The gathering signs of a long night of woe.—Rogers.
The terms of the treaty between the Spanish monarchs and Columbus, on his being engaged as a discoverer, signed by the parties on the 17th of April, 1492, are sufficiently indicative of the firm possession which the doctrines of popery had upon their minds. The sovereigns constituted Columbus high-admiral of all the seas, islands, and continents which should be discovered by him, as a perpetual inheritance for him and his heirs. He was to be their viceroy in those countries, with a tenth of the free profits upon all the productions and the commerce of those realms. This was pretty well for monarchs professing to be Christians, and who ought to have been taught—“thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” But they had been brought up in another faith: the Pope had exclaimed—
Creation’s heir! the world, the world is mine!
and they took him literally and really at his word. And it will soon be seen that Columbus, though naturally of an honorable nature, was not the less the dupe of this fearful system. He proceeded on his voyage, discovered a portion of the West Indies, and speedily plunged into atrocities against the natives that would have been pronounced shocking in Timour or Attila. James Montgomery, in his beautiful poem, the West Indies, has strongly contrasted the character of Columbus and that of his successors.
The winds were prosperous, and the billows bore
The brave adventurer to the promised shore;
Far in the west, arrayed in purple light,
Dawned the New World on his enraptured sight.
Not Adam, loosened from the encumbering earth,
Waked by the breath of God to instant birth,
With sweeter, wilder wonder gazed around,
When life within, and light without he found;
When all creation rushing o’er his soul,
He seemed to live and breathe throughout the whole.
So felt Columbus, when divinely fair
At the last look of resolute despair,
The Hesperian isles, from distance dimly blue,
With gradual beauty opened on his view.
In that proud moment, his transported mind
The morning and the evening worlds combined;
And made the sea, that sundered them before,
A bond of peace, uniting shore to shore.
Vain, visionary hope! rapacious Spain
Followed her hero’s triumph o’er the main;
Her hardy sons in fields of battle tried,
Where Moor and Christian desperately died;—
A rabid race, fanatically bold,
And steeled to cruelty by lust of gold,
Traversed the waves, the unknown world explored;
The cross their standard, but their faith the sword;
Their steps were graves; o’er prostrate realms they trod;
They worshipped Mammon, while they vowed to God.
To estimate the effect of his theological education on such a man as Columbus, we have only to pause a moment, to witness the manner of his first landing in the new world, and his reception there. On discovering the island of Guanahani, one of the Bahamas, the Spaniards raised the hymn of Te Deum. At sunrise they rowed towards land with colours flying, and the sound of martial music; and amid the crowds of wondering natives assembled on the shores and hills around, Columbus, like another Mahomet, set foot on the beach, sword in hand, and followed by a crucifix, which his followers planted in the earth, and then prostrating themselves before it, took possession of the country in the name of his sovereign. The inhabitants gazed in silent wonder on ceremonies so pregnant with calamity to them, but without any suspicion of their real nature. Living in a delightful climate, hidden through all the ages of their world from the other world of labour and commerce, of art and artifice, of avarice and cruelty, they appeared in the primitive and unclad simplicity of nature. The Spaniards, says Peter Martyr,—“Dryades formossissimas, aut nativas fontium nymphas de quibus fabulatur antiquitas, se vidisse arbitrati sunt:”—they seemed to behold the most beautiful dryads, or native nymphs of the fountains, of whom antiquity fabled. Their forms were light and graceful, though dusky with the warm hues of the sun; their hair hung in long raven tresses on their shoulders, unlike the frizzly wool of the Africans, or was tastefully braided. Some were painted, and armed with a light bow, or a fishing spear; but their countenances were full of gentleness and kindness. Columbus himself, in one of his letters to Ferdinand and Isabella, describes the Americans and their country thus:—“This country excels all others, as far as the day surpasses the night in splendour: the natives love their neighbour as themselves; their conversation is the sweetest imaginable; their faces always smiling, and so gentle, so affectionate are they, that I swear to your highnesses there is not a better people in the world.” The Spaniards indeed looked with as much amazement on the simple people, and the paradise in which they lived, as the natives did on the wonderful spectacle of European forms, faces, dress, arts, arms, and ships.—Such sweet and flowing streams; such sunny dales, scattered with flowers as gorgeous and beautiful as they were novel; trees covered with a profusion of glorious and aromatic blossoms, and beneath their shade the huts of the natives, of simple reeds or palm-leaves; the stately palms themselves, rearing their lofty heads on the hill sides; the canoes skimming over the blue waters, and birds of most resplendent plumage flying from tree to tree. They walked
Through citron-groves and fields of yellow maize,
Through plantain-walks where not a sunbeam plays.
