Ill Winds Drove Columbus

by William Loren Katz on October 9, 2014

Columbus’s Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were driven across the Atlantic by the same ill winds that from 1095 to 1272 launched nine Crusades to capture Muslim Jerusalem. Defeated and humiliated the invaders suffered staggering human losses, left royal treasuries depleted, and convinced Christian leaders to do pay lip service to another try.

Except for Christopher Colon or Columbus. An ambitious Genoese sailor who craved adventure and was given to religious mysticism, he accepted God’s personal command to free the Holy Land. He also saw God’s hand in cloud formations, splashing waves, and distant stars, and had read a religious book that convinced him the world would end in 150 years. As a seaman he saw three mermaids dancing on waves, and was sure in distant lands he would meet men with tails or heads of dogs.

Above all, God had chosen him to see Christianity victorious “throughout the universe.” And he would follow His further command to convert or destroy Muslims, Jews and other non-believers.

Columbus’s earliest sea experiences were as a youth on Portuguese slave-trading ships along Africa’s Atlantic coast. He learned captured men, women and children could be chained and sold for enormous profits. With enough slaves and gold, a Columbus could finally end the infidel grip on the Holy Land.

Weeks after first landing in the Americas Columbus thought he had found a large enough supply of gold and slaves to persuade the Christian “Sovereigns within three years [they] would undertake and prepare to go and conquer the Holy Places.” Pope Urban II had launched the first Crusade. He hoped the current Pope would ask him to lead “50 thousand foot soldiers and five thousand horsemen” to march on Jerusalem. He never abandoned this hope.

Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic to reach the riches of Asia was also a first step toward his larger goal. After five weeks in the Atlantic, lying to grumbling crewmen, claiming he was not a man lost at sea, his food supplies running low, Columbus stumbled on a Caribbean island named Guanahani.  On the morning of October 12, 1492 with a crew in heavy armor carrying swords and muskets, he left the Santa Maria for the sunny shore. and a military and nationalist operation. He planted Spain’s flag in the soil, took “possession of the said island for the king and queen,” and renamed it San Salvador. “With fifty men your Highness would hold them all in subjection and do with them all that you could wish,” he wrote in his Diary. The Admiral was applying the new “doctrine of discovery” that granted Europe’s merchant adventurers the right t claim distant lands and  their inhabitants. Papal bulls of the time also divided “discovered” lands betweeen Spain and Portugal, and in 1494 the Vatican specifically drew a line dividing the Americas – and the slave trade – between these seafaring powers.

Columbus and his expedition was also a product of Spain’s painful “final solution.” Since 711 Spain’s Muslim Arab rulers shared their cultural wealth with and practiced toleration of the country’s diverse citizenry. Catholics, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully with neighbors, as Spain became a world center of books and learning.

Santiago Matamoros

Then Catholic King Ferdinand of Castille and Queen Isabella marshaled a Christian army to impose their rule. Castillian soldiers charged into battle with the cry “Santiago Matamoros” or “Kill the Moors.” By January 1492 Christian soldiers stood poised for victory and an era of ethnic cleansing.

On January 2, 1492 Ferdinand’s troops captured the splendid Moorish Alhambra castle, the last Arab power bastion in Grenada. An enthusiastic Columbus who stood in the cheering crowd later recorded the triumphal moment in the first sentence of his Diary. “I saw the Royal banner of your Highness placed on the towers of Alhambra  . . . and I saw the Moorish King come forth and kiss the royal hand of your Highness . . . . “

Spain’s new government quickly moved to finance Columbus’s voyage and against its minorities. On March 31 Spain’s Jews — as integrated into commercial, governmental and cultural life as Christian and Muslim citizens – were handed an Edict of Expulsion. Families were ordered into exile, and one official suggested, “The whole accursed race of Jews, of twenty years and upwards, might be purified by fire.”

The Inquisition forced many Jews to face the ultimate penalty. Even the “marranos,” families who had agreed to convert to Christianity, were not exempt. Can you trust people you forced to convert? Muslims also faced persecution and exile over the next ten years. By 1609 Spain had expelled Muslims it had converted to Christianity. Exiles lost everything but what they could carry.

The wealth that fell from tortured hands helped pay for Columbus’s historic voyage. His final sailing plans were completed when Luis de Santangel, Chancellor to the Royal Household, lent his King the last 17,000 florins – and by this act purchased his family’s right to remain in their homeland.

Some 150,000 refugees had trudged to southern seaports as time ran out for the Jews on the very day before Columbus left. On the day he weighed anchor at Palos, a small band of Jewish families huddled at nearby Cadiz waiting for a rescue ship.

The second sentence of Columbus’s Diary shows he was well aware of the connection between their expulsion and his departure. “After having turned all the Jews from your Kingdoms and Lordships . . . your Highness gave orders to me that with a sufficient fleet I should go.” The expulsion and Columbus’s departure were forever linked.

On his first night in the Bahamas, Spain’s “Captain of the Ocean Sea,” described in one Diary sentence how he brought the new Spain to the New World. “I took some of the natives by force.”  The enslavement of American Indians was both Columbus’s first act in the Americas, and a first step in his Crusade.

More Spanish troops arrived in the Americas to crush the Aztecs of Mexico, the Incas of Peru and other peoples of the Americas. Spaniards brought new weapons and a new battle cry — “Santiago Mataindios” or “Kill the Indians.” They unleashed the world’s largest, longest and most devastating genocide. Millions upon millions died of a harsh slavery, forced starvation and mass executions as well as European diseases. Entire villages and cities disappeared.

Along with his sailing skills and fierce ambition, Columbus carried in his heart the burning embers of his monarchy’s intolerance, violence and ravenous greed. Though the Admiral found Caribbean people “tractable, peaceable” and wrote King Ferdinand, “there is not in the world a better nation” — he concluded they must be “made to work . . . and adopt our ways.”

Oppression built slowly. Columbus’s initial voyage seized a few dozen Native men and women, some as slaves, others to present at the Royal Court. But his goal was largely exploratory. After another voyage he wrote to his King, “From here, in the name of the Blessed Trinity, we can send all the slaves that can be sold.” Spain’s rulers eagerly agreed to supply him with 17 ships, a thousand soldiers, priests who would conduct mass conversions, and orders for a brutal colonization. He began an island by island search for gold and slaves that decimated the fifty to a hundred million Native Americans.

Las Casas a Dominican Priest, denounced Spain’s invaders as “ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers and lions” whose ultimate aim . . . is to acquire gold.” The only true Christians in the Americans, he stated, were Native Americans.  Indians, he found, had their own name for the Spain’s Christians –“Yares” or devils.

Columbus did not “discover” anything but islands filled with people who greeted him with water, food and gifts. He repaid their generosity with treachery. He introduced two continents and many islands to a holocaust more thorough and lasting than any  in human history. As a devout servant of God he relished his work and offered no apologies.

Hatuey being executed in 1512.But the Columbus story had another hidden side. Tiano and Arawak women and men with names like Anacoana and Hatuey who once warmly greeted him soon rebelled against colonial rule and enslavement. On Hispaniola Anacoana and her husband Coanabo led their people in the first known military uprising and were slain.  A few years later Hatuey and four hundred followers on Hispaniola left in canoes to warn Cubans of the murderous invaders. He and his soldiers were finally overwhelmed by superior Spanish forces, but Hatuey was carved into Cuban statues as their liberation hero.

Other Native Americans soon rose to mobilize their people against the Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch and English invaders, their muskets and cannons.

In 1502  — the age of Columbus, Anacoana and Hatuey — Native Americans found new allies in the Africans Europeans imported as slave laborers. That year Governor Nicolas de Ovando of Hispaniola complained to King Ferdinand that his Africans escaped to Indian villages and “never would be recaptured.” Africans and Native Americans realized they faced the same invaders and slave-catchers, and saw no need to fight them alone.

From Canada to Tierra del Fuego and the Caribbean islands, Africans and Indians were able form maroon settlements in the wilderness that protected their families and thrived through agricultural and trade. Some lasted for years or decades, and the Republic of Palmares in Northeastern Brazil had 10,000 people and lasted almost a century until 1694. Maroon villages and cities were the first in America to include Indians and foreigners, and to embrace the belief that all, Native American and newcomer, are created equal.

We should follow the advice of today’s Native Americans who reject Columbus Day in favor of a Native Americans Day. All Americans need to study and celebrate the heroic battles that pitted our first Americans against Europeans who would conquer and enslave them, and their African allies.

A Native Americans Day can educate all of us about the Indians who united with Africans to fight against foreign tyranny before, during and after 1776. It will remind everyone that Native Americans still seek the lands and monies promised in ancient treaties with United States. And it will inform us anew that Americans of color whose ancestors fought and died for the principle of freedom still do not enjoy all their inalienable rights.

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