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October 2011, Week 2

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Mon, 10 Oct 2011 22:07:03 -0400
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What Really Happened When Columbus Discovered America

Elizabeth Zelvin http://www.sleuthsayers.org/

We're coming up on Columbus Day, and having researched
and written two short stories and a Young Adult novel
about the events this holiday celebrates, I have quite
a different perspective on the matter than most
Americans.

For starters, it has nothing to do with Italians. Yes,
Columbus was born in Genoa. But the three ships' crews
on the historic first voyage were Spanish. The names of
87 out of 90 have survived. The roster included one
Genoese sailor, one Calabrian, one Portuguese, and
several Basques. On the second voyage, when the fleet
of 17 ships carried more than 1,200 men, the only
Genoese, a childhood friend of Columbus, was a rapist
and a boor to whose ugly tale was repeated by
historians as a funny story as late as 1942. Apart from
a cabal of Catalans, who at one point mutinied, stole
three caravels, and headed back to Spain, these first
conquistadores were Spanish, their policies dictated by
the needs and desires of King Ferdinand and Queen
Isabella in their drive to unify Spain, fill its
coffers, expand its dominion in land and trade, and
purge it of any taint of dissension from its Christian
faith.

The crime in this true story is the genocide of the
Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands
where Columbus landed, and especially in Hispaniola
(Quisqueya to the Taino, Haiti and the Dominican
Republic today) where the first settlements were built.
It followed the conquest of Granada, the last Moorish
(ie Muslim) stronghold in Spain, the expulsion of the
Jews on the exact date, August 3, 1492, that Columbus
sailed, and the similar extinction of the Guanche, the
natives of the Canary Islands, which Spain was in the
process of conquering, island by island, at the same
time.

The people who greeted Columbus and his crew were
peaceable and friendly. They had never seen horses or
metal weapons. Columbus described them as "robust and
comely." In a letter to the king and queen, he said:
"They are so ingenuous and free with all they have,
that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of
anything that 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." He was already considering what good servants
they would make. When he failed to find enough gold to
impress the sovereigns, the Taino morphed in his mind
from potential Christian brethren who must be converted
to that valuable commodity, slaves.

The Spaniards were convinced that the Taino had no
religion, good news in that no former beliefs would
form obstacles to their conversion to Christianity. One
of the priests who accompanied the second expedition
collected what he called folk tales and published them
on his return to Europe. How ironic! In fact, the Taino
were describing their religion to Fray Pane, and he
didn't get it. These were a people who settled disputes
not by war or litigation, but through a ball game,
batey, a team sport similar to soccer. Games also had a
ceremonial function, and sometimes they were played for
fun.

There is a good explanation for the Taino's generosity.
It was the keystone of their ethical belief system.
Matu'um, generosity, was a virtue. But the Spaniards
didn't get it, and neither did Columbus. They took all
they were offered-water, food, labor, goods, and
especially gold, from nuggets to elaborately worked
masks-and took whatever they wanted, including sexual
favors, with or without Taino consent. But when two
Taino took a couple of European shirts, not even
keeping them but bestowing them on their cacique
(chief), Spanish justice was immediate and cruel: their
noses were slit in the presence of their families, and
they narrowly escaped execution.

It's sometimes said that what really killed off the
entire Taino people was illness: European diseases to
which they were not immune. This is a copout. Within
three years of Columbus's first landing on October 12,
1492, one-third of the Taino population was already
dead. Many committed suicide, using cyanide extracted
from cassava, their staple food, rather than endure the
penalty for failing to pay the monthly "tribute" of
gold that they did not have. In February 1495, the
point at which my novel ends, the Spaniards rounded up
1,500 Taino and herded the 500 most likely prospects
for slavery into ships' holds no better than those of
African slavers in later centuries. More than 200 were
dead and dumped overboard before the ships landed in
Europe.

Eurocentric culture has long declared the Taino
extinct, although some Caribbean Americans who carry
Taino DNA identify themselves as Taino, making efforts
to reconstruct the language and their cultural
heritage.

Happy Columbus Day.

[Thanks to Elizabeth Zelvin for submitting this --
moderator.]

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