Columbus’ Scandalous Treatment of Native Peoples Reaped Wrath of Spain

Columbus’ Scandalous Treatment of Native Peoples Reaped Wrath of Spain

Donna Patricia Ward - October 17, 2017

The King and Queen of Spain removed Christopher Columbus from his governorship in 1500. Since his first voyage, Christopher Columbus had been the Viceroy and Governor of Hispaniola. In this capacity, he appointed his three brothers and two sons to high positions in the colonial government. As Columbus continued to explore the islands of the New World, the government under his leadership committed atrocities against the island’s native inhabitants and colonial settlers.

Born in the Republic of Genoa in 1451, Columbus grew up along the northwestern Italian coast. At a young age, he began working with his father in the family cheese stand. When he was 10 years old, Columbus was hired out to prominent merchants to work on ships transporting goods from the Iberian Peninsula to Ireland. Columbus settled in Lisbon, near his brother, and continued working for a prominent merchant family as a shipper and importer.

While living in Lisbon, Columbus married, had a son and learned to speak Latin, Portuguese, and Castilian. He never obtained a formal education, but he was literate and read works on astronomy, geography, and history, demonstrating a particular interest in travelers’ accounts such as Marco Polo.

The world in which Columbus was born was one of violence and exploration. In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Trade routes that were once friendly and welcoming for Christian Europeans had become dangerous and deadly. Europeans desperately wanted to maintain their trade with the Asian Spice and Silk Roads trades. Explorers and sailors began seeking new routes to Asia over land and sea. In 1470, an astronomer suggested to the King of Portugal that by sailing west from the Iberian Peninsula, merchants would easily reach the lucrative Asian trades.

Columbus’ Scandalous Treatment of Native Peoples Reaped Wrath of Spain
Public Domain

Sailors, explorers, merchants, and monarchs began searching for new trade routes. New technology in maritime navigation and shipbuilding techniques provided the necessary tools to search for such routes. The Age of Discovery was in full swing. Then in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. This stunted exploration across the Ocean Sea from Europe. Columbus and his brother remained committed to a plan to sail west from the Canary Islands.

Christopher and his younger brother Bartholomew created a plan for westward sail. By setting sail from the Canary Islands off the western coast of Africa, Columbus calculated that Japan was an estimated 3700 km away. If he was right, and he wholeheartedly believed he was, there would be a new and quick way for merchants to get to the Asian trade markets. Of course, reality was different. Very few explorers knew that there was a landmass between the Canary Islands and Japan.

In order to implement such an exploration, the Columbus brothers required financial support. Twice they presented their idea to the King of Portugal who denied his support of the seemingly outlandish proposal. Bartholomew Columbus went to England in an attempt of gaining an audience with then King Henry VII but was denied. Finally, the brothers were able to obtain an audience with Queen Isabella I of Spain.

Columbus’ Scandalous Treatment of Native Peoples Reaped Wrath of Spain
Columbus meeting with the Queen. Public Domain

For two years, the Catholic Monarchs negotiated with Christopher Columbus. There is speculation that Queen Isabella did not fully believe in the plan of exploration. But neither she nor King Ferdinand wanted Columbus to set sail for another European monarch. As such, the parties finally agreed to terms as documented in the Capitulations of Santa Fe.

If his voyage was successful, Columbus would earn the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea; Viceroy and Governor of all new lands that he claimed for Spain; 10% of all revenues from the new lands; a stake in any commercial ventures established in the new lands that would pass down to his descendants for eternity; and the power to nominate three people for any office he liked in the new government. Columbus set sail with a crew and three ships in early August 1492.

On October 12, 1492, at roughly 2 am, a sailor on watch aboard the Pinta spotted land. His captain confirmed this sighting and shot off a cannon to notify Columbus who was captaining the Santa Maria. Columbus stated that he too saw the land and had claimed it for Spain. This act ensured that Spain would grant him the terms stipulated in their agreement. In that instant, Columbus became a very wealthy and powerful man.

