October 10, 2003


Columbus Day: Holocaust and the Doctrine of Discovery

By Roy Cook

On each October 13, Tribal people observe others celebrating Columbus Day. What do we celebrate/observe? In 1492 Columbus’ ships appeared off the coast of San Salvador. The Taino Indians greeted Columbus with unimaginable hospitality. Columbus reported to his queen: “So tractable, so peaceable, are these people, that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.” Columbus soon lost sight of the generosity and kindness of the Taino people.

The Holocaust of Columbus alone killed four million people on San Salvador in four years. The genocide did not stop after this first four million people; they were only the beginning. The missionary Bartolome de Las Casas recorded what he witnessed.

Bartolome de Las Casas was born in Seville, Spain, in 1474. In 1502 he went to Cuba, and for his military services there was given an Encomienda, an estate that included the services of the Indians living on it. In about 1513 he was ordained a Christian priest (probably the first ordination in the Americas), and in 1514 he renounced all claim on his Indian serfs. During the following seven years he made several voyages to Spain to find support for a series of new towns in which Spaniard and Indian would live together in peace and equality. In 1523 he became a Dominican friar and disappeared for a time from public controversy.

In 1540 he returned to Spain and was a force behind the passage in 1542 of laws prohibiting Indian slavery and safeguarding the rights of the Indians. He was made Bishop of Chiapas in Guatemala, and returned to the Americas in 1544 to implement the new laws, but he met considerable resistance, and in 1547 he returned to Spain, where he devoted the rest of his life to speaking and writing on behalf of the Indians. He is chiefly remembered for his Brief Report On the Destruction of the Indians (or Tears of the Indians), a fervid and perhaps exaggerated account of the atrocities of the Spanish conquerors against the Indians. The book was widely read and widely translated, and the English version was used to stir up English feeling against the Spanish as a cruel race whom England ought to beware of, and whose colonies in the Americas would be better off in English hands.

During the following conquest there is documentation that Columbus felt required at least to inform the natives of the terms by which he would steal their lifestyle and life itself; though they could not understand a word he said: “I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us…” Text quoted from: “El Requerimiento” in Wilcomb Washburn, ed. The Indian and the White Man.

This autocratic position is known as the Requerimiento, such document of conquest ushered in the 16th century in South America. Most of the religion-professing European conquistadors: Cortes, Pizzaro, de Soto, and others adopted this practice. We still see the legacy of this arrogant mindset with current English only proclamations across North America.

“To understand the connection between Christendom’s principle of discovery and the laws of the United States, we need to begin by examining a papal document issued forty years before Columbus’ historic voyage. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued to King Alfonso V of Portugal the proclamation or ‘bull’ Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world, and specifically sanctioning and promoting the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories.

Thus, when Columbus sailed west across the Sea of Darkness in 1492 - with the express understanding that he was authorized to “take possession” of any lands he “discovered” that were “not under the dominion of any Christian rulers” - he and the Spanish sovereigns of Aragon and Castile were following an already well-established tradition of “discovery” and conquest. [Thacher:96] Indeed, after Columbus returned to Europe, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal document, the proclamation or ‘bull’ Inter Cetera of May 3, 1493, “granting” to Spain - at the request of Ferdinand and Isabella - the right to conquer the lands which Columbus had already found, as well as any lands which Spain might “discover” in the future.”

Newcomb continues to link this European law to the United States of America, “Therefore, the fundamental decision in Johnson (the transfer of title of all Indian land to the federal government), which is the cornerstone of the colonial edifice of federal Indian law, remains intact, and thus so does the “legal” ground of this decision: the imperial “doctrine of discovery.” These are the legal international terms that are the basis of Columbus’s actions.

To make a long story short, Columbus established a pattern that held for five centuries, this pattern set a tone in the Americas. The quest for personal possessions was to be, from the outset, a series of raids, irresponsible and criminal, a spree, without end to it — the slaves, the timber, the pearls, the fur, the precious ores, and, later, arable land, coal, oil, and iron ore. Indeed, there is no end to it, no limit.

As Hans Koning has observed, “There was no real ending to the conquest of Latin America. It continued in remote forests and on far mountainsides. It is still going on in our day when miners and ranchers invade land belonging to the Amazon Indians and armed thugs occupy Indian villages in the backwoods of Central America.” As recently as the 1980s under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. the U.S. government knowingly gave direct aid to genocidal campaigns that killed tens of thousands Mayan Indian people in Guatemala and elsewhere.” The pattern holds.

Therefore, on one hand we may see a thin rational for how the US continues to celebrate this process linked to Columbus and his ‘discoveries’ but in reviewing the realities and results upon humanity it seems remarkable that we can still ‘celebrate’ these historical events and atrocities. On the other it is readily apparent why Native peoples hold a different attitude toward these events and the persistent celebration of the conquering culture and why every Columbus Day, is a Native American Tribal day of mourning and a continued call to resistance in Native American communities.

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