Here blue savannas fade into the sky;
There forests frown in midnight majesty;
Ceiba, and Indian fig, and plane sublime,
Nature’s first-born, and reverenced by time!
There sits the bird that speaks! there quivering rise
Wings that reflect the glow of evening skies!
Half bird, half fly, the fairy king of flowers,
Reigns there, and revels through the fragrant bowers;
Gem full of life, and joy, and song divine,
Soon in the virgin’s graceful ear to shine.
The poet sung, if ancient Fame speaks truth,
“Come! follow, follow to the Fount of Youth!
I quaff the ambrosial mists that round it rise,
Dissolved and lost in dreams of Paradise!”
And there called forth, to bless a happier hour,
It met the sun in many a rainbow-shower!
Murmuring delight, its living waters rolled
’Mid branching palms, and amaranths of gold!
It were an absurdity to say that they were Christians who broke in upon this Elysian scene like malignant spirits, and made that vast continent one wide theatre of such havoc, insult, murder, and misery as never were before witnessed on earth. But it was not exactly in this island that this disgraceful career commenced. Lured by the rumour of gold, which he received from the natives, Columbus sailed southward first to Cuba, and thence to Hispaniola. Here he was visited by the cazique, Guacanahari, who was doomed first to experience the villany of the Spaniards. This excellent and kind man sent by the messengers which Columbus had despatched to wait on him, a curious mask of beaten gold, and when the vessel of Columbus was immediately afterwards wrecked in standing in to the coast, he appeared with all his people on the strand,—for the purpose of plundering and destroying them, as we might expect from savages, and as the Cazique would have been served had he been wrecked himself on the Spanish, or on our own coast at that time? No! but better Christian than most of those who bore that name, he came eagerly to do the very deed enjoined by Christ and his followers,—to succour and to save. “The prince,” says Herrera, their own historian, “appeared all zeal and activity at the head of his people. He placed armed guards to keep off the press of the natives, and to keep clear a space for the depositing of the goods as they came to land: he sent out as many as were needful in their canoes to put themselves under the guidance of the Spaniards, and to assist them all in their power in the saving of their goods from the wreck. As they brought them to land, he and his nobles received them, and set sentinels over them, not suffering the people even to gratify that curiosity which at such a crisis must have been very great, to examine and inspect the curious articles of a new people; and his subjects participating in all his feelings, wept tears of sincere distress for the sufferers, and condoled with them in their misfortune. But as if this was not enough, the next morning, when Columbus had removed to one of his other vessels, the good Guacanahari appeared on board to comfort him, and to offer all that he had to repair his loss!”
This beautiful circumstance is moreover still more particularly related by Columbus himself, in his letter to his sovereigns; and it was on this occasion that he gave that character of the country and the people to which I have just referred. Truly had he a great right to say that “they loved their neighbour as themselves.” Let us see how the Spaniards and Columbus himself followed up this sublime lesson.
Columbus being now left on the coast of the new world with but one crazy vessel,—for Pinzon the commander of the other, had with true Spanish treachery, set off on his way homewards to forestall the glory of being the first bearer of the tidings of this great discovery to Europe,—he resolved to leave the number of men which were now inconvenient in one small crowded vessel, on the island. To this Guacanahari consented with his usual good nature and good faith. Columbus erected a sort of fort for them; gave them good advice for their conduct during his absence, and sailed for Spain. In less than eleven months he again appeared before this new settlement, and found it levelled with the earth, and every man destroyed. Scarcely had he left the island when these men had broken out in all those acts of insult, rapacity, and oppression on the natives which only too soon became the uniform conduct of the Christians! They laid violent hands on the women, the gold, the food of the very people who had even kindly received them; traversed the island in the commission of every species of rapacity and villany, till the astonished and outraged inhabitants now finding them fiends incarnate instead of the superior beings which they had deemed them, rose in wrath, and exterminated them.
Columbus formed a fresh settlement for his newcomers, and having defended it with mounds and ramparts of earth, went on a short voyage of discovery among the West Indian isles, and came back to find that the same scene of lust and rapine had been acted over again by his colony, and that the natives were all in arms for their destruction. It is curious to read the relation of the conduct of Columbus on this discovery, as given by Robertson, a Christian and Protestant historian. He tells us, on the authority of Herrera, and of the son of Columbus himself, that the Spaniards had outraged every human and sacred feeling of these their kind and hospitable entertainers. That in the voracity of their appetites, enormous as compared with the simple temperance of the natives, they had devoured up the maize and cassado-root, the chief sustenance of these poor people; that their rapacity threatened a famine; that the natives saw them building forts and locating themselves as permanent settlers where they had apparently come merely as guests; and that from their lawless violence as well as their voracity, they must soon suffer destruction in one shape or another from their oppressors. Self preservation prompted them to take arms for the expulsion of such formidable foes. “It was now,” adds Robertson, “necessary to have recourse to arms; the employing of which against the Indians, Columbus had hitherto avoided with the greatest solicitude.” Why necessary? Necessary for what? is the inquiry which must spring indignantly in every rightly-constituted mind. Because the Spaniards had been received with unexampled kindness, and returned it with the blackest ingratitude; because they had by their debauched and horrible outrages roused the people into defiance, those innocent and abused people must be massacred? That is a logic which might do for men who had been educated in the law of anti-Christ instead of Christ, and who went out with the Pope’s bull as a title to seize on the property of other people, wherever the abused and degraded cross had not been erected; but it could never have been so coolly echoed by a Protestant historian, if it had not been for the spurious morality with which the Papal hierarchy had corrupted the world, till it became as established as gospel truth. Hear Robertson’s relation of the manner in which Columbus repaid the Christian reception of these poor islanders.
