Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

Subjugation of the Indians


The writing of this chapter is a painful task for one who admires the elevated character of Columbus in the abstract, who recognizes his innate nobility, high aspirations, and dignified composure under repeated reverses; but the verities of history are inexorable. They impose upon the historian and biographer obligations which cannot be evaded; hence we are compelled to record, not only that Christopher Columbus initiated the system of tribute that hastened the extinction of the Indians, but laid the foundations for human slavery in the West Indies.

The occurrences which contributed to the first great crime of Columbus transpired in the city of Isabella, whither he had been taken in a state of insensibility, and where, when he recovered consciousness, he was rejoiced to the heart to find at his bed-side his noble brother, Bartholomew. This brother, who will henceforth be intimately associated with the Admiral, had been sent (as will be recalled) to solicit the assistance of Henry VII. of England, when Christopher was vainly pleading with the sovereigns of Spain. Captured by a corsair while on his way to England, several years elapsed before he made his appearance at King Henry's court, and by the time he reached Spain, with the royal assent, his brother had already returned from his first voyage, had bound its laurels upon his brow, and sailed on his second, followed by the acclaim of the world. Bartholomew shared in the favors bestowed by the sovereigns of Spain upon his more famous brother, and, being an expert seaman, was furnished by them with a fleet of three vessels laden with supplies for Isabella, at which settlement he arrived soon after Christopher had departed for Cuba and Jamaica.

There were then three Columbus brothers in Isabella, but of them all Don Bartholomew was the most richly endowed with the qualities for leadership, and, recognizing his worth, Christopher invested him with the title of adelantado, or (as he was then styled) lieutenant-governor. The third brother, Don Diego, was less capable than the other two, and, the sovereigns having sent a request for some one to appear before them to explain the Admiral's charts and maps, at the conference about to be held with Portugal for adjusting the line of demarcation between the poles, he was despatched for that purpose to Spain. By the same ship, which sailed in the latter part of 1494, were sent about five hundred Indians—men, women, and children—taken in various raids throughout the country, with the suggestion that they be sold as slaves  in the market of Seville.

It is related that Queen Isabella forbade this sale, and ordered the Indians sent back to Hispaniola; but this is doubtful, as she had, only a few years before, sanctioned selling into slavery thousands of Moors, including women of refinement, babes, and children, without giving evidence of any compunctions whatever. Columbus, of course, was aware of this, and he also knew that part of the expenses of his second voyage was paid from the pillage of the Jews, who likewise were treated more like beasts than human beings. He saw, then, no objection to the sovereigns reimbursing themselves (and incidentally their "Admiral of the Ocean Sea") from the proceeds of the slave mart, even though he could not urge that these human chattels were cannibals—which was his lame excuse in the case of the Caribs. Disappointed in the scant returns from his pillaging expeditions, and goaded by the threats and murmurs of exasperated cavaliers, soldiers, and clergy, Columbus resolved to make at least one desperate effort to obtain the gold with which the country was reported to abound.

By the middle of March, 1495, his health had sufficiently recovered to permit him to take the field, especially as he could rely upon Don Bartholomew to assist him with his military skill in event of an emergency. Learning, then, that a brother of Caonabo, named Manicaotex (his successor to command on the occasion of his capture), had assembled a mighty force for an assault upon Isabella, Columbus made immediate preparations for active warfare. With the aid of his brother, he mustered his little army, now reduced to less than two hundred and fifty men, including twenty cavalry, and marched up the valley of the Yaqui. There they found the savages assembled, to the estimated number of one hundred thousand. But, whatever their number, they were of no account whatever when opposed to the Spaniards. With their naked bodies and primitive weapons, such as pikes and bows and arrows, they were utterly defenceless when the mail-clad soldiers charged upon them, armed with swords, lances, cross-bows, arquebuses, and espingardas, or big muskets, which were sometimes mounted on wheels, like small cannon.

