Based on a talk entitled “On the 520th anniversary of the landing of Columbus: What his legacy means for Indigenous Peoples today” given to a Workers World forum in New York City on Oct. 12.
Sisters and brothers, comrades and friends,
Why is there a “holiday” for Columbus? On Oct. 12, 1995, WBAI-FM in New York interviewed progressive Italian-American historian, Jennifer Guglielmo, who stated that Columbus Day was promoted by backers of Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. Italian-American working-class socialists and anarchists fought those fascists in the streets before and during World War II. Nonetheless, Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937.
In 1492, Spain was able to complete the Reconquista. The royal couple, Isabella and Ferdinand, had made war to expel “the Moors,” northwestern African Muslims who had ruled much of the Iberian peninsula for almost eight centuries. The newly united Spanish crown wanted new riches, trade and colonies. The conquistadors sailed on their orders, bankrolled by the king and queen.
Christopher Columbus was apparently no Italian. His name was actually Cristóbol Colón. He was a Spanish pirate. The Spanish Queen Isabella would have executed him had she known. There is no evidence he was ever in Genoa, the city he claimed as his city of birth. He read and he wrote a lot. Of his many papers none were written in the dialect spoken in Genoa.
He landed in the Caribbean. He assessed the ready welcome of his friendly hosts. He decided to attack, kill and take power. There are stories of him cutting the arms off of Taíno men to feed to his war dogs. He wrote to the queen immediately to convince her of the idea of making them slaves. He invented the slave trade there:
“They would make good servants. … They are fit to be ordered about and made to work … [and] with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Most of the slaves Columbus sent to Spain died quickly, and after a few years, Ferdinand and Isabella sent an investigator, Bobadilla, who arrived in Santo Domingo to find men jailed, lined up for hanging as rebels. He ordered Columbus arrested. Columbus’ personal cook Espinoza put the chains on him.
Once the first reports came from Pizarro in Peru and from Cortés in Mexico about the gold and silver that could be plundered, and the slavery, a steady stream of conquistadors moved out from Spain, all bankrolled by the monarchs.
The conquistadors included Cristóbol Colón, Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Juan de Oñate, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, Hernando de Soto and others. From their contemporary descriptions we can characterize them as a lumpen sort of completely out-of-control mercenary force. They were motivated by arrogance, religious superiority and greed.
They used the Requerimiento, a three-paragraph announcement from the Spanish monarch and the Church in Rome. It demanded people submit to these conquistadors as representatives of the Spanish crown, or else knives and guns would be used. The Requerimiento was an excuse for murder, rape, torture and robbery on a level never before seen: enslavement of whole Indigenous nations, many or most worked to death in gold and silver mines, all in the name of the Spanish monarchs and the Catholic Church.
True legacy of the conquistadores
It’s not possible to touch on all of the crimes of all the conquistadors tonight. But it is important to know which ones are most hated still, which ones did the most damage.
Isabella wanted riches and she got wealth beyond all imagining. So did everyone with Francisco Pizarro, butcher of the Incas. Writers describe the Incas in different ways, sometimes as an empire and other times as a socialist or communist society. It is known that Incan civilization grew from ancient farming communities that held the land in common. Incans were observed distributing stored supplies from public warehouses to the sick, elderly, poor, widows, disabled and anyone in need, according to Ronald Wright in “Stolen Continents.” The ruins at Huánuco include 500 such warehouses, measuring over one million cubic feet.
The Incas were highly skilled working with gold, silver and platinum. They used much bronze. There was no source of iron available. They were the world’s finest weavers. They domesticated llamas and alpacas as pack animals, and for wool and meat. They were astute recordkeepers. They made their records using intricate woven fringes of knotted string, called quipus, and they kept their archives in storehouses.
They had advanced base-ten mathematics with zeros and place notation. They had 14,000 miles of paved roads through the Andes Mountains (often stepped for the pack animals). Cusco had a population of 50,000-100,000 and there were many smaller cities and towns.
Pizarro, described by those who knew him as ruthless and devious, tricked the Incas, who had underestimated him based on reports the invaders were lazy robbers. Pizarro and his men attacked and killed 10,000 in an hour and a half. The Incas at court were unarmed for they lacked fear of these men, but they still fought to the last, even as Pizarro’s fighters cut off their hands. Pizarro took Atahualpa, the Incan leader, hostage.
