Magazine article Monthly Review

Christopher Columbus and the Enslavement of the Amerindians in the Caribbean

Magazine article Monthly Review

Christopher Columbus and the Enslavement of the Amerindians in the Caribbean

Article excerpt

As soon as the last Duvalier had fled Haiti, an angry crowd toppled the statue of Christopher Columbus in Portau-Prince and threw it into the sea. This Columbus, the object of their wrath, was not, clearly, the great explorer of Western myth. Hispaniola, the island of which Haiti is a part, was the first European colony in the New World, and therefore the first to suffer the ravages of colonialism. The crowd knew Columbus as the first of a long line of despots leading to Duvalier. He was, indeed, the father of modern colonialism and all that it meant in the New World--the expropriation of the natural resources for the benefit of capital accumulation in the metropolitan center; despotic governments run by foreigners; the decimation of the native population and its replacement by millions of slaves from Africa; the institution of slavery as an international system; and the establishment of Europe as the hegemonic power in the new order of international capital. Christopher Columbus is the first great symbol of modern capitalism.

In the words of Samir Amin, "The recognition that the essential elements of capitalism crystallized in Europe during the Renaissance suggests 1492--the beginning of the conquest of America--as the date of the simultaneous birth of both capitalism and the world capitalist system, the two phenomena being inseparable.''[1] The real meaning of Columbus can only be understood in the context of these great historical transformations. Much of the mystery, the fantasy even, surrounding the man and his discovery stem from the inability of the present order to make an explicit connection between what it is celebrating and the real event that occurred: the beginning of the first 500 years of world capitalist domination. The truth that lurks just behind the festival is the guilty conscience of what has been called the original sin of Europe. Put simply, the price of the massive wealth of the European center has for 500 years been the enormous underdevelopment of the periphery. It was that truth that drove the Haitians to topple Columbus' statue.

History must be revisited and rewritten if we, today, are to learn from what really happened and get a sense of direction for our future. And where better to start than with Christopher Columbus? First to be jettisoned must be all of the political fiction written about the age of exploration and the exaggerated image of Columbus the man, all products of Spanish and Italian chauvinism. Then we can begin to place him in the complex historical reality of the time. To do this I shall focus on how the development of the world capitalist economy was intertwined with the spread of the slave trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. In the center of the emerging web of slavery, we find the first European slave trader in the Americas, Christopher Columbus. He was in many ways a product of the Mediterranean-based trade, but more than that, he was the initiator of the slave trade in the Americas, personally supervising seven shipments of Amerindian slaves from New World to Old." This--along with his obsessive pursuit of gold--is the key to his great "Enterprise of the Indies."

The Origins of the Mediterranean Slave Trade

During the Middle Ages the slave trade had a continuous but uneven development. In France and England it hardly existed, but it flourished in the Italian cities and on the islands of the Mediterranean. The principal demand was for domestic servants and secondarily for a steady supply of labor for the other service sectors in the cities. Women were preferred over men, and until the fifteenth century they came mostly from Eastern Europe; there were Tartars, Greeks, Russians, Serbs, and Bulgarians, white and predominately Christian. Thus the difference of color and culture between master and slave was minimal. In the Iberian peninsula the slaves were predominantly darker Moslems taken during ethnic and religious conflicts in the region. …

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