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Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto theisland’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and hissailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought themfood, water, gifts. They willingly traded everything they owned . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. They do not bear arms, and donot know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out ofignorance. Their spears are made of cane . As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives byforce in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in theseparts.
The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? Its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent of thepopulation and owned 95 percent of the land. Spain had tied itself to the Catholic Church, expelledall the Jews, driven out the Moors. Like other states of the modern world, Spain sought gold, whichwas becoming the new mark of wealth, more useful than land because it could buy anything.
There was gold in Asia, it was thought, and certainly silks and spices, for Marco Polo and othershad brought back marvelous things from their overland expeditions centuries before. Portuguese sailors were working their way around the southern tipof Africa. Spain decided to gamble on a long sail across an unknown ocean. Columbus would never have made it to Asia, which was thousands of miles farther away than hehad calculated, imagining a smaller world. He would have been doomed by that great expanse ofsea. One-fourth of the way there he came upon an unknown, uncharted land thatlay between Europe and Asia-the Americas.
It was early October 1492, and thirty-three days sincehe and his crew had left the Canary Islands, off the Atlantic coast of Africa. Then, on October 12, a sailor called Rodrigo saw the early morning moonshining on white sands, and cried out. It was an island in the Bahamas, the Caribbean sea. The firstman to sight land was supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life, but Rodrigonever got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the evening before. So, approaching land, they were met by the Arawak Indians, who swam out to greet them. Theycould spin and weave, but they had no horses or work animals.
They had no iron, but they woretiny gold ornaments in their ears. This was to have enormous consequences: it led Columbus to take some of them aboard ship asprisoners because he insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold. There, bits of visible gold in the rivers, and a gold mask presented to Columbus by alocal Indian chief, led to wild visions of gold fields. On Hispaniola, out of timbers from the Santa Maria, which had run aground, Columbus built a fort,the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere. At one part of the island he got intoa fight with Indians who refused to trade as many bows and arrows as he and his men wanted. Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant.
Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority containgold. There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals. The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one whohas not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was givenseventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men.
The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They wentfrom island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. Theyfound no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend.
Inthe year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women,and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred bestspecimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends tothose who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. When they broughtit, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garneredfrom the streams.
So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed. Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor,muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them todeath. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000Indians on Haiti were dead.
When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on hugeestates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by thethousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendantsleft on the island. The chief source-and, on many matters the only source-of information about what happened on theislands after Columbus came is Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in theconquest of Cuba. For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gavethat up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty.