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The truth about Christopher Columbus’ massacre of Indigenous Caribbean peoples

Taíno, Kalinago, and Garifuna Indigenous peoples resided in the present-day Caribbean. Christopher Columbus’ arrival would change their way of living forever.

Garifuna Indigenous man Getty Images

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

The national celebration of Columbus Day was first recorded in 1792 in New York City to commemorate 300 years of colonialism in the Americas since the 1492 settlement of the Italian navigator and genocide leader Christopher Columbus. This Manhattan-based installation was an extension of San Francisco’s 1869-commemorated Italian–American Heritage Festival, which was founded to revere the power of their forefather and “the first Europeans” to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus “... has long been called the ‘discoverer’ of the New World, although Vikings such as Leif Eriksson had visited North America... centuries earlier,” per Britannica.

Despite historical inaccuracy, the United States honors the European traveler and his pillaging of its original peoples with a federal holiday — Columbus Day — on the second Monday of each October. Put simply, some stateside professionals have received premium pay surrounding the colonizer in the same regard which administrators esteemed Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Past American supremacy observances infrequently included figures concerning our Indigenous homesteaders’ decimation. This year, The White House’s briefing room uploaded a proclamation:

“Since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations... For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures... NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 11, 2021, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The page-long change of tune highlights requisite positions presented at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations for the alternative to Columbus Day. This suggestion was prefaced in the ‘70s. What gets lost in translation is that the sailor never set foot in what is known as the United States. To add to corrected misinformation, our country’s textbook-championed figure, born Cristoforo Colombo, has been “... considered responsible for the rape and murder of... Indigenous people,” marked TIME. He and his men reached Native archipelago lands with more than weaponry and violence. They also carried infectious diseases, such as measles and smallpox.

America’s Library abstracts as follows:

“European nations came to the Americas to increase their wealth and broaden their influence over world affairs. The Spanish were among the first Europeans to explore the New World... By 1650, however, England had established a dominant presence on the Atlantic coast. The first colony was founded at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.”

For many citizens, Columbus Day potentially invites confusion. Our New World or the Americas references do not signify The United States exclusively. These terms represent the Western Hemisphere. “The Indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian (before European contact) inhabitants of North America, Mesoamerica, and South America as well as Greenland,” outlined “The New World” Lumen Learning curriculum.

More precisely, prior to journeyers’ 1492 landing in the Americas, “... the area boasted thriving indigenous populations totaling to more than 60 million people. A little over a century later, that number had dropped close to 6 million,” informed a Business Insider study. The Genoa-born conqueror’s New World massacres encompassed Indigenous people of external territories. Columbus’ famed 10-week Spanish explorer-led voyage’s principal landing was in the Caribbean on Oct. 12, 1492. As National Geographic accounts, “The Italian navigator’s three ships, sailing at the behest of the Spanish crown, would soon land, likely on an island known to its Lucayan residents as Guanahaní. Columbus christened it San Salvador.”

The theorized locality is now set in what is known as The Bahamas. However, as the publication separately summarized:

“The confusion over Guanahani’s modern identity stems primarily from Columbus’ description of the island in his Diario, where he describes Guanahani as having ‘very green trees and many ponds...’ [Even so,] this can be said of a great number of the islands in the region.

“Further complicating the issue is a map made by Juan de la Cosa. [He] was a cartographer sailing with Columbus, and also the owner of Columbus’ largest vessel, the Santa Maria... While [de la Cosa] was fairly accurate of the position and shape of the islands we know as Cuba and Hispaniola, his inaccurate depictions of The Bahamas leave the exact location of Guanahani undetermined.”

Although this encounter signifies the beginning of Columbus’ interaction with regional inhabitants throughout the West Indies, it overlooks the start of an adjoining plague: The transatlantic slave trade. The lingering aftereffects of the latter facing West Indian and Caribbean Latinx cultures are grossly undermined. Moreover, Lucayan residents, similar to their Greater Antilles neighbors, spoke a dialect of the Taíno language. Their vernacular is part of the Maipurean linguistic family, drawing from South America across the Caribbean.

Taínos are an Arawak people “... who were the Indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida,” archived the Black History Month Organization. Still, it is vital to reiterate that Taínos were not the only Indigenous people affected by the appearance of white men nearing the end of the 15th century. They were, however, the principal inhabitants of islands such as Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and sections of the southern Windward Islands.

During this era, nearby tribes also toured included the Kalinago (or Caribs) of the Lesser Antilles, and the Guanahatabey of Western Cuba. The Carib region being academically cited as the most formidable in war. These tribes’ foreign customs were diverse. Caribbean forms at large operated with the principle that the creator provided ample material for all.

Moreover, throughout his rounds, Columbus named Taínos “Indians.” The term spread among scholars recounting Indigenous masses within this Western Hemisphere and stands today. While majority rule is still enforced, scholars must contextualize that old-world seafarers were immigrants against these Black and Brown societies. Yet, Taíno leaders welcomed the privileged newcomers with compassion.

The book Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492–1650, cites Columbus’ journal:

“They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with goodwill…they took great delight in pleasing us… They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil — nor do they murder or steal… Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people… They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.”

Despite these written sentiments, no mercy was spared for thriving Indigenous structures. The Indians farmed diverse crops, “...developed pepper gas... an extensive pharmacopeia from nature, built canoes large enough for [over] 100 paddlers and played games with a [rubber] ball, which fascinated Europeans seeing the material for the first time,” published The Smithsonian Magazine. Colonizers took note of collective designs.