Atahualpa offered the Spanish a room full of gold and two of silver as ransom. Llamas carried gold back from stripped temples and palaces for months. The outside walls of Cusco’s main temple alone held one and a half tons of gold plates.
The entire ransom came to seven tons of gold and 13 of silver, all of it in the form of artwork and jewelry. The total value has been estimated at $280 million, based on $1,749 an ounce.
No king in Europe had ever seen or even heard of anything like this. The conquistadors melted it all down. It took a month at a quarter ton a day.
Pizarro killed Atahualpa anyway. And the Spaniards went on a rampage of plunder for more. In some buildings they found 20-foot planks of silver. They took jewels off mummies. They killed so many people and llamas that the irrigation canals and other public works fell to decay and the llamas were almost exterminated.
Spain and Portugal signed a treaty in 1494 to divide up Africa and the Western Hemisphere. This document gave Portugal part of Brazil and everything to its east.
Some $129 million in gold was shipped to Spain every year. This valuable trans-Atlantic traffic became a target for English, Dutch and French pirates. The British pirate Francis Drake captured $172 million in Spanish gold.
Spain used the gold for a series of wars against France and the Turks, and then in the war against Protestantism. By the time the Spanish Armada, a fleet of warships, was sunk by the British in 1588, the Spanish monarchs had spent the entire fortune, though their programs of colonization and missionaries continued long afterward.
The huge amounts of gold that were stolen did not just fund wars and more conquest expeditions, they changed Europe. The European bourgeoisie, still subordinate to the nobility, had its role in outfitting all of the wars. Huge quantitative change led to qualitative change in the power of the enterprising bourgeoisie and directly led to the rise of capitalism. And colonialism exploded in size and scope in utterly immense robberies of previously unknown rapaciousness.
Conquistadors in the American Southwest
Coronado, known for wandering all over the North American Southwest in search of the seven cities of gold and Quivira, attacked, occupied and burned several pueblos. Less than a third of the original pueblos still exist today. They extended all the way into the Texas Panhandle. If you ever are in Albuquerque and drive through Bernalillo, there are two ruins just west of town which are among those that Coronado personally burnt down.
Oñate, known for working thousands of people to their death in the gold and silver mines of Zacatecas, left Mexico to take over New Mexico. He is hated in New Mexico to this day. He attacked Acoma Pueblo in 1599 when it rose against the settlers.
Oñate’s men killed 800 children, women and men. Oñate ordered every man over 25 to have a foot cut off and sentenced each to 25 years slavery. Every female and male between 12 and 25 years of age got 25 years of slavery. And 60 young girls were sent to priests in Mexico, never to return.
There were rebellions against Spain and the conquistadors. The biggest rebellion in the Andes/Peru was led by Túpac Amaru II. There are records of the Incas melting gold and pouring it down captured conquistadors’ throats.
The second biggest rebellion was in New Mexico in 1680. Some say it was the Spanish fear of snakes and dolls that led them to burn 1,000-year-old kachina dolls of the pueblos. Others say it was the beating of Popay, who did lead the pueblos in revolt. The Indigenous people burnt out the Spanish and kicked them out for 12 years.
Pedro de Alvarado worked thousands to death in Guatemala in the mines, and hanged any local leaders who tried to protect the people. He enslaved so many, the price of an Indian slave fell to 1/20th the price in Mexico.
Hernando de Soto was Pizarro’s lieutenant. He had grown up killing Indians in Panama in his teens, and killing Indians in Nicaragua in his 20s. His part of Atahualpa’s ransom made him a millionaire in gold. He wanted Florida and got the grand bankroll to do so in Spain. He paid for 600 soldiers, 200 horses, numbers of African and Mexican slaves, war dogs, and several hundred swine (these were war pigs, they actually flushed ambushes and rooted out fields).
De Soto’s expedition left Florida north to the Smokies or Blue Ridge Mountains, then across the Mississippi to Arkansas. From town to town to city they went, following the roads and paths, stealing food, burning storehouses, fields and towns, kidnapping local Indigenous people for enslavement and burning them alive if they made trouble. De Soto cut their hands off if they didn’t lead him to gold. He abducted the woman ruler of the city of Talomeco in the state of Cofitachiqui (no one today knows if it was Creek or Tsalagi) and killed her for her pearl necklace.
