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Realities of History: Who Was Christopher Columbus?

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[Sam McKenzie]

If not for a journal he wrote, we may not be aware of the full extent of the atrocities that Columbus committed

Christopher Columbus is infamous for discovering the Americas. Whilst he did not discover the ‘New World’, as it had already been populated, his expeditions marked the beginning of transnational conquest and colonization. Seeking fame and fortune, Columbus made many adventures across the ocean in search of a quicker route to Asia from Europe. There are many tales and fables that surround the exploration and adventure achievements of Christopher Columbus. However, not all of the stories paint the young explorer as the daring young explorer and a pioneer. There are darker, lesser-known stories. Stories of Columbus and his compatriots wreaking havoc on native populations. Stories of Columbus leading mass murders and tortures, arguably causing one of the greatest genocides known in human history.

A priest, known by the name Bartolome de las Casas, accompanied Christopher Columbus on his adventures. If not for a journal he wrote, we may not be aware of the full extent of the atrocities that Columbus committed. De las Casas wrote of how Columbus and his conquistadors:

brutally slaughtered babies, burnt innocent civilians alive, cut off the hands of workers who did not meet their quota for mining precious resources, and tortured and sexually trafficked women and children, amongst other things that invariably come to document the beginnings of an indefensible genocide

The genocide was horrific. Conquistadors had superior weaponry and armour making the natives little match for the Spaniards. The brutality of Columbus’ men resulted in the many of the natives committing suicide, rather than face the atrocities before them; one method of suicide was cassava poison (which has similar effects to cyanide). The cassava poison was mostly fed to the children of the natives. In his journal, Columbus writes of the natives he decimated, noting that some were proficient in war, whereas others were “remarkably kind and giving they were, how they shared everything they had, and how they had no skillful weapons and were very timid”. They were no match for the conquistadors and should not have been subject to this kind of devastation.

To illustrate the devastation the Columbus caused, the Arawaks were a native Haitian tribe. Within two years of Columbus arriving in 1492, half of the 250,000 native Arawaks had been killed through either mutilation, suicide or murder. By 1550, there were a mere 500 Arawaks left on the Haitian Island. By 1650, the Arawaks had been wiped out from the island. Profit and greed driving creating slaverous conditions and decimating human kind.

We live in a world where many are lucky enough to have access to education. However, this education often depicts and describes history in one light. Providing only one account of events. It was aptly put by French military leader and Emperor Napoleon Bonparte, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”. It illuminates that there are two sides to every story, and it is far too common for the victor’s story be etched in to the history books with no mention of the loser. Had it not been for Bartolome de las Casas and his detailed journal of Columbus, we may not have known of the atrocities he committed with his conquistadors. We would not have known of the slavery and death that was inflicted upon thousands.

Christopher Columbus: the young and daring explorer.

Christopher Columbus: the murderer, enslaver and torturer.

Which one do you know?

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