200709ind Cranston

Local historian G. T. Cranston doesn’t think the nation should honor Christopher Columbus.

The very recent hoopla surrounding the local Republican Party request to have the Providence statue of Christopher Columbus relocated to North Kingstown really saddens me. You see history is all about the truth and the Columbus story that we were all indoctrinated into as youngsters in the first and second grade is full of lies, half-truths, and omitted facts that change everything.

You know what irks me most is not the outright mistruths like, “Columbus was the first person to discover the new world” for he most certainly was not; we know with good probability that other folks from various parts of the world, particularly the Norse regions, came and left well before “1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” And, anyway, what does it say to the ancestors of the countless Native Americans from Alaska all the way down to Tierra del Fuego when we say Columbus was the first person here. The whole flat earth story is hogwash as well; by the time 1492 rolled around this was not the common belief among educated people. I could go on and on about the lies and mistruths in the myth we were taught. Heck, I can even tell you where they all came from: a fictionalized account written by American writer Washington Irving in 1828 is the source for the vast majority of the misinformation our schools all pass on as fact today, but they are not what really bother me. What bothers me the most is what has completely been left out. The other part of the Columbus tale, the ugly part that no one likes to hear is, in fact, the part that has had the largest impact upon the Americas, and as I firmly believe history is all about the truth, this part of the story, ugly or not, needs to be told.

This part really begins with Columbus’ return to the New World in 1493. He came back much more well-equipped; an expedition of 17 ships and 1500 men, cannons, crossbows, guns, even cavalry and trained attack dogs. Once tied up in the safe harbor off of Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic) he sent an official party ashore and had the standard Spanish speech of dominion read to the native elders, which they obviously could not even understand as they did not speak Spanish, this speech was known as “The Requirement.”

I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as Lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves. The deaths and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor the gentlemen that accompany me.

This was done primarily to assuage the collective European conscience, hey they offered the natives a chance to convert and obey and they didn’t take advantage of this beneficence. This was when the ugliness began.

Columbus was there for, what else, but gold and he set up a tribute system among the native Arawaks to begin collecting it. He made certain that all of the Arawaks “promised” to pay tribute to the Catholic Sovereign every three months in either a prearrange portion of gold or 25 pounds of spun cotton. When a native delivered his tribute he was given a brass token he was required to wear around his neck. This token assured his survival for the next three month period. Arawaks without tokens were subject to the whims of Columbus and his Spanish crew and soldiers. They could be hunted for sport or just killed to provide dog food for the trained attack dogs that the conquering “heroes” had brought with them. These dogs were used for control purposes. The local natives had never seen anything like them and feared them greatly. If a native was unable to fulfill his tribute by the time his token had expired he was punished by having his non-dominant hand chopped off. Second offenses were punishable by death. Minor infractions against Spanish control were also punished by the decapitation of a hand or perhaps a nose if it was deemed appropriate. All the while Columbus was gathering up his major Hispaniola export, slaves, and shipping them back home and elsewhere within the Spanish empire. As a matter of fact, Christopher Columbus is thought to be the most prolific slave trader in the history of the western world.

Beyond these acts of barbarism, Columbus and the Spaniards destroyed the native ecosystem and culture. Working in gold mines or cotton fields rather than farming for food led to widespread malnutrition and death. The introduction of non-native livestock and rabbits wreaked havoc upon the local ecology. Between these factors, the introduction of European diseases to the local population, removal for slave purposes, and the torment that they underwent, the Arawak nation was in freefall. Mass suicides were common place as devastated natives could take no more. Birth rates dropped to near zero with the few infants brought into the world by Arawak mothers being killed at birth rather than live the life of their parents. Pre-Columbian estimates of population on the giant island range as high as eight million people. By 1516, just 24 years later, the official tally of remaining Arawaks was 12,000. By 1555 no Arawaks remained of the original eight million. This is the Americas unspoken genocide. This is why Columbus Day ticks me off.

So what can we really say about Christopher Columbus? What superlatives does he warrant? Already we see he was won the honor of number one slave trader in the Americas, and he did introduce the European world to the phenomena of outright taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples setting the stage for what was to come not only in South and Central America but North America as well. And, oh yeah, he was the first Italian person (although historians are not even sure of that fact) to come to the new world at the behest of the Spanish government. So he is certainly worth remembering that’s for sure.

Amazingly enough these facts have been out there for centuries and have been overlooked and ignored by the majority eager to perpetuate the feel good Columbus myth begun by Washington Irving in 1828. As a matter of fact, another prominent writer H. G. Wells used the Columbus “truth” as the basis for famous science fiction classic “The War of the Worlds.” The story is really an allegory for what occurred in Hispaniola back in 1492 with the Spaniards and gold old Christopher Columbus playing the part of the aliens and the Arawaks filing in as the British commoners (or the New Jersey folks in the Orson Welles version).

So now we all know the not-so-rosy truth about the guy who sailed the ocean blue in good old 1492. We also know just a little bit about the long-standing animosities that exit between the nations of the Caribbean and white world that came here and changed everything. So pardon me, if I, and so many other people are offended by the idea of celebrating all this. Providence, I suggest you keep the statute in a warehouse where it belongs.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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