Our First History
The first European to arrive in the Bahamas said this about the people living on the stunningly beautiful, paradisiacal island he’d just arrived at:
“They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”29
And he did.
“As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”30
What the European “explorer,” Christopher Columbus, was really looking for was gold. “Gold is a wonderful thing!” Columbus wrote in a letter to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. “Whoever owns it is lord of all he wants. With gold it is even possible to open for souls a way to paradise!”31
But he didn’t find the gold he was lusting for, so he settled for subjugating the mostly unarmed Arawak people and taking them back to Madrid to be sold as slaves. When he returned to the fort he’d had built on the island of Hispaniola (the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere),a he discovered that the Spanish sailors he’d left behind had found no gold, either. What’s more, many had been killed by the Arawakans after the Spaniards marauded villages to kidnap and enslave women and children for rape and forced labor. In retaliation, Columbus and his new army of more than a thousand well-armed soldiers terrorized the island. As historian Howard Zinn describes:
In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en routeb.…Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”32
The Arawak people had never experienced or even heard of slavery. Their civilization embodied what progressives dream about when they say wistfully, “Another world is possible.” Women and men were true equals, their lives were lived within the harmonies, rhythms, and seasons of the natural world; they harvested what was needed, depletion of resources was a foreign concept. There was no conceptualization of private ownership, money, hierarchies, poverty, domination, subjugation, cruelty, greed, patriarchy.33,34 This was the great clash of economic, cultural, moral, and human values. Along with the absence of commerce or the concepts of private ownership, Zinn writes:
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like the Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.35
Also antithetical to the European social paradigm was that this culture of sharing, of collective property, and of mutually sustaining community translated to a society of equality—there were no hierarchies, no gender inequality, no concept of one going hungry while another had plenty. It was very much a paradise. In American Holocaust, David Stannard quotes Caribbean expert Carl Sauer as saying about them:
[T]he tropical idyll of the accounts of Columbus and Peter Martyrc was largely true. The people suffered no want. They took care of their plantings, were dextrous at fishing and were bold canoeists. They designed attractive houses and kept them clean. They found aesthetic expression in woodworking. They had leisure time to enjoy diversion in ball games, dances, and music. They lived in peace and amity.36
Even Columbus was impressed by their civilized society; in one of his letters to Isabella and Ferdinand, he wrote:
So tractable, so peaceable, are these people that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.37
Nevertheless, the European culture of property, conquest, and domination could not allow a society in which all people—especially women—were equal, where life’s bounty was shared so no one would go without. It was not Christian or “civilized” to live under anything but patriarchy, and the notion of a collectivist, communal society was particularly offensive to them.
The war to eradicate the indigenous civilization’s communal way of life would continue for hundreds of years. “The common field is the seat of barbarism,” said one government official under President Grant a few centuries later.38 In 1886, a U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs explained the purpose of the federal programs to assimilate the remaining Native Americans who hadn’t already been exterminated: “[The Native American] must be imbued with the exalting egotism of American civilization so that he will say ‘I’ instead of ‘We,’ and ‘This is mine’ instead of ‘This is ours.’”39
Finally, there was the issue of race. In a world governed by patriarchal hierarchy, there’s only one gender and one race that has the privilege of being fully human and there’s no such thing as power-sharing. So despite the recognition that these were highly civilized, gentle people, they were, according to the social laws of the Europeans, “savage heathens”; they were less than human and a potential threat to the social order unless completely broken, subjugated, and their civilization destroyed.
The brutality of the Spaniards was stunning. Like a pack of wild dogs tearing into the flesh of cornered prey, they slaughtered, hacked, raped, and pillaged their way through the Bahamas and Caribbean islands. From Haiti to Cuba, from San Salvador to Hispaniola, in less than a quarter of a century, they managed to exterminate millions of the Arawak people, eradicate entire forests, wipe out fishing and hunting grounds, and turn the beautiful islands of paradise into rape camps and slave plantations for generations of Europeans to come.40,41,42
Among the many chroniclers of the times, there was one who didn’t glorify the crimes, turning them into noble exploits for God and country, righteous deeds that created the engine of free enterprise and never-ending wealth. He was a young priest attached to Columbus’s marauding forces, whose job was to convert the “heathens” so their souls would be “saved,” presumably so they could go to heaven and continue serving the Spaniards in the next life.
Bartolomé de Las Casas owned slaves himself at first, but at some point, became disillusioned and disgusted by the barbaric brutality of his fellow Spaniards who “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades…[T]wo 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.”43
Columbus was still hell-bent on finding gold, especially on Haiti, where he was convinced a huge field of gold lay in Cicao province. Every Arawakan on the island over the age of fourteen was forced into mining for gold. What’s more, they were expected to deliver a quota of gold every three months, for which they’d be issued a copper token to be worn around their necks. If they didn’t meet the quota, they weren’t issued the token, and according to Howard Zinn, “Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.”44
As the Spanish colonialization became systematized and industrialized, they split up the women and the men; women were forced to work on large plantations growing food and export crops like cassava, and the men were sent away to work in the gold mines. Mining under the Spanish slave labor system was utterly devastating to both the human slaves and the land, and Las Casas chronicled the destruction.
“[M]ountains 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.”45
Of course, the Arawak people fought back. And they were slaughtered. They fled into the hills and jungles. And they were hunted down with armored attack dogs, captured, and slaughtered. Their villages and crops were burned, their communities and families ripped apart; the rhythms and customs and entire social fabric of their lives were obliterated in one generation.
“[T]hey 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,” wrote Las Casas.46 Everything in their world was now leading to extermination, from the brutality and diseases the Spaniards brought to their ability to even procreate, as the men were sent away to the mines for eight to ten months at a time, with the result chronicled by Las Casas:
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, 7000 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 while 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.47
The desperation became so great that the Arawak people responded with a passive resistance to the violence and brutality of the Spaniards in the only way that was left to them: They refused to continue living or to allow their children to be born into such horrors. From mass suicides by eating cassava poison to aborting or killing their own babies, the Arawak people did whatever they could to save their nation from the savage and brutal oppressors.48,49
Still, what killed them in far greater numbers were the massacres carried out by the Spaniards themselves, the diseases and plagues they brought with them, starvation, and murderous forced labor. According to Las Casas, the Spanish overseers in the mines and the plantations “treated the Indians with such rigor and inhumanity that they seemed the very ministers of Hell, driving them day and night with beatings, kicks, lashes and blows.”50
Less than five years after Columbus “discovered” the Americas, the number of Arawak people living just on the island of Hispaniola dropped from approximately eight million to about four million. Ten years later, there were less than a hundred thousand left. By 1535, the Arawak peoples had been almost completely exterminated, not just on Hispaniola, but throughout their native islands.51,52 By mid-century, only five hundred Arawak people were left alive on Hispaniola.53
Then the Spaniards moved on to the Americas and, as Howard Zinn wrote, “What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortés did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.”54
The policy of extermination was carried out by president after president. According to historian David Stannard, in 1813, President Thomas Jefferson promised that the U.S. government would “pursue [the Indians] to extermination”;55 President Andrew “Indian Killer”d Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1838 resulted in the forced expulsion of 70,000 Native Americans, including the death march—the Trail of Tears—of 15,000 Cherokee nation people.56,57 Peter Nabokov writes that “the gold rushers and homesteaders who flooded into California…were responsible for murdering over fifty thousand Native Americans between 1848 and 1870 alone.”58
This was a genocide of unprecedented proportions, not just in numbers but in the fact that the European conquerors quite literally exterminated entire nations of people by the tens of millions.
And what was it all for? Gold, land, racial and cultural supremacy, hegemony of patriarchy, and a lust for domination and the accumulation of private wealth that turned humans into monstrous savages and built a nation founded on injustice and brutality. The invasion and occupation of the New World was like a hundred million My Lais, a hundred Nazi Holocausts of the Jews, but it’s the history we’ve been told is ours as Americans, and so we accept it. We are diminished by it, made indifferent, privileged, and isolated, fractured through and through by our loss of humanity and our inability to act on our moral convictions.
What we’ve had taken from us is our history as human beings capable of living in harmony, capable of creating a society rooted in equality and mutually sustaining community. We’ve had, instead, a history of conquerors and murderers imposed on us, as if that history is superior; and we’ve forgotten how or why we need to learn what it means to be independent individuals who value community, not passive followers who value separate hegemonies of ego.
We can’t change the past, but we can reclaim other, more sustaining pasts that have been erased and we can create a new future.
The Notes to First Nations: Our First History
a: Though Columbus first landed in the Bahamas, on the island he named San Salvador, he immediately continued on westward into the Caribbean, where Hispaniola is located.
b: The two hundred people who died from disease and deprivation were simply dumped overboard, according to the Italian nobleman, Michele de Cuneo, who was traveling with Columbus.59
c: Peter Martyr d’Anghiera was a sixteenth century Italian scholar and official chronicler of the expeditions to and the people of the New World.60
d: This was the nickname reportedly given to Jackson by the Cherokees.61