Photo: Detail of US History (forgotten) Oil on canvas with mixed media.
School taught me the whitewashed version of Christopher Columbus, with no hint of the dark side of this history. I learned that Columbus was Italian, but was sponsored by the Spanish monarchy, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Columbus’s four voyages were in search of a western passage to the East Indies to tap into the lucrative spice trade. The plan to build a Spanish colony and convert people to Christianity appealed to the Catholic monarchy.
Rather than reaching the East Indies, Columbus landed on a Caribbean island. In his lifetime, Columbus never realized that he failed to reach the East Indies and misnamed the indigenous people he encountered Indians. He also never located the pursued Indies spices, nor the quantity of gold and other riches the Indies were known for.
I was initially excited to learn that the logs still existed from Columbus’s first voyage in 1493 to what we now call the Americas. These logs include missives handwritten by Columbus himself to report back to Isabella and Ferdinand. Also existing today are accounts by Columbus’s childhood friend and a Spanish friar, both of whom accompanied Columbus on his voyages. But reading the words of all three men was nothing less than horrifying. Nothing I had been taught in school prepared me for the cruelest inhumanity of the true story.
In school we were taught the names of Columbus's ships, but we never learned that his ships would eventually return to Spain carrying more than a thousand enslaved indigenous men, women and children. Over the centuries before Columbus’s voyages, European explorers had described the indigenous people as being friendly and welcoming. Columbus’s logs confirm that he agreed with this assessment and viewed their peaceful and gentle nature as a weakness of which Columbus took full advantage.
Throughout the seven years that Columbus served as governor, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand approved of the use of slavery, finding the financial gain of using free slave labor to be irresistible. The Spanish colony and Spanish missions were built with the blood, sweat and tears of slaves. But after his third voyage, Columbus's barbaric acts of cruelty finally became too inhuman for the monarchy's approved. Upon his return to Spain, Columbus was thrown into the King’s prison.
From Columbus and his crew's very first encounter with indigenous people, wholesale rape, kidnapping, torture, mutilation and murder was part and parcel of Columbus’s twelve year reign of tyranny. Columbus’s punishment for those enslaved workers not working hard enough was cutting off their hands. During Columbus’s first voyage, Michele de Cuneo, a childhood friend of Columbus, documented his gratitude to Columbus for "giving" him a “Carib girl” as a gift, then boastfully described violently torturing and raping the young indigenous girl in his ship’s cabin. Extensive documentation of more atrocities committed by the colonizers was provided by Bartolomé de las Casas, himself a Spanish landowner, Dominican friar and reformed slave owner. De las Casas wrote volumes about the crimes against humanity that the indigenous peoples suffered during the colonization of the New World, his most famous being, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.
After spending six weeks in a Spanish prison, Columbus made his plea, reminding the King of his contribution to the royal coffers. Columbus convinced the King to release him and fund his fourth and final voyage. A new arrangement was negotiated for Columbus’s cut of future profits reaped in the New World.
Columbus went to the New World and back to Spain four times between 1492 and 1504. The violent form of slavery used by Columbus, his men and their successors to build their colony continued for generations and resulted in genocides and near genocides of countless indigenous peoples. Columbus was not the first European explorer to introduce slavery to the continent we now call The Americas; but he is responsible for launching the trans-Atlantic slave trade which ravaged like a disease from 1492 nearly until the 1900s. Columbus never stepped foot in North America, but chattel slavery, (the owning of human beings as property able to be bought, sold, given, and inherited), spread to North America and thrived until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 began the slow and painful process of freeing those enslaved. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the horrific six-week passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. Only about 388,000 - a small percentage - were shipped directly to North America. [The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is the most comprehensive analysis of shipping records over the course of the slave trade and is edited by professors David Eltis and David Richardson.]
If a competition existed to determine who in the history of man had caused the most human suffering, death, and had committed the most crimes against humanity, Columbus would hold his own among the worst human beings who ever walked this earth. Despite this, Christopher Columbus's legacy is still carried in the capital city of the U.S. and roughly 53 other U.S. communities. His ugly secrets are hidden in our text books, and incredulously, in 2021 we still have a national holiday honoring him.
Christopher Columbus's letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, 1493. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)
[Engraving by Theodor de Bry, ca. 1594, Courtesy of the Library of Congress]
In Columbus’s first letters back to his Catholic sponsors, he described the ease with which he could enslave the gentle Arawaks of the Bahamian islands.:
“... They would make fine slaves … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want…” - Christopher Columbus
If this wasn’t horrific enough, Michele da Cuneo, Columbus’s childhood friend, gleefully wrote about violently raping one of these beautiful young girls.:
“When our caravels … were to leave for Spain, we gathered … 1,600 male and female Indians and these embarked (with us) … on February 17, 1495 … While I was in the boat, I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked—as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. But—to cut a long story short—I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought that she had been brought up in a school for whores.” - Michele da Cuneo, Columbus's childhood friend
With Columbus, rapes were common occurrences. He systematically rewarded his men by “giving” them kidnapped women. As horrific as it is, rape was only the tip of the iceberg of Christopher Columbus’s seven years of terror. As governor, Columbus and his men systemically enslaved and committed torture, rape, mutilation and murder.
