John J. Dunphy
4 min readOct 8, 2018

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The Mixed Legacy of Christopher Columbus

by

John J. Dunphy

(originally published in The Telegraph of Alton, IL)

When I was a schoolboy, the question “Who discovered America?” was generally regarded as a no-brainer. The Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and promptly shut off trade to the East where Europeans bought their spices. Europeans, we were taught, believed the world was flat, but Columbus had the smarts to realize it was round. The East could be reached by sailing West, Columbus claimed, and he set out on a dangerous voyage to prove it. He landed in the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, thereby discovering the New World.

What a terrific story. Too bad so little of it is true, as historian James W. Loewen points out in his classic work, “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”

At the time of Columbus’ voyage, contrary to the claims of the old-time history textbooks, most Europeans knew the world was round. No sensible person, including Columbus and his crew, believed that the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria would eventually sail off the end of the earth and tumble into space. Furthermore, the Turks had not closed the old trade routes to the East. Those trade routes provided the Turks with a lucrative revenue, so they would have had no reason to close them.

Modern historians and all erudite people regard Columbus as a relative latecomer in reaching America. Ancestors of the American Indian tribes emigrated from Siberia to the Western Hemisphere between 70,000 to 12,000 B.C., with a second wave emigrating from 10,000 to 600 B.C. There is some archaeological evidence that suggests Afro-Phoenician voyagers reached Central America around 750 B.C. Mariners from West Africa journeyed to the new World during the 14th and 15th centuries. When Columbus reached Haiti, he found its natives in possession of spear points made from guanine, an alloy of gold, silver and copper that was used by West Africans. The natives told Columbus that they had obtained guanine from black traders who came from the South and the East.

There is no question that Vikings sailing from Iceland and Greenland between 1000 A.D. to 1350 A.D. founded settlements in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and possible Cape Cod. Some historians and archaeologists believe these Norsemen might have sailed as far south as the coast of North Carolina. They were forced to abandon their American colonies, however, due to conflict with American Indians.

We’ve established that Columbus has no claim to having discovered America. Surely, he deserves honor for opening up the Western Hemisphere to European settlement, right? Now as Richard Nixon used to say, let me make it perfectly clear — this descendant of shanty-Irish immigrants rejoices in the fact that his ancestors had the option of putting down roots in this great land. Still, I find it difficult to admire the man who launched a genocide against the West Indies natives and established the transatlantic slave trade.

On his first voyage, Columbus kidnapped as many as 25 Arawak Indians, who inhabited most of the islands of the Caribbean, for exhibition in Spain. Only seven or eight Arawaks survived the voyage. When Columbus returned to the New World, he founded a fort in present-day Haiti and demanded the Arawaks provide him and his men with food, gold and even women. Columbus was in the habit of rewarding his lieutenants with sex slaves.

Indians who were insufficiently submissive were punished by having their ears and noses cut off. When the Arawaks finally rebelled, Columbus attacked them with cavalry, infantry and even hunting dogs that literally tore the Indians to pieces.

The defeated Arawak population was enslaved by Columbus. Some were sent to Spain, while others were kept to serve Columbus and the Spanish colonists. According to Loewen, the Spanish hunted Arawaks for sport and murdered them for dog food. Many Indians committed suicide to escape the hell of their daily existence. Indian women began killing their infants to spare them from Spanish enslavement. The genocide continued long after Columbus. Estimates of Haiti’s pre-Columbian population range as high as 8,000,000. By 1555, they were all dead.

The Spanish kidnapped Indians from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas to supplement the slave population of Haiti. Columbus’ son in 1505 began importing African slaves to work on the island as well. The nature of the transatlantic slave trade began to change. Instead of carrying Indians to Europe, slave ships now brought chained African men and women to the New World. Realizing they had a common enemy, the Indians and Africans on Haiti united in 1519 to launch the first full-scale slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere. They put up a heroic resistance, and the Spanish didn’t succeed in quelling the rebellion until the 1530s.

As we observe Columbus day this year, let’s be grateful that the New World gave our impoverished, persecuted ancestors a chance for a better life. But we must never forget that the arrival of Columbus brought suffering and death to so many indigenous inhabitants and laid the foundation for our nation’s African slave trade.

John J. Dunphy is the author of “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois” and “From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois.”

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John J. Dunphy

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.