Columbus and the conquest of the Americas


October 12 is the 500th anniversary of the arrival in the Americas of Christopher Columbus' expedition. Often referred to as a "discovery", the event in reality was the beginning of one of the most brutal conquests in all of history. Western Europe, and later the United States, rose to wealth and power through the destruction of whole peoples and their civilisations. The information here was put together by the US organisation Witness for Peace.

When Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic) in 1492, it is estimated that he encountered 1.5 million "Indians". By 1519, through murder, torture, suicide and disease, the indigenous population had been reduced to 500 individuals.

Howard Zinn relates in A People's History of the United States:

"In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he [Columbus] and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death."

It is estimated that between 70 million and 120 million people lived in the Americas when Columbus' ships arrived, a population larger than that on the European continent. Civilisations such as the Mayas and Aztecs lived in highly organised communities with intact cultural, artistic, religious and economic systems.

According to Zinn, the systems of government employed by Indians were "complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world".

With 300,000 inhabitants, Tenochtitln, the capital of the Aztec empire (upon whose ruins Mexico City is located today) was twice the size of London, the largest European city of the time. To supply a city that size, the Aztecs had developed sophisticated agricultural production and distribution systems.

The Mayas had a highly developed knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. They had developed the concept of zero, which the Europeans learned from the Arabs. They were agriculturally self-sufficient, working the land communally and producing enough to feed their entire population.

The Incas in the central Andes were also a highly developed people. They were self-sufficient, producing many varieties of corn corresponding to different soil types. They developed terracing as a way to use scarce water to irrigate large extensions of land along steep slopes. Llamas were used for transportation, and the Incas traded as far south as Chile and as far north as Central America.

The conquistadors relied upon their superior weapons (the Indians had never seen guns or steel swords) and military might to force the European political and economic systems onto the original inhabitants of the "New World". Hernán Cortés disembarked in Mexico in 1519, and by 1521 he had conquered the great Aztec empire. Over the next several years, conquistadors conquered for the Spanish crown the lands of what is now Central America.

In the early 1500s Spain established the system of encomienda in Latin America, which granted colonists large tracts of land as well as the Indians on that land to serve as labourers. Millions of Indians were literally worked to death by their colonial slave-owners.

Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano writes in Open Veins of Latin America: "The Indians of the Americas totaled no less than 70 million when the foreign conquerors appeared on the horizon; a century and a half later they had been reduced to 3.5 million".

While sparse records remain of some groups of peoples, other civilisations were completely destroyed. The land, resources, cultures, societies and religions of the indigenous peoples were violated and exploited, beginning a cycle of enslavement of indigenous and African peoples.

The extraction of wealth and resources from the colonies expanded at an astounding pace after the arrival of the first conquistadors. Between 1503 and 1660, 185 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver were extracted from the colonies. Eduardo Galeano estimated that between 1760 and 1809 silver and gold exports from the Mexican mines of Zacatecas and Guanajuato exceeded $5 billion.

Where silver and gold could not be found, the colonists turned to agriculture. Production of crops for export became one of the main sources of wealth. Sugar was the first crop produced on a large scale for export. Introduced in the Americas during Columbus' second voyage, sugar cane plantations soon spread throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Land and indigenous people were seized by the Europeans for the lucrative business of sugar production. Not only were the Indians

enslaved, but between 1500 and 1650, 10 million Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves. It is estimated that 20% of the Africans died on the voyage across the ocean. Expansion of sugar production brought expansion of the slave trade.

Environmental plunder

The indigenous societies of the Americas had developed scientific systems of agriculture based on the conditions of their environment. Farmers, through trial and error, developed the best seeds for their crops, the right amount of irrigation and the best time for planting to produce the greatest yields.

The ability to work with the environment to maximise benefits without destroying it was the principal reason that Incan and Mayan empires (among other societies) were able to grow and prosper.

The European invaders cleared huge tracts of land, over-planted indigenous crops (maize, tobacco, potatoes and tomatoes) for export and introduced alien crops better suited to the agricultural techniques and climate of Europe. This caused the destruction of much flora and fauna, a depletion of nutrients in the soil and the eventual degradation of the land.

Because the Europeans mined gold and silver as a commercial enterprise, entire indigenous nations throughout the Americas were moved, enslaved or destroyed. Huge tracts of land were damaged, trees were uprooted, topsoil was destroyed and land was removed from agricultural use for the purpose of extracting minerals that would be shipped to Europe.

After the most accessible minerals and metals had been extracted using indigenous methods of mining, the "patio process", which causes irreparable damage, was introduced by Europeans to extract more minerals. To get at the mineral riches in lower grade mineral bodies, the Spaniards used mercury to separate silver from the crushed rock and silt in the mines. According to the North American Council on Latin America:

"Mercury was amalgamated with silver ore in large tanks or patios where humans and animals crushed ore with their feet. The Indians and mules that labored in the patios soon became chronically ill and most died. Rivers in the mining regions became saturated with mercury, initiating a chain of ecological transformation, since the element accumulates in animal and plant tissue. Fish caught in waters laden with mercury were eaten by humans, animals and birds, spreading toxicity. Soils were so affected by contaminated river water even in areas far from the mines that the plants they supported mutated over time."


Women had long been accorded enormous respect among native peoples. Many indigenous societies were matrilineal. Communal power was often found in the hands of the women.

For example, in the Apache tradition women have always had influence, working toward a balanced sense of power within the culture. Apache women had control of the household food supply and primary roles in the inheritance of property. Similarly, clan mothers among the Iroquois nations (the Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga and Cayuga) elect leadership of the nation and have the power to remove leaders (sachem) who are unfit. They are seen as the keepers of the family and of the nation.

The European notion of women was strikingly different from that of the indigenous Americans. Women in Europe had long been relegated to subservient positions in society, in the church and in the family. At issue was more than a "division of labour" between the genders; the status of women was deemed inferior to that of men, and women were not accorded the same rights and power as men.

The ideology of female inferiority directly benefited the male-dominated power structures and the men who were in power, including the church hierarchy and the evolving mercantile class — two of the sponsors of (and benefactors of) Columbus' voyage.

European colonists brought with them the ideologies of both male superiority and racism. Many of the conquistadors viewed indigenous, and later African, women as prey for their sexual gratification and domination. Rapes and forced cohabitation were common. Racially, indigenous women were considered "impure", and children born of white European and indigenous unions were also considered impure and inferior.

An attitude of the superiority of the European culture and religion served to justify the conquering of the Indians and the plundering of the resources of the Americas. The Europeans came to the Americas searching for gold, silver, wood, slaves, land — whatever they could steal or usurp. They did so in the name of the church, but dispensed with the religious charge or Christian virtues whenever it was expedient.