Why We Should Re-Consider Honoring Columbus-Legacy of genocide in the ‘New World’


 Columbus and the Beginning of Genocide in the “New World”

by Ward Churchill

Ward Churchill

Ward Churchill

It has been contended by those who would celebrate Columbus that
accusations concerning his perpetration of genocide are distortive
“revisions” of history. Whatever the process unleashed by his
“discovery” of the “New World,” it is said, the discoverer
himself cannot be blamed. Whatever his defects and offenses, they are
surpassed by the luster of his achievements; however “tragic” or
“unfortunate” certain dimensions of his legacy may be, they are
more than offset by the benefits even for the victims of the resulting
blossoming of a “superior civilization” in the
Americas. Essentially the same arguments might be advanced with regard
to Adolf Hitler: Hitler caused the Volkswagen to be created, after
all, and the autobahn. His leadership of Germany led to jet
propulsion, significant advances in rocket telemetry, laid the
foundation for genetic engineering. Why not celebrate his bona fide
accomplishments on behalf of humanity rather than “dwelling” so
persistently on the genocidal by-products of his policies?

To be fair, Columbus was never a head of state. Comparisons of
him to Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler, rather than Hitler, are
therefore more accurate and appropriate. It is time to delve into the
substance of the defendants’ assertion that Columbus and Himmler, Nazi
Lebensraumpolitik (conquest of “living space” in eastern Europe) and
the “settlement of the New World” bear more than casual
resemblance to one another. This has nothing to do with the Columbian
“discovery,” not that this in itself is completely
irrelevant. Columbus did not sally forth upon the Atlantic for reasons
of “neutral science” or altruism. He went, as his own diaries,
reports, and letters make clear, fully expecting to encounter wealth
belonging to others. It was his stated purpose to seize this wealth,
by whatever means necessary and available, in order to enrich both his
sponsors and himself. Plainly, he pre-figured, both in design and by
intent, what came next. To this extent, he not only symbolizes the
process of conquest and genocide which eventually consumed the
indigenous peoples of America, but bears the personal responsibility
of having participated in it. Still, if this were all there was to it,
the defendants would be inclined to dismiss him as a mere thug along
the lines of Al Capone rather than viewing him as a counterpart to

The 1492 “voyage of discovery” is, however, hardly all that is
at issue. In 1493 Columbus returned with an invasion force of
seventeen ships, appointed at his own request by the Spanish Crown to
install himself as “viceroy and governor of [the Caribbean islands]
and the mainland” of America, a position he held until
1500. Setting up shop on the large island he called Espa–ola (today
Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he promptly instituted policies of
slavery (encomiendo) and systematic extermination against the native
Taino population. Columbus’s programs reduced Taino numbers from as
many as eight million at the outset of his regime to about three
million in 1496. Perhaps 100,000 were left by the time of the
governor’s departure. His policies, however, remained, with the
result that by 1514 the Spanish census of the island showed barely
22,000 Indians remaining alive. In 1542, only two hundred were
recorded. Thereafter, they were considered extinct, as were Indians
throughout the Caribbean Basin, an aggregate population which totaled
more than fifteen million at the point of first contact with the
Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as Columbus was known.

This, to be sure, constitutes an attrition of population in
real numbers every bit as great as the toll of twelve to fifteen
million about half of them Jewish most commonly attributed to
Himmler’s slaughter mills. Moreover, the proportion of indigenous
Caribbean population destroyed by the Spanish in a single generation
is, no matter how the figures are twisted, far greater than the
seventy-five percent of European Jews usually said to have been
exterminated by the Nazis. Worst of all, these data apply only to the
Caribbean Basin; the process of genocide in the Americas was only just
beginning at the point such statistics become operant, not ending, as
they did upon the fall of the Third Reich. All told, it is probable
that more than one hundred million native people were “eliminated” in
the course of Europe’s ongoing “civilization” of the Western

