In Note of Columbus Day

I have added a new category to Stderr blog: “Genocide

I’ve added two more books to the recommended books list. (Stderr recommended book policy)

Charles Mann, “1491 – New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” (amazon)

Charles Mann, “1493 – Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” (amazon)

Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is already on the list. (pirated)  (amazon)

The slaughter begins

The slaughter begins

Zinn writes:

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? He had persuaded the king and queen of Spain to finance an expedition to the lands, the wealth, he expected would be on the other side of the Atlantic-the Indies and Asia, gold and spices. For, like other informed people of his time, he knew the world was round and he could sail west in order to get to the Far East.

From there, the story gets uglier.


  1. Menyambal says

    A lot of moderns folk-believe that Columbus was right when everyone else was wrong, and that gives him a kind of credit in what he did after he got here. The right part being that he knew the world was round, while everyone else believed it was flat. He was a genius and a great navigator, and therefore a great explorer and administrator. His motives seemingly were the best, too.

    The fact was that everybody knew the world was a sphere, and how big it was, and had known for over a thousand years. Columbus’s big difference was that he had the size wrong – he stubbornly stuck with a wrong assumption, and later decided the world wasn’t a sphere rather than face his error. When he set out to sea, he tried giving the crew fake distances, and was so wrong that the fake distances were closer to reality than the distances he thought they’d gone. Columbus was so wrong, and such a bad navigator, that nobody sponsored him – not because they were small minded, but because he was barking.

    That’s who landed in the new world, a lost loon with an ego. And as his motivation was money and power, coming from a bad place in history, it was like Donald Trump had been put in charge.

  2. Saad says

    I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance

    This seems very dubious to me.

  3. says

    It’s semi-plausible. I’ve made lots of knives and I get fanatical about how sharp I can get them. It’s possible that someone who wasn’t experienced with steel blades might mis-estimate the edge. Otherwise, I agree with you: any adult understands that “thin things can cut” if they have any experience with thin things.

  4. says

    The right part being that he knew the world was round, while everyone else believed it was flat

    Which was, as you say, a pernicious lie. By Ptolemy’s time (300BC), the roundness of earth was well-known. The myth that people believed the earth was flat was, unfortunately, a lie put about by one sect of religion trying to make another look dumb. Hurr rhurrr silly catholics think the earth is flat

    it was like Donald Trump had been put in charge

    If Donald Trump had been in charge, one of two things would have happened:
    1) The flotilla would have sunk (“gone chapter 11”) in port
    2) They would have arrived at the bermudas and found a massive wall to keep immigrants out

  5. Saad says

    The reason I say that is one wouldn’t have to be military to know about sharp edges. People have tools and instruments to do all sorts of tasks (cutting, cooking, farming, hunting). You’d know what a sharp edge is. I’m not sure what stage metallurgy was at in the Caribbean region, but I suppose if they didn’t have metalwork, the shiny metallic swords may have been unfamiliar. Something just doesn’t seem right about imagining a grown adult human in the 15th century not recognizing a sharp edge.

  6. inquisitiveraven says

    I think the native metallurgy of the time consisted primarily of working soft metals like copper or silver, stuff that doesn’t hold an edge real well. They may have associated sharp edges with worked stone, e.g. flint or obsidian. Obsidian can get absurdly sharp, but it doesn’t look metallic at all.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Terminology quibble. “Arawak” is a linguistic term, and is a huge language family, historically covering much of South and Central America as well as the Caribbean. The people occupying most of the Caribbean* were Taíno, whose language belonged to the Arawakan family. The Taíno occupying the Bahamas when Columbus arrived were Lucayans.

    *The Caribs, who spoke another Arawak language, occupied the Lesser Antilles.

  8. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#8:
    Terminology quibble. “Arawak” is a linguistic term

    That’s good to know!!! Thank you for explaining.

    I usually am careful to avoid tribal names, terms, etc, because I worry that they may be insults cooked up by imperialists (that has bitten me several times) The use of “Arawak” in the excerpt from Zinn is in the original; I didn’t want to edit his writing.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @9: I favour the “be as specific as possible, and if I fuck up, hope someone corrects me” approach. We’re stuck with a lot of European-devised classifications, so it’s hard to avoid them. And even if they’re not meant to be insulting, they weren’t generally made with the consent or input of the people involved.

    And yeah, I wouldn’t have edited Zinn either.