History of Aboriginal America 3 – Chronicle of the Destruction of the Indies

Posted on September 19, 2010


1441.  Antao Goncalves, sailing for Prince Henry the Navigator, travels down the West Coast of Africa to Cabo Branco in the north of the present day Mauritania, seizes a dozen Africans to bring home to his Prince.  Prince Henry was pleased.  Zurara, Prince Henry’s historian writes:

How great his joy must have been … not for the number of those captives, but for the hope, O sainted Prince, you had for others in the future.‘”

1442 Pope Eugenius IV, approved the voyages down the coast of West Africa and granted Portugal exclusive rights over its African discoveries.

August 8, 1444. A cargo of 235 slaves is landed near Lagos, Portugal.  Prince Henry the Navigator receives 46 of the slaves as the Royal share.  The slaves included fair-skinned Muslims, mulattos and black Africans captured from West Africa.  The money which Prince Henry obtained by selling his share of the slaves could be used to finance further expeditions.  Prince Henry justified the slave-trading in the name of Christianity.  For him Christianization and slavery were different names of the same thing. In 1446 the Bishop of the Algarve fitted out a caravel for the slave trade (it sailed as one ship among nine).  Always these vessels were accompanied by a notary sent by Prince Henry to ensure that he received his fifth of the booty.  “The seizure of these desirable African slaves did not delay scientific discovery, for it made exploration financially worthwhile.”  By 1448 about 1000 slaves had been carried back by sea to Portugal or to the Portuguese islands. “Ca’da Mosto [of Venice] thought that in this decade [the 1450s] 1000 slaves were exported annually to Europe from the African coast.”  (Hugh Thomas, 59, 60.) The Atlantic island of Madeira was the first instance of the slave sugar plantation.  Sugarcane had been introduced to that island in 1452.

1452, Pope Nicholas V, in the bull Dum Diversas, allowed the king of Portugal to subdue Saracens, pagans, etc., and enslave them.  This directive applied to West Africans.

Dum Diversas provided:

We grant you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”

1454, Pope Nicholas V in the bull Romanus Pontifex, approved the Portuguese actions so far, granted the Portuguese a monopoly on the trade they had established and the rights to the lands that they had conquered.  It approved of Prince Henry’s intention to circumnavigate Africa and find a new way to India, and granted to Portugal title to the lands along the route — referring to these as “the Indies”.  It said that the enslaving of pagans was okay.

1456, Pope Calixtus III issued the bull Inter Caetera, which stated that the new Portuguese conquests should be overseen by the Order of Christ of which Prince Henry was the leader.

1456, The then uninhabited Cape Verde Islands are sighted by the Venetian Alvise Ca’da Mosto.

1458,  Prince Henry dispatches Diogo Gomes to negotiate treaties with the West Africans.  Gomes mission was to assure the rulers that the Portuguese would thereafter not steal slaves nor anything else, but would barter for them.

1460 — Fray Martin Alfonso de Cordoba, an Augustinian friar, probably writes A Garden of Noble Maidens He says, “the barbarians are those who live without the law; the Latins, those who have law; for it is the law of nations that men who live and are ruled by law shall be lords of those who have none.  Wherefore they may seize and enslave them, because they are by nature the slaves of the wise.” By 1462, Cape Verde has become an important part of the slave trade, a place to hold slaves.

1466 — The Czech traveler, Vaclav Sasek, states that the King of Portugal was making more money selling slaves ‘than from all the taxes levied on the entire kingdom’.”

1484 — The first sugar mill is set up in the Canary Islands.  Soon slave labor begins to be used there on a large scale.

1484 – Bartholomé de las Casas, ‘Defender and Apostle to the Indians’ is born in Seville.

The island of Sao Tome, began to be settled by Portuguese in 1486.  The first settlers were apparently deported Portuguese criminals.  The third governor brought with him 2000 Jewish children who had been separated from their parents.  “These were the children of Jews expelled from Spain and enslaved by the King of Portugal since their parents had not paid enough to ensure their residence in his territory.”  (Hugh Thomas, 80.)

January 2, 1492.  Surrender of the Muslim city of Granada.  Spain becomes entirely Christian, ending the Reconquista – begun in the 9th C. The Christians in Spain “began their reconquest of the peninsula by killing the Muslim populations of the towns which they seized.  But by the end of the eighth century captured women and children were made into slaves, as were some men.  Execution began to seem a waste of a resource.  A prime purpose of Christian adventurers and municipal councils in penetrating Muslim territory indeed soon became to find slaves.”  (Hugh Thomas, 39.)

August 2, 1492.  Expulsion from Spain of all unconverted Jews.

