In 1492 Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue...

...and a few million people died.In 1453 Constantinople fell to Muslim Ottoman Turks, defeating one of the last strongholds of Christianity in the East. With the centuries long feud against Islam still raging, Christian ships found it more difficult--and dangerous--to safely travel to Black Sea ports and by land routes, where everything from Slavic slaves to valuable trade goods (spices, pepper and more) from the East could be obtained. With advances in western European nautical science, Portugeuse and Spanish vessels for the first time were able to make forays across the deep sea. Some of these explorers attempted to reach Asia by sailing around Africa, thus by-passing the Muslim world. Others however, had different ideas.Born in the Italian-city state of Genoa around 1451, Cristofor Colombo (Christopher Columbus) and his brother, using what was then accepted understandings of the Earth through Greek and Arabic writers, postulated ships could reach Asia by sailing across the "Ocean Sea." Securing funding from the Spanish to do so, Columbus set out to reach Asia and make contact with the East. Though his theory was sound, Columbus vastly misjudged the size of the Earth, thinking the trip to Asia would take only a few short weeks. Most glaring, he never expected that between Europe and East Asia stood the continental landmasses and their accompanying islands, the Americas.In Oct of 1492 Columbus struck land in one of what today are the Bahamas islands, where he encountered--as they in turn encountered him--indigenous peoples, Taino-Arawaks. Believing himself to have arrived in Asia, he proceeded to ask them to take him to the Khan, following tales of earlier explorer Marco Polo. Columbus would steadfastly maintain that he had reached Asia, or the Indies, even the in the face of later evidence. His mistaken geographical naming for the region would become popularized as "The West Indies" and his naming for the people he found there would become "Indians."His letter to the Spanish crown regarding the peoples he had met and his intent for them could not have been more ominous:"The people of this island . . . all go naked, men and women, as their mothers bore them, although some of the women cover a single place with the leaf of a plant or with a net of cotton which they make for the purpose. They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they fitted to use them. This is not because they are not well built and of handsome stature, but because they are very marvelously timorous....They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language....In conclusion, to speak only of that which has been accomplished on this voyage, which was so hasty, their highnesses can see that I will give them as much gold as they may need, if their highness will render me very slight assistance; moreover, I will give them spices and cotton, as much as their highnesses shall command; and mastic, as much as they shall order to be shipped and which, up to now, has been found only in Greece [sold for as much as they please]; and aloe; . . . and slaves, as many as they shall order to be shipped and who will be from the idolaters..."Making good on his promise, Columbus took several indigenous peoples back with him as "captives" to present to the Spanish crown. His intent on enslavement followed what had become customary between Muslim and Christian enemies in their centuries old conflict, part of the evolving Papal "just war" doctrine. Columbus would land on several other islands on this first voyage, but none would come to exemplify his ominous letter better than the one he encountered in December of that year--Hispanola, modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.Following his arrival on Hispanola, Columbus would found a town, La Navidad, and begin the importation of sugar cane--which had before been grown mostly in the Eastern Atlantic and off the African coast. The growth of the sugar industry on the island was not immediate, but it blossomed in time. At first tolerant of Columbus, the indigenous Taino population soon found themselves in a Spanish colony as more European migrants arrived. Using the Requerimiento, which allowed the Spanish to seize lands in order to convert the inhabitants to Christ, Hispanola by the 1530s became an experiment in labor--where mostly indigenous and a few Africans worked burgeoning sugar plantations.But indigenous labor proved difficult. Some fled to other parts of the island or fought back. Others were decimated by "Old World" diseases like Smallpox and Measles, to which they had little immunity due to their separation from Europeans and Africans for some 20,000 years. The devastation wrought on the indigenous population of Hispanola in 1542 moved the Spanish Domincan priest Bartolome de Las Casas to write a scathing critique titled A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.In his work de Las Casas spoke of endless horrors the Spanish had inflicted on the indigenous Tainos:"And the Christians [Spanish], with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, "Boil there, you offspring of the devil!" Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby. They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. . . . "Historians today debate how much of Las Casas' account is distinctly factual, and how much may be exagerrations. Disease is thought to have played the largest role in the decimation of the Tainos rather than direct acts of violence. What is not in dispute however is that the treatment of the Taino under the Spanish was likely brutal, and worked alongside the diseases brought by the Old World colonisers. His account would force the Spanish government to rein in the more extreme acts of its colonists. But in short time, Columbus' legacy in Hispanola would repeat itself on other islands and spread to the Central and South American mainland with the Conquistadors.Numbers are always hard to quantify, but by some estimates by the 1540s the Tainos had gone from several million to a few thousand. The population of Central Mexico a century following the defeat of Aztecs in 1521 was reduced from 20+ million to 700,000. In the Yucatan and beyond, 75% of Maya died off. With the fall of the Incas in Peru, 9 million indigenous were reduced to 600,000. In Brazil the Portugeuse met some 2.5 million at their arrival; in a few decades the number had fallen to under 1 million. In total—some 50 million indigenous peoples in 1500 became 8 million in 1600, no more than a century. Most of these deaths came through disease, but were likely exacerbated by constant war, enslavement and harsh work under Spanish and Portugeuse rule.With this decimation came an unseen consequence, one actually put forth by the Dominican priest de La Casas. Believing, as was common at the time, that the indigenous population was dying of disease (which was not fully understood in its evolutionary context) because they were inherently "weaker," de La Casas proposed that Africans be imported instead. Spanish colonists had been reluctant to import large numbers of Africans, who often came from centralized kingdoms (some of them Muslim) with knowledge of steel and warfare tactics familiar to Europeans. But needing a new labor supply, West and Central Africans began arriving in larger numbers to the Americas. La Casas, shocked at this turn of events, would later regret his suggestion and become a strong advocate against the trans Atlantic slave trade.In the end did Columbus forsee all of this? Was it his intent? Unlikely. The events to come were not set in motion by Columbus alone, and he died long before it reached its climax. Yet his voyages and his indoctrination in Western European society of the time, with its religious "just war" and the normalization of enslavement for economic gain, would leave a legacy in the Atlantic that is shared by his name.

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