Columbus and the Discovery of America

Thursday, October 9, 2003

There's a bit more to this than is found in most school history books. Here are some disturbing details about the Arawak Indians of Haiti:

Columbus had to make good on promises of gold and slaves he made for the 17 ships he was given for the second expedition. Columbus did not find the gold he expected, and what follows is a truly horrifying retelling of what happened to the Arawak Indians (People's History of the United States, A, pp. 5- )

The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.

Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutiliation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

The author goes on to describe Bartolome de Las Casas, a young priest who participated in the conquests of Cuba, but became disgusted with how the westerners were treating the local peoples. He left one of the only written records of what happened to the Arawaks.

In it, he describes the Indians. They are agile, he says, and can swim long distances, especially the women. They are not completely peaceful, because they do battle from time to time with other tribes, but their casualties seem small, and they fight when they are individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of captains or kings.

Women in Indian society were treated so well as to startle the Spaniards. Las Casas describes sex relations:

"Marriage laws are non-existent: men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multipily in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon total nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man's head or at his hands."


Las Casas tells how the Spaniards "grew more conceited every day" and after a while refused to walk any distance. They "rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry" or were carried on hammocks by Indians 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."

Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards "thought nothing o fknifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." Las Casas tells how "two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys on day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys."

In the end, no Arawak remained. Las Casas recorded, "From 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perised from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it...." The author describes the total deaths of the Arawak nation at between 1 million and 8 million persons.