Guacanagari went with Columbus, and an array of warriors; but he was useless in the fight that followed, for he was completely demoralized by the two chief allies of the Spaniards, the horses and the blood-hounds. The horses took their riders into the thick of the fight, bearing down the naked warriors like standing grain before a gale; while the fierce blood-hounds, twenty in number, sprang upon the terrified Indians and tore them to pieces. If, indeed, Columbus were the kind and compassionate man his apologists represent him, he might have dispensed with the blood-hounds. He might, in truth, have avoided any encounter whatever with the peaceful natives of Hispaniola, for they were all, with some few exceptions, gentle and trustworthy, like the unfortunate Guacanagari, who retired from this field of carnage broken-hearted, and soon after disappeared, having been driven by the Spaniards to the mountains, where he perished miserably. The outcome of this battle—as it was vauntingly called by Columbus — may be easily imagined. Thousands were slain, the Indians flying at the first attack, followed by the cruel Spaniards, who butchered them without mercy, and the revolting work was finished by the blood-hounds. The field was covered with the mangled bodies of men who had died in defence of their native soil, invaded by these monsters in the name of civilization and religion—and commanded by Christopher Columbus!

This causeless massacre was committed in a region which is a very paradise of beauty. In the centre of a rolling plain, known as the Royal Vega, and so vast that it is bounded only by the horizon and distant mountains, stands a hill six hundred feet in height, called the Sacro Monte  (Holy Mount). From its summit Columbus is said to have viewed the battle-field and directed the battle, standing beneath a medlar-tree, the gnarled trunk and jagged branches of which still remind us of the horrible circumstance. Here he caused a cross to be erected, in memory of a massacre which should consign its perpetrators to everlasting infamy; here he gave thanks for a victory which broke the spirits of those innocent Indians, and condemned them to a form of slavery which ended only in their complete extermination.

Thus the province of the Cacique Guarionex came under the hoof. He submitted, surrendered, and Columbus imposed upon the wretched remnant of his people an exacting tribute, ordaining that each Indian should furnish a hawk-bell full of gold every month, and each cacique a calabash full. This crushing imposition was complied with for a while by Cotubanama, who was then, by succession, cacique of the Cibao or Goldstone Country; but Guarionex protested, truthfully, that his province contained little, if any, gold. He offered, in lieu of it, to sow the entire Vega with maize, from sea to sea, "enough to have furnished all Castile with bread for full ten years"; but Columbus would not listen to this proposition. Soon, in truth, he was experiencing the rewards of his short-sighted policy, for, unable to satisfy the Spaniards' lust for gold, the miserable Indians fled to the mountains, and famine spread over the land. Thither their fiendish enemies followed them relentlessly, pursuing women with famished babes on their shoulders, cleaving with their swords the skulls of children, as well as of warriors, who were already tottering from weakness produced by famine. In short, they compelled such as they reserved alive to return to never-ending toil, in the mines and on plantations, until finally these Indians, so indolent by nature, whose weak frames could not endure the strain of continual labor under a tropic sun, sank beneath their accumulated woes, and the earth knew them no more.

Columbus found in Hispaniola a population, the least estimate of which was a million souls; before his death, in 1566, many thousands had been murdered by the Spaniards, through the workings of a system he inaugurated; and before the end of that century these people had become extinct. Columbus himself, in his latter years, bore this testimony: "The Indians of Hispaniola were and are the riches of the island, for it is they who cultivate the maize and make the bread of the Christians; who dig the gold from the mines, and perform all the offices and labors both of men and beasts. I am informed that since I left that island, six parts out of seven are dead, all through ill-treatment and inhumanity; some by the sword, others by blows and cruel usage, others through hunger. The greater part have perished in the mountains and glens, whither they have fled, from not being able to support the labors imposed upon them."

After the battle of the Vega, bands of marauding Spaniards prowled through the country, led by Columbus, and that fair land, which he had found an Eden of natural delights, and inhabited by people with all the innocence and joyousness of childhood—that beautiful island, within whose borders peace and plenty were enjoyed by all, became the abode of desolation.