“The body which took the field consisted only of two hundred foot, twenty horse, and twenty large dogs; and how strange soever it may seem to mention the last as composing part of a military force, they were not perhaps the least formidable and destructive on the whole, when employed against naked and timid Indians. All the caziques in the island, Guacanahari excepted, who retained an inviolable attachment to the Spaniards, were in arms, with forces amounting—if we may believe the Spanish historians—to a hundred thousand men. Instead of attempting to draw the Spaniards into the fastnesses of the woods and mountains, they were so improvident as to take their station in the Vega Real, the most open plain in the country. Columbus did not allow them to perceive their error, or to alter their position. He attacked them during the night, when undisciplined troops are least capable of acting with union and concert, and obtained an easy and bloodless victory. The consternation with which the Indians were filled by the noise and havoc made by the fire-arms, by the impetuous force of the cavalry, and the fierce onset of the dogs, was so great, that they threw down their weapons, and fled without attempting resistance. Many were slain; more were taken prisoners and reduced to servitude; and so thoroughly were the rest intimidated, that, from that moment, they abandoned themselves to despair, relinquishing all thoughts of contending with aggressors whom they deemed invincible.
“Columbus employed several months in marching through the island, and in subjecting it to the Spanish government, without meeting with any opposition. He imposed a tribute upon all the inhabitants above the age of fourteen. Every person who lived in those districts where gold was found, was obliged to pay quarterly as much gold-dust as filled a hawk’s bell; from those in other parts of the country, twenty-five pounds of cotton were demanded. This was the first regular taxation of the Indians, and served as a precedent for exactions still more intolerable.”
This is a most extraordinary example of the Christian mode of repaying benefits! These were the very people thus treated, that a little time before had received with tears, and every act of the most admirable charity, Columbus and his people from the wreck. And a Protestant historian says that this was necessary! Again we ask, necessary for what? To shew that Christianity was hitherto but a name, and an excuse for the violation of every human right! There was no necessity for Columbus to repay good with evil; no necessity for him to add the crime of Jezebel, “to kill and take possession.” If he really wanted to erect the cross in the new world, and to draw every legitimate benefit for his own country from it he had seen that all that might be effected by legitimate means. Kindness and faith were only wanted to lay open the whole of the new world, and bring all its treasures to the feet of his countrymen. The gold and gems might be purchased even with the toys of European children; and commerce and civilization, if permitted to go on hand in hand, presented prospects of wealth and glory, such as never yet had been revealed to the world. But Columbus, though he believed himself to have been inspired by the Holy Ghost to discover America,—thus commencing his will, “In the name of the most Holy Trinity, who inspired me with the idea, and who afterwards made it clear to me, that by traversing the ocean westwardly, etc.;” though Herrera calls him a man “ever trusting in God;” and though his son, in his history of his life, thus speaks of him:—“I believe that he was chosen for this great service; and that because he was to be so truly an apostle, as in effect he proved to be, therefore was his origin obscure; that therein he might the more resemble those who were called to make known the name of the Lord from seas and rivers, and from courts and palaces. And I believe also, that in most of his doings he was guarded by some special providence; his very name was not without some mystery; for in it is expressed the wonder he performed, inasmuch as he conveyed to the new world the grace of the Holy Ghost.” Notwithstanding these opinions—Columbus had been educated in the spurious Christianity, which had blinded his naturally honest mind to every truly Christian sentiment. It must be allowed that he was an apostle of another kind to those whom Christ sent out; and that this was a novel way of conveying the Holy Ghost to the new world. But he had got the Pope’s bull in his pocket, and that not only gave him a right to half the world, but made all means for its subjection, however diabolical, sacred in his eyes. We see him in this transaction, notwithstanding the superiority of his character to that of his followers, establishing himself as the apostle and founder of that system of destruction and enslavement of the Americans, which the Spaniards followed up to so horrible an extent. We see him here as the first to attack them, in their own rightful possessions, with arms—the first to pursue them with those ferocious dogs, which became so infamously celebrated in the Spanish outrages on the Americans, that some of them, as the dog Berezillo, received the full pay of soldiers; the first to exact gold from the natives; and to reduce them to slavery. Thus, from the first moment of modern discovery, and by the first discoverer himself, commenced that apostleship of misery which has been so zealously exercised towards the natives of all newly discovered countries up to this hour!
The immediate consequences of these acts of Columbus were these: the natives were driven to despair by the labours and exactions imposed upon them. They had never till then known what labour, or the curse of avarice was; and they formed a scheme to drive out their oppressors by famine. They destroyed the crops in the fields, and fled into the mountains. But there, without food themselves, they soon perished, and that so rapidly and miserably, that in a few months one-third of the inhabitants of the whole island had disappeared! Fresh succours arrived from Spain, and soon after, as if to realize to the afflicted natives all the horrors of the infernal regions, Spain, and at the suggestions of Columbus too, emptied all her gaols, and vomited all her malefactors on their devoted shores! A piece of policy so much admired in Europe, that it has been imitated by all other colonizing nations, and by none so much as by England! The consequences of this abominable system soon became conspicuous in the distractions, contentions, and disorders of the colony; and in order to soothe and appease these, Columbus resorted to fresh injuries on the natives, dividing their lands amongst his mutinous followers, and giving away the inhabitants—the real possessors—along with them as slaves! Thus he was the originator of those Repartimentos, or distribution of the Indians that became the source of such universal calamities to them, and of the extinction of more than fifty millions of their race.
Though Providence permitted these things, it did not leave them unavenged. If ever there was a history of the divine retribution written in characters of light, it is that of Spain and the Spaniards in America. On Spain itself the wrath of God seemed to fall with a blasting and enduring curse. From being one of the most powerful and distinguished nations of Europe, it began from the moment that the gold of America, gathered amidst the tears and groans, and dyed with the blood of the miserable and perishing natives, flowed in a full stream into it, to shrink and dwindle, till at once poor and proud, indolent and superstitious, it has fallen a prey to distractions that make it the most melancholy spectacle in Europe. On one occasion Columbus witnessed a circumstance so singular that it struck not only him but every one to whom the knowledge of it came. After he himself had been disgraced and sent home in chains, being then on another voyage of discovery,—and refused entrance into the port of St. Domingo by the governor—he saw the approach of a tempest, and warned the governor of it, as the royal fleet was on the point of setting sail for Spain. His warning was disregarded; the fleet set sail, having on board Bovadillo, the ex-governor, Roldan, and other officers, men who had been not only the fiercest enemies of Columbus, but the most rapacious plunderers and oppressors of the natives. The tempest came; and these men, with sixteen vessels laden with an immense amount of guilty wealth, were all swallowed up in the ocean—leaving only two ships afloat, one of which contained the property of Columbus!
But the fortunes of Columbus were no less disastrous. Much, and perhaps deservedly as he has been pitied for the treatment which he received from an ungrateful nation, it has always struck me that, from the period that he departed from the noble integrity of his character; butchered the naked Indians on their own soil, instead of resenting and redressing their injuries; from the hour that he set the fatal example of hunting them with dogs, of exacting painful labours and taxes, that he had no right to impose,—from the moment that he annihilated their ancient peace and liberty, the hand of God’s prosperity went from him. His whole life was one continued scene of disasters, vexations, and mortifications. Swarms of lawless and rebellious spirits, as if to punish him for letting loose on this fair continent the pestilent brood of the Spanish prisons, ceased not to harass, and oppose him. Maligned by these enemies, and sent to Europe in chains; there seeking restoration in vain, he set out on fresh discoveries. But wherever he went misfortune pursued him. Denied entrance into the very countries he had discovered; defeated by the natives that his men unrighteously attacked; shipwrecked in Jamaica, before it possessed a single European colony, he was there left for above twelve months, suffering incredible hardships, and amongst his mutinous Spaniards that threatened his life on the one hand, and Indians weary of their presence on the other. Having seen his authority usurped in the new world, he returned to the old,—there the death of Isabella, the only soul that retained a human feeling, extinguished all hope of redress of his wrongs; and after a weary waiting for justice on Ferdinand, he died, worn out with grief and disappointment. He had denied justice to the inhabitants of the world he had found, and justice was denied him; he had condemned them to slavery, and he was sent home in chains; he had given over the Indians to that thraldom of despair which broke the hearts of millions, and he himself died broken-hearted.
Source: William Howitt, Colonization and Christianity: A popular history of the treatment of the natives by the Europeans in all their colonies