Setting traditions, Taínos produced art with natural resources, including woven garments, earthenware, and instruments. Their assemblages’ generosity echoed the theory that no good deed goes unpunished. Following a short-lived coexistence phase, connections between indigenes and white foreigners declined. Further, no women sailed overseas alongside the homicidal searchers during premiere expeditions. These voyages propelled centuries of European research and clearing.

Inflicted consequences for Caribbean bodies brought torture, famine, Native enslavement, forced Christianity, and the overall robbery of identity through assimilation expectations. As mapped presently in the Caribbean, the first Indigenous grouping affected by colonization is the Greater Antilles: Cayman Islands, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. The second Indigenous grouping is the Lesser Antilles or the Leeward Islands: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Saba, Saint Barthelemy (commonly called St. Barts), Saint Martin, Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The third Indigenous grouping is the Windward Islands: Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago. The fourth Indigenous grouping is the ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. The fifth Indigenous grouping is the Lucayan Archipelago: Turks and Caicos, and The Bahamas. All of these islands’ descendants are bound to unique positions in generational resistance movements toward Black and Brown cultural preservation.

Beside the commuters, transplant struggle ensued upon these harbors’ originators, i.e., harsh treatment in the gold mines and sugarcane fields. Also, volatile public displays of brutality are chronicled in the biography Columbus: The Four Voyages — urging Natives’ submission. Through caucasian-carried sexual assault and some experimented ethnic cleansing, the nonconsensual mixing of these bloodlines commenced.

Upon new racial killings, Columbus wrote a letter to Doña Juana de la Torre, a friend of the Spanish queen: “There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls — those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid,” Vox quoted. Some of these men forcibly married Arawak women leading to children, which tribespeople termed mestizos. By 1502, Spanish conquistadors entered numerous Caribbean nations with abducted Africans.

And as the New World Encyclopedia condensed of persisting Borikén, “While most of their culture was wiped out, Taíno survived in Puerto Rico, albeit of mixed lineage, and efforts have been made to revive Taino identity and culture.” Beyond greed, there was remarkable passivity among the privileged squatters. Intimidated by self-sustaining requirements, the theft of Africans was likewise an effort to replace disappearing Indians. Bodily needs were also achieved by any means. Overtaking Italian and Spaniard settlers admittedly defiled women in individual accounts.

For example, Michele de Cuneo, a friend of Columbus, revealed a Carib woman was “... given to him by the admiral. When she fought back against his attempted sexual attacks, he ‘took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly... finally we came to an agreement in such manner,’” History uncovered from his letters.

Later, these mixed-race “... offspring also intermarried with African slaves as they began being transported to the West Indies and to South America...” Study composed in their “Arawak Tribe: History, Language & Symbols” lesson. Notwithstanding slave drivers’ degradation, Afro-Indigenous systems unified experiences among survivors of the clash — an example of resilience later developed on Borikén’s next-door-island Saint Vincent. Garífuna, expressed plural as Garinagu, is a cultural group of descendants of African and Indigenous Kalinago-Taíno (Carib-Arawak) populations.

These Afro-Indigenous annals rendered more concisely: “The Garífuna history has been one of constant migration and intermarriage. Oral history records that the Garífuna ancestors, the Arawak Indians, migrated from Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela around long before the arrival of the Europeans to the New World and settled in the Greater Antilles Islands in the Caribbean. A second ancestor, the Carib Indians, also migrated from their settlements in the Orinoco Delta in 1220 A.D. and seized the Lesser Antilles. The Carib and Arawak then intermarried and engendered the Island Carib, who settled predominantly on Saint Vincent Island,” says Belize’s tourism website.

The chosen people (formerly called Black Caribs) are one of the first tribes documented by Caribbean-based anthropologists as a product of “voluntary assimilation,” symbolizing their amicable origination. More than unity within the Garinagu community, the Caribbean collective efficiently protected their freedom from external threats. Garifuna pioneers flourished for centuries along Central America’s shoreline. Leading Black Carib personages blended African and Amerindian benefactions keeping “... their Arawakan language and Afro-Caribbean music and religion [active]. They outmaneuvered European control and outlasted the onslaught of telephones and tourism,” cites Los Angeles Times.

Black Indigene progression in the Americas signifies a turn of the tides against white fury. The ability to secure the most valuable parts of combined generational narratives and purge the least beneficial surplus is a Garinagu gift. As Indigenous activist and author Tanya Rodriguez reiterated, “We have much to learn from the Garifuna, as the language they have maintained since the 1600-1700s is a mixture of the diverse Arawakan languages, as well as Spanish, French, and British English.”

Several centennial Caribbean chronicles largely attest, no growth came without strain. The Minority Rights Group International asserted, “Garifuna have traditionally been discriminated against and demonized by some, principally because in a Creole culture with a tradition of enslavement and Euro-centred assimilation...” Even so, the common thread of navigating the majority’s biases, exposes developmental hardships most Indigenous Caribbean populations can identify.

Indigenous forms exist in an ecosystem where governments praise excursionists who have memoir records such as:

”[They] made bets as to who would slit a man in two, or cut off his head at one blow — or they opened up his bowels. They tore the babes from their mothers’ breast by their feet, and dashed their heads against the rocks... and by thirteens, in honor and reverence for our Redeemer and the twelve Apostles, they put wood underneath and, with fire, they burned the Indians alive.”

The facts are indisputable. Caribbean Indigenous nations were used as the foundational bodies beneath Europeans’ exploitation of the Americas. How can any public servant dispute that uplifting Columbus on this day is inhumane? Perhaps belated national reform will supersede, but Indigenous peoples merit more than an online proclamation extending one holiday.

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