Christopher Colombus’ legacy presents him as the great Italian explorer who discovered the New World. Venerated by Colombus Day and in history textbooks alike, their depictions of him as the hero of the New World paint a rather skewed picture of him and his explorations. The less romantic reality is that, with his famous voyage in 1492, Colombus didn’t just discover the New World, he forcibly took it.
Funded by the Spanish monarch, Colombus set out on an expedition on August 3rd, 1492, to find a Western route to India – a route he never actually found. On December 5th, 1492, he and his crew reached their third landfall of the trip, Hispaniola, or present-day Haiti.
When Colombus landed in Hispaniola, he was warmly welcomed by the indigenous Taino people, a subgroup of the Arawak people who were populous throughout the Caribbean. The Taino were a well-developed community with an established social system. They were farmers, navigators, artists, and above all, peaceful inhabitants of the New World – their world.
In every sense of the word, the Taino were an advanced society; they just weren’t advanced in Colombus’s sense of the word. They used farming techniques for crop cultivation, went hunting and fishing and were divided into two social classes under a chiefdom. They had clan laws, spoke an Arawakan language, and wrote in petroglyphs ( rock engravings ). Before Colombus’s arrival, they were a thriving agricultural society.
On his first voyage, Colombus agreed with Cacique Guacanagari, a leader of the Taino people, that he could leave some men on the island to establish a settlement. La Navidad, the first colony in the New World, was thus founded. But in a sign of things to come, the colony was quickly destroyed by the greed of the settlers, as violence ensued over the men taking gold and Taino women.
On Colombus’s second voyage in November 1493, he started to capitalise on the Taino’s generosity, and this time demanded paid tribute from them. Those that weren’t able to pay were brutally killed. He set up his second settlement, La Isabela, in 1494, where relations between the natives and the settlers quickly deteriorated. At the time, the slave trade was rampant, so many of the Taino were sent to Spain to be sold. They were forced into extreme working conditions on plantations and subject to European diseases, like Smallpox, to which they had no immunity.
Colombus took the Taino’s land and gold and dissolved their society. They lost all self-governance and became pawns to European invaders bringing warfare to their once peaceful land. The Taino society quickly became a shadow of its former self as it was aggressively wiped out by European expansion into the New World.
Colombus’s complete demolition of the Taino people only scratches the surface of the genocidal atrocities of the Age of Exploration, with various similarly advanced, even greater civilisations of the Americas all brought to ruin by it. Commemorating Colombus as an explorer of the New World fails to acknowledge the barbarism of his actions. Whilst he was undoubtably a skilled naval navigator, he was unable to navigate the new social and cultural institutions he found. Ultimately, instead of exploring and embracing the Taino people and their culture, he exploited it.
A California-native currently residing in London, Teresa is a History graduate and freelance writer working in Higher Education. With a penchant for the nomadic lifestyle, she strives to learn firsthand about the cultural and historical foundations comprising each new place she visits.Teresa hopes to continue on her writing journey, while expanding her physical horizons and fostering her love of history and exploration.