It has long been asserted by “responsible scholars” that this
decimation of American Indians which accompanied the European invasion
resulted primarily from disease rather than direct killing or
conscious policy. There is a certain truth to this, although
starvation may have proven just as lethal in the end. It must be borne
in mind when considering such facts that a considerable portion of
those who perished in the Nazi death camps died, not as the victims of
bullets and gas, but from starvation, as well as epidemics of typhus,
dysentery, and the like. Their keepers, who could not be said to have
killed these people directly, were nonetheless found to have been
culpable in their deaths by way of deliberately imposing the
conditions which led to the proliferation of starvation and disease
among them. Certainly, the same can be said of Columbus’s regime,
under which the original residents were, as a first order of business,
permanently dispossessed of their abundant cultivated fields while
being converted into chattel, ultimately to be worked to death for the
wealth and “glory” of Spain.

Nor should more direct means of extermination be relegated to
incidental status. As the matter is put by Kirkpatrick Sale in his
recent book, Conquest of Paradise,

The tribute system, instituted by the Governor sometime in 1495, was a
simple and brutal way of fulfilling the Spanish lust for gold while
acknowledging the Spanish distaste for labor. Every Taino over the age
of fourteen had to supply the rulers with a hawk’s bell of gold every
three months (or in gold-deficient areas, twenty-five pounds of spun
cotton); those who did were given a token to wear around their necks
as proof that they had made their payment; those who did not were, as
[Columbus’s brother, Fernando] says discreetly “punished”-by having
their hands cut off, as [the priest, BartolomŽ de] las Casas says
less discreetly, and left to bleed to death.

It is entirely likely that upwards of 10,000 Indians were
killed in this fashion alone, on Espa–ola alone, as a matter of
policy, during Columbus’s tenure as governor. Las Casas’
Brev’sima relaci—n, among other contemporaneous sources, is also
replete with accounts of Spanish colonists (hidalgos) hanging Tainos
en masse, roasting them on spits or burning them at the stake (often a
dozen or more at a time), hacking their children into pieces to be
used as dog feed and so forth, all of it to instill in the natives a
“proper attitude of respect” toward their Spanish “superiors.”

[The Spaniards] made bets as to who would slit a man in two, or cut
off his head at one blow; or they opened up his bowels. They tore the
babes from their mother’s breast by their feet and dashed their heads
against the rocks…They spitted the bodies of other babes, together
with their mothers and all who were before them, on their swords.

No SS trooper could be expected to comport himself with a more
unrelenting viciousness. And there is more. All of this was coupled to
wholesale and persistent massacres:

A Spaniard…suddenly drew his sword. Then the whole hundred drew
theirs and began to rip open the bellies, to cut and kill [a group of
Tainos assembled for this purpose] men, women, children and old folk,
all of whom were seated, off guard and frightened…And within two
credos, not a man of them there remains alive. The Spaniards enter the
large house nearby, for this was happening at its door, and in the
same way, with cuts and stabs, began to kill as many as were found
there, so that a stream of blood was running, as if a great number of
cows had perished.

Elsewhere, las Casas went on to recount how

in this time, the greatest outrages and slaughterings of people were
perpetrated, whole villages being depopulated…The Indians saw that
without any offense on their part they were despoiled of their
kingdoms, their lands and liberties and of their lives, their wives,
and homes. As they saw themselves each day perishing by the cruel and
inhuman treatment of the Spaniards, crushed to earth by the horses,
cut in pieces by swords, eaten and torn by dogs, many buried alive and
suffering all kinds of exquisite tortures… [many surrendered to
their fate, while the survivors] fled to the mountains [to starve].

Such descriptions correspond almost perfectly to those of
systematic Nazi atrocities in the western USSR offered by William
Shirer in Chapter 27 of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. But,
unlike the Nazi extermination campaigns of World War II the Columbian
butchery on Espa–ola continued until there were no Tainos left to

Evolution of the Columbian Legacy

Nor was this by any means the end of it. The genocidal model
for conquest and colonization established by Columbus was to a large
extent replicated by others such as Cortez (in Mexico) a Pizarro (in
Peru) during the following half-century. During the same period,
expeditions such as those of Ponce de Leon in 1513, Coronado in 1540,
and de Soto during the same year were launched with an eye towards
effecting the same pattern on the North American continent proper. In
the latter sphere the Spanish example was followed and in certain ways
intensified by the British, beginning at Roanoake in 1607 and Plymouth
in 1620. Overall the process of English colonization along the
Atlantic Coast was marked by a series of massacres of native people as
relentless and devastating as any perpetrated by the Spaniards. One of
the best known illustrations drawn from among hundreds was the
slaughter of some 800 Pequots at present-day Mystic, Connecticut, on
the night of May 26, 1637.

During the latter portion of the seventeenth century, and
throughout most of the eighteenth, Great Britain battled France for
colonial primacy in North America. The resulting sequence of four
“French and Indian Wars” greatly accelerated the liquidation of
indigenous people as far west as the Ohio River Valley. During the
last of these, concluded in 1763 history’s first documentable case of
biological warfare occurred against Pontiac’s Algonkian
Confederacy, a powerful military alliance aligned with the French.

Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British forces…wrote
in a postscript of a letter to Bouquet [a subordinate] that smallpox
be sent among the disaffected tribes. Bouquet replied, also in a
postscript, “I will try to [contaminate] them…with some blankets
that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease
myself.”…To Bouquet’s postscript Amherst replied, “You will do
well to [infect] the Indians by means of blankets as well as to try
every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable
race.” On June 24, Captain Ecuyer, of the Royal Americans, noted in
his journal: “…we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out
of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.”

It did. Over the next few months, the disease spread like
wildfire among the Mingo, Delaware, Shawnee, and other Ohio River
nations, killing perhaps 100,000 people. The example of Amherst’s
action does much to dispel the myth that the post contact attrition of
Indian people through disease; introduced by Europeans was necessarily
unintentional and unavoidable. There are a number earlier instances in
which native people felt disease, had been deliberately inculcated
among them. For example, the so-called “King Philip’s War” of
1675-76 was fought largely because the Wampanoag and Narragansett
nations believed English traders had consciously contaminated certain
of their villages with smallpox. Such tactics were also continued by
the United States after the American Revolution. At Fort Clark on the
upper Missouri River, for instance, the U.S. Army distributed
smallpox-laden blankets as gifts among the Mandan. The blankets had
been gathered from a military infirmary in St. Louis where troops
infected with the disease were quarantined. Although the medical
practice of the day required the precise opposite procedure, army
doctors ordered the Mandans to disperse once they exhibited symptoms
of infection. The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian
nations who claimed at least 125,000 lives, and may have reached a
toll several times that number.

Contemporaneously with the events at Fort Clark, the U.S. was
also engaged in a policy of wholesale “removal” of indigenous nations
east of the Mississippi River, “clearing” the land of its native
population so that it might be “settled” by “racially
superior” Anglo-Saxon “pioneers.” This resulted in a series
of extended forced marches some more than a thousand miles in length
in which entire peoples were walked at bayonet-point to locations west
of the Mississippi. Rations and medical attention were poor, shelter
at times all but nonexistent. Attrition among the victims was
correspondingly high. As many as fifty-five percent of all Cherokees,
for example, are known to have died during or as an immediate result
of that people’s “Trail of Tears.” The Creeks and Seminoles also
lost about half their existing populations as a direct consequence of
being “removed.” It was the example of nineteenth-century
U.S. Indian Removal policy upon which Adolf Hitler relied for a
practical model when articulating and implementing his
Lebensraumpolitik during the 1930s and ’40s.

By the 1850s, U.S. policymakers had adopted a popular
philosophy called “Manifest Destiny” by which they imagined themselves
enjoying a divinely ordained right to possess all native property,
including everything west of the Mississippi. This was coupled to what
has been termed a “rhetoric of extermination” by which
governmental and corporate leaders sought to shape public sentiment to
embrace the eradication of American Indians. The professed goal of
this physical reduction of “inferior” indigenous populations was
to open up land for “superior” Euro-American “pioneers.”
One outcome of this dual articulation was a series of general
massacres perpetrated by the United States military.