The de Soto party recorded events. They saw cities and towns newly abandoned because smallpox was already spreading from Spanish incursions. They were the first and last outsiders to ever see the living Mississippian culture, today called the moundbuilders. Smallpox and the other seven disease vectors living in the guts of de Soto’s unleashed war pigs gone feral, spread disease everywhere through the entire Mississippi Basin and tributary rivers system.
De Soto attacked the original city of Mabile and abducted the leader, a woman. A huge battle was fought and Mabile burnt down. The city of Mobile, Ala., is named after it.
The Mississippian culture fell directly as a result of de Soto’s pigs and diseases. The mounds that remain were actually great earthen pyramids, showing the influence of the Mayans and others. The Mississippian culture depended on corn. They had miles and miles of corn crops.
Maize corn was the first-ever selectively bred food grain in the world. Its scientific history is still being debated, as it is so very different from teosinte, its ancestor. Somehow, Indigenous gardeners had changed it from a thumb-sized nearly inedible seed pod to the many varieties of maize corn being grown in many parts of this hemisphere in 1492. Maize corn was being raised up and down the East Coast, all over the Mississippi River valley, the Southwest and more.
Some 10,000 years ago, in the Chilca Canyon of Peru, the potato was domesticated and cropped. The word used in Spanish, “papas,” is the Incan word. By 1491, thousands of varieties were in existence, with varieties developed for every altitude going down from the high peaks to the valleys. So we have agriculture developing in the Western Hemisphere in the same time frame as Mesopotamia.
The Incans preserved great masses of their papas crops by mashing and freeze drying, which gave them a food store good for ten years in case of a drought. They did all that with wooden tools too.
The stories that Native people saw and smelled these unwashed armed men and thought they were gods is disproven over and over by contradictory accounts. Incas thoroughly investigated the strange men, but made the mistake of underestimating them in their disgust for their personal behavior and filth.
In 1502, Colón accidentally encountered a large seagoing canoe the length of a galley off of Honduras. It was a Mayan crew, and they ordered the Spaniards to get out of the way. It took the conquistadors till 1511 to figure out that the Mayans were 120 miles west. At the first big battle in 1517, Fernando Hernández was crushed by the Mayans at Champotón. By 1519, they began to enslave Africans and bring them to Cuba, where subsequent Spanish excursions into this hemisphere now used some African slaves.
There is a link in all of this with the fight against the racist use of “savage” in anti-Muslim posters on Metropolitan Transit Authority public transport in New York City. This and the word “primitive” have been used endlessly without question for 520 years against the Indigenous people of the world.
The words ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’
Colonialism is savage. Capitalism is savage. Imperialism is savage. And there are other words to use in place of “primitive” in economic and political discussion — “pre-class society,” “early accumulation of capital,” “original communism” — when discussing humanity.
Imagine the continual effect on the consciousness of the use of these two words over the last 200 years. People see it in literature and accept it. People of color see it and resent it. Our youth are affected negatively and so are our social relations with people outside our communities.
The truth is that the term “hunter-gatherer” is generally wrong in the same regard. It might be accurate for that period when people around the world were surviving the Ice Ages, but not since then. It’s another way of saying “primitive.” All of humanity is adaptable and creative in learning to use the resources available in a given environment. These societies were gardening.
At some time after the last Ice Age in Asia, and later in Europe, domestication of livestock animals developed. Great varieties of plant foods were being developed in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1491, what was actually going on across Great Turtle Island (North America), and in the Land of the Condor (South America), was a whole hell of a lot of gardening, growing of crops, even in the forests. Over one half of all the food crops in the world by numbers of species and by volume and weight are Indigenous to this hemisphere, and were all domesticated by Indigenous people, from popcorn to pumpkins.
Tomatoes, squashes, beans, maize corn, berries, various nuts, potatoes, chocolate, pumpkins, pineapples, cassava, various palm oils, avocados, papaya, quinoa, amaranth, acai — too many others to name them all here — and all the chiles taken around the world by the Spaniards and mistakenly named “peppers” by Columbus himself.
What is primitive about the cultivation of so many diverse food crops?
What is primitive about the Mayan and Incan development of the concept of zero? Or of the science of astronomy developed by all the ancient peoples of the world?
Between 3200 and 2500 BCE, large-scale public buildings were erected in at least seven places on the Peruvian coast. The only other urban center then was Sumer on the Tigris-Euphrates.
