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Columbus Day is celebrated on the second Monday of October, in honor of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Americas.

On October 12, 1492, the explorer Christopher Columbus, in command of three sailing vessels that had set out from Spain, made landfall on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas. The voyage was financed by the King and Queen of Spain, who Columbus had convinced that China and the East Indies could be reached by sailing to the west. If feasible, this would give Spain access to these rich lands without having to contend with the dangers and difficulties inherent in overland journeys.

Columbus, ignoring what African mathematicians had proven to be the length of such a voyage, arrived not in the rich courts of imperial China, but on the island now known as San Salvador in the Bahamas, occupied only by simple Taino fishermen, farmers and artisans. Continuing his voyage in his search for gold brought him to Cuba and Hispaniola, but nowhere did he find any indication of the riches he had promised his backers.

Columbus did, however, bring six examples of the indigenous Taino population and presented them to the King and Queen at the Royal Palace in Barcelona.

Although according to Columbus himself,  “the inhabitants of both sexes go always naked, just as they came into the world…” the six Taino representatives were presented dressed up in painted palm leaves and feathers, gold adornments and necklaces made from the teeth and claws of rare animals. Why the disparity in dress?

The explanation seems simple: Columbus’s first voyage, contrary to his hopes and dreams, was an economic disaster. He hardly found any gold, he had lost a majority of his ships, and he was unable to bring back any tangible proof of the enormous value of his discoveries, nor to justify, in any way, the expenses of this adventure or the advisability of continuing it. To dress his captive in such a way was no more than a convincing publicity stunt.

Columbus was given a second chance and returned to the “New World” with a Spanish fleet which carried more than 1500 adventurers, the majority of which were soldiers with battle experience in the wars against the Moors of North Africa.

The TainosColumbus described the Tainos in the ship’s log and in his diary as being “a very loving people and without covetousness,… They are adaptable for every purpose, and I declare to your Highnesses that there is not a better country nor a better people in the world than these.…They are so ingenious and free with all they have that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it…”

The 16th-century Spanish historian, social reformer, Dominican friar and first officially appointed “protector of the Indians,” Bartolomé de las Casas, described the subsequent treatment of the natives of the newly “discovered” lands:

“…God made all the peoples of this area…open and as innocent as can be imagined. The simplest people in the world, unassuming, long-suffering, unassertive, and submissive. They are without malice or guile…Never quarrelsome or belligerent or boisterous, they harbor no grudges and do not seek to settle old scores; indeed, the notions of revenge, rancor, and hatred are quite foreign to them…They own next to nothing and have no urge to acquire material possessions. As a result they are neither ambitious nor greedy, and are totally uninterested in worldly power…They are innocent and pure in mind and have a lively intelligence…

“It was upon these gentle lambs, imbued by the Creator with all the qualities we have mentioned, that from the very first day they clapped eyes on them the Spanish fell like ravening wolves upon the fold…The pattern established at the outset has remained unchanged to this day, and the Spaniards still do nothing save tear the natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly.

“They forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes. They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mothers’ breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks. Others, laughing and joking all the while, threw them over their shoulders into a river, shouting: ‘Wriggle, you little perisher.’

“They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burn them alive thirteen at a time, in honor of our Savior and the twelve Apostles, or tie dry straw to their bodies and set fire to it…The way they normally dealt with the native leaders and nobles was to tie them to a kind of griddle consisting of sticks resting on pitchforks driven into the ground and then grill them over a slow fire, with the result that they howled in agony and despair as they died a lingering death.

“It once happened that I myself witnessed their grilling of four or five local leaders in this fashion (and I believe they had set up two or three other pairs of grills alongside so that they might process other victims at the same time) when the poor creatures ‘howls came between the Spanish commander and his sleep. He gave orders that the prisoners were to be throttled, but the man in charge of execution detail, who was more bloodthirsty than the average common hangman (I know his identity and even met some relatives of his in Seville), was loath to cut short his private entertainment by throttling them and so he personally went round ramming wooden buns into their mouths to stop them making such a racket and deliberately stoked the fire that they would take just as long to die as he himself chose. I saw these things for myself and many others besides.

“…It is reported that the butcher-in-chief arranged for a large number of natives in the area and, in particular, one group of over two hundred who had either come form a neighboring town in response to a summons or had gathered of their own free will, to have their noses, lips and chins sliced from their faces; they were sent away, in unspeakable agony and all running with blood…”

Happy Columbus Day!

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Brought to you by Gerald Singer, St. John US Virgin Islands (USVI)