October 2, 1998

Hispanic Heritage Month

Christopher Columbus

The discovery of America

By Daniel Muñoz

In 1492 Christopher Columbus believed he had found a direct route to Asia, by circumventing the globe, when he landed at the islands he named the West Indies. As Columbus soon discovered, he was nowhere near Asia but instead had discovered what was to become known as the Islands of the Caribbean. He discovered America.

Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 _ October 15) was created to honor and recognize the vast contributions to the United States by the Hispanic communities. While Christopher Columbus was not Hispanic it was the King and Queen of Spain who made this discovery possible. And it was from this point in history that Spain, seeking to expand its terrorities, embarked on a period of expansionism into America.

The discovery of America is celebrated nationally and while most Americans recognize and celebrate the man and the holiday, many American Indians and Mexican-Americans have come to look upon Christopher Columbus and this period of expansionism as a period of genocide.

Christopher Columbus is both a great man and a purveyor of destruction. In recognizing this man, by retelling his story, we will endeavor to bring forth the historical impact of his discoveries and the impact upon the native Indians of America.

Christopher Columbus, whose 1492 voyage opened a new world to Europeans. Though many artists have attempted portraits of Columbus, none were from life. This portrait is a copy of a painting done in 1525. After the first voyage, the Spanish monarchs granted to Columbus and his descendents the above coat of arms. It signified his new place in nobility. The gold castle and purple lion linked him to the sovereigns. The golden islands in the sea proclaimed his discoveries. The anchors were emblems of his rank as admiral.

In The Beginning

It was called the 700-year wars when the Moors from Africa invaded Spain in AD 711 to 1492 when they were finally expelled. It was in 1492 that the Moors surrender the city Granada, their last stronghold in Spain, to the joint monarchs of Ferdinand and Isabella. It was also the same year that Christopher Columbus discovered the "Indies".

The battles with the Moors weren't the only ones during this time. The Christian leaders of the peninsula battled amongst themselves for control and power. This was until the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella who brought the feuding lords under control, with the exception of Portugal. It was this centralization of power that Spain was able to grow as a worldwide power. Spain's power and wealth came from the growth of a great middle class, the creation of a professional army and the ability to draw wealth through national taxation. This national taxation was to play a key role in the development of the Indies and future explorations.

With the exploits and discovery of great wealth in the Orient by Marco Polo, trade, in particular trade routes via the ocean, took on great importance. Up to this time all trade expeditions East were taken over land which was difficult and expensive. The question was raised why not find a route by water?

It was Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal who first set out to discover an ocean trade route around Africa. It was his success that spurned Ferdinand and Isabella to at last agree to support Columbus in a competitive transatlantic attempt. With the newly formed central government Spain was poised to finance such an adventure.

Columbus took the risk because he believed that the circumference of the world was much smaller than it actually was. He also believed, as had Marco Polo, that Asia extended farther east than it does. So, when he found land at approximately the longitude that he expected to, he assumed joyfully that he was close to China and the islands of India. From that misapprehension comes, of course, the name West Indies for the islands of the Caribbean and Indians for their inhabitants, a term that quickly spread throughout the hemisphere.

The islands and the eastern coasts of Central America and the northwestern part of South America that he and Amerigo Vespucci (hence the name America) skirted on separate expeditions during the following decade were disappointing - no teeming cities crowned with exotic architecture, no kings and queens dressed in flowing silk and laden with precious gems, no warehouses bulging with precious gems, no warehouses bulging with expensive spices.

For most the lack of fortunes would have deterred any further exploration. But Spain saw opportunities. There was some gold that could be mined from the island of Hispaniola. Plantations worked by enslaved Indians could be developed on Cuba and Puerto Rico. And, the Indians had a greater attraction than just as laborer. Alone of all European nations, Spain was committed to incorporating the native Americans into the empire as loyal, taxpaying subjects.

After the entradas were completed, missionaries settled among the tribes and began the civilizing process, as civilization was defined by the conquerors. The Spaniards saw themselves as particularly fitted for carrying out this God-given program.

