In 1492, Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World. Sailing under the flag of Spain, the Italian navigator made landfall in what we now call the Bahamas. Columbus would ultimately make a total of four voyages without apparently ever realizing he had found the Americas and not a sea route to East Asia.
Columbus was a man of his time. He was sailing for Spain, which was only just completing a centuries-long campaign to drive out Muslim invaders and regain control of its territory. Christian Europe as a whole remained mired in a seemingly endless war with Ottoman Turkey, which would not conclude fully for hundreds of years to come. Within Europe wars between Catholics and Protestants were every bit as brutal and as merciless as the ongoing struggle between Christendom and Islam.
Losers were killed or enslaved. Cities were burned to the ground and sacked when taken. For all combatants on all sides, there was one true God, and tolerance was a sign of weakness.
The first people Columbus encountered in the Caribbean were the Arawak. At least that is the name by which Columbus and the Spaniards who followed him knew them. The exact origin of that name and the precise name by which these people called themselves remains a matter of debate.
The Arawak had inhabited the Caribbean for roughly five thousand years before Columbus came, having apparently migrated from South America and gradually spread from island to island. Columbus and his men were not the first invaders of the Arawak’s islands, however. Those were the Carib.
The Carib were another group of Native Americans and also originated in South America. Unlike the Arawaks, however, who were generally peaceful, the Carib were warlike and aggressive. They have sometimes been compared to the Vikings of the Old World, and when Columbus made landfall for the first time the Carib were in the process of conquering the Caribbean islands.
The Carib had a strict, martial structure to their society. They raised their men to endure hardship and to be skilled warriors. Adult males captured by the Carib were typically killed. Adult women were taken and kept as wives or concubines. So prevalent was the practice of capturing Arawak women that at least in some places Carib men spoke the Carib language while amongst the women Arawak was the common language. The Carib also engaged in at least some degree of ritual cannibalism, eating portions of the bodies of their enemies.
Arawak leaders early on began to attempt to get Columbus to assist them in combatting the Carib. Columbus found in his own encounters with the Carib that they were highly aggressive and fierce fighters. In fact, it would be fully two hundred years before the Spanish themselves were ultimately able to fully defeat the Carib and drive them back to the mainland of South America.
In short, what Columbus found in the New World was what he had left behind in the Old, people at war with other people. He did not sail into some idyllic paradise. The Carib and the Arawak may have been unknown to Europeans before Columbus arrived. That did not stop them from acting the same way people have always acted all over the globe.
Cortez walked into the same kind of situation decades later when he marched on the Aztec Empire. His ultimate success was due in no small measure to the fact that many thousands of Native Americans marched with him and helped to overthrow Montezuma. For them, the Aztecs were not fellow Native Americans. They were invaders who had only recently conquered and enslaved them and subjected many of their people to ritual sacrifice.
It has become the rage amongst the poorly educated self-proclaimed “elite,” who apparently either slept through history class or never read anything not approved by Marxist “intellectuals” to ascribe all of the world’s ills to the actions of white Europeans or their descendants. In this fantasy view of mankind’s progress, the entire world was apparently filled with peaceful, non-Caucasian tribes and kingdoms until one day rapacious Europeans arrived and spread nothing but death and destruction in their wake.
The world is a lot more complex. When European ambassadors were admitted to the presence of the Turkish sultan at the height of the Ottoman Empire they were informed they could enter with the words “Let the dogs be fed.” That same Ottoman Empire filled its armies throughout much of its existence with hundreds of thousands of Christian boys stolen in massive slaving operations into the Balkans and the Ukraine. It also filled its harems with Slavic women acquired in the same way.
When Portuguese and English slavers arrived in West Africa to buy slaves for transport to the New World they purchased their human cargo from black Africans who had captured the slaves in wars against other African kingdoms. The crews of those slave ships, should they become shipwrecked on the coast of Africa were likely to be enslaved themselves as infidels.
When the Dutch settlers of what is now South Africa moved inland from the Cape in the 1600’s they soon encountered a wave of black African conquest coming south. These were the Zulu, crushing and enslaving all the other African tribes in their way and building one of the largest, most powerful empires in the history of the world. Along the way, the original inhabitants of the area, the people known as the Bushmen, were shoved aside by all parties concerned and hung on in only the most inhospitable portions of the region.
This is the history of the world. It is one filled with conquest, enslavement, and fear.No one group – racial, ethnic, or religious – has a monopoly on any of these things. None of them has been immune either.
The way ahead, the road to a better, kinder, more just future does not lie in rewriting this history to serve somebody’s current political agenda. It lies in accepting and understanding this history and vowing that we will all do better moving forward. It lies in seeing clearly the world Columbus found and recognizing the fundamental truth – it was filled with people.