Christopher Columbus and the Arawak

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It was just after midnight on October 12, 1492 that a 40-ish Christopher Columbus set foot in the America’s on behalf of Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of Spain. On his way to the Indies, Columbus instead ran into the Bahaman island of San Salvador. Still, convinced he had indeed landed in the Indies, Columbus referred to the indigenous people that lived there as Indians. These people were actually the Arawaks and the Caribs. There are many stories surrounding Columbus’ notoriety as the discoverer of the Americas, however it is currently understood that Columbus was in fact not the first explorer to venture near these continents. Other seafaring men of his time were credited with making the journey before him as were the Vikings who, historians have discovered, were there long before the rest of the Europeans had even thought to venture past their own shores.

Columbus had a favorable impression of the Arawaks on his first visit. In true conquistador fashion, Columbus evaluated the Arawak in regard to their value to him and his royal sponsors. He responded to the innocent welcome of the Arawak who rushed to greet their new guests with an inspection and evaluation of their value and not by returning their apparently gracious welcome.

Since Columbus’ main goal on his expeditions was to return to Spain with ships laden with gold and spices, as was the goal of any exploration of the era, he was under extraordinary pressure to do so. And, as he was convinced that he had indeed reached the Indies, he was certain to be able to take such a rich bounty back to present to Ferdinand and Isabella. However, Columbus and his crew soon discovered that there was no treasure to be had in the new land other than its people. Therefore, Columbus proceeded to return the friendly gestures of the Arawak by gathering 1500 men, women, and children from which to select the best candidates for transport as slaves back to Spain. Of the 1500 Arawaks, 500 were selected as appropriate gifts for the Spanish court, but only 300 of them survived the voyage back to Spain. Two hundred of the peaceful Arawaks of San Salvadore perished due to sickness and disease. Once Columbus unloaded his human prizes in Spain, they were sold to the highest bidder.

Back on San Salvadore, the Spaniards continued their assault on the Arawaks by forcing them to work on plantation like estates. The Arawaks, obviously not satisfied with this arrangement attempted a resistance but although they significantly outnumbered the invaders, they were outgunned by the Spaniards who had a distinct advantage with their armor, muskets, horses, and swords. The treatment of the Arawaks became even more atrocious after their unsuccessful revolt with the Spaniards using them as litters to carry their Spanish conquerors from place to place and maiming and killing them at random.

It has been noted by some historians that Columbus had initially favored the Arawaks but that they fell from favor when they apparently dined on several of their Spanish invaders. These researchers insist that Columbus and the Arawaks had originally enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with Columbus noting the Arawak’s natural intelligence, looks, and openness. However, much of the documentation reviewed indicates that Columbus did indeed view the indigenous people of San Salvadore as potential slaves and that it was the Caribs, and not the Arawaks that were a cannibalistic tribe. Although Columbus most certainly did evaluate the Arawak for their intelligence, beauty, and sturdiness, he was surely doing so, not as much out of admiration for the people themselves, but because he needed to assess their suitability as slaves and their ability to please Ferdinand and Isabella and the Spanish court.

Unlike their European conquerors, the Arawak have no written record of the Spanish atrocities inflicted on them, but historians has pieced together what they believe to be an accurate accounting from the sources left behind by Christopher Columbus himself and other European settlers. Certainly, had the Arawak people known what fate would befall them, they, nor their island neighbors, would surely never have greeted the Spanish invaders with such guileless wonder. History has repeated similar episodes of apparent genocide throughout the ages and the first contact of Columbus and his men with the Arawak people was undoubtedly not the first, nor will it be the last, instance of such treatment of an indigenous population.

Christopher Columbus himself never set foot in North America, but the Spanish, French, and British conquerors of North America repeated this scene when they encountered the indigenous people of that land also. Columbus and the Spanish slave trade were almost successful in completely wiping out the Arawak population in the Bahamas. As these people were viewed as a resource to be used at the disposal of the Spanish people, the Arawak were viewed with no more regard than a head of cattle or a favorite horse. When the resource was exhausted, the Spaniards simply drew from another source as was their perceived right and the perceived right of any national conqueror.

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Source by Rebecca Stigall

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