When I first read Christopher Columbus’ journal, known popularly as the Diario, during my freshman year of college, what struck me most was Columbus’ seemingly inability to acknowledge the Taìno and Lucayan populations he encountered as equals, despite the apparent charity and good will they offered. And what continues to strike me some eight years later as I re-read the Admiral’s account of his travels, is his desire, from the moment he left Spain, to conquer, subdue, and enslave the people he would find. Reflecting upon his initial contact with the native peoples of the Bahamas, Columbus noted (as translated by Bartolome de las Casas): “It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants… If it please your Highness, that they may learn our language.”
Often times in school we’re told that Ferdinand and Isabella chartered Columbus’ voyages to obtain spices and open the trade with the far-east. While that may be true on the part of El Rey y La Reina, before the Niña, Pinta, and Santa-Maria ever embarked upon that fabled ocean blue Columbus had assurance from his benefactors that if he indeed found land by sailing west, he would be its ostensible overlord. “Our will is,” Ferdinand and Isabella’s Charter stated, “That you, Christopher Columbus, after discovering and conquering the said Islands and Continent in the said ocean, or any of them, shall be our Admiral of the said Islands and Continent you shall so discover and conquer…”
With those words echoing across his trans-Atlantic journey, the Admiral landed upon the shores of the Bahamas, and met with the Lucayans. “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased,” Columbus noted. Though Columbus never actually ruled as a governor of any Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere, he sure as hell did what would-be conquerors have loved to do since the days of Babylon – take captives (if anyone picked upon the ancient history reference, allow me to give you a history nerd, slow clap of respect). The Diario is littered with Columbus’ desire to have members Lucayan and Taìno populations he encountered “taken and carried to Spain.” He even went so far as to suggest that, if it pleased “your Highnesses” he could “have them all transported to Castile, or held captive in the island.”
Okay, so, to be fair to Columbus, he didn’t want to kill every native inhabitant of the Bahamas and Caribbean that came into contact with. He just wanted to enslave them all and establish himself as their feudal overlord. But, nonetheless, within twenty years of his expedition, the Spanish explorers and conquerors who came back time and time again oversaw the extermination of the Lucayan peoples of the Bahamas through slavery, violence, and those oh-so-famous pathogens they brought. The Taìno peoples of the Caribbean faired slightly better, though that’s not a hard feight, but eventually they also ceased to be a distinct ethnic group, as they intermarried with Spanish and African immigrants.