And then there is the fact that across this continent, people from small villages to cities lived communally. There were 500 nations in what is now the United States alone and most of them still had a matrilineal structure. There is nothing primitive about a society which is so equal and free yet completely functional on the basis of no classes at all. Native American women today often use the term matrilineal because it does not imply any hierarchy.
There are so many highly different and complex traditions of music, storytelling, dance and theater and art forms to be found in our history as well, and some still surviving.
In Amazonia’s forests, where people today can walk and pick fruit to eat, scientists tell us these are old orchards. There were 138 crops grown in Amazonia, half of them trees, lots of palm oils, pineapples, papayas, cassava or manioc, calabash, acai and more.
There are also huge tracts of artificially built-up soil. The Amazon basin has acidic red soil, bad for growing. By an unknown process, people who lived there created two types of very dark nutritious — terra preta — soil for their crops; they used charcoal, pottery and probably animal and fish remains, which provided all the needed nutrients for plants (phosphorus, calcium, sulfur, charcoal and organic matter).
“The Amazon was being terraformed before 1492,” wrote Charles Mann in his book, “1491. ” Conservative estimates put the extent at a few thousand square miles at 0.1 to 0.3 percent of the Basin, which is about equal to the size of the cropped area the Mayans had. Others estimate up to 10 percent, which would be the size of France.
In original communism or communalism, the family is healthy and vibrant. It is called the extended family. This form provides all the support needed for the individual, for the children. Everyone knows they belong. Unrelated people are adopted in. There is no isolation of the self, no alienation from society, as seen today to the detriment of many youth. By contrast, the nuclear family is just a little piece of that extended family, cut off and lacking support.
The clash of cultures began with the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors. It continued with the later European invasions — the English and the French, the Russians on the West Coast.
Yet the cultural clash had many positive effects on the settlers, some of which enabled them to survive here. These include:
• The adoption of nearly all of our Indigenous food crops.
• The gender equality of the women was not understood or accepted by the Europeans, who had been living under feudalism for hundreds of years. The National Women’s History Project states that many early women’s rights leaders were inspired by what they call the Seneca’s “matriarchal society.”
• Ben Franklin noted the impact of the Iroquois Law of Peace on the U.S. Constitution.
• Bathing was a daily practice. The British and French are often noted as amazed as many of them had never had a bath.
• Many ideas in fashion too numerous to even go into.
The role of smallpox and communicable disease
Up until 1492, there was very little contact between the hemispheres. No one here had any immunity to all the European and Asian diseases. These are diseases that jumped species from domesticated animals or rats. Half the Aztecs, the Incas and the Mayas died before the fighting when these societies were overthrown. It was more severe than the Black Death was in Europe and it killed leaders, advisers, generals and elders.
Cortés lost the first assault on Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. Then smallpox spread for 60 days, leaving everyone too sick to even move. When it began to diminish, Cortés had returned.
Disease traveled out from everywhere the Spanish and later invading forces landed, and traveled to every corner of the hemisphere. It is now estimated that in 1491 some 112 million people lived in this hemisphere. The Mexican plateau alone held 25.2 million people, based on colonial records.
The diseases of smallpox, flu, measles and others killed 80 to 100 million people in 100 years. It works out to 20 percent of the world’s population at that time, which by United Nations figures was 500 million in 1600. The work done by progressive scientists in the 1950s and 1960s to achieve this realistic figure is still under attack by racists in their fields.
In 1542, Bartolomé de las Casas [friar and Spanish historian] described “a beehive of people” and “the greater part of the entire human race in these countries.” By 1562, he estimated there had been 40 million deaths due to disease. By 1600, some 20 waves of pestilence had swept the two continents. Less than one in ten survived. About 90 million died. That would be about the equivalent of a billion deaths today.
By the time the English and the French arrived in this hemisphere, the waves of smallpox epidemics had left numerous villages of the dead, which the settlers found here on the Atlantic seacoast and across the lands. Sometimes they moved into the empty villages, as the Pilgrims did.
Decimated Indigenous nations at that point faced waves of settlers anxious and mean with greed to steal the land and create wealth. The perspective of the settlers and their view of the land, the environment itself, was totally alien to the Indigenous peoples. The settlers saw it as something to be used and abused to make money, as opposed to being stewarded, cared for, to encourage the wealth of variety of resources available previously.
The Indigenous nations fought back, but fighting came long after the waves of death had shifted the balance of forces to the invaders.