A bare sampling of some of the worst must include the 1854 massacre of
perhaps 150 Lakotas at Blue River (Nebraska), the 1863 Bear River
(Idaho) Massacre of some 500 Western Shoshones, the 1864 Sand Creek
(Colorado) Massacre of as many as 250 Cheyennes and Arapahoes, the
1868 massacre of another 300 Cheyennes at the Washita River
(Oklahoma), the 1875 massacre of about 75 Cheyennes along the Sappa
Creek (Kansas), the 1878 massacre of still another 100 Cheyennes at
Camp Robinson (Nebraska), and the 1890 massacre of more than 300
Lakotas at Wounded Knee (South Dakota).

Related phenomena included the army’s internment of the bulk
of all Navajos for four years (1864-68) under abysmal conditions at
the Bosque Redondo, during which upwards of a third of the population
of this nation is known to have perished of starvation and
disease. Even worse in some ways was the unleashing of Euro-American
civilians to kill Indians at whim, and sometimes for profit. In Texas,
for example, an official bounty on native scalps any native scalps was
maintained until well into the 1870s. The result was that the
indigenous population of this state, once the densest in all of North
America, had been reduced to near zero by 1880. As it has been put
elsewhere, “The facts of history are plain: Most Texas Indians were
exterminated or brought to the brink of oblivion by [civilians] who
often had no more regard for the life of an Indian than they had for
that of a dog, sometimes less.” Similarly, in California, “the
enormous decrease [in indigenous population] from about a
quarter-million [in 1800] to less than 20,000 is due chiefly to the
cruelties and wholesale massacres perpetrated by miners and early

Much of the killing in California and southern Oregon Territory
resulted, directly and indirectly, from the discovery of gold in 1849
and the subsequent influx of miners and settlers. Newspaper accounts
document the atrocities, as do oral histories of the California
Indians today. It was not uncommon for small groups or villages to be
attacked by immigrants…and virtually wiped out overnight.

All told, the North American Indian population within the area
of the forty-eight contiguous states of the United States, an
aggregate group which had probably numbered in excess of twelve
million in the year 1500, was reduced by official estimates to barely
more than 237,000 four centuries later. This vast genocide
historically paralleled in its magnitude and degree only by that which
occurred in the Caribbean Basin is the most sustained on
record. Corresponding almost perfectly with this
upper-ninetieth-percentile erosion of indigenous population by 1900
was the expropriation of about 97.5 percent of native land by
1920. The situation in Canada was/is entirely comparable. Plainly, the
Nazi-esque dynamics set in motion by Columbus in 1492 continued, and
were not ultimately consummated until the present century.

The Columbian Legacy in the United States

While it is arguable that the worst of the genocidal programs
directed against Native North America had ended by the twentieth
century, it seems undeniable that several continue into the
present. One obvious illustration is the massive compulsory transfer
of American Indian children from their families, communities, and
societies to Euro-American families and institutions, a policy which
is quite blatant in its disregard for Article l(e) of the 1948
Convention. Effected through such mechanisms as the U.S. Bureau of
Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school system, and a pervasive policy of
placing Indian children for adoption (including “blind” adoption) with
non-Indians, such circumstances have been visited upon more than
three-quarters of indigenous youth in some generations after 1900. The
stated goal of such policies has been to bring about the
“assimilation” of native people into the value orientations and
belief system of their conquerors. Rephrased, the objective has been
to bring about the disappearance of indigenous societies as such, a
patent violation of the terms, provisions, and intent of the Genocide
Convention (Article I(c)).

An even clearer example is a program of involuntary
sterilization of American Indian women by the BIA’s Indian Health
Service (IHS) during the 1970s. The federal government announced that
the program had been terminated, and acknowledged having performed
several thousand such sterilizations. Independent researchers have
concluded that as many as forty-two percent of all native women of
childbearing age in the United States had been sterilized by that
point. That the program represents a rather stark¾and very
recent¾violation of Article I(d) of the 1948 Convention seems
beyond all reasonable doubt.