While Columbus was engaged in riveting the fetters upon these conquered people, his influence at the court of Spain was being undermined by such men as Margarite, and avenging fate was preparing a series of persecutions, which were to continue from that time till his death. Word reached him that one Aguado had arrived at Isabella, with royal authority, which he had proclaimed by sound of trumpet, to inquire into the wrongs inflicted by Columbus, and perhaps to supersede him. Hastening to the coast, he found the rumor verified by the presence of Aguado; but, instead of resenting the insolence of this shallow individual, who had ignored Don Bartholomew's authority as adelantado, and had threatened to arrest the Admiral himself, he received him courteously, and ordered his credentials trumpeted through the streets of the town. His loyalty to the sovereigns ever remained unshaken; but, learning that his rights had been invaded, and his prospective profits diverted, by royal orders issued in April of that year, while he was fighting in the Vega, he resolved to return to Spain and demand reparation. A fleet was prepared in which he and Aguado (who had collected testimony most damaging to Columbus) were about to embark, when the harbor was visited by one of those tropical tempests, known to the natives as uricans, or hurricanes. Three ships were sunk at their moorings, and all the rest were shattered, so that it became necessary to delay the voyage in order to make repairs and construct another caravel from the wreckage.

This detention was afterwards regarded by Columbus as providential, for, in the mean-time, information reached Isabella respecting the discovery of rich gold deposits on the southern coast. A runaway soldier, who had formed an attachment for a female cacique, was told by her of an ancient gold-mine, which had thus far eluded the vigilant search of the Spaniards. Going as she directed, and finding great nuggets of the precious metal, the soldier conceived the idea that he might then placate his commander with them and obtain pardon for his desertion. He went with the information to Isabella, and not only was pardoned, but promoted, after the adelantado had verified his statements by personal investigation; and with a large quantity of gold from this newly found region, the Admiral set sail for Spain, after giving orders that a fort should be built in the vicinity of the mines.

This was quite an opportune discovery for Columbus, for it enabled him to make terms with his sovereigns, even as it had served the poor soldier to obtain forgiveness; and, with his head turned by the reports of vast wealth contained in those ancient mines, he imagined that he had at last found the veritable Ophir, which had yielded to King Solomon gold for the adornment of the ternple at Jerusalem. His mind was filled with golden visions as, at last embarked on board one of the two caravels saved from the wreckage of the hurricane, he set out on his voyage to Spain. In the other caravel was his enemy, Aguado, and both vessels were crowded with disappointed fortune-seekers now returning to their homes after a futile quest for wealth.

During this unfortunate voyage, which was greatly protracted by mistakes in navigation and contrary winds, Columbus was tormented by the gibes, complaints, and ridicule of this wretched rabble. Setting sail on March ro, 1496, a month later he had only reached the island of Marie-Galante, the first at which he had landed on his second outward voyage. And what a contrast between the two landings, but a little more than two years apart! The first was made in the flush of hopes excited by his first, most wonderful voyage, when in command of a splendid fleet, filled with eager and happy adventurers; the second found him creeping slowly home, in a crazy caravel, laden with the remnants of that once hopeful band, now emaciated through hunger and disease. Still, the Admiral did not allow his zest for discovery to flag, his quest for gold to slacken. He put over to Guadeloupe, and there found some Carib families, the children and females of which only were at home, and these supplied him with provisions, such as cassava bread, parrots, iguanas, and utias, of which he was greatly in need. The casks were filled with pure water from the mountain streams, and then, after taking on board some prisoners' and dismissing others for whom he had no room, Columbus set forth once more for Spain. It is a fact worthy of note that, while nearly all the outward voyages from Spain were made in tranquil weather, those of the return were almost invariably tempestuous. This one was no exception, and the caravels were so buffeted by adverse winds, and tossed by billowy seas, that before land was sighted their passengers were threatened with famine.

