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The Crimes Of Christopher Columbus: Why He Was Brought Back To Spain In Chains

Medieval History | January 3, 2021

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons)

He's considered a hero by many for his adventurous voyages and discoveries that are celebrated through his own national holiday in America, but the truth behind Christopher Columbus's crimes reveal his intensely cruel nature, ruthless treatment of natives in the lands he explored, and particular fondness for beheading. Even by Spanish Inquisition standards, he was seen as a vicious colonial governor and suffered consequences for his savagery.

Columbus Enslaved Natives

When Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in 1492, he was greeted by the respectful Arawak natives and wrote in his journal that they'd graciously brought his group parrots, spears, cotton balls, and all the items they were willing to trade. Clearly, the unarmed Arawaks were no threat, but Columbus took advantage of their hospitality and manipulated them into acting as servants. He wrote in one of his journal entries, "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."

When Columbus traveled home from the Caribbean, he loaded up 17 ships with 1,200 men to return to the islands and capture the natives as slaves. They locked 1,500 Arawaks in cages in 1495, and the "best slaves" were shipped back to Spain, but many of them never reached the country. The harsh conditions of the journey killed 200 of them, and when their slave ships arrived, the Spaniards were often too tired to untie their captives, so they just beheaded them.

After experiencing intense cruelty and genocide, the Arawaks eventually rallied together to fight back against the Spaniards, but each one who wasn't killed by muskets and swords was hanged or burned by Columbus. The persecution was so intense that many Arawaks chose to die by their own hands rather than risk a torturous death, even feeding their babies poison so they could escape the clutches of the Spaniards. Within two years, half of the 250,000 Arawaks in Haiti were dead of murder or suicide. By 1650, the Arawak natives were completely extinct from their island. The natives of Hispaniola experienced a similar fate around the same time.

Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn. (Architect of the Capitol/Wikimedia Commons)

Columbus Mutilated Those He Didn't Kill

When he wasn't enslaving people, Columbus's other passion was accumulating gold. He intended to bring back gold from Haiti, believing that there were fields overflowing with the resource in the province of Cicao, so he forced every native over the age of 14 to assemble a required amount of gold for him every three months. If they failed, their hands were chopped off. It was an especially cruel demand because there never was any gold on the island, only some dust in the water. Many tried to escape because they knew there was no hope, so Columbus sent his men to hunt them down and kill them.

Columbus was especially fond of beheading. After over 2,000 natives bravely fought back and attacked the Spaniards, Columbus ordered one of his men, Alonso de Ojeda, to bring him their leaders and had them all beheaded in a public event. His men also seized another native and cut his ears off in the middle of their village for his failure to help the Spaniards build a stream.

Even when he wasn't on one of his escapades, Columbus was known for his excessively cruel nature. According to Bartolome de las Casas, a young priest who witnessed the Cuba takeover, "Endless testimonies ... prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives ... But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then ... The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians." He further noted that Spaniards mutilated natives without a second thought just to test their knives and even rode around on their backs like horses. Las Casas also told of a time when some Spaniards casually walked by a couple of young native boys, each with their own parrot, and stole the parrots and beheaded the children just for fun.

The Return of Christopher Columbus by Eugène Delacroix. (Eugène Delacroix/Wikimedia Commons)

Columbus The Sex Trafficker

While Columbus dehumanized all natives, he exploited native women even further. He once kidnapped a native Caribbean woman, stripped her naked, brought her back to his ship, and placed her in the room of one of his men, Michele de Cuneo. According to an account from Cuneo himself, he enthusiastically attempted to rape her, but the woman fought back and scratched him deeply with her nails. In his words, "I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought she had been brought up in a school for whores."

According to a letter to an acquaintance of the queen Dona Juana de la Torre, Columbus also ordered native girls as young as nine years old to be sold as sex slaves. "There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid," he wrote.

The remains of the pedestal base of the Columbus statue in the Baltimore inner harbor area. The statue was thrown into the harbor on July 4, 2020, as part of the George Floyd protests. (Geraldshields11/Wikimedia Commons)

Columbus Was Also Cruel To His Own People

While Columbus is most known for his hatred and brutal treatment of natives, he was also quite cruel to his own people in Spain. He had Spaniards "whipped in public, tied by the neck, and bound together by the feet" just for trading gold for food on the brink of starvation. Even the most minor crimes really set Columbus off, as his people could be hanged for stealing bread, one boy's hand was nailed into the spot where he used a trap to catch a fish, a man was whipped 200 times for stealing sheep and lying about it, and another was whipped 100 times because he couldn't collect enough food for Columbus. Women, of course, experienced the worst of his punishments. After one woman spoke ill about Columbus, he had her tongue cut out, and another was stripped and whipped on top of a donkey for lying about her pregnancy.

Christopher Columbus's crimes did eventually come back to bite him in 1498, when the colonists of Hispaniola revolted against him and his men for their brutality and Spain was forced to send a better-suited governor to take his spot. He was arrested and brought back to Spain in chains, finally getting a fractional taste of his own medicine. Most of his charges were cleared by 1502 because of his significant discoveries and fame, but he was forced to drop his authoritative titles. Eventually, he was forgiven so graciously that he received a celebratory holiday that focused solely on his achievements but disregarded his barbarisms.

Tags: columbus | crime | medieval europe

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Brian Gilmore

Writer

Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.