Columbus established Spain's first colony, La Isabella, on the island of Hispaniola, occupied now by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. By 1515 Cuba had been conquered and its cities of Santiago and Havana established as bases for further exploration.

In 1519 Hernán Cortés swept out of Cuba into Mexico with 600 men and 16 horses and found a new source of wealth for his country, his followers, and himself by looting the Aztec Empire of stores of gold and silver.

A decade later Francisco Pizarro began his dogged and even more lucrative conquest of the Incas of Peru with their annihilation.

And what lay to the north? Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, and Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo - each taking a different route into what is now the United States extending the sphere of Spain in the constant search of treasure to loot.

Discover or Invader

Christopher Columbus is credited as the discoverer of the Americas. For the Indians on Hispanola, he was an invader. The first thing Columbus did upon landing in the New World was to claim all the land and its possessions in the name of the King and Queen. What about the natives that lived upon these islands?

With trained soldiers, superior weapons, horses and attack dogs Christopher Columbus easily conquered the Indians. An example of the Conquistador's military superiority can be found in one battle between the armies of Hernando de Soto and Southeast Indians of central America in 1540, De Soto with only 18 or so Spaniards slaughtered thousands of Indians. Indians fighting with Stone Age weapons were no match against European arms and tactics.

To add to the coffers of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the wealth of conquerors, primarily through the discovery of gold and precious stones, was the only measuring stick by which to consider a voyage a success. Unfortunately, for the Indians, there was very little gold and no precious stones. What there was, was an abundance of Indians which were sold as slaves to work as slaves or be beast of burden. There was also the opportunity to tax the Indians. All men over the age of 14 were taxed three ounces of gold every three months.

An excerpt from Hans Coning's book Columbus: His Enterprise describes Columbus' system for extracting gold from the Indians:

Every three months, every Indian had to bring to one of the forts a hawks' bill filled with gold dust. The chiefs had to bring in about ten times that amount. In the other provinces of Hispaniola, twenty-five pounds of spun cotton took the place of gold.

Copper tokens were manufactured, and when an Indian had brought his or her tribute to an armed post, he or she received such a token, stamped with the month, to be hung around the neck. With that they were safe for another three months while collecting more gold.

Whoever was caught without a token was killed by having his or hands cut off. …

During those two years of the administration of the brothers Columbus, an estimated one half of the entire population of Hispaniola was killed or killed themselves. The estimates run from one hundred and twenty-five thousand to one-half million.


Christopher Columbus, how do you define the man? He set out to circle the globe and discover a short cut to Asian only to fail and discover the Americas instead! He conquered the fears of the vast oceans and at first was honored as a great hero, only to return after his second voyage in chains, humiliated! He was a man of Christian faith only to leave behind a legacy of distrust, subjugation and bloodshed!

Kathleen A. Deagan wrote in the "National Geographic," January 1992:

"Ferdinand and Isabella had been very disturbed by reports of Columbus's excesses—charges that he ruthlessly ordered the execution of Spaniards who rebelled against him, refused to give supplies to those who displeased him, and enslaved Indians against the express orders of the king and queen.

"Just as alarming were rumors that he intended to hand the Indies over to the government of his native Genoa. …

"By the time of Columbus's greatest humiliation, La Isabella was a dismal memory, abandoned two years earlier in favor of Santo Domingo. So complete was the colony's failure that it was considered cursed: Natives reported seeing the ghosts of starved, work-worn Spanish gentlemen who in greeting lifted off their heads along with their hats.

"Columbus's career was a colonizer was over. He again sailed to the West, but the aging Admiral was by then only one of several adventurers exploring the Indies."

Columbus, in discovering the Americas, was a great explore. He possessed the foresight, the courage and the fortitude to embark on this great voyage and because of this he should be honored. Yet this great discovery brought great destruction and death to the natives of the Americas and forever changing their course in history. The Spaniards were conquerors and in their lustful search for gold and treasure left a legacy of native American genocide.

Historical information derived from "De Soto, Coronado, Cabrillo Explorers of the Northern Mystery" by David Lavender. Produced by the Division of Publications National Park Service; U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

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