Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) is the English version of the Spanish name Cristobal Colon, and the Italian Cristoforo Colombo. His voyages of exploration were sponsored by Spain, and he made four of these in his attempt to reach India, searching for gold and spices. Though he never arrived in India, his voyages made him famous as they led to the European conquest of North and South America, and of the Caribbean islands. This has led to some parts of the world celebrating ‘Columbus Day’.
This year ‘Columbus Day’ occurs on October 8. It is said to be the day he first reached the Americas in 1492. Columbus did not ‘discover’ America, as is often erroneously mentioned in texts. There were inhabitants of both North and South America thousands of years before Columbus arrived. And nor was he the first European to reach there. Yet Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and the Caribbean definitely changed the destiny of these lands, leading to conquest and devastation, and in many cases to the total elimination of the local population.
The history of the Caribbean islands rarely finds its way into textbooks, and here we look at the effects of Columbus’ visits to these islands. Located east of Central America, they consist of hundreds of islands which today are grouped into 27 territories. Out of these thirteen territories are independent, the others still under various European powers. The independent territories are Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago. Each island has its own unique history and cultural heritage. Some of the Caribbean islands were occupied from around 5000 BCE. When Europeans reached the region a little before 1500, there were different groups of native people in the region. These groups mainly lived by farming, fishing and hunting.
The island where Columbus first landed was known as Guanahani. This was thought to be the island later named San Salvador, while recent research suggests his first landing was Samana Cay island. Both these are in the Bahamas.
He found the islands very beautiful, but did not find gold. He then reached Colba (later known as Cuba), and next another island that he named Hispaniola (today contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic). With the help of a local chieftain he established a small Spanish settlement. It was named Navidad (the Nativity). Twenty-one Spanish people were left there, while Columbus returned to Spain.
He began his second expedition in 1493, with seven ships and 1500 men. When he returned to Navidad, he found all the Spaniards there had been killed, as they had misbehaved with the native people. Further east, he then founded a settlement called Isabela. Protests and revolts by the local people of Hispaniola were suppressed with guns and he again returned to Spain in 1496.
The population of Hispaniola at the time of Columbus’ arrival is not known. Estimates vary from eight million to 50,000. When Columbus first reached Hispaniola in 1492 a peaceful and helpful group of people were living there.
The Spanish called them Tainos, and Columbus wrote that they were “such an affectionate and generous people and so tractable that there are no better people or land in the world”. But Columbus was not trying to make friends, he was looking for wealth, gold and control over the region. Apart from the Taino, there was a rival group known as the Carib. There were five territories on the island of Hispaniola at this time, each ruled by a chief.
On his second voyage, there in 1493, Columbus brought 1500 people to settle there, and insisted that every ‘Indian’, that is, every local person, over the age of 14, should supply him with a certain amount of gold every three months. But there was not much gold there, and they could not do so. Many had their hands and feet cut off as punishment, and bled to death. Other local people died of diseases. By around 1512 there were only 28,000 people, and by 1542, only 200.
As the local people had declined, slaves were imported from Africa for labour. The Spanish too found it difficult to live there, and moved to South America. All kinds of people occupied the island. French adventurers were among them. Part of Hispaniola was ceded to France by the Peace of Ryswyk in 1697.
It was known as Saint Dominique, and later Haiti. Haiti was a French colony at the time of the French revolution.
The Bahamas form an archipelago consisting of about 700 islands and islets, though only 40 of these are occupied. A branch of the Taino, the Lucayan, lived in the region when Columbus reached here, mainly in the 19 largest islands of the archipelago. The total population was around 40,000. Almost the entire population was transported as labour to other islands. Only 11 people remained there in 1520, and soon there were none. For another 130 years, the islands had no people.
Thick forests grew. Resettlement began from 1648. The new settlers included whites, slaves and free blacks. It was again abandoned and resettled and conflicts continued.
For a few years, the Bahamas were under the newly independent America, and then again under Spain, but became a British colony in 1787. Not a single descendant of the original inhabitants remained.
The third voyage started in May 1498, and Trinidad was reached in July. He then reached the coast of Venezuela, but did not realise he was exploring a whole continent. It was Amerigo Vespucci who first realised this, following the same route as Columbus, and America was named after him.
Columbus’ fourth voyage was from 1502-04. He reached the Central American coast and sailed along Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Soon after this, Columbus died in 1506.
The story in the other Caribbean islands too is similar. In South America great civilisations were destroyed, as after Columbus, Spain and Portugal conquered the continent. In North America too, the new settlers devastated the indigenous people. That is why it seems inappropriate to celebrate his arrival in the American region, though one has to recognise his contribution in altering the history of the world.
Indigenous people of these regions have a movement called ‘Abolish Columbus Day’, and some States in the USA have acknowledged their concerns, and started celebrating it as ‘Indigenous People’s Day’ or ‘Native American Day’.
(A PhD in ancient Indian History, the writer lives in Dehradun and has authored ten books)