This Week in History – October 12

October 12, 1492 – After a 33-day voyage, Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the New World in the Bahamas. He named the first land sighted as San Salvador, claiming it in the name of the Spanish Crown. Columbus was seeking a western sea route from Europe to Asia and believed he had landed in China, then known as the East Indies. He thus called the first island natives he met ‘Indians.’

Up until the mid-1400’s, Europeans traded with Asian countries far to the East, such as India and China, via an eastern trade route. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Moslem Turks, however, using the overland route became more difficult and expensive for Christian Europeans. In response, most European countries looked for an eastward sea route to the Indies that would bypass the Moslem world altogether by sailing around Africa. This ocean route, however, was very long and difficult to manage with that era’s technology.

In the 1480s an Italian sailor named Christopher Columbus came up with a different idea: he wanted to travel to the Indies by sailing directly west across the Atlantic. At the time, such a voyage was considered madness. Although educated people by then understood that the earth was round and not flat, no-one knew how long a trip westward would take, or how difficult it might prove. Given the size and speed of the European ships, most sailors concluded (correctly, it turns out) that they would die of starvation or thirst long before reaching Asia.

Columbus, however, insisted that such a voyage could be made, since he mistakenly believed that the earth was only about ½ of its actual size, and therefore that the “far east” was really not so far west. Moreover, no European, including Columbus, knew that the North and South American continents even existed in between Europe and Asia. Given how small Columbus believed the earth was, there was simply no room for them.

Columbus believed that by sailing west he would soon reach the shores of Japan or China, an area then called the “East Indies.” Once there, he would make a fortune establishing a new trading route to the riches of the east, as well as convert any people he might encounter to Christianity – by force, if necessary.

Such a voyage, however, would be as expensive as it was dangerous, and Columbus needed financial backing for his scheme. Columbus first tried to convince Portugal’s King John to fund the expedition, but John found Columbus’ plan was too risky, and so declined to help. Columbus then spent several years trying to convince the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, to finance his planned expedition. Finally, in 1492, Isabella decided that the gamble was worth the risk (or worth getting rid of the pestering Columbus) and agreed to finance the expedition.

The deal Isabella gave Columbus was that, in exchange for the Queen’s financial backing, Columbus agreed to claim any new land discovered for Spain and surrender 90% of all profits taken from these new lands to the king and queen. Columbus was granted the right to act as governor of these new lands, receive 10% of the profits, and be given the rather silly rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea. At the time, these terms seemed very generous to Columbus, and in truth, they were, because the Queen did not really expect Columbus to survive the voyage to enjoy them.

On August 3, 1492, Columbus left mainland Spain with three ships: the Santa Maria, the Niña, and the Pinta. After a quick stop at the Canary Islands, which were “owned” by Spain, he set out on September 6, 1492, for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean. After the first three weeks out on the open ocean, with no land in sight, the crew became anxious and demanded that they turn around and return to Spain. Columbus managed to convince them to continue on for just a little while longer, reminding them that Ferdinand and Isabella had offered a handsome reward to the first sailor who sighted land.

In the early morning of October 12 – the same day Columbus had agreed to turn around if no land had been found – an island was sighted by a sailor named Juan Bermeo (also known as Rodrigo). Columbus refused to give him the promised reward, however, claiming instead that he (Columbus) had already spotted land the night before. Columbus pocketed the reward for himself.

That first land spotted was an island which Columbus named San Salvador (in the modern day Bahamas) and claimed it for Spain. After landing on the island he forcibly took a few natives prisoner to act as guides and translators. He then sailed about the Caribbean for the next few months, landing on and claiming Hispaniola (Haiti) and Cuba as well. Not realizing that he had “discovered” the Americas, Columbus was convinced that San Salvador was part of Japan and Cuba part of China.

The peaceful native people Columbus encountered on San Salvador and Hispaniola were the Taíno. Thinking that he had reached the East Indies, he called the natives “Indians.” Unfortunately for the Taíno, Columbus believed that he had the right to forcibly convert them to Christianity as well as enslave them to help pay for the trip. He wrote that the Taíno, “would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Before Columbus headed for home in January of 1493, he had a fort built on Hispaniola and left 40 of his men behind to guard it. When he arrived back in Spain, he was given a hero’s welcome. Although he had found little gold on his trip, he did bring back a number of items that had the potential of making money: five captured natives as slaves, corn, potatoes, and tobacco. Based on his “discovery,” Isabel and Ferdinand, as well as Spanish merchants, were eager to finance another trip.

Over the course of the next ten years Admiral Columbus would make three more voyages to the new world. He explored the Caribbean and the eastern coast of South America and brought Spanish colonists to settle these new lands that he had claimed for Spain. The fact that these lands were already occupied by Indians made no difference. To those natives Columbus, their new governor, would show no mercy.

Before he left Spain on his second voyage, Columbus had been directed by Isabella to maintain friendly relations with the natives and to focus on peacefully converting them to Christianity. He was specifically ordered not to enslave them. Columbus, however, was desperate to make money. He knew that Spain’s rival, Portugal, was making money by selling African slaves, and he wanted to do the same with the Indians.

In February 1495, Columbus ignored Isabella’s orders and took 1,200 Taíno from Hispaniola as slaves. Half were put to work on new Spanish sugar plantations on Hispaniola, while the other half were packed onto ships to be sold in Spain. Most of these unfortunate Indians died en route; the Spanish sailors simply tossed their bodies into the Atlantic. When Columbus arrived in Spain, Isabella was furious that he had disobeyed her. Most of the survivors were released and ordered to be shipped back home (whether they actually made it is uncertain).

Unfortunately, that would be the last time that Isabella would be able to stop Columbus from enslaving natives. In order to get around Isabella’s orders, Columbus and the Spaniards who followed him claimed that the Indians were cannibals, had refused to convert to Christianity, or had unjustly attacked Spaniards (for attempting to enslave them in the first place). According to Spanish and Catholic Church law at the time, all three of these reasons provided legal justification to enslave the Indians – and so they did.

During the course of his career as governor, Columbus sent an estimated 5,000 Indians to Europe to be sold into slavery. He made most of his money, in fact, selling young women and children to European slave traders.

It is unclear whether Columbus ever realized that he had discovered a new continent rather than the eastern shores of Asia, as he had first believed. At the very least, he never publicly claimed to have found a new world (although on his third voyage he claimed that he discovered the actual location of Eden, near the coastline of modern day Brazil). Consequently, “America” ended up being named after another Italian explorer who came after Columbus: Amerigo Vespucci.

Columbus set in motion a system where Spanish colonists began establishing large sugar plantations on many of the Caribbean Islands. Finding laborers to work on these plantations was no problem: they simply turned all the local Indians into slaves and forced them to work. Those natives who did not die from European diseases the Spanish unwittingly brought with them were literally worked to death.

On Hispaniola, for example, Columbus imposed a system that required all natives 14 years and older to find a certain quantity of gold every three months; those who failed to reach their quota had their hands chopped off. When terrified Indians ran off to hide in the jungle, the Spaniards hunted them down and massacred them.

Throughout the 1500’s, even after Columbus was long gone, Spanish cruelty towards the natives in the Caribbean and South America defied belief. Not only did the Spaniards take Indian lands and work the natives to death as slaves, but they routinely committed unspeakable acts of rape, torture and murder as well. Spaniards would hack off the limbs of unfortunate natives simply to see how sharp their swords were. They would throw women and children into pits to be torn apart by large hunting dogs. Some were even accused of feeding the flesh of slaughtered Indians to other prisoners.

Besides rape, murder, enslavement, and forced conversion, the Spaniards brought with them something even worse: disease. Europeans had lived for centuries with epidemic diseases, such as smallpox, plague, and tuberculosis, and therefore had developed some immunity to those diseases. Such diseases did not exist in the New World, however, so the Indians had no immunity to them at all. Consequently, when the Spaniards (and other Europeans who came later) unwittingly carried the germs which caused those diseases with them to the Americas, the diseases spread like wildfire among the natives. These epidemics decimated native populations throughout North and South America. Disease, in fact, likely killed more Indians than slavery and murder combined.

In the end, Columbus’ discovery led to the deaths of up to 90% of the Indians in the new world from disease, murder, and slavery. For example, in 1492 the population of Taíno on Hispaniola was estimated to be about 250,000; by 1550, there were only a few hundred Taíno left. The corn and potatoes that Columbus brought back to Europe, on the other hand, fueled a European population explosion in the 1500’s and 1600’s. In one of history’s great ironies, many of these new Europeans, mostly poor, would end up colonizing the Americas – in land cleared of natives dead from European atrocities and diseases.

Author: Ye Olde History Teacher

Teacher. Author. Pro: facts, reason, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Anti: stupidity, ignorance, intolerance, inflexibility, hate, grifters.

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