History Not Taught is History Forgot: Columbus’ Legacy of Genocide
Excerpted from the book Indians are Us (Common Courage Press, 1994) by Ward Churchill
This is an almost verbatim copy of an article in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I found the original very hard to read but was so impressed by it that I have cleaned up some references, removed all the manual carriage returns from the old-style HTML, re-formatted it, added the odd word for better readability and added some hyperlinks to some source material. Spelling is now UK English though I have left some original spelling and names. I will probably go through the piece and extend the outbound hyperlinks but for now, it is just jaw-dropping for me as it is. My search was inspired by a piece to camera by George Monbiot in 2018 that I had to check out for accuracy. It’s at the very end of this page. It’s all highly relevant to the European legacy of genocide and oppression culminating in recent Black Lives Matter and Bristol statue toppling. George Floyd was just the last straw that broke the camel’s back – and I hope that it actually is the last straw and the camel gets better. Also, the irony is not lost on me that this is item 9.11 in the Thistle series started in the 1990s by Sheldon William Myrie and the symbolism of 9.11 in the American consciousness. (sp)
Columbus and the Beginning of Genocide in the “New World”
It has been contended by those who would celebrate Columbus that accusations concerning his perpetration of genocide are distortive (sic) “revisions” of history. Whatever the process unleashed by his “discovery” of the “New World,” it is said, the discoverer himself cannot be blamed…. Whatever his defects and offences, they are surpassed by the lustre of his achievements; however “tragic” or “unfortunate” certain dimensions of his legacy may be, they are more than offset by the benefits even for the victims of the resulting blossoming of a “superior civilization” in the Americas.
Essentially the same arguments might be advanced with regard to Adolf Hitler: Hitler caused the Volkswagen to be created, after all, and the autobahn. His leadership of Germany led to jet propulsion, significant advances in rocket telemetry, laid the foundation for genetic engineering. Why not celebrate his bona fide accomplishments on behalf of humanity rather than “dwelling” so persistently on the genocidal by-products of his policies?
To be fair, Columbus was never a head of state. Comparisons of him to Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler, rather than Hitler, are therefore more accurate and appropriate. It is time to delve into the substance of the defendants’ assertion that Columbus and Himmler, Nazi Lebensraumpolitik (conquest of “living space” in eastern Europe) and the “settlement of the New World” bear more than casual resemblance to one another.
This has nothing to do with the Columbian “discovery,” not that this in itself is completely irrelevant. Columbus did not sally forth upon the Atlantic for reasons of “neutral science” or altruism.
He went, as his own diaries, reports, and letters make clear, fully expecting to encounter wealth belonging to others. It was his stated purpose to seize this wealth, by whatever means necessary and available, in order to enrich both his sponsors and himself. Plainly, he pre-figured, both in design and by intent, what came next. [Emphasis is mine, SP. This cannot be stressed enough. He was not visiting an unknown planet to map and chart for knowledge – he went to rob.]
To this extent, he not only symbolizes the process of conquest and genocide which eventually consumed the indigenous peoples of America, but bears the personal responsibility of having participated in it. Still, if this were all there was to it, the defendants would be inclined to dismiss him as a mere thug along the lines of Al Capone rather than viewing him as a counterpart to Himmler.
The 1492 “voyage of discovery” is, however, hardly all that is at issue.
Because, in 1493 Columbus returned with an invasion force of seventeen ships, appointed at his own request by the Spanish Crown to install himself as “viceroy and governor of [the Caribbean islands] and the mainland” of America, a position he held until 1500. Setting up shop on the large island he called Espa–ola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he promptly instituted policies of slavery (encomiendo) and systematic extermination against the native Taino population. Columbus’s programs reduced Taino numbers from as many as eight million at the outset of his regime to about three million in 1496. Perhaps 100,000 were left by the time of the governor’s departure.
His policies, however, remained, with the result that by 1514 the Spanish census of the island showed barely 22,000 Indians remaining alive.
In 1542, only two hundred were recorded – hereafter, they were considered extinct, as were Indians throughout the Caribbean Basin, an aggregate population which totalled more than fifteen million at the point of first contact with the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as Columbus was known.
