation called the requermiento was read to them. They spoke over 2,000 languages, but Spanish was naturally not one of them, so the ceremony was meaningless to them. Nevertheless, it stated that if they did not acknowledge Ferdinand and Isabella as their just sovereigns, all men, women, and children would be enslaved, and their possessions taken by force. In fact, the proclamation was actually meaningless for everyone — Columbus was there to enslave them and loot their property whatever.
The early records of kind and generous natives were soon replaced by descriptions of them as backwards savages and wild animals, who could therefore be treated as such. (This process of dehumanisation is seen throughout history when one people settles on the land of another.) As a direct result, native blood flowed freely, and within 21 years — and four voyages by Columbus — Hispaniola was a ghost-island. The tropical abundance had been destroyed, and all its inhabitants were dead.
The Indians had originally moved into the Americas across the Bering Straits from Asia perhaps around 40,000 BC (some say as early as 70,000 BC). They had crossed between the eastern tip of Russia (the Chukchi Peninsula) and the westerly part of Alaska (Cape Prince of Wales) using the “Bering land bridge”, a vast slab of land now submerged under the Bering Straits leaving only a few rocky mountain tops poking out of the icy waters. The new land the people moved into — the Americas — was immense, covering a quarter of the earth’s land mass.
There, entirely cut off from the rest of the world’s history — unaware of ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, Europe, or the rise of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam — the American Indians simultaneously developed their own civilisations.
When the Spanish finally saw the cities of the New World, they found themselves gazing on the stuff of fantasy — like in Aztec Mexico, where they came across the great cities around the Lake of the Moon, with Tenochtitlán rising mystically out of the centre of the water. The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote:
… when we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land … we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments they tell of … . And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? … I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.
Another marvel was the exuberant artwork they found everywhere. The conquistador Hernan Cortés brought some of it home to Europe, where the great Albrecht Dürer’s reaction was rapture. He said he had:
… never seen in all my days what so rejoiced my heart, as these things. For I saw among them amazing artistic objects, and I marveled over the subtle ingenuity of the men in these distant lands. Indeed, I cannot say enough about the things that were brought before me.
The culture of the Indians throughout the Americas varied enormously, as would be expected for such a vast area. But the Spanish were nevertheless amazed to discover that many of the tribes were peaceful, harmonious, and egalitarian, with little sense of greed, crime, or warfare. This was naturally not true of all, but the passivity, hospitality, and community demonstrated by tribe after tribe fills the eyewitness Spanish accounts, which also note their frequently calm and respectful manner of exercising authority, and even unheard of social systems like the cultural, spiritual, and economic matriarchy within the Iroquois.
As the Spanish seized ever more land, Columbus implemented the repartimiento (or encomienda), which gave each of the conquerors a number of Indians to enslave, turning the natives’ previously peaceful way of life into a nightmare of unending brutality and violence as they were forced to mine precious metals and work plantations in sub-human conditions.
This subjugation was repeated throughout the Caribbean, before the conquistadores turned to the mainland, and wreaked the same carnage on the Aztecs of Mexico, the Maya of Central America, the Incas of Peru and Chile, and the other Indians they found.
Unlike the Caribbean Indians, the Aztecs in Mexico were familiar with warfare, although they had formal rules. A declaration of intention to declare war was required, along with the opportunity for the other side to make reparations to avert the conflict. The attacker might also supply the defender with weapons and food, as there was no honour in defeating the unarmed or weak.
However, Hernan Cortés, the conquistador who led the advance into Mexico, had no intention of observing these formalities. Having been welcomed by Montezuma into the great city of Tenochtitlán (now ruins within Mexico City), Cortés set about starving and slaughtering its people, before eventually levelling the city, burning all books, and feeding its priests to his war dogs.
