Columbus and the Destruction of Native peoples



As with everything else on this site, these are my own opinions. Feel free to disagree with them.


The first and most important thing to understand is that the Native American population on Hispaniola (and later, Cuba) was destroyed over the course of a century or less, and that the Spanish were primarily responsible for this. Certainly Columbus was not a perfect person by any means, and was a man of many flaws. But neither was he a genocidal mass murderer. The destruction of these peoples is a historical tragedy, but this complex episode deserves more study than simply assigning blame.

Columbus initially had friendly relations with the Native Americans he encountered in the West Indies on the first voyage. Beginning with the second voyage, these relations began to sour, with some tribes more than others. The Spanish had come to America as conquerors. In 1492, they had just successfully finished a centuries-long war to evict the Moors from Spain, and the idea of spreading Christianity (in general) and Spanish control (in particular) was central to Spanish culture. The idea that one could arrive at a new country with no strong central government, and not claim such lands for the sovereigns one had sworn to support and defend, was simply unthinkable. It would be like expecting a 21st-century American to renounce democracy or free enterprise. Although Columbus was born in Genoa, by 1492 he had been in Spain for about seven years, and was in effect a Spanish citizen. Further, Columbus was devoutly Christian, perhaps even more so than most Spaniards of his day.

Therefore it is completely unsurprising that war soon broke out between the Spanish settlers on Hispaniola and some of the Native American tribes there; in fact, it is probably more surprising that war did not break out with all the tribes on the island, and that some of them accepted Spanish rule (and Christianity) without a fight. This warfare began in 1494, and continued sporadically for another decade or so.

Some people have tried to blame Columbus personally for this warfare. To me, this is a bit like personally blaming Abraham Lincoln for the Civil War. The causes of war are often large social forces, usually beyond the control of any individual. I believe that is true in this case. And it is also true that Columbus personally killed some Native Americans during this war (although thousands, and perhaps even hundreds, would be a gross exaggeration). But most people in most societies (including Native American societies) view killing in wartime as acceptable; few would claim that it is morally equivalent to murder, much less genocide.

The second important charge generally made against Columbus was his alleged role in the slave trade. Again, this has been overstated by many. In Spain of this period, slavery was legal under certain circumstances: the person had to be a prisoner of war awaiting ransom. In effect, such a person had a monetary value equal to his expected ransom, and therefore it made sense (to a 15th century Spaniard, anyway) that such an "asset" could be bought or sold. (This system of ransoming prisoners of war was actually a huge improvement over the previous ethic of "take no prisoners".)

Therefore, when the Spanish took a number of Native Americans as prisoners on Hispaniola, Columbus saw an opportunity for profit. In 1496, he sent 300 of these prisoners to Spain, to be sold as slaves. The Spanish Sovereigns (King Fernando and Queen Isabel) very properly objected to this, since there was obviously no chance that such prisoners could ever be ransomed. They promptly sent these prisoners back to Hispaniola, and Columbus made no further ventures in the slave trade.

An undercurrent to this debate is the issue of the general decline of the Native American population on Hispaniola (and later, in other parts of the New World) after the arrival of the Spanish. Warfare was a part of this, and disease also played a role; although disease can hardly be seen as a moral stain on its carriers.

Although the scale of the depopulation has probably been exaggerated by some scholars (the best source on this controversy is David Henige's recent book, Numbers From Nowhere, which I highly recommend; see the bibliography), perhaps the most important reason for this population decline was the encomienda system that the Spanish established in the New World. This system established a serfdom for the Native Americans, with the Spanish acting as the "nobility", entitled to the fruits of their labor. Under this system, many Native Americans were simply worked to death. However, Columbus himself had no role in the establishment of this system; in fact, he viewed all Spanish territory in the New World as his personal demesne, and was bitterly disappointed when the Spanish Sovereigns relieved him of his role as governor of Hispaniola in 1500. The Sovereigns had acted primarily in response to complaints from the Spanish colonists on Hispaniola who felt that Columbus was controlling every aspect of the local economy personally. It was Columbus's successor, Francisco de Bobadilla, who established the encomiendas. It should be noted that this system was not hugely different from the feudal system then in place in Spain and much of the rest of Europe; but the Spanish treatment of the Native Americans was far harsher than a Spanish peasant would tolerate, primarily because most Spanish colonists on Hispaniola were, in our modern context, unbridled racists.

But the Native Americans did have their defenders among the Spanish, too. The establishment of the encomienda system and subsequent decline of the Native American population did not escape the notice of the Spanish clergy, who by 1511 began preaching against the harsh conditions under which the Native Americans were forced to work. Although a number of Spanish clerics advocted for humane treatment of the Indians, by far the most eloquent and prolific spokesman for the rights of Native Americans during the 16th century was Bartolome de las Casas (1474? - 1566). His masterwork, the Historia de las Indias, still has never been completely translated into English; and his better-known indictment of Spanish treatment of the Native Americans (known as the Apologetica Historia) remains a primary source for most of what we know of this period. It is worth mentioning in this context that Las Casas was a lifelong friend of the Columbus family.

Thanks to the work of Las Casas and others, the encomienda system was officially abolished by the "New Laws" of 1542, but sadly, these laws were never actually enforced.


Return to The Columbus Landfall Homepage.

Return to The Columbus Navigation Homepage.