This, to be sure, constitutes an attrition of population in real numbers every bit as great as the toll of twelve to fifteen million about half of them Jewish most commonly attributed to Himmler’s slaughter mills. Moreover, the proportion of indigenous Caribbean population destroyed by the Spanish in a single generation is, no matter how the figures are twisted, far greater than the seventy-five percent of European Jews usually said to have been exterminated by the Nazis.
Worst of all, these data apply only to the Caribbean Basin; the process of genocide in the Americas was only just beginning at the point such statistics become operant, not ending, as they did upon the fall of the Third Reich.
All told, it is probable that more than one hundred million native people were “eliminated” in the course of Europe’s ongoing “civilization” of the Western Hemisphere.
It has long been asserted by “responsible scholars” that this decimation of American Indians which accompanied the European invasion resulted primarily from disease rather than direct killing or conscious policy. There is a certain truth to this, although starvation may have proven just as lethal in the end.
Likewise, it must be borne in mind when considering such facts that a considerable portion of those who perished in the Nazi death camps died, not as the victims of bullets and gas, but from starvation, as well as epidemics of typhus, dysentery, and the like. Their keepers, who could not be said to have killed these people directly, were nonetheless found to have been culpable in their deaths by way of deliberately imposing the conditions which led to the proliferation of starvation and disease among them.
Certainly, the same can be said of Columbus’s regime, under which the original residents were, as a first order of business, permanently dispossessed of their abundant cultivated fields while being converted into chattel, ultimately to be worked to death for the wealth and “glory” of Spain.
Nor should more direct means of extermination be relegated to incidental status. As the matter is put by Kirkpatrick Sale in his recent book, ‘Conquest of Paradise’;
The tribute system, instituted by the Governor sometime in 1495, was a simple and brutal way of fulfilling the Spanish lust for gold while acknowledging the Spanish distaste for labour. Every Taino over the age of fourteen had to supply the rulers with a hawk’s bell of gold every three months (or in gold-deficient areas, twenty-five pounds of spun cotton); those who did were given a token to wear around their necks as proof that they had made their payment; those who did not were, as [Columbus’s brother, Fernando] says discreetly “punished”-by having their hands cut off, as [the priest, BartolomŽ de] las Casas says less discreetly, and left to bleed to death.
It is entirely likely that upwards of 10,000 Indians were killed in this fashion alone, on Espa–ola alone, as a matter of policy, during Columbus’s tenure as governor. Las Casas’ Brev’sima relaci—n, among other contemporaneous sources, is also replete with accounts of Spanish colonists (hidalgos) hanging Tainos en masse, roasting them on spits or burning them at the stake (often a dozen or more at a time), hacking their children into pieces to be used as dog feed and so forth, all of it to instill in the natives a “proper attitude of respect” toward their Spanish “superiors.”
[The Spaniards] 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 mother’s breast by their feet and dashed their heads against the rocks…They spitted the bodies of other babes, together with their mothers and all who were before them, on their swords.
No SS trooper could be expected to comport himself with a more unrelenting viciousness. And there is more. All of this was coupled to wholesale and persistent massacres:
A Spaniard…suddenly drew his sword. Then the whole hundred drew theirs and began to rip open the bellies, to cut and kill [a group of Tainos assembled for this purpose] men, women, children and old folk, all of whom were seated, off guard and frightened…And within two credos, not a man of them there remains alive. The Spaniards enter the large house nearby, for this was happening at its door, and in the same way, with cuts and stabs, began to kill as many as were found there, so that a stream of blood was running, as if a great number of cows had perished.
Elsewhere, las Casas went on to recount how in this time, the greatest outrages and slaughterings of people were perpetrated, whole villages being depopulated…The Indians saw that without any offence on their part they were despoiled of their kingdoms, their lands and liberties and of their lives, their wives, and homes. As they saw themselves each day perishing by the cruel and inhuman treatment of the Spaniards, crushed to earth by the horses, cut in pieces by swords, eaten and torn by dogs, many buried alive and suffering all kinds of exquisite tortures… [many surrendered to their fate, while the survivors] fled to the mountains [to starve].