Made desperate by hunger, some of the Spaniards proposed killing and eating their Indian prisoners, while others advocated tossing them into the sea, thus lessening the number of mouths to fill. Thirty unfortunate Indians had been taken from Isabella, and among them that famous cacique, Caonabo, who had been for two years a prisoner, yet whose spirit was unsubdued. Some have narrated that he perished in the hold of a caravel wrecked by the hurricane, along with hundreds of others, his companions in captivity; but the more probable story is that he accompanied Columbus on this voyage. At the island of Guadeloupe a Carib princess was captured, an Amazonian female who fought with spirit and nearly strangled one of her captors. When taken aboard the caravel, she saw Caonabo on deck, naked and dejected, yet imperious even in his chains, and her heart went out towards this redoubtable warrior of her race, of whose prowess she had doubtless heard. She might have regained her liberty had she chosen to go ashore, but she refused the proffer, preferring to remain by the side of Caonabo, whom she cheered and comforted by her ministrations, until finally he expired almost within sight of land. This was the end of the most valiant chieftain encountered by Columbus in the West Indies; thus miserably perished the "Lord of the Golden House," cacique of the Cibao, which Columbus once mistook for the veritable Cipango.

A few days later, after a wearisome voyage three months in length, the two caravels and their famine-stricken crews gained the port of Cadiz, where they attracted the attention of the populace: the vessels with shattered hulls and rigging, the passengers wasted by disease, and with the only evidence of the gold they had gone to seek showing in their yellow eyes and jaundiced faces. In token of humility and the disgrace he believed himself to be in with his sovereigns, the Admiral clad himself in the garb of a monk, girded about with a cord; but he did not omit to display all the golden treasure he had brought, such as the collars, anklets, bracelets, and coronets of gold, which excited the admiration of the multitude and hushed their murmurings. A brother and a nephew of Caonabo, also prisoners, had survived him, and when going through a town or city they were decorated with massive chains and collars of gold, in token of having been residents of the golden Cibao. One of these chains was wrought of virgin gold to the value of more than three thousand dollars, and there were also masks and images of the precious metal cast in hideous shapes. The Admiral did his best to make this a triumphal procession, as he wended his way to Almazen, by order of the King and Queen; but it was in sad contrast to his former tour to Barcelona less than three years previous. The novelty which invested the first savages brought to Spain had worn away; the favor in which the sovereigns held Columbus had diminished; and, besides, he was everywhere pursued by the execrations of those unfortunates who had been lured to the New World by his tales of wealth in prospective never realized. Still, he was favorably received by the sovereigns, who knew the difficulties attendant upon his ventures, and who even listened with interest while he told of his pursuit of the yet elusive Grand Khan and the recent discovery of ancient Ophir's wonderful mines. When he asked for six or eight ships, in which to prosecute a voyage still farther south, they promised to furnish them in due time; but the period of delay was so protracted that nearly two years passed before he was given a fleet for the purpose desired. Meanwhile, he lost no opportunity for intrenching himself behind the breastwork of rights and privileges erected in the "capitulation" of January, 1492. He was ever jealous of his prerogatives, and always insisted upon being addressed as the "Admiral."

Twice, at least, while preparing for a third voyage, Columbus lost his temper, which he generally held in strict restraint. The first time was when, after King Ferdinand had granted six million maravedis  for the voyage, it was retracted upon information from one Pedro Nino, then recently returned from the Indies, that his vessel's hold was full of gold.

"If that be the case," said the crafty King, "our Admiral may get his gold from Nino." And he issued an order to that effect. When it was learned, however, that the vaunted "gold" brought by Nino was in the shape of Indian prisoners, captured by orders of Columbus himself, and who were to be sold as slaves before it could be realized, his chagrin and vexation may be imagined. But, as he was "hoist by his own petard," he received no sympathy.