Bartolome de las Casas, Spanish historian and Catholic priest, wrote about Columbus’s soldiers dismembering, beheading or raping 3,000 natives in a single day. It was commonplace to kill babies for dog food, and for Spanish soldier to test the sharpness of their blades by randomly slicing off the heads or the flesh of the enslaved indigenous people. Columbus ordered his men: “to cut off the legs of children who ran from them (in order) to test the sharpness of their blades.” Men, women and children of all ages were “roasted on spits”. Columbus once punished a man found guilty of stealing corn by having his ears and nose cut off and then selling him into slavery. On another occasion, Columbus congratulated his brother Bartolomeo on "defending the family" after a woman suggested that Columbus was of lowly birth. Bartolomeo ordered the woman paraded naked through the streets, and then had her tongue cut out. During a rebellion by the unarmed slaves, Columbus ordered a brutal crackdown in which many natives were killed, and then paraded their dismembered bodies through the streets in an attempt to discourage further rebellion. 
In 1495 Columbus created a “tribute system” of forced labor on indigenous Taino. Columbus's son, Ferdinand described it.:
"In the Cibao, where the gold mines were, every person of fourteen years of age or upward was to pay a large hawk's bell of gold dust; all others were each to pay twenty-five pounds of cotton. Whenever an Indian delivered his tribute, he was to receive a brass or copper token which he must wear about his neck as proof that he had made his payment; any Indian found without such a token was to be punished."
Rather than abiding by Ferdinand and Isabella's call for light punishment, Ferdinand Columbus cut off both hands of those without tokens, and then let them bleed to death. An estimated 10,000 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic died this way. Thousands of natives committed suicide by poison to escape this fate.
During his seven years of barbarity, Columbus simultaneously rewarded his Catholic sponsors, the Catholic monarchs, by naming one Caribbean island after the other after saints. Columbus somehow rationalized slavery as his God given right. An entry in Columbus’s journal from September 1498 reads:
"From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold ... "
By 1499, word of Columbus's endless capacity to inflict suffering on his fellow man finally reached Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The monarchs responded by having the Order of Calatrava, an order of religious knights, investigate these allegations against Columbus. In the 48-page report, testimonies of both Columbus’s friends and subordinates retold the same stories of Columbus and his three brothers using unbridled torture, rape, mutilation and murder to terrorize the Caribbean islands. (In 2006, the actual 48-page report was rediscovered in the national archives in the Spanish city of Simancas.)
After seven years of Columbus terrorizing the Caribbean with three separate voyages, Isabella and Ferdinand finally ordered his powerful title of governor revoked. Columbus and his brothers were returned to Spain in shackles, arrested and imprisoned, but only for 6 weeks. Pleading his case that he had greatly increased Spain’s wealthy, Columbus was released and allowed to make a 4th and final voyage back to the Americas. Although his title of governor was never restored.
By contrast, the indigenous nations bore hospitality and gifts.
... included feeding forty indigenous men to dogs.
As a young priest, Bartholomé de Las Casas owned slaves. In 1552 he lamented, "the Spanishe have destroyed such an infinitie of soules" in their search for gold.
For a time Bartholemé de Las Casas, a Spanish friar (priest), owned a plantation which relied on the slave labor of the native tribes. He transcribed Columbus's journal and, in his fifties, began a multi-volume History of the Indies. Later in life, a change of heart caused him to become a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. In 1552 he lamented,
"the Spanishe have destroyed such an infinitie of soules" (in their search for gold).
Las Casas initially urged replacing enslaved native tribes with African slaves, thinking they were stronger and would have a better chance of surviving the violence of slavery. Once he saw the effects on Africans he relented. In his History of the Indies, Book II, Las Casas tells about the treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards.:
'Endless testimonies … prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives ... But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then.... The admiral (Christopher Columbus), it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians.'
Las Casas described how the Spaniards "grew more conceited every day", and eventually refused to walk any distance.:
(The Spaniards) "rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry" or forced enslaved natives to carry them on hammocks as though they were 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 ... (the Spaniards) thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades. Two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys."
The enslaved native people were unsuccessful at defending themselves or escaping. Those who ran away and tried to hide in the hills were found and killed. In order to amass enough gold for melting, men were sent to work miles away mining gold, and were required to work there from six to eight months at a time. Up to a third of the men died. The women remained working the soil, force to do the back-breaking job of digging and making thousands of hills for cassava plants.:
“They suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help. Mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside … Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides ... they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, seven thousand children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation ... in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk … and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile ... was depopulated. ... My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write.”
Prior to their enslavement, Las Casa observed.:
'They (native tribes) are agile 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.'
Bartholomé de las Casas, Aqui se contiene una disputa ... , 1552. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)
 Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean
August 7, 2006, Giles Tremlett, The Guardian
 Christopher Columbus, Wikipedia
 The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, 2016, Andrés Reséndez.
 A People's History of the United States, 1980, Howard Zinn
The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 1969, J.M. Cohen [Michele da Cuneo letter, p.139]
Article and historical document:
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Columbus reports on his first voyage, 1493: A Spotlight on a Primary Source by Christopher Columbus [An English translation of this document is available]
Letter from Christopher Columbus, 1493, [Abridged][An English translation of this document is available],
Texas Liberal Arts, The University Texas at Austin
Columbus and Genocide, 1975, Edward T. Stone
American Heritage. Vol. 26 no. 6. American Heritage Publishing Company
A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies [La Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias], 1552, Bartolomé de las Casas
Battle of Tenochtitlán, Mexican History, 1521, [Last updated May 15, 2020]
Article written by Myles Hudson for the Encyclopaedia Britannica
Detail of US History (forgotten).
Oil on canvas and mixed media.