This same pattern of annihilation and conquest was repeated throughout Central and South America. Tens of millions of Indians were rounded up and used as slaves on the coca plantations, or as labour down the gold and silver mines, where they worked and slept without ever seeing the light of day, constantly exposed to highly toxic cinnabar, arsenic, and mercury. Life expectancy was brutally low. The conquistadores calculated that with such an abundant slave workforce, it was cheaper to let them die of starvation and exhaustion than waste time and money providing food or survivable conditions. One conquistador recalled, “If twenty healthy Indians enter on Monday, half may emerge crippled on Saturday”.
As the conquerors moved south, the strongest resistance came from the Maya, whose empire extended across southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and northern El Salvador. But even they were ultimately no match for the fanatical invaders, and the same fate befell them as everyone else.
In shockingly few generations, European greed, savagery, and disease had exterminated all but a handful of the citizens of the millennia-old American Indian civilisations. On average, the tribes’ populations were reduced to around 5 per cent of the size they had been before Columbus arrived.
So much for Central and South America. Further north, in what is now the USA, the Spanish, French, and British pillaged the Atlantic coast for slaves, raiding today’s Florida, Georgia, and Carolina. Finally, in 1607, the British settled permanently, initially at Jamestown, Virginia, where one of the British troops wrote they had found:
a lande that promises more than the Lande of promisse: In steed of mylke we fynde pearl. / & golde Inn steede of honye.
However, the question of how to deal with the Indians was never far away. For instance, William Berkeley, one of Virginia’s early governors, came up with the idea of massacring all the men, then selling all the women and children into slavery to cover the costs of the exterminations.
A particularly shocking episode involving the British Puritan settlers was the Pequot War (Southern New England, 1634–8). Following several tit-for-tat skirmishes, the British resolved to respond with crushing force.
The Indians spying of us came running in multitudes along the water side, crying, what cheere, Englishmen, what cheere, what doe you come for: They not thinking we intended warre, went on cheerefully untill they come to Pequeat river.
The British then went on a village burning spree, in response to which the Indians marched on Fort Saybrook. After a few opening gambits by either side, the Indians sent a message to ask the British commander if he felt they had all “fought enough”. Lt Lion Gardiner avoided a direct answer, prompting the Indians to ask if the British meant to kill their women and children. Gardiner replied “they should see that thereafter”. Under cover of night, the British then attacked the Indian encampment at the Mystic River. Shouting “we must burn them”, Capt. John Mason torched the site, and shot or cut down anyone who tried to escape. He left a description of the massacre:
And indeed such a dreadful Terror did the Almighty let fall upon their Spirits, that they would fly from us and run into the very Flames, where many of them perished. … [And] God was above them, who laughed his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven: Thus were the Stout Hearted spoiled, having slept their last Sleep … . Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling the Place with dead Bodies!
As feared, the majority of the 600 to 700 slain were women and children. But as John Underhill, Mason’s co-commander, noted:
… sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents.
To finish the job, the river Pequot was renamed the Thames, and the town of Pequot was made New London — to ensure that the Pequot people would be wiped from the map and forgotten.
It was also under the British that one of the few recorded cases of intentional biological warfare occurred. In 1763, General (later Baron) Jeffrey Amherst, governor of Virginia and commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, sanctioned the purposeful spread of lethal disease. In a set of orders given to Col. Henry Bouquet at Fort Pitt, he commanded:
You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.
Despite the relentless hostility of most senior European settlers towards the Indians, some of the less powerful saw things differently. As we have seen, Columbus’s companion, Bartolomé de Las Casas, ended his days fighting for the proper treatment of Indians. And under subsequent British and then American rule, we know that Indian culture was not universally abominated. No less a figure than the Founding Father Benjamin Franklin explained:
When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.
Penalties for this type of racial disloyalty were harsh. In 1612, Thomas Dayle, Marshall of Virginia, captured some young English settlers who had run away to live with the Indians. His retribution was swift and brutal:
Some he apointed to be hanged Some burned Some to be broken upon wheles, others to be staked and some to be shott to deathe.
