by William H. Benson
October 8, 1998
On August 2, 1492 the three vessels were ready to sail. At the Church of St. George every man and boy confessed his sins and received absolution and Communion. Christopher Columbus, the Captain General from Genoa, Italy, went on board the Santa Maria during the early morning hours of August 3, and at dawn made signal to leave. The three vessels floated down the Rio Tinto on the morning ebb, bound south and a little west to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.
The same tide on the Rio Tinto that carried the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria also floated ships carrying Jews out of Spain north to the Netherlands or to the east to Turkey. August 2 was the deadline that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had issued months before permanently ejecting the Jews from Spain or face immense persecution.
On September 6 Columbus lifted the anchor on the Canary Islands and gave out the course, “West, nothing to the north, nothing to the south.” The seas were remarkably calm and the weather peaceful during those days of September. The men turned to griping after week upon week of nothing but ocean. Finally, on October 1, the wind increased and the rain fell in torrents, replenishing the sailors’ depleted water casks.
On October 6 Columbus realized the three vessels had sailed more than 2400 miles, and had they known, they were due north of Puerto Rico. The next day flocks of bird passed over the ships relieving the monotony, and on the 11th signs of land, branches of trees with green leaves and even flowers became so frequent that the complaining among the men died out. At 2:00 a.m. on October 12 Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout on the Pinta, saw something like a white cliff shining in the moonlight. He sang out “Tierra! Tierra!”
At dawn they passed the southern point of the island and sought an opening on the west coast through the barrier reef. By noon they had found the opening, sailed into a shallow bay, and anchored. The commander went ashore in the long boat and named the island San Salvador, claiming it for the King and Queen of Spain. Columbus’ story is one of daring and adventure and so we, Americans, 500+ years later recognize October 12.
The other half of the story is not so noteworthy for Columbus defined the meaning of the word “exploit”, both its positive and negative meanings. On his return trip to Spain he took with him some of the native Arawak Indians, several of which died enroute. Those living to see Spain endured the leering stares of the Spanish.
Columbus returned in 1493 this time to the larger island of Hispaniola equipped with cannons, attack dogs, and guns ready to subdue the Arawaks. That he did, forcing them initially into heavy labor searching for gold and finally into outright slavery. When the Arawaks had had enough and revolted, Columbus crushed them.
Conservative estimates place about three million Arawak Indians on the Carribbean islands just prior to Columbus’s arrival. By 1516 thanks to a sinister Indian slave policy including the cutting off of hands, noses, and ears as the common form of punishment, only 12,000 remained. By 1542 fewer than 200 still lived, and by 1555 they were virtually all gone.
Perhaps it is unfair to judge what Columbus did by 1998’s world standard of what is right and what is wrong. The world had not decided in 1492 that slavery was unethical and improper. One commentator described the situation,
“When history textbooks leave out the Arawaks, they offend Native Americans. . . . Perhaps worst of all, when textbooks paint simplistic portraits of a pious, heroic Columbus, they provide feel-good history that bores everyone.”