Zinn on Columbus and slavery

According to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, From the moment Columbus set foot in the Americas, he had slavery on his mind (Zinn Page 1):

They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Columbus could not resist taking the natives in chains at every opportunity. He seems almost to have gone from island to island just rounding up the natives (Zinn Page 1):

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force. Zinn Page 3: They had no iron, but they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears. This was to have enormous consequences: it led Columbus to take some of them aboard ship as prisoners because he insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold… On Hispaniola… He took more Indian prisoners and put them aboard his two remaining ships. At one part of the island he got into a fight with Indians who refused to trade as many bows and arrows as he and his men wanted. Two were run through with swords and bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain. When the weather turned cold, the Indian prisoners began to die.

With his ships filled to the brim with fresh slaves – and a few dead ones. Columbus set sail for Spain. En route he prepared his official report for the queen (Zinn Page 3):

Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant…

He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

You see, because all that was on the mind of both Columbus, and his financiers back in Spain was gold and slaves. And they used Christianity as a justification for enslaving the people of the new world. Yea, that’s the ticket.

As it turned out, Columbus’ letter must have sold the queen very well. With more ships and more men, and approval both from his rulers both in Spain and in Heaven above, Columbus returned to the new world with one thing on his mind – the theft and exploitation of the entire population (Zinn Page 3):

Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

And so began the five hundred years rape, pillage, and plunder for the new world by those evil white Western European Christians (Zinn Page 4):

Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

Shipping the best slaves back to Europe wasn’t enough. Too many useable slaves were being left behind. And so, with the approval of none of other than God almighty, those evil Spaniards went about enslaving every last native of the new world (Zinn Page 4):

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. 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.

Forced labor was so traumatic to the natives that death was soon preferred (Zinn Page 5):

Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards.

The forced labor became so brutal, that it too was soon unprofitable and counterproductive. In their blind quest for wealth, the Spaniards had become genocidal maniacs (Zinn Page 4):

In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

The Spaniards lust for wealth quickly gave way to pure blood lust. Within a generation, the Spaniards had completed one of the most ferocious genocides in human history; 200 thousand dead. By the mid-1600s, the complete eradication of an entire people (Zinn Page 5):

When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians 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 perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.



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  1. Pingback: Zinn on Columbus and slavery – Rebutted, Part 1 | Ramblingman.com

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