The little known story of Columbus and La Navidad

The little known story of Columbus and La Navidad

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SAN JOSE, October 12, 2014 –   While some people in the United States celebrate Columbus Day, there exists today a very real dilemma regarding Christopher Columbus. There is quite a significant division of public opinion concerning the reputation of Columbus and his relevance   in history. Along with protests from some angry American Indian peoples and condemnation from some teachers throughout the nation, there are even mock trials of Columbus in elementary school classes. Unfortunately, as students of history today read about Christopher Columbus, they must negotiate the murky waters of contemporary historical texts bearing a definite bias regarding Columbus’ true reputation and place in human history.

One of the key turning points in civilized history occurred in this important time of initial contact between southern Europeans and Native Americans. Columbus had arrived from across the open ocean and encountered a unique area of the world he believed was the Orient. However, as crucial as this incredible contact was, one of the most important events that occurred in this time has been relatively ignored by both traditional and contemporary Progressive-revisionist historians. This first contact involved a horrible catastrophe that has been summarily dismissed in importance, and practically buried within the sands of time. Yet, comprehending this event can change the way people view this first contact.

The incident involved a disaster when the Santa Maria ran aground upon a reef near the island of Hispaniola (present day Haiti), but this single catastrophe led to a greater series of seemingly irreversible disasters. Nevertheless, while historians may acknowledge this event, it is seldom considered significant. Howard Zinn (God reform his soul), recounted this incident in his book “A People’s History of the United States.” Zinn explains about the Santa Maria running aground in 1492 and the sailors salvaging its timber in order to build a fort, which historians describe as the first European settlement in the Western Hemisphere. The significance is that the 39 sailors who had to be left behind were ultimately massacred by natives on the islands.

The actual truth of La Navidad lies well beyond Zinn’s, or other revisionist representations of what happened there. Curiously, Zinn allots only a single sentence to the massacre of the  Spanish sailors. Other contemporary historians give it little notice, one even referring to this incident as a mere ‘footnote’ in history. The omission is significant. The first contact between southern Europeans and the Native Americans results in the massacre of the 39 men at La Navidad and definitely unraveled whatever gains in friendly relations Columbus had tried to establish with the island people. Certainly, the soldiers who accompanied Columbus on his second journey to the islands formed a strong opinion of the significance of the massacre.

La Navidad definitely does not fit with the revisionist portrayal of the Native Americans as innocent and non-aggressive victims. The first false portrayal to become suspect was actually Columbus’ own initial claims that the indigenous people were peaceful. 1200 Spanish people travelling on 17 ships travelled back with Columbus on his second journey and could have become quite suspicious of his previous claims. But beyond this, if a student of history would truly view this in historical context, it may be easier to feel what those Spaniards felt as they considered the evidence. In 1770, five American colonists were shot and killed in an event that became known as the Boston massacre. It changed the way Americans viewed the British.

If this event is examined honestly in this in historical context, the massacre of the 39 sailors was not insignificant. In such a time, it could easily have been considered an act of war by many of those 1200 Spaniards who witnessed the destruction of La Navidad. Especially, would anyone expect the Spanish soldiers that accompanied Columbus back to the islands to have viewed it as an act of friendship? There were five colonists who were killed outside the Customs House in Boston, Massachusetts, yet Bostonians, and eventually many Americans, had a hard time forgetting the incident. Americans also had a hard time forgetting the Alamo, or the battleship Maine, or Pearl Harbor, or 9/11. Is it fair to think the Spanish remained stoic after La Navidad?

That a single catastrophe led to a greater series of destructive events is understandable as history is filled with such cause and effect relationships, sometimes strings of causal events are set off by a single definitive event. The disaster of the Santa Maria running aground upon a reef meant that the largest ship was no longer capable of sailing and providing passage for a good number of the crew to return home to Spain. Columbus was resourceful enough to have the crew take apart the ship timber by timber and build a makeshift “villa” for the shelter and protection for the 39.that had to be left behind. Columbus had also befriended one of the local chiefs, Guacanagari, a cacique who ultimately granted permission to build the settlement.

What Columbus could not control was the circumstances in which he left the Spaniards, nor could he control their behavior as he sailed back to Spain. It is definitely difficult to determine precisely what happened, but there was a serious breakdown of relations that occurred when Columbus was in Spain, and what ever the 39 men were up to after Columbus left, God only knows. It remains a mystery as to what precisely had happened, but this major clash with the Taino is quite important. It could have been considered an act of war by the Spaniards, and because Columbus was not a Spaniard, he would not have had as strong a reaction as the Spanish, yet he never rebuilt La Navidad.

