Kris Lane: Columbus was clearly not a friend to Native peoples

A "1492" float from a Columbus Day parade in New York City. Photo from Columbus Day Weekend

Professor Kris Lane doesn't think Christopher Columbus can be fairly characterized as someone who genocide against Native peoples in the Americas:
On Columbus Day in 1989, the late Native American activist Russell Means led an American Indian Movement protest, pouring buckets of fake blood over the Columbus statue in downtown Denver while Italian Americans paraded in the streets. (Columbus Day was inaugurated in Denver in 1907.) The city’s parades were canceled for a decade. AIM activists are not alone in charging Columbus with mass murder, and in recent years several cities and states have instead started celebrating “Indigenous People’s Day” or “Native American Day.”

But if we judge Columbus on what we know from the historical record, is that the right charge? He definitely saw profit in enslaving and selling native peoples kidnapped from Caribbean shores. Once he made allies among what he called “good Indians,” Columbus advocated fighting and enslaving native groups he presumed to be cannibals. By 1500, he and his brothers had sent nearly 1,500 enslaved islanders to European markets to be sold. Even “friendly” indigenous peoples were forced to mine gold en masse, speeding death from malnourishment, overwork and disease.

Columbus was clearly no friend of native peoples, but a document discovered 10 years ago in Simancas, Spain, suggests he was an equal-opportunity tyrant. Witnesses testified that his brief government of Hispaniola was marked by routine cruelty not only to the native Taínos but also to Spaniards who defied or mocked him. A woman who reminded Columbus that he was the son of a weaver had her tongue cut out. Others were executed for minor crimes.

Colonialism is never pretty, and in his treatment of native peoples, Columbus was following Spanish and Portuguese trading and slaving practices. We may charge him with genocide by negligence (if there is such a thing), but it is harder to prove intention. Columbus wanted live and multiplying subjects to tax and govern. He was not interested in depopulating newly acquired territories.

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Kris Lane: Five myths about Christopher Columbus (The Washington Post 10/9)

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