This Monday we will observe the annual Columbus Day national holiday. For many of us the holiday means little more than a curious interruption of banking and postal services. As historians dig deeper into the historic person of Christopher Columbus, the heroic mythology grows increasingly dim.
We now know that Columbus died having never set foot on the American mainland. Moreover, the Great Navigator’s westward voyages were (in many ways) less than successful. His ship, the Santa Maria, sank on the first outward journey. His second ran aground on his return to the New World; and perhaps most remarkably, Columbus died still believing he had discovered a new route to Cathay.
Even so, it is not these aspects of his exploration that deserve the greatest reconsideration. Rather it is the place he occupies as the progenitor of a now-common term and that term’s use as justification for colonial excesses. William Arens authored a study on Columbus’ voyages that fundamentally relocates the mariner’s place in history. According to Arens, the islands with which Columbus first came into contact were inhabited by two opposing groups: the Arawaks and the Caribs. Columbus first encountered the Arawaks and as a consequence adopted an affinity for their view of the Caribs. Despite being cordially received by the Arawaks, Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella that the natives were, “fitted to be ruled and to be set to work…” In short, they were “ready” to be enslaved. Arens speculates that Columbus’ eagerness to enslave the Arawaks owed to the fact that he failed to produce spices, gold and other commodities that were the predicate of his voyage.
Adding fuel to the cultural fire, Columbus took deep heed of the Arawaks’ negative portrayal of their enemy, the Caribs. He notes in correspondence that the Caribs were, “men with one eye, and others with dogs’ noses, who ate men, and that when they took a man, they cut off his head and drank his blood and castrated him.”
One interesting detail about this resides in the fact that Columbus gleaned all this through his interpreter, “an Arabic speaking Jew who had been expelled from Spain.”
While it is thought that Columbus privately disbelieved the Arawaks’ description of their foes, he nonetheless spread the tales with great abandon.
On his second voyage to the New World, the newly promoted “Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy of the Indies” came prepared for the pacification of the savage Caribs — with whom he had never actually made contact. Upon said contact, the “fierce” Caribs immediately fled from their villages.
A landing party reported seeing bones in the huts of the Caribs. The Spaniards also returned with Arawak women who had been kidnapped by the Caribs. The women are said to have confirmed the Caribs predilection for human flesh. Columbus next set his sights on a second Carib settlement, St. Croix. The Caribs’ reception there was more typical; they attacked the Spaniards. The task force then moved to Hispaniola.
As Arens reasserts, “The quest for gold and spices was still a failure, so that the slave trade assumed even greater potential significance. The first Caribs captured were sent to Spain with a message from Columbus that he was doing so for the sake of their souls.”
Because the moniker of man-eater facilitated the enslavement of the Caribs — not that much was needed — Columbus continued to regale audiences with dramatic tales of savage anthropophagy. As Arens states, by his third voyage, Columbus had become so adept at identifying man-eaters, he could now do so at a glance.
Interestingly though, what the Spaniard couldn’t do was correctly pronounce the name of his target population, the Caribs. Somewhere in the translation, “Caribs” was contorted into “Canibs” — which is where we get the modern popular term for man-eaters, “cannibals.”
As Columbus’ exploits in the New World continued into Honduras he wrote in his log, “I have found another people who eat humans…”