It would be unthinkable for any country in Europe or America to set aside a day each year in honor of Hitler, yet one of the greatest perpetrators of genocide in history is celebrated every October 12, the day that honors Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of a “new world” in 1492.
We are told that Columbus represented the visionary spirit of exploration that characterized the Europeans. But as we know history is written by the conquerors.
How can someone “discover” two continents inhabited by millions of human beings with advanced, long standing and diverse civilizations that had cultivated the land, built enormous monuments and buildings, understood astronomy, wrote books and lived in towns, cities and countryside alike without pollution?
The reality is that Columbus was backed by the Spanish crown for the purpose of colonization and plunder of resources in what was believed to be Asia to enrich Spain and its inhabitants.
The dispatching of Columbus on his colonial mission came about at the same time that “white” Spain was being consolidated through wars and the terror of the Inquisition, driving out the Arabs, Africans and Jews who had lived there peacefully for 700 years, and seizing their considerable resources.
Spain like most of Europe was poor in the middle ages, and this is why Queen Isabella had to hock her jewels to pay for Columbus’s trip.
It was Columbus’s occupying force along with the trade in enslaved African people (which Columbus was also involved in) that opened the door for the vast wealth and power that would flow into Europe for the next 500 years at the expense of the Native and the African people.
As Chairman Omali Yeshitela, leader of the Uhuru Movement states, slavery and genocide are the foundation on which America rests. Would there be an America without the genocide of the Indigenous people and the theft of their land? Would there be an America without the enslavement of African people? “No, no, no and a thousand times no,” states Yeshitela.
As writer and Indigenous activist Ward Churchill writes, subsequent to Columbus’ first “voyage of discovery” in 1492, he returned the next year “with an invasion force of 17 ships, appointed at his own request by the Spanish Crown to install himself as the ‘viceroy and governor of the [Caribbean islands] and the mainland of America,’ a position he held until 1500.
“Setting up shop on the large island he called Española (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he promptly instituted policies of slavery (encomiendo) and systematic extermination against the native Taino population. Columbus’s programs reduced Taino numbers from as many as eight million at the outset of his regime to about three million in 1496. Perhaps 100,000 were left by the time of the governor’s departure. His policies, however, remained, with the result that by 1514 the Spanish census of the island showed barely 22,000 Indians remaining alive.
“In 1542, only two hundred were recorded. Thereafter, they were considered extinct, as were Indians throughout the Caribbean Basin, an aggregate population which totaled more than fifteen million at the point of first contact with the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as Columbus was known…”
This process of genocide, begun by Columbus in Haiti, was only just beginning as it expanded throughout North and South America.
As Churchill continues, “All told, it is probable that more than one hundred million native people were ‘eliminated’ in the course of Europe’s ongoing ‘civilization’ of the Western Hemisphere.”
In his book Conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale wrote of Columbus’ domination of the island of Española:
The tribute system, instituted by the Governor [Columbus] sometime in 1495, was a simple and brutal way of fulfilling the Spanish lust for gold while acknowledging the Spanish distaste for labor. Every Taino over the age of fourteen had to supply the rulers with a hawk’s bell of gold every three months (or in gold-deficient areas, twenty-five pounds of spun cotton); those who did were given a token to wear around their necks as proof that they had made their payment; those who did not were, as [Columbus’s brother, Fernando] says discreetly “punished”-by having their hands cut off, or as [the priest, Bartolome’ de] las Casas says less discreetly, and left to bleed to death.
Las Casas’ writings among other contemporaneous sources, are also “replete with accounts of Spanish colonists (hidalgos) hanging Tainos en masse, roasting them on spits or burning them at the stake (often a dozen or more at a time), hacking their children into pieces to be used as dog feed and so forth, all of it to instill in the natives a “proper attitude of respect” toward their Spanish ‘superiors.’”
And this is only a single example of the massive terror waged by the thousands of successors of Columbus who repeated this genocidal terror in a myriad of forms, from Alaska through the Americas to the tip of Chile.
Whether it was with small-pox infested blankets and brutal massacres such as Sand Creek and Wounded Knee in the U.S. or working indigenous people to death in the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia, Columbus set the example for European conquistadors ready to stop at nothing for land, gold and riches.
Today Indigenous people in North America make up the most impoverished population inside the U.S., living on reservations on their own stolen land with a life expectancy of about 47 years.
The affluence, prosperity and opportunities of white people be able to come from poverty in Europe and climb up the ladder of success are directly attributable the violent theft of this land from the original inhabitants and the stolen labor of enslaved Africans for 200 years.
This explains why white people now have 20 times the wealth that the African community has and why Indigenous reservations are struggle under deadening poverty and powerlessness.
We unite with the call by many Indigenous groups and their supporters that Columbus Day must be abolished and replaced with Indigenous People’s Day.
But more than that we unite that the Indigenous people have a right to the return of their own land and to justice and reparations for hundreds of years of genocide and oppression.
Join the Uhuru Solidarity Movement. March for Reparations to African People on October 17th in cities across the U.S. Donate to the Pledge Drive for the Black Power Blueprint as a stand of material solidarity with African self-determination.
Penny Hess is the author of Overturning the Culture of Violence and the Chairwoman of the African People’s Solidarity Committee, the white organization formed and led by the African People’s Socialist Party to build the movement for white reparations to African people.