After a successful first voyage, Columbus set sail in September 1493 for his second voyage. He left Spain as the Viceroy and Governor of the Indies and took with him 17 ships, 1200 men, and enough supplies to establish a settlement in the New World. From these settlements, Spain had a policy that converting the non-believers was paramount and it was the official reason for colonization. This task was difficult to achieve and often resulted in violence.

Native inhabitants could not understand the demands of the Europeans that arrived from across the sea. They had no understanding of Christianity or any concept that the Europeans now claimed the land as their own. Europeans forced the native populations to adhere to the customs and tenants of Christianity without regard for differences in culture and language. Natives that refused or simply did not understand the demands placed upon them by the foreign invaders could be banished from their own villages, sold into slavery, mutilated, or even killed.

Soon after settlement occurred in Hispaniola, colonists began to complain of the harsh treatment they suffered under their governor and his brothers. When an investigation into charges against Columbus opened, 23 colonists testified about their governor’s treatment of settlers and native people.

One account stated that Christopher Columbus ordered a man guilty of sealing corn to have his nose and ears cut off and then sold into slavery. Another person testified that when a woman stated that Christopher Columbus came from a low birth rank, his brother ordered the woman to parade through the streets of Santo Domingo naked. He then ordered her tongue cut out, for which Christopher Columbus reportedly congratulated his brother on protecting the family name.

The situation in the new settlement worsened. European sailors were not accustomed to the food sources in the New World. Wheat was a staple in the European diet, but in Hispaniola, maize was the staple crop. Men became ill because their bodies could not process the corn. Meat from the New World presented the same problem, causing men to have uncontrollable diarrhea and dysentery.

Columbus’ Scandalous Treatment of Native Peoples Reaped Wrath of Spain
Death of native inhabitants. Public Domain

The native inhabitants suffered as well. Measles and smallpox, carried unwittingly by the Europeans, ravaged the native populations. Europeans used rape as a tool to instill fear and complacency among native men. Through inaction, governmental officials sanctioned the violent acts. In an odd twist, some of the native inhabitants suffered from a sexually transmitted disease that was then transmitted to their rapists. When those men returned to Europe, they passed the disease along. Soon syphilis was rapidly traveling through Europe, causing its victims to slowly go crazy and die.

The new settlements in Hispaniola were in disarray. Violence was everywhere and hunger was becoming a serious issue. Columbus continued to explore and even embarked on a third voyage while he was Viceroy and Governor, leaving his family members in charge. In 1499, the inept governor sent a dispatch to the King and Queen of Spain, requesting more assistance for governing the new settlement in Hispaniola.

His plea arrived too late. By 1500, word of the tyrannical ways in which Columbus and his brothers governed had reached Ferdinand and Isabella. They removed the Columbus family from their governmental positions and ordered them back to Spain. Upon their arrival, the men were imprisoned. The monarchs stripped Columbus of his rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, his Viceroy and Governorship, and refused to provide him with any of the agreed-upon monetary claims. King Ferdinand released the men after six weeks. Upon his release from prison, Columbus petitioned King Ferdinand for a fourth voyage of exploration of the New World, which was granted.

In April 1502, Columbus once again set sail for a voyage across the Atlantic. This voyage was treacherous. His ship washed ashore in present-day Jamaica during a hurricane. A year passed before he and his remaining crew were rescued. By this time, Columbus was suffering from debilitating arthritis caused by a bacterial infection or sexually transmitted disease. His eyes were inflamed and often bled and he could hardly move. He returned to Spain and died there in 1504.

Spanish administrators recorded almost everything. Their records, and those of Columbus, provide a wealth of information about Christopher Columbus and his voyages. While he did not single-handedly slaughter thousands of native inhabitants in the New World, he is credited with being the first European to successfully navigate the Atlantic. This first success opened the door for others to explore the New World. Through the confidence and arrogance of Christopher Columbus, he initiated a chain of events that doomed entire native empires at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors.