Earlier this week, the media was abuzz with news that an underwater archaeologist had found Christopher Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria! The Santa Maria sank on Christmas Day 1492, just three months after Columbus traveled to the “new world” — with Papal Bull in hand — by sailing the ocean blue (as the song goes). It hit reefs off the Haitian coast and rather than let the ship sink without making the most of the materials, Columbus ordered some of the ship’s timbers to be stripped and used to build a fort near the shore.
The Santa Maria was the largest of the three ships that Queen Isabella I of Spain funded on Columbus’ voyage, with the other two ships being the Nina and the Pinta. However, finding the sunken ship presents an opportunity to educate others on the atrocities that were condoned by Columbus and others.
In Columbus’ personal journal, he wrote about slavery, stating: “We can send from here, in the name of the Holy Trinity, all the slaves and Brazil wood which could be sold.”
He wrote about sexual slavery as well, writing this: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.”
He continued expanding Spain’s reach and it wasn’t long before the Caribbean beckoned to him.
In fact, in 1495, he directed his men to round-up 1,500 Arawaks. He then selected the top 500 specimens and sent them back to Spain as slaves. En route, 200 died but 300 arrived. King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain did not approve of this, and returned their slaves to Haiti.
As a result of his third trip from Spain in the summer of 1498, he sighted an island he named Trinidad, and then moved on to exploring the Gulf of Paria which leads to mainland South America. It wasn’t long before he found the mouth of the Orinoco River leading Columbus to believe that he had found the original Garden of Eden.
But there’s more than just that. When Columbus arrived in the “new world,” the Tainos numbered as many as eight million at the outset, and four years later, there were only three million. Upon his arrest, there were 100,000. However, his policies remained in place which meant that by 1514, the Spanish census of the island indicated that there were almost 22,000. By 1515, there were only 4,000 left. By 1542, there were only 200, and by 1544, there were only 60 left. After that, they were considered extinct.
The unconscionable behavior or Spaniards meeting up with Indigenous peoples for the first time is documented by others as well including Bartolome de las Casas who spoke as an eye-witness to the cruelty. But this isn’t about what Bartolome de las Casas witnessed but rather what Christopher Columbus aka Cristoforo Colