Untold Story of Native Americans After Christopher Columbus' Voyage
In grade school, many of us have been subjected to the experience of at least some variation of the classic classroom rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. The man himself was born in 41 years prior to a Christian merchant and his wife, approached his thalassophyte-oriented career in the Portuguese marine with a passion and, 40 years later (as the verse goes), became the famous navigator of the great Atlantic and conquistador of the New Worlds of America as we know it today. What these children’s verses fail to inform us of, however, is the more sinister side of this seemingly innocent story. It is patent that Christopher Columbus single-handedly commanded the European crew that exploited Taino people for labour to strategically enrich themselves, took jurisdiction of vast regions of New World land, and brought diseases that razed the existing population of Native Americans. By the same token, it is also patent that, at his time, his conductions were rationally ‘justified’ by his ethnocentric view of racial and cultural superiority to the natives.
The reason I used the word ‘justified’ so reluctantly in the previous paragraph comes down to respect for the estimated quarter of a million lives that have suffered at least some extent of Columbus’s collateral damage. Understanding his views at the time does not, to any degree, vindicate his violent ventures but it does, in a twisted way, rationalize it for those of us who might not have morally comprehended his actions otherwise. To illustrate our difference in worldviews, I lay this simple but parallel comparison. When I look at the ‘Made in Portugal’ trademark imprinted on the bottom of my glass IKEA cup, I immediately think of the small, southern European country with the soccer scandals that it is today, not the major ruling player on the globe it was nearly 600 years ago. When my worldview is this drastically different from the late explorer and navigator, Christopher Columbus’s, it is not difficult to imagine that our values and interpretations of Native Americans are also contrastingly different. Columbus’s beliefs about the native people of the Caribbean Islands were ones of both looking down upon them and looking for ways to exploit them for the commonwealth of Portugal, as well as looking for ways to benefit himself from this equation. These motivations caused him to shake hands with the devil and treat the natives with false respect and friendship while brewing aggressively assertive ulterior motives just below the surface.
Columbus was a man of many talents. Apart from being a vicious explorer, he was also a savage journalist. He boasted in an excerpt pulled from his travel journal that “[The natives] came swimming to the boats, bringing parrots, balls of cotton thread, javelins, and many other things which [the natives] exchanged for articles [they] gave them, such as glass bead, and hawk’s bells.” It is shown here the passivity in which he presents how the Taino would trade items of high value for inexpensive trinkets. Contrastingly, in his letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus claims to return the Taino’s acts of generosity, avouching that “[…] I forbade giving them items of little or no value”. This showed that Columbus thought the Native Americans he encountered to be generous, not very materialistic and easily amused; such so that, to the Tainos, the souvenir like trade goods would not be considered ‘items of little or no value’ when he was recounting his adventures to the King and Queen. These notions led to a sense of patronization of the native’s culture and the idea that the Tainos somehow needed Europeans to improve their lives. Columbus thereby presumes that the natives’ generosity could be exploited for his individual gain and, consequently, does so. One idea leads to another. Columbus’s initial assumption of the natives’ dependency presumably led him to believe that the natives would be easily converted into Christians and “love [their] King and Queen.”
Christopher Columbus was truly an illustration depicting the status quo of his time. With his infamous pirate-inspired hat and ethnocentric sense of superiority, nothing could make him more of a conservative white man. With this admittedly caricatured characterization, it is hard to imagine his upbringing belonging to anything short of a proper, Catholic-European, etiquette bound and slightly racist household. Columbus’s descriptions of the Taino in both his journal and letter to the ruling powers of Portugal, although never directly indicating racism, reveals a superficial understanding of how any sort of sophisticated people should look and act. In his journal, he states that “they all go completely naked, even the women,” which succeeded an arguably direct attack on their economic status, in which he assumed that they were very poor because of their lack of clothing. Imaginably, he also thought them to be a little barbaric, though he showed no bias in his writing, “[…] their hair short, and coarse like that of a horse’s tail, combed toward the forehead, except a small portion which they wear long and never cut.” These assumptions caused Columbus to treat the natives as little more than barbaric subhumans. Columbus’s mindset and actions drastically altered the New World from the moment his crew stepped off the ship and onto the Caribbean Islands.
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