Such descriptions correspond almost perfectly to those of systematic Nazi atrocities in the western USSR offered by William Shirer in Chapter 27 of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. But, unlike the Nazi extermination campaigns of World War II the Columbian butchery on Espa–ola continued until there were no Tainos left to butcher.
Evolution of the Columbian Legacy
Nor was this by any means the end of it. The genocidal model for conquest and colonization established by Columbus was to a large extent replicated by others such as Cortez (in Mexico) a Pizarro (in Peru) during the following half-century. During the same period, expeditions such as those of Ponce de Leon in 1513, Coronado in 1540, and de Soto during the same year were launched with an eye towards effecting the same pattern on the North American continent proper.
In the latter sphere the Spanish example was followed and in certain ways intensified by the British, beginning at Roanoake in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620. Overall the process of English colonization along the Atlantic Coast was marked by a series of massacres of native people as relentless and devastating as any perpetrated by the Spaniards.
One of the best known illustrations drawn from among hundreds was the slaughter of some 800 Pequots at present-day Mystic, Connecticut, on the night of May 26, 1637.
During the latter portion of the seventeenth century, and throughout most of the eighteenth, Great Britain battled France for colonial primacy in North America. The resulting sequence of four “French and Indian Wars” greatly accelerated the liquidation of indigenous people as far west as the Ohio River Valley. During the last of these, concluded in 1763 history’s first documentable case of biological warfare occurred against Pontiac’s Algonquian Confederacy, a powerful military alliance aligned with the French.
Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British forces…wrote in a postscript of a letter to Bouquet [a subordinate] that smallpox be sent among the disaffected tribes. Bouquet replied, also in a postscript, “I will try to [contaminate] them…with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself.”…To Bouquet’s postscript Amherst replied, “You will do well to [infect] the Indians by means of blankets as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” On June 24, Captain Ecuyer, of the Royal Americans, noted in his journal: “…we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.”
Over the next few months, the disease spread like wildfire among the Mingo, Delaware, Shawnee, and other Ohio River nations, killing perhaps 100,000 people. The example of Amherst’s action does much to dispel the myth that the post contact attrition of Indian people through disease, introduced by Europeans, was necessarily unintentional and unavoidable. There are a number earlier instances in which native people felt disease, had been deliberately inculcated among them… For example, the so-called “King Philip’s War” of 1675-76 was fought largely because the Wampanoag and Narragansett nations believed English traders had consciously contaminated certain of their villages with smallpox.
Such tactics were also continued by the United States after the American Revolution.
At Fort Clark on the upper Missouri River, for instance, the U.S. Army distributed smallpox-laden blankets as gifts among the Mandan. The blankets had been gathered from a military infirmary in St. Louis where troops infected with the disease were quarantined. Although the medical practice of the day required the precise opposite procedure, army doctors ordered the Mandans to disperse once they exhibited symptoms of infection. The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations who claimed at least 125,000 lives, and may have reached a toll several times that number.
Contemporaneously with the events at Fort Clark, the U.S. was also engaged in a policy of wholesale “removal” of indigenous nations east of the Mississippi River, “clearing” the land of its native population so that it might be “settled” by “racially superior” Anglo-Saxon “pioneers.”
This resulted in a series of extended forced marches some more than a thousand miles in length in which entire peoples were walked at bayonet-point to locations west of the Mississippi. Rations and medical attention were poor, shelter at times all but non-existent. Attrition among the victims was correspondingly high.
As many as fifty-five percent of all Cherokees, for example, are known to have died during or as an immediate result of that people’s “Trail of Tears.”
The Creeks and Seminoles also lost about half their existing populations as a direct consequence of being “removed.”
It was the example of nineteenth-century U.S. Indian Removal policy upon which Adolf Hitler relied for a practical model when articulating and implementing his Lebensraumpolitik during the 1930s and ’40s.
By the 1850s, U.S. policymakers had adopted a popular philosophy called “Manifest Destiny” by which they imagined themselves enjoying a divinely ordained right to possess all native property, including everything west of the Mississippi.