August 3, 1492.  Columbus leaves Spain for the Canary Islands.  Arrives August 9 at Grand Canary.

August 10, 1492.  Rodrigo de Borgia of Spain becomes Pope Alexander VII.  He is the father of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia.

September 6, 1492.  Columbus sailed to the Americas from the Canaries.

12 October, 1492.  After 33 days of sailing, landfall.  The date is actually October 23rd by the modern calendar.  On the beach in San Salvador Columbus has his first meeting with the Tainos (alternatively called the Arawaks.)  He decides they have no religion and decides to kidnap half a dozen to bring back with him to Spain.

Columbus as presented in the Standard Model of history

13 October 1492, Columbus‘ journal,

At daybreak great multitudes of men came to the shore, all young and of fine shapes, and very handsome.  Their hair was not curly but loose and coarse like horse-hair.  All have foreheads much broader than any people I had hitherto seen.  Their eyes are large and very beautiful.  They are not black, but the color of the inhabitants of the Canaries ….

I was very attentive to them, and strove to learn if they had any gold.  Seeing some of them with little bits of metal hanging at their noses, I gathered from them by signs that by going southward or steering round the island in that direction, there would be found a king who possessed great cups full of gold ….

Later he writes, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.” (Loewen, 60.) In the 96 days in the West Indies Columbus mentions the world gold 140 times in his journal, slightly more than 10 times a week.

December 16, 1492, Columbus journal, speaking of the Tainos:  “They are fit to be ordered about and made to work, to sow and do everything else that may be needed.”

December 25, 1492, Columbus requires help.  Sailing at night along an unknown coast, Columbus runs the Santa Maria aground off Haiti.  He sends for help to the nearest Taino town, and “all the people of the town” responded, “with very big and many canoes.”  “They cleared the decks in a very short time,” Columbus continued, and the chief “caused all our goods to be placed together near the palace, until some houses that he gave us where all might be put and guarded had been emptied.”

April, 1493 – Columbus writes a document concerning settling and governing the Indies.  Two-thirds of the document is given over to gold.

May, 1493 – Columbus becomes Admiral of the Ocean Sea and governor of the Indies.

May 3, 1493 – Pope Alexander VI confirms Spanish ownership of all the lands discovered, or to be discovered, by Columbus.

November 3, 1493 – Journal of Guillerma Coma, upon the first sighting of Dominica, on Columbus 2nd voyage:

These islands are inhabited by Canbilli, a wild unconquered race which feeds on human flesh.  I would be right to call them anthropophagi.  They wage unceasing wars against gentle and timid Indians to supply flesh; this is their booty and is what they hunt.  They ravage, despoil, and terrorize the Indians ruthlessly.

Columbus, who had not visited these islands, and who had no way of knowing what he claimed to know about the inhabitants, has already begun his propaganda campaign against the people he intended to exploit. When Columbus and his men returned to Haiti in 1493, they demanded food, gold, spun cotton — whatever the Indians had that they wanted, including sex with their women.  To ensure cooperation, Columbus used punishment by example.  When an Indian committed even a minor offense, the Spanish cut off his ears or nose.  Disfigured, the person was sent back to his village as living evidence of the brutality the Spaniards were capable of. [James W. Loewen, 61]

February, 1494.  Columbus sends several dozen Taino and Carib slaves back to Spain.  Ferdinand and Isabella were not particularly pleased or encouraging.

June 12, 1494:  Columbus makes the entire crew of his three ships swear that Cuba was not an island.  Has notary publics take down the oaths. In 1495, for instance, Michele de Cuneo wrote about accompanying Columbus on his

1494 expedition into the interior of Haiti:

After we had rested for several days in our settlement, it seemed to the Lord Admiral that it was time to put into execution his desire to search for gold, which was the main reason he had started on so great a voyage full of so many dangers.”  (James W. Loewen, 43.)

February, 1495.  Columbus rounds up 1500 Tainos in Haiti, loads 550 into ships (200 would die enroute), distributes another 550 or so to whoever wants them.  Some 400 remain and are told they can go.

Michele de Cuneo reports,

Among them there were many women who had infants at the breast.  They, in order the better to escape us, since they were afraid we would turn and catch them again, left their infants anywhere on the ground and started to flee like desperate people; and some fled so far that they were removed from our settlement of Isabella 7 or 8 days beyond mountains and across huge rivers; wherefore from now on scarcely any will be had.

Columbus returns to Haiti in 1495, and finds that his fellow Spanish have been searching everywhere for gold, kidnapping boys for slaves, women for sex, beating and maiming at will, raping, pillaging.