Yet, the incident may have shocked Columbus as his previous perceptions of the natives portrayed them as peaceful, and yet they seemed to be capable of treachery and deceit. His friend Guacanagari provided the primary account of what had happened but even his report is not entirely clear.  He told Columbus that the Carib Indians were the tribe responsible for killing his men.  However, Guacanagari’s own brother, chief of another tribe, disputed the story and blamed the sailors for offenses against the Taino peoples and named Guacanagari as the one ordering the massacre. The incident certainly changed his perception, as well as the monarch’s appraisal of the Native Americans.

As mentioned previously, the contemporary narrative on Columbus often is dominated by the revisionists imbued with ideological fervor. They often try to manipulate common perceptions the way the current media moguls are able to mold public opinion. Many history texts foment an impression that most, if not all, of the island natives were docile and peaceful.  Even Columbus had offered this initial observation of the Indians in King Ferdinand’s court. However, it was and still is an incomplete picture. In fact, the name of the region is derived from the Carib Indians who were the ones that Guacanagari identified as those responsible for killing his men and destroying La Navidad.

The Caribs are believed to have migrated from the Orinoco River in South America (present day Venezuela) and through warfare had displaced and dominated the Tainos and other local tribes through the century prior to arrival of the Spaniards. They were reputed to be fierce warriors who used poison-tipped arrows and darts and quite capable of exterminating their enemies. They also practiced a form of ritualistic cannibalism for a time which made them highly feared on the islands. Possibly they sensed the threat of the coming of the Europeans and acted in defense of ‘their’ territory, but the view that the Indian peoples were docile and defenseless is not an accurate portrayal of these peoples.

Not only does the revisionist historian portray Columbus as the one who opened the Pandora’s Box of evils that befell the Native Americans, they falsely portray the native peoples as a weak and ‘cowardly’ people to use a word Columbus used. However, to be fair, it is before he really knew them. To arrive at simplistic conclusions that all the Indians were weak and cowardly was wrong. If the Caribs perceived the strangers as a threat to their own domination of the islands, it is clearly understandable that they had the character and capability to fight for what they believed was their territory. They were not weak as the major difference was the advanced technology of the weapons of warfare and defense that the Spaniards had mastered.

In the same manner, as revisionists falsely portray the native peoples, they persist in their neglect to mention important parts of the history regarding Columbus. Although unknown to most people in this day, despite the massacre at La Navidad, Columbus overcame whatever initial anger he had toward the Taino, and appointed a young Spanish friar named Ramón Pané to study and document the Taino customs and religion by living among the native people, observing their way of life and recording what he learned of the people. Fray Ramón Pané actually lived with the Taino native peoples for four years.  In about 1498 he completed and presented to Columbus his Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los indios (“An Account of the antiquities of the Indians”).

Unfortunately, this original manuscript was lost.  But, an incomplete Italian translation written in 1571 has survived. Pané’s writings have more recently been reconstructed and re-translated back to Spanish, and edited by the scholar, José Juan Arrom, and subsequently translated to English. Pané’s written “Account of the Indians” is more than likely the first known book of research written in a European language in the newly discovered continent.  This original account was believed to have contained accurate and unbiased descriptions and quite valuable observations recorded regarding Taino language, music, religion, and the worship of their deities called “zemi.”

Pané’s work is where those who are genuinely interested can find the earliest European  source of information regarding these people. Taino is translated as “good and noble” and actually represents how Columbus experienced them in 1492, but not in 1493. He initially observed that he had encountered a culture that seemed friendly, humble, and peaceful. Ironically, it was not until the 1900s that a more appropriate scholarly approach to the indigenous peoples of the area was initiated, and not until the 1950s that scientists were capable of tracing Carib’s unique white-on-red pottery to the Orinoco and Amazon River basins in Northeastern South America to discover their origins.

Sadly, people today do not see the side of Columbus that sought understanding. Again, hate, anger, fear, superstition, and ignorance of a comprehensive picture of a people permits the existence of racism, discrimination, and resentments which poison the heart. Common sense would indicate that a much more positive and productive endeavor would be to focus our lessons to be learned from this turning point in history towards a real understanding of the people involved and of the genuine value of the indigenous peoples. The willingness to open one’s heart and mind and be receptive to understanding people who happen to be different from oneself will be a beginning point for human harmony, hatred will not.

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