More broadly, implications of genocide are quite apparent in
the federal government’s self-assigned exercise of “plenary power” and
concomitant “trust” prerogatives over the residual Indian land
base pursuant to the Lonewolf v. Hitchcock case (187
U.S. 553(1903)). This has worked, with rather predictable results, to
systematically deny native people the benefit of their remaining
material assets. At present, the approximately 1.6 million Indians
recognized by the government as residing within the U.S., when divided
into the fifty-million-odd acres nominally reserved for their use and
occupancy, remain the continent’s largest landholders on a per
capita basis. Moreover, the reservation lands have proven to be
extraordinarily resource rich, holding an estimated two-thirds of all
U.S. “domestic” uranium reserves, about a quarter of the readily
accessible low-sulfur coal, as much as a fifth of the oil and natural
gas, as well as substantial deposits of copper, iron, gold, and
zeolites. By any rational definition, the U.S. Indian population
should thus be one of the wealthiest if not the richest population
sectors in North America.

Instead, by the federal government’s own statistics, they
comprise far and away the poorest. As of 1980, American Indians
experienced, by a decided margin, the lowest annual and lifetime
incomes on a per capita basis of any ethnic or racial group on the
continent. Correlated to this are all the standard indices of extreme
poverty: the highest rates of infant mortality, death by exposure and
malnutrition, incidence of tuberculosis and other plague
disease. Indians experience the highest level of unemployment, year
after year, and the lowest level of educational attainment. The
overall quality of life is so dismal that alcoholism and other forms
of substance abuse are endemic; the rate of teen suicide is also
several times that of the nation as a whole. The average life
expectancy of a reservation-based Native American male is less than 45
years; that of a reservation-based female less than three years

It’s not that reservation resources are not being exploited,
or profits accrued. To the contrary, virtually all uranium mining and
milling occurred on or immediately adjacent to reservation land during
the life of the Atomic Energy Commission’s ore-buying program,
1952-81. The largest remaining enclave of traditional Indians in North
America is currently undergoing forced relocation in order that coal
may be mined on the Navajo Reservation. Alaska native peoples are
being converted into landless “village corporations” in order that the
oil under their territories can be tapped; and so on. Rather, the BIA
has utilized its plenary and trust capacities to negotiate contracts
with major mining corporations “in behalf of” its “Indian
wards” which pay pennies on the dollar of the conventional mineral
royalty rates. Further, the BIA has typically exempted such
corporations from an obligation to reclaim whatever reservation lands
have been mined, or even to perform basic environmental cleanup of
nuclear and other forms of waste. One outcome has been that the
National Institute for Science has recommended that the two locales
within the U.S. most heavily populated by native people¾the Four
Corners Region and the Black Hills Region¾be designated as
“National Sacrifice Areas.” Indians have responded that this
would mean their being converted into “national sacrifice

Even such seemingly innocuous federal policies as those
concerning Indian identification criteria carry with them an evident
genocidal potential. In clinging insistently to a variation of a
eugenics formulation dubbed “blood-quantum” ushered in by the 1887
General Allotment Act, while implementing such policies as the Federal
Indian Relocation Program (1956-1982), the government has set the
stage for a “statistical extermination” of the indigenous
population within its borders. As the noted western historian,
Patricia Nelson Limerick, has observed: “Set the blood-quantum at
one-quarter, hold to it as a rigid definition of Indians, let
intermarriage proceed…and eventually Indians will be defined out of
existence. When that happens, the federal government will finally be
freed from its persistent ‘Indian problem’.” Ultimately, there is
precious little difference, other than matters of style, between this
and what was once called the “Final Solution of the Jewish

The above article is an excerpt of a legal brief from Ward Churchill’s
book Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America
(Common Courage Press, 1994). The defendants in the brief are leaders
of the American Indian Movement, who were charged for stopping a
Columbus Day celebratory parade near the Colorado State Capitol
Building in Denver, Colorado on October 12, 1991.

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