In 1776, most of the fighting was not against the British. Over 100 Cherokee villages were razed to the ground and all the crops destroyed, so that the settlers could steal huge tracts of territory in Virginia and the South. The whole Cherokee nation was refuged and went into the mountains with only the shirts on their backs in the winter.
Do you know that Tecumseh and a white general are currently honored with stamps in Canada in tribute to Tecumseh’s saving Canada from a U.S. takeover?
As all of us know, Marx and Engels were very excited to read the work of Lewis Henry Morgan, who was the first to write of the matrilineal societies and the extended families, based on the Haudenosaunee. But most do not know how he met Tonawanda Seneca Ely Parker when they both worked as bookshop clerks. Morgan learned everything he knew from Parker, who later was General Ulysses Grant’s right-hand man, the military secretary who took the surrender at Appomattox in the U. S. Civil War.
In the 19th century, the U. S. declared it was “manifest destiny” to take the West. The Trail of Tears, the California Gold Rush, the Plains Wars — all these wars and atrocities lead up to the U. S. becoming imperialist when it finally took on Spain in 1898, seizing Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines.
In 1891, Congress passed the Dawes Act to break up the communally owned lands of the reservations, and mandated individual ownership, in plots small enough to leave a lot of land open for the Sooners [settlers who seized “unassigned lands” in the Midwest], plots too small to be viable for communal use. Ironically, only the pueblos were protected, given legal status by the Spanish land grants. The 1898 Curtis Act dissolved tribal governments and courts.
There are many undocumented Indigenous people, including full bloods in Oklahoma, who are unable to be members of their nations now as their ancestors had refused to get on the rolls. Later, their families did not get the allotments of land.
The resistance continues
During World War I, when Eugene Debs was in jail under the Palmer Raids, the biggest rebellion against the fratricidal imperialist war this side of the Atlantic was in Oklahoma. It was called the Green Corn Rebellion. In 1917, Indigenous, Black and white farmers and workers fought and were suppressed by the National Guard.
Today, capitalist society portrays all Indigenous people as either completely exterminated — and their supposed attire free to be used as Halloween costumes — or only noted if a person fits the popular stereotype from Hollywood.
There are so many local struggles we never hear about. There are 500 nations, each with its own history.
This is still Indian land. The struggle continues. This is the significance of Day of Mourning. If you have never gone to Day of Mourning, get on the bus and come this year!
You will hear from Leonard Peltier, who sends his support from prison in Florida. You will hear about struggles across Great Turtle Island and how Indigenous people view the current U. S. wars.
We salute Osceola, leader of the Seminole nation, the Creek nation that adopted runaway slaves in Florida and who never surrendered. We look to the Green Corn Rebellion for our inspiration in the struggle. We salute the United American Indians of New England, whose slogan is: “We are not vanishing, we are not conquered, we are as strong as ever. ”
Day of Mourning
We are building for the 2012 Day of Mourning starting tonight, and this meeting will also be a fundraiser for the New York bus. I was able to get some books donated to raise money for the bus, from East Bay, California, poet John Curl, specifically, “Columbus in the Bay of Pigs,” about the nightmare for the Taíno people following the landing of the first conquistadors in what is now Cuba, based on the records kept of those expeditions.
This pamphlet was published in 1992 in the San Francisco Bay Area in support of the struggle against the Columbus holiday. Please get a copy and make a donation toward the bus for Day of Mourning.
My professor, Betty Parent, one of the first professors of Ethnic Studies in the U.S., and one of the founding faculty for San Francisco State American Indian Studies, traveled with other Alaskan Athabascan language speakers to Soviet Siberia. They found their “distant cousins” there, other Athabascan language speakers. All had materials, books, and college in their own language. We never had that here.
Since the struggle for Ethnic Studies began, more authors are also in print today representing the oppressed nations, including Indigenous authors.
We do know more now than we did 30 years ago about what happened. Also, there are many progressive scientists and social scientists, contemporaries of or following in the popular shoes of Carl Sagan and Howard Zinn, who have brought new information and resulting new analyses to public view.
For instance, the Siriono people in Bolivia, mistakenly seen as paleolithic holdouts by Allen Holmberg in “Nomads of the Longbow,” were actually the remnants of their nation, who fled a 95-percent die-off from smallpox, flu and enforced enslavement to white cattle ranchers. That was the reason they were impoverished in the forest.
We are dialectical materialists. We welcome the new information, and we make our own analyses as well. And we take it further.