Fernando Columbus,

The Admiral found the island in a pitiful state, with most of the Christians committing innumerable outrages for which they were mortally hated by the Indians, who refused to obey them.

To put things in order, Columbus assembles an army against the Indians.

March 24, 1495, Columbus sets out to conquer the Tainos.

Bartolome de Las Casas:

Since the Admiral perceived that daily the people of the land were taking up arms, ridiculous weapons in reality … he hastened to proceed to the country and disperse and subdue, by force of arms, the people of the entire island … For this he chose 200 foot soldiers and 20 cavalry, with many crossbows and small cannon, lances, and swords, and a still more terrible weapon against the Indians, in addition to the horses: this was 20 hunting dogs, who were turned loose and immediately tore the Indians apart.

Fernando Columbus:

The soldiers mowed down dozens with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and ‘with God’s aid soon gained a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed.’

1495Fernando Columbus,

In the Cibao, where the gold mines were, every person of 14 years of age or upward was to pay a large hawk’s bell of gold dust; all others were each to pay 25 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.

With a token, an Indian was safe for three months.  If he did not pay his tribute by the end of that three months, by order of Columbus, his hands were cut off, effectively a sentence of death.

In the late 1490s, Columbus proposed sending 4000 Taino slaves a year to Spain.  At a cost of 750 maravedis each, he figured he could sell them in Spain for 5000.

Sometime before 1500, Columbus created the encomienda system whereby land grants included the slave labour of the people living on that land.  It became the official policy in Haiti in 1502, and was sanctioned royally in 1503.  The slave trade (by that name) was not officially sanctioned, but continued without punishment for transgressors.

The tribute and encomienda systems caused incredible depopulation.  On Haiti the colonists made the Indians “mine gold for them, raise Spanish food, and even carry them everywhere they went.”  The encomienda system was subsequently exported for use by other conquistadors to Mexico, Peru and Florida (James W. Loewen, 63)

Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, writing of Hispaniola [ca. 1495]:

The Comendador Mayor gave orders for the establishment and settlement of a town in Jaragua, which he named Vera Paz.  Diego Velazquez also founded a town in the province of Haniguayaba, on the south coast, and called it Salvatierra de la Sabana . . . Another town was founded, by order of the Comendador Mayor, also on the south coast . . . .

The preparation of town sites in these various places was not done by Spaniards with shovels in their hands, not by their sweat and labor; for none of them even knew how to level the ground. It was the Indians, constrained by them and terrorized by the massacres, who did all the work, laid out the sites, built the houses, and cleared the ground for cultivation; and so the Comendador Mayor began to follow the policy that Francisco Roldan had inaugurated, that the Admiral [Columbus] had tolerated, and that the Comendador Bobadilla had strengthened and extended.  That was, to compel the Indians to build the houses and dig the ground that the Spaniards required, and do whatever else they wanted, not only essential services but many unnecessary tasks as well.  In short, the Spaniards began to behave as though they were the natural rulers, and as though the Indians were their subjects and vassals; or rather, their chattel slaves.

– Historia de las Indias de Nueva España y islas de Tierra Firme, 1561 (quoted in The Enslaved Indians of the Spanish Caribbean.)

1496, Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella:

In the name of the Holy Trinity, we can send from here all the slaves and brazil-wood which could be sold.  In Castile, Portugal, Aragon, … and the Canary Islands they need many slaves, and I do not think they get enough from Guinea.  Although they die now, they will not always die.  The Negroes and Canary Islanders died at first.

1496 – Columbus returns to Spain 1497 – Giovanni Cabotto sights Newfoundland. May 20, 1498 Vasco da Gama arrives in India.

1498 – Columbus’ third voyage.  It carried supplies for needy, probably starving colonists.

August 5, 1498 – Columbus arrives off the coast of Venezuela

August 13, 1498 – Columbus concludes that the coast he is following is, indeed, a continent.

December 25, 1499 – Gold is finally discovered in Haiti.  Between 1504 and 1519, the discovery produced 150,000 castellanos a year officially.  The more accurate unofficial figures triple that amount.  This represents the annual wages of 15,000 Spanish sailors.

After 1500, with the discovery of gold, Portugal, France, Holland and Britain joined Spain in the Americas.

October, 1500 – Columbus returns to Spain in shackles. A particularly repellent aspect of the slave trade was sexual.  As soon as the 1493 expedition got to the Caribbean, before it even reached Haiti, Columbus was rewarding his lieutenants with native women to rape.  On Haiti, sex slaves were one more perquisite that the Spaniards enjoyed.  (James W. Loewen, 64,65)

1500, Columbus letter to a friend,

A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.

