History 17A – United States History (Spring 2007)
Columbus and Genocide in the Americas
[Students and professors, please read.]
1. Was Columbus responsible for genocide in the Americas? Should we blame him or European culture? How did the Spanish justify their actions in the Caribbean? Are these justifications still used to rationalize terrible behavior today?
Many are to blame for genocide in the Americas. Columbus was the first to carry the tyrannical torch of European culture from Europe to the Americas, but many besides him carried that torch further and kept it burning. Stannard seems to equate that torch with the torch of Christianity, but if the Europeans had truly sought biblical, divine guidance from Christ, there would have been no torch.
Stannard states on page 88, “Despite all the savage face-to-face cruelties, however, it was enslavement on the Spaniard’s plantations and in their silver mines, in addition to the introduced diseases and starvation that killed the most Indians directly.” Genocide as a goal would have been counterproductive to maintaining the labor force needed for coca production, silver mining, and the rest of the slave trade. But the alternative to intentional genocide – what happened in reality – was so hellish as to make death preferable to life for some Indigenous people who took their own lives or the lives of their own children, often refusing to conceive children in the first place – this also contributing to the near extinction of the Indigenous peoples. All-out genocide was not an actual goal until the British came on the scene, it seems.
In Virginia, Stannard states, “a combination plan of genocide and enslavement … appeared to quiet what had become a lingering controversy over whether it was best to kill all the Indians or to capture them and put them to forced labor: [Governor] Berkeley’s plan was to slaughter all the adult Indian males in a particular locale, ‘but to spare the women and children and sell them’,” (107).
The governor of California in 1851 urged a continued war of eradication and extermination “until the Indian becomes extinct” (144) because Indians had resorted to poaching white-owned livestock to feed themselves after being driven into the mountains.
After the incident known as the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, November 1864, a committee assembled to confront Colonel Chivington on the matter shouted “EXTERMINATE THEM! EXTERMINATE THEM!” in answer to the question “Would it be best, henceforward, to try to ‘civilize’ the Indians or simply to exterminate them?” Later, the famous Teddy Roosevelt said the Sand Creek massacre was “as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier,” (134).
The rationale the Spanish used to justify their actions in the Caribbean include “the image of the savage” (14), the belief that it was their right, falsely claimed biblical guidance, the goal of civilizing and “converting” the ‘savage’ Indians, the fact that the Indians did not object to Columbus’ taking possession of land, making the men behave (in the presence of kidnapped women and children), and (not so much a reason as a compulsion) “a fervent, and in many cases a truly maniacal, European craving for raw power and the wealth of gold and silver” (65) which tainted all their other endeavors.
Are these justifications and compulsions still in effect today? It reminds me of Islamist extremist terrorism. It reminds me of a war over oil in Iraq begun under what may have been false pretenses, although no doubt Hussein needed to be removed from power and Iraq liberated. It reminds me of how there can exist people so wealthy and people so poor in the same country, on the same earth.
2. How would you characterize European society? How did they live? What were their values and beliefs? Was the European behavior in the Americas an extension of their behavior in Europe or did it reflect a new way of treating people? Why do you think the history of Europeans has been inaccurately portrayed in US history books? What is the result of this false representation? Who benefits from these distortions?
European society was plagued with epidemics and famine which routinely (when the rich conveniently vacated the cities) killed large portions of the population. The rich ate well while the poor starved, leading to conflicts like the Peasant’s War in 1524, killing 100,000. The epidemics were in large part due to their unsanitary public health hazards, including roadside ditches filled with stagnant water which served as public latrines, butchered animal carcasses left in the streets, open “poor holes” filled with dead poor people, and the fact that most of them never bathed.
The rich hungered after gold and hired torch-bearing body guards to protect them, as the streets were filled with crime which was met with harsh and unreliable law enforcement, contributing further to an overall spirit of uncertainty – their one unifying bond being fanatical witch persecution and execution. Eruptions of bizarre torture, murder and routine cannibalism were not uncommon, accusations of which often led to a witch hunt. Jews and the un-Christian were persecuted, deported, their valuables confiscated and tossed out to sea, they were tortured and killed “on the gallows, at the stake, on the rack, crushed, beheaded, flayed alive, drawn and quartered.” About half the children died before the age of 10, many due to abandonment by parents too poor to support them. Many sold themselves and their children into slavery to survive. There was a sex slave trade that included young girls. This is the unChristian torch Columbus and others carried to the Americas in the name of Christianity.
As a result of understandable shame and embarrassment, or outright denial of reality, the facts have been distorted or completely left out to protect the honor of our founding fathers, of our beginnings. Such things still happen at the family level in the form of family secrets that often times go completely unacknowledged and denied. People would rather see themselves, and the groups with which they identify, in a favorable light, often with the result that they deliberately overlook the ugly aspects, if they can get away with it. The consequence is that the ugly aspects are not dealt with, and, like cancer, can cause worse problems down the road, problems which outweigh the benefits of looking back on our history with pride rather than shame.