So far the focus of the story has been the settlers’ violence. But the biggest killer of the American Indians was undoubtedly the arsenal of diseases brought by the Europeans. The role of disease in this context remains a hotly debated issue. However, it is wholly misleading to think — as many now do — that the Indian deaths caused by these invisible microbial killers were unforeseeable, accidental, inadvertent, or otherwise an unintended consequence of peaceful contact between the Europeans and the Indians. The volumes filled with eyewitness accounts of settler savagery leave no one in any doubt that the conquerors of the New World wanted land, and were pleased by all opportunities to take it. The British Puritans viewed the decimation of tribe after tribe from disease as being an integral part of God’s active support for their new colonies. For instance, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony noted after an epidemic of smallpox in 1634 that the British settlers had been largely unharmed, but:
… for the natives, they are near all dead of the smallpox, so as the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.
The human devastation wrought by the diseases carried by Columbus’s men and everyone who followed was cataclysmic: a rolling cocktail of diphtheria, influenza, measles, mumps, typhus, scarlet fever, smallpox, syphilis — the list is endless. Not only did these pathogens cull whole native populations, but they kept on killing, even once individual outbreaks had abated, because there was no one left strong enough to bury the dead or gather food.
In 1793, once the American War of Independence had concluded with the Treaty of Paris, the “Indian Question” became a domestic matter for the new American administration.
Alongside growth in the African slave trade, the slavery of Indians continued undiminished right up to the general abolition of slavery in 1865. For instance, in 1861, in Colusa County, California, Indian boys and girls of three and four years old were still being sold for small sums. Such child slaves were often kidnapped and sold by traders, secure in the knowledge that the parents could do nothing, as Indians could not give testimony in court against whites.
As the settlers pushed across the Plains and the West, tales of whooping, tomahawk-wielding, Indians slaughtering whites became ever more widespread. But it is noteworthy that, pre-colonisation, many of the Indians in the area did not have violent cultures. Among some tribes, sneaking up on an enemy and touching him with a weapon, stick, or even a hand was traditionally deemed the highest form of bravery. However, in the face of continual attacks, the Indians learned to respond with violence.
As alien as it may seem now, by the late 1700s, many American leaders were openly advocating the destruction and extermination of the encampments and tribes. For instance, in 1779, a decade before he became first president of the U.S., General George Washington told the military commander attacking the Iroquois to:
… lay waste all the settlements around … that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed
and not to:
… listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.
He insisted upon the military need to fill the Indians with a:
… terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.
Other presidents were more explicit still. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson told his Secretary of State for War to use “the hatchet” and that:
… we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated or is driven beyond the Mississippi … in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.
It was a theme Jefferson was to return to several times, freely using words like “exterminate” and “extirpate”.
Several decades later, in 1829, Andrew Jackson was elected president, although few now remember he had sacked Indian villages of “savage dogs”, made bridle reins of their flayed skin, sent souvenirs of corpses to the ladies of Tennessee, and claimed, “I have on all occasions preserved the scalps of my killed”.
President Andrew Jackson scalped his Indian victims
At the same time as the state-orchestrated wars of annihilation, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 required the resettlement of entire populations of Indians to new territories west of the Mississippi. When the Indians of Georgia won a ruling from Chief Justice John Marshall saying, effectively, they could stay, President Jackson ignored the Supreme Court and had the Indians sent on a death march anyway — the Trail of Tears. One former Civil War soldier said he had seen a great deal of brutality in his life, but nothing on the scale of the cruelty of the Indian death marches. Later forced relocations of Indians, like the Navajo Long Walk and the Pomo Death March in California, followed the same pattern.
The language of extermination coming from the top was also mirrored at state level. For example, Governor Peter Burnett of California stated in 1851 that war would:
… continue to be waged between the races until the Indian becomes extinct.
And the following year his successor, Governor John McDougal, reiterated the sentiment, urging that the whites’ war against the Indians:
… must of necessity be one of extermination to many of the tribes.