April 15, 1502 – Bartholomé de la Casas arrives in Haiti.  He is told, “You have arrived at a good moment … there is to be a war against the Indians and we will be able to take many slaves.”  Las Casas writes, “This news produced great joy in the ship.”

May 9, 1502 – Columbus leaves Spain on his fourth voyage.

1503 – Isabella decrees that no Indians under her dominion were to be hurt or captured, except ‘a certain people called “cannibals” who might be enslaved, ‘as punishment for crimes committed against my subjects.’  Thus Isabella’s loophole is created, and the black name of cannibal for the Carib people is cemented into Western lore, continuing even to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies produced recently by the Disney studios.

1505 — The trade in African slaves begins in the Americas because of the depopulation of Haiti and the Caribbean.  It is launched by Columbus’ son.

May 20, 1506 – In Valladolid, Spain, Columbus dies.

1513 – Juan López de Palacios Rubios drafts up a document known as the Requirement or the Requerimiento.  It begins with a short history of the world since Adam and Eve, moves on the grant of the Indies to Spain by the pope, and requires, upon the hearing of it, every native of America to surrender immediately to the Spanish crown, or face war, slavery and torture.  Every conquistador was to carry a copy of this document and read it out before making an attack.  The document was in a language no native could understand, spoke of foreign matters they could not be expected to understand, and was often read to sleeping villages or out of earshot of those to whom it was addressed.  By this legalism, the Spanish attempted to justify their slaughter and enslavement of the inhabitants of the Americas.

1515 – Bartolomé de las Casas reports to the president of the Council of the Indies in Spain, Juan Rodreguez de Fonseca, bishop of Burgos, about the slaughter of 7000 children in three months in Cuba, to which the bishop replied, “And how does that concern me?” The slave trade destroyed whole Indian nations.  Enslaved Indians died.  To replace dying Haitians, the Spanish imported tens of thousands more Indians from the Bahamas, which “are now deserted,” in the words of the Spanish historian Peter Martyr, reporting in 1516.  Packed in below deck, with hatchways closed to prevent their escaped, so many slaves died on the trip that “a ship without a compass, chart, or guide, but only following the trail of dead Indians who had been thrown from the ships could find its way from the Bahamas to Hispaniola.”  Puerto Rico and Cuba were next.  (Kirkpatrick Sale)

1516, Thomas More publishes Utopia, based on an account of the Incan empire in Peru, which challenges European social organization by suggesting a radically different and superior alternative.

Pedro de Cordoba, 1517:

As a result of the sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians choose and have chosen suicide.  Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide.  The women, exhausted by labor, have shunned conception and childbirth … Many, when pregnant, have taken something to abort and have aborted.  Others after delivery have killed their children with their own hands, so as not to leave them in such oppressive slavery.

Beyond acts of individual cruelty, the Spanish disrupted the Indian ecosystem and culture.  Forcing Indians to work in mines rather than in their gardens lead to widespread malnutrition.  The intrusion of rabbits and livestock caused further ecological disaster.  Diseases new to the Indians played a role, although smallpox, usually the big killer, did not appear on the island until after 1516.  Some of the Indians tried fleeing to Cuba, but the Spanish soon followed them there.  Estimates of Haiti’s pre-Columbian population range as high as 8,000,000 people.  When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain, he left his brother Bartholomew in charge of the island.  Bartholomew took a census of Indian adults in 1496 and came up with 1,100,000.  The Spanish did not count children under fourteen and could not count Arawaks who had escaped into the mountains.  Kirkpatrick Sale estimates that a more accurate total would probably be in the neighborhood of 3,000,000. “By 1516,” according to Benjamin Keen, “thanks to the sinister Indian slave trade and labor policies initiated by Columbus, only some 12,000 remained.”  Las Casas tells us that fewer than 200 Indians were alive in 1542.  By 1555, they were all gone. (James W. Loewen. 63.)

It is said by Las Casas among others, that what perplexed the Tainos of Española most about the strange white people from the large ships was not their violence, not even their greed, nor in fact their peculiar attitudes toward property, but rather their coldness, their hardness, their lack of love.  [Kirkpatrick Sale, 151]



Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade:  The history of the Atlantic slave trade 1440-1870, 1997, Simon & Schuster, NY.

James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong, 1995, Touchstone, NY. I use him for Columbus here, but this book is indispensable in respect of American history in general, on the shelf next to Howard Zinn, The People’s History of the United States.

Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, 1990, Alfred A. Knopf, NY. Bartolomé de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies [1542], Penguin Books, ed./trans. Nigel Griffin, intro. Anthony Pagden.