This was coupled to what has been termed a “rhetoric of extermination” by which governmental and corporate leaders sought to shape public sentiment to embrace the eradication of American Indians.
The professed goal of this physical reduction of “inferior” indigenous populations was to open up land for “superior” Euro-American “pioneers.” One outcome of this dual articulation was a series of general massacres perpetrated by the United States military….
A bare sampling of some of the worst must include
- the 1854 massacre of perhaps 150 Lakotas at Blue River (Nebraska),
- the 1863 Bear River (Idaho) Massacre of some 500 Western Shoshones,
- the 1864 Sand Creek (Colorado) Massacre of as many as 250 Cheyennes and Arapahoes,
- the 1868 massacre of another 300 Cheyennes at the Washita River (Oklahoma),
- the 1875 massacre of about 75 Cheyennes along the Sappa Creek (Kansas),
- the 1878 massacre of still another 100 Cheyennes at Camp Robinson (Nebraska),
- and the 1890 massacre of more than 300 Lakotas at Wounded Knee (South Dakota).
Related phenomena included the army’s internment of the bulk of all Navajos for four years (1864-68) under abysmal conditions at the Bosque Redondo, during which upwards of a third of the population of this nation is known to have perished of starvation and disease.
Even worse, in some ways, was the unleashing of Euro-American civilians to kill Indians at whim, and sometimes for profit. In Texas, for example, an official bounty on native scalps any native scalps was maintained until well into the 1870s.
The result was that the indigenous population of this state, once the densest in all of North America, had been reduced to near zero by 1880. As it has been put elsewhere, “The facts of history are plain: Most Texas Indians were exterminated or brought to the brink of oblivion by [civilians] who often had no more regard for the life of an Indian than they had for that of a dog, sometimes less.”
Similarly, in California, “the enormous decrease [in indigenous population] from about a quarter-million [in 1800] to less than 20,000 is due chiefly to the cruelties and wholesale massacres perpetrated by miners and early settlers.”
Much of the killing in California and southern Oregon Territory resulted, directly and indirectly, from the discovery of gold in 1849 and the subsequent influx of miners and settlers. Newspaper accounts document the atrocities, as do oral histories of the California Indians today. It was not uncommon for small groups or villages to be attacked by immigrants…and virtually wiped out overnight.
All told, the North American Indian population within the area of the forty-eight contiguous states of the United States, an aggregate group which had probably numbered in excess of twelve million in the year 1500, was reduced by official estimates to barely more than 237,000 four centuries later. [There is an excellent article on the Fullerton Observer here from where I obtained the two images here. It fully explains the events 300 years post-Columbus.]
This vast genocide historically paralleled in its magnitude and degree only by that which occurred in the Caribbean Basin is the most sustained on record.
Corresponding almost perfectly with this upper-ninetieth-percentile erosion of indigenous population by 1900 was the expropriation of about 97.5 percent of native land by 1920.
The situation in Canada was/is entirely comparable.
Plainly, the Nazi-esque dynamics set in motion by Columbus in 1492 continued, and were not ultimately consummated until the present century.
The Columbian Legacy in the United States
While it is arguable that the worst of the genocidal programs directed against Native North America had ended by the twentieth century, it seems undeniable that several continue into the present. One obvious illustration is the massive compulsory transfer of American Indian children from their families, communities, and societies to Euro-American families and institutions, a policy which is quite blatant in its disregard for Article l(e) of the 1948 Convention.
Effected through such mechanisms as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school system, and a pervasive policy of placing Indian children for adoption (including “blind” adoption) with non-Indians, such circumstances have been visited upon more than three-quarters of indigenous youth in some generations after 1900.
The stated goal of such policies has been to bring about the “assimilation” of native people into the value orientations and belief system of their conquerors.
Rephrased, the objective has been to bring about the disappearance of indigenous societies as such, a patent violation of the terms, provisions, and intent of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Article II(c)). [corrected by SP to article 2 from 1 – see link]
An even clearer example is a program of involuntary sterilization of American Indian women by the BIA’s Indian Health Service (IHS) during the 1970s.