All the while, elements within the press supported the incitement to mass murder. L Frank Baum (most famous as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) was editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer in South Dakota. In it, he wrote:
The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. (20 December 1890)
He returned to the same theme the following week:
The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. (29 December 1890)
These seem to have been fairly standard and established views among sections of the population. A generation earlier, in 1864, the Rev. William Crawford had written of the prevailing opinion in Colorado:
There is but one sentiment in regard to the final disposition which shall be made of the Indians: ‘Let them be exterminated — men, women, and children together’.
And, sure enough, one of the worst atrocities of the 1800s soon followed — the infamous November 1864 massacre at Sand Creek, familiar to anyone who has seen the 1970 film Soldier Blue, groundbreaking for its graphic depictions of the slaughter.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho men of Sand Creek were away on a buffalo hunt, leaving around 600 women and children together with some 35 braves and 25 old men. When the American cavalry approached, the elderly chief, Black Kettle, emerged with his family. He waved a white flag and an American flag, and explained that the village had already voluntarily surrendered all its weapons to prove they were peaceful. All the while, he reassured his people not to be afraid. However, the Cavalry commander, the Rev. Col. John Milton Chivington, a devout Methodist pastor and elder, was an extremist in no mood for peace. “I long to be wading in gore”, he had announced a few days earlier:
Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.
The stomach-turning notion that “nits make lice” was one of his favourite justifications for the wholesale butchery of Indian children. Accordingly, at Sand Creek he sent in his 700 troops, who slaughtered the entire village, including a six-year-old girl waving a white flag. When they were done, they scalped the bodies, hacked off fingers and ears for jewellery, and sexually mutilated a number of the corpses.
Soldier Blue was released at the height of the Vietnam War, and attracted some criticism for its timing. But it was a tearaway international box office success, chiefly remembered for introducing an audience weaned on films of spectacular and heroic cowboy derring-do to a far more shocking and sobering view of how the West was won.
“The order was massacre, and good soldiers follow orders. These soldiers were the best.” Strapline to original 1970 movie poster of Soldier Blue.
Perhaps equally as shocking is that Chivington was never disciplined for the atrocity, and President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–9) declared the Sand Creek massacre was:
… as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier.
He later went on to say:
I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe 9 out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.
Five years later, on the 15th of January 1891, the Sioux chief, Kicking Bear, finally surrendered. The wars were effectively over. By 1900, a people which once represented a hundred percent of the population of the USA, was reduced to a third of one per cent.
So what does this all tell us, apart from, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it, “war is hell”. And so was four centuries of genocide against the American Indians. In 2000, the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs apologised with the full support of the Clinton administration:
As the nation looked to the West for more land, this agency participated in the ethnic cleansing that befell the western tribes. … it must be acknowledged that the deliberate spread of disease, the decimation of the mighty bison herds, the use of the poison alcohol to destroy mind and body, and the cowardly killing of women and children made for tragedy on a scale so ghastly that it cannot be dismissed as merely the inevitable consequence of the clash of competing ways of life. … We accept this inheritance, this legacy of racism and inhumanity. (Kevin Gover, Bureau of Indian Affairs)
Perhaps one thing it all suggests is that the U.S. celebration of Christopher Columbus Day on the second Monday in October every year is outdated and increasingly unacceptable to a growing number of those who have understood the man’s motivations and his legacy of slavery, violence, and destruction.
Today, fanatics across the Middle East continue to bomb, shoot, or hack their way through non-combatant populations of men, women, and children for no more reason than the race or religion they were born into, or the land they were born onto. As the American Indians so tragically discovered, the world has become good at turning a blind eye to the genocides it prefers not to see.
At the start of this piece I suggested that readers could form their own view whether the American Indians had been the victims of genocide. Perhaps the final words on this should go to The New York Times.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow retired as Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard in 1854. The following year, he published his epic poem about the Indian chief, Hiawatha. On the 28th of December 1855, page 2 of The New York Times carried a review of the poem, which described it as:
… embalming pleasantly enough the monstrous traditions of an uninteresting and, one may almost say, a justly exterminated race.