The destruction of Haiti that Columbus started
The destruction of Haiti that Columbus started
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
in fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Today we honor him in song
Columbus hero brave and strong
Those verses are part of a childhood song that children of my generation learned in school in the 1950s. No history teacher ever explained the suffering and death that was the result of Columbus’s expedition to the New World. And never did I learn about Columbus’s role in destroying the indigenous population of what is now Haiti.
Columbus’s first voyage to find a new route to China led him to the island of Hispaniola, about 2/3 of which is now the Dominican Republic and the other 1/3 is Haiti. Columbus built his first settlement–La Navida–on the north shore of present day Haiti after one of his ships was wrecked. The Taino Indians, described by Columbus as peaceful and generous, helped salvage the cargo from the wrecked ship. They are believed to be a people created from waves of migrations from Central and South America over 5000 years before Columbus’s voyage.
Columbus left behind 39 crewmen from the wrecked ship and departed to continue his exploration. These Spaniards began enslaving the Taino women for domestic work, which, after several months, led to armed conflict with the Tainos, who destroyed the temporary settlement, killing the Spanish settlers.
In 1493, a permanent European settlement was created on the north side of the island. The Tainos were ravaged by disease brought by the settlers and forced into slavery to pan for gold for the Europeans. A few years later, the Spanish governor of the island arranged the slaughter of nearly all the Taino chiefs at a site where Port-au-Prince is located, ending organized resistance by the Tainos.
After 25 years of Spanish occupation, the Taino population, which had numbered several million in 1492, were reduced to about 50,000. They gradually became mixed biologically with the Spaniards (including black Spaniards) and Africans (who had been brought as slaves to Hispaniola) to become part of the tripartite people known today as Dominicans. The French sent settlers to the Caribbean in the early 1600s and some of them settled in the western end of Hispaniola, which had largely been abandoned by the Spanish.
Two years ago, while reading “Voices of a People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, I came across a portion of Columbus’s diary and Zinn’s description of the true story of what Columbus did when he “discovered” the New World, and his real purpose:
“There is no more glaring distortion in the history learned by generations of Americans–in textbooks, in schools, in the popular culture–than in the story of Christopher Columbus. He is universally portrayed as a heroic figure, a brave adventurer, a skilled seaman who crossed the ocean not knowing what he would find, and stumbled on an unknown continent.”
“All that is true. But what is missing from that story is that, when he landed in the Bahamas Islands, Columbus and his men, greeted by peaceful and generous natives, set out on a ruthless quest for gold that led to enslavement, misery, and death for that population.”
“Profit was the driving force behind Columbus’ expedition and behind his actions after he landed.” Zinn describes how Columbus tortured the Indians to force them to find gold for him. He “kidnapped and enslaved hundreds of them” forcing them to work in gold mines. “It was the beginning of the annihilation of the Indians on Hispaniola. ...It was the start of the European conquest of the Western Hemisphere.”
After the Spanish came to Hispaniola, next came the French, who arranged for hundreds of thousands of African slaves to be brought there to work in the fields planting and harvesting sugar cane, which made the French colony wealthy. By the end of the 17th century, the western third of Hispaniola became a French possession called Saint Dominique. In 1791, a French Black man by the name of Toussaint L'ouverture led a successful slave revolt. Four years later Spain ceded the Spanish part of Hispaniola to France, and L'ouverture and his followers claimed the entire island. A compatriot of L'ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared independence for Haiti, reclaiming the indigenous Taíno name, meaning "Land of Mountains," for the new nation.
When Napoleon sent an army to defeat the black rule over a French settlement, L'ouverture’s forces defeated them and established the Republic of Haiti on the western third of the island. The French retained control of the eastern side of Hispaniola, which was returned to Spanish rule in 1809. In 1822, the President of Haiti took control of the eastern part of the island and Hispaniola was ruled by Haiti for 22 years. A Spanish underground resistance group succeeded in driving out the Haitians from the eastern two-thirds of the island. In 1844, the independent Dominican Republic was founded.
For the next 70 years, the control of Hispaniola changed hands several times. During the first World War, US Marines were brought in to “protect” the island from the Europeans, mainly a few hundred Germans who controlled much of the commerce in Haiti. The US military raised and trained a local military in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti to create and maintain order, stability, and security. This resulted in a shift of power away from civilians to the military. Rafael Trujillo came to power in the Dominican Republic and maintained power with the help of the United States for 30 years before he was assassinated.
Control of Haiti has shifted many times since 1492. Between enslavement, genocide, revolts, US occupation, dictators, and political deceit, Haiti has enjoyed little political or economic stability. If Columbus had never found Hispaniola, perhaps the history of that island would have been much different, but we will never know. What we do know is that the turmoil created by Columbus in Haiti has continued into modern times.
As explained by Kim Ives, a journalist with Haiti Liberté, in 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of Haiti. Eight months later, he was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup. Then President Clinton was forced to bring in 20,000 US troops, not to stop the coup, but to stop a revolution developing because of the coup. Ives explains that “the Clinton administration brought Aristide back as a sort of hostage on the shoulders of 20,000 US troops, and they remained until about 1999.”
Aristide was reelected in 2000. According to Ives, a coup started again when Aristide “was inaugurated on February 7, 2001, involving Contras based in the Dominican Republic and diplomatic and economic embargos.... They forced him out at gunpoint, essentially. A team of US Navy Seals came in and kidnapped him from his home in Tabarre on February 29th, 2004. And he’s been in exile ever since.”
While the US government has not always done what is in Haiti’s best interest, either politically or economically, the outpouring of contributions from average Americans since the devastating earthquake shows that the American people want to be of real help. Ives suggests several organizations that have good histories, without the corruption that has plagued Haiti generally. They include the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, (www.haitiaction.net), Dr. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health (www.standwithhaiti.org/haiti), the Lambi Fund of Haiti (www.lambifund.org), and Doctors Without Borders (www.doctorswithoutborders.org).
[This column is dedicated to the memory of Howard Zinn, who died this past week. Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” tells about the history of the US from the perspective of ordinary Americans, some of whom did extraordinary things, but are usually left out of history books or whose role in history is given only superficial coverage.]
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