The federal government announced that the program had been terminated, and acknowledged having performed several thousand such sterilizations. Independent researchers have concluded that as many as forty-two percent (42%) of all native women of childbearing age in the United States had been sterilized by that point. That the program represents a rather stark and very recent violation of Article II(d) of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide seems beyond all reasonable doubt. [corrected by SP to article 2 from 1 – see link]
More broadly, implications of genocide are quite apparent in the federal government’s self-assigned exercise of “plenary power” and concomitant “trust” prerogatives over the residual Indian land base pursuant to the Lonewolf v. Hitchcock case (187 U.S. 553(1903)). This has worked, with rather predictable results, to systematically deny native people the benefit of their remaining material assets.
At present, the approximately 1.6 million Indians recognized by the government as residing within the U.S., when divided into the fifty-million-odd acres nominally reserved for their use and occupancy, remain the continent’s largest landholders on a per capita basis. Moreover, the reservation lands have proven to be extraordinarily resource rich, holding an estimated two-thirds of all U.S. “domestic” uranium reserves, about a quarter of the readily accessible low-sulphur coal, as much as a fifth of the oil and natural gas, as well as substantial deposits of copper, iron, gold, and zeolites.
By any rational definition, the U.S. Indian population should thus be one of the wealthiest if not the richest population sectors in North America.
Instead, by the federal government’s own statistics, they comprise far and away the poorest. As of 1980, American Indians experienced, by a decided margin, the lowest annual and lifetime incomes on a per capita basis of any ethnic or racial group on the continent.
Correlated to this are all the standard indices of extreme poverty:
- the highest rates of infant mortality,
- death by exposure and malnutrition,
- incidence of tuberculosis and other plague disease.
- Indians experience the highest level of unemployment, year after year,
- and the lowest level of educational attainment.
The overall quality of life is so dismal that alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse are endemic; the rate of teen suicide is also several times that of the nation as a whole. The average life expectancy of a reservation-based Native American male is less than 45 years; that of a reservation-based female less than three years longer.
It’s not that reservation resources are not being exploited, or profits accrued. To the contrary, virtually all uranium mining and milling occurred on or immediately adjacent to reservation land during the life of the Atomic Energy Commission’s ore-buying program, 1952-81.
The largest remaining enclave of traditional Indians in North America is currently undergoing forced relocation in order that coal may be mined on the Navajo Reservation. Alaska native peoples are being converted into landless “village corporations” in order that the oil under their territories can be tapped; and so on.
Rather, the BIA has utilized its plenary and trust capacities to negotiate contracts with major mining corporations “in behalf of” its “Indian wards” which pay pennies on the dollar of the conventional mineral royalty rates.
Further, the BIA has typically exempted such corporations from an obligation to reclaim whatever reservation lands have been mined, or even to perform basic environmental clean-up of nuclear and other forms of waste.
One outcome has been that the National Institute for Science has recommended that the two locales within the U.S. most heavily populated by native people the Four Corners Region and the Black Hills Region be designated as “National Sacrifice Areas.” Indians have responded that this would mean their being converted into “national sacrifice peoples”.
Even such seemingly innocuous federal policies as those concerning Indian identification criteria carry with them an evident genocidal potential. In clinging insistently to a variation of a eugenics formulation dubbed “blood-quantum” ushered in by the 1887 General Allotment Act, while implementing such policies as the Federal Indian Relocation Program (1956-1982), the government has set the stage for a “statistical extermination” of the indigenous population within its borders…
As the noted western historian, Patricia Nelson Limerick, has observed: “Set the blood-quantum at one-quarter, hold to it as a rigid definition of Indians, let intermarriage proceed…and eventually Indians will be defined out of existence. When that happens, the federal government will finally be freed from its persistent ‘Indian problem’.”
Ultimately, there is precious little difference, other than matters of style, between this and what was once called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.”
The above article is an excerpt of a legal brief from Ward Churchill’s book Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America (Common Courage Press, 1994). The defendants in the brief are leaders of the American Indian Movement, who were charged for stopping a Columbus Day celebratory parade near the Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver, Colorado on October 12, 1991.