Warning: The following article wrestles with a difficult topic in American history, and that topic contains depictions of violence. To be clear, it doesn’t contain over-the-top, graphic depictions of violence, but does depict a few scenes and paint an overall picture that may not go well with your morning breakfast.
We are our history, and whether you were born in the United States or arrived as an immigrant, if you’ve chosen to settle here, then you have also inherited America’s history. If you’re merely visiting, then know it has been inherited by those around you. I’m not sure my education fully explored that history in a way that helps to make sense of present-day America and all of its conflicts. It seems like my classes managed to skip over all of the horrible parts of American history. This includes the human trafficking, the racism, the gender inequality, the warmongering, and all the other parts of American history that my textbooks seemed to vaguely justify and quickly move away from, saying, “Well yes, [fill in the blank] happened, but it was necessary for…. [fill in the blank]”.
I’ve decided it’s time for me to revisit some of this history, in an effort to better understand the present day. As it turns out, when we take a closer look at all of the people involved in America’s history, not as a collective group pursuing a shared national interest, but as a variety of groups all with competing interests, all of the conflict rampant in America today begins to make a whole lot of sense.
I invite you to revisit this history with me and learn more about topics such as why racism became institutionalized, who the American Revolution truly benefitted, how women resisted the oppressive idea of the “women’s sphere”, and much more in this monthly history series. I’ll primarily be following A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, reading, rereading, and annotating as I go along, and distilling the content into a quick summary for you here. Be aware that any story from history contains some bias, both in what parts the storyteller chooses to tell and in how they tell it. Howard Zinn is not exempt from that bias and neither am I.
If you ever find yourself wanting more information or perspective, I highly recommend reading the book for yourself and looking into other sources. Before we get ourselves too deep into the weeds of United States history, let’s revisit the first interactions between the Europeans and the Native Americans to see how the world stage was first set.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He was a skilled Portuguese sailor, and he had convinced the Spanish Queen to finance his voyage to the West of Europe in search of a new passage from Europe to the Indies and Asia. They knew the world was round and hoped to reach the Far East by sailing west. This could bring untold fortunes of wealth to the Spanish crown. Instead, he and his crew stumbled upon an island in the Bahamas inhabited by unfamiliar people. They were the Arawak Native Americans.
As the Spanish ships approached the island, the Arawaks ran out to greet them, full of wonder. They brought these odd newcomers food, water, and gifts. The Arawaks lived in sophisticated villages, subsiding off corn, yams, and cassava. The Arawaks did not bear arms, nor have any iron, horses, or work animals. However, they did wear tiny gold ornaments in their ears.
Desperate to pay off his debts to the Spanish crown and to make a profit off his expedition, Columbus took some of these Arawak natives as prisoners and insisted that they guide him to the source of gold. He then sailed to Cuba and Hispaniola (present day Haiti and Dominican Republic), where bits of gold in the rivers and a gold mask presented by a local Native American chief led Columbus to have wild visions of goldfields.
On Hispaniola, Columbus built the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere. He took more Native American prisoners and put them on his ships. When the Spaniards demanded that some natives trade them more than two bows, the natives tried to grab them, and the Spaniards ran swords through two of the natives as the rest fled.
Upon returning to Madrid, Columbus claimed that he had reached Asia and an island off the coast of China. He said:
“Hispaniola is a miracle… the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold… There are many spices and great mines of gold and other metals…”
With this report, Columbus managed to secure funding for a second trip, this time with seventeen ships instead of three. He led several expeditions across the various islands of the Caribbean, never finding any of his imagined goldfields, but eventually finding empty villages of natives who had fled when they learned the Spaniards were coming, such was the terror they brought.
Columbus had promised to bring back untold fortunes of gold, but so far had found quite little. As is the nature of debt, he needed to pay his off somehow. In 1495, Columbus and his crew raided Arawak villages for slaves, rounding up, in total, fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, and put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs. They sent five hundred of them back to Spain to be sold as slaves. Two hundred died along the way.
Three hundred Arawak slaves were not enough to pay off his debt. Columbus had promised gold and needed to make good on that promise. To that end, Columbus ordered the natives in the province of Cicao in Haiti, where he believed there to exist huge goldfields, to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When a native brought the gold, they were given copper tokens to hang around their neck. If a Spaniard found a native without a copper token, he would cut their hands off and let them bleed to death. There were no goldfields in Cicao, only small bits of gold in the rivers, so the natives fled, and the Spaniards hunted them with dogs and slaughtered them.
The Arawaks began resisting the Spaniards but had no horses, iron, or gunpowder. They also had no immunity to European diseases brought by the Spanish, like smallpox. When the Spaniards took prisoners, they either hanged them or burned them alive. Arawaks began killing themselves and their children in mass suicides through cassava poison. Mothers killed their infants to save them from the Spaniards. Within two years, half of the 250,000 native people in Haiti were dead.
As it became increasingly clear that there was no gold to be found, the Spaniards decided to take the native people as slaves for huge estates. The total control of the natives by the Spaniards led to the Spaniards growing more and more conceited. They would ride on the backs of natives if they were in a hurry, or were instead carried by natives on hammocks, with large leaves shading them from the sun and goose wings fanning them to keep them cool. This conceited behavior was accompanied by disgusting cruelty, as the Spaniards thought nothing of cutting slices off tens and twenties of natives to test the sharpness of their blades. The Spaniards forced the natives to strip mountains from top to bottom, to dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers. Those who were forced to wash gold would stay in the rivers all day, backs bent until they broke, and when the mines flooded, they would arduously dry them by scooping water out by the pan full.
This story is true, and as such has no happy ending. There are no saviors who will come from the clouds to save our Arawak brethren, but instead, merciless Spaniards who will continue to suck them dry until there are none. By the year 1515, 23 years since Columbus first set foot in the Caribbean, two hundred and fifty thousand natives had dwindled to a mere fifty thousand. By 1550, five hundred natives were left. By 1650, none of the original Arawaks nor their descendants were left on the island.
Oftentimes, history is told to us from the perspective of the victors of history, and we don’t stop to think about the other side of the story. In this case, when we look at the discovery of the New World from the perspective of the Arawaks, we see something very different. We see something depressing, something we have no reason as a collective humanity to ever feel proud of. Las Casas, a priest who traveled with Columbus, witnessed these cruelties firsthand and wrote:
“Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eye witness can hardly believe it…”
Las Casas’ transcriptions of the cruelty inflicted on the Arawaks are nothing new, and in fact, were written soon after the original Spanish conquest of the Caribbean, but somehow, his words didn’t end up on my history textbooks when I learned about the glorious discovery and conquest of the new world.
We have to remember that history is often told by its victors, and not by those who paid the price of conquest and progress. In telling this side of history, I hope we begin to think more critically about history: who’s telling it, why are they telling it, and who stands to benefit from you seeing that side of history?
Further Sources used for Cross-Referencing:
This is an overview of Arawak culture, and their downfall. It was written from a collection of several sources by Bob Corbett, an instructor of an online course on the history of Haiti at Webster University. I used it for additional context surrounding the Arawak people and their demise.
This is a direct English translation of Columbus’s journal where he recounts his first journey to the Americas. I used it to verify some of the first interactions between Columbus and the Arawaks.