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

By | January 3, 2021

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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.

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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.