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, and his sponsors, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, were the Catholic monarchs of Spain. Columbus’s four voyages were in search of a western passage to the East Indies so as to tap into the lucrative spice trade. Along with a wealth of spices, gold and other riches, Columbus vowed to reward the Catholic monarchy with the conversion of the people he “discovered” to Christianity.
I was initially excited to learn that logs from Columbus’s first voyage in 1493 to the Americas still exist. But reading his own words, and others who accompanied him, I was quickly horrified. Nothing I had been taught in school prepared me for the cruelest inhumanity of the true story.
Columbus never found the passage to the East Indies he had assured his sponsors he would find. Nor did he find nearly the amount of gold he had promised them. Perhaps to make up for these shortcomings, Columbus enslaved the Natives he encountered, forced them to work in what we now call the Americas and brought hundreds of them back to Spain as slaves. Isabella and Ferdinand knew of Columbus’s plans to enslave natives for slave labor to build Spanish colonies. Historical documents from various sources reveal, sometimes boastfully, documentation of these heart-stopping crimes against humanity. If a contest were ever held to find who in history had caused the most suffering and death, and had committed the most crimes against humanity, Columbus could hold his own among the worst human beings who ever walked this earth. Not only do school textbooks hide this ugly secret, but there is still a national holiday and monuments in Columbus's honor.
Over the centuries before Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, European explorers had described the indigenous people as being friendly and welcoming. Columbus’s logs confirm that he agreed with this assessment but decided to take full advantage of their peaceful and gentle nature. During his seven years as governor, Columbus enslaved and terrorized those he “discovered” living on their ancestral land. He enslaved them, sending back to Spain as many slaves as could be crammed onto his ships. He sent back gold, silver, cotton and other riches he procured using the blood, sweat and tears of slave labor. During Columbus’s seven years as governor, his brothers, son, cronies and his army nearly succeeded at bringing to extinction entire population of Natives unfortunate enough to cross his path.
Columbus's promises of Catholic conversions resulted in ancestral land being stolen from Native Americans, and centuries of Native Americans being enslaved and forced to build Spanish missions on this land. Catholic missions were built from California to Florida, with Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, in between. Twenty-one Catholic missions were built in California alone, extending for 650 miles along the California coast on the Old Spanish Trail, some of which still exist in today. Whitewashed myths of the Spanish Catholic friars living happily and harmoniously with the indigenous peoples may be told, but countless historical documents record the genocide, and the friars' denying countless Natives of their humanity.
Although Columbus never stepped foot on what eventually became the US, his misdeeds have had a lasting effect on our nation. Columbus’s practice of stealing land, and violently forcing slave labor continued for centuries. Many descendants of those Native Americans enslaved still struggle in poverty to this day, living on reservations that are lacking in representation, schools, hospitals, and even infrastructure such as water, electricity and roads. Columbus’s trans-Atlantic slave trade, which included African slaves, has also had a detrimental lasting effect on African Americans to this day.
As Americans, we must ask ourselves why Christopher Columbus was ever considered honorable. With even the most basic knowledge of Columbus's history, which is repeatedly documented with historical artifacts, it is hard to comprehend why Columbus Day is still a US federal holiday. Why would parades, monuments, and books still celebrate one guilty of countless heinous acts and crimes against humanity? What does it say about a society that names streets, universities, towns, and even a country in honor of someone who denied so many of their humanity, and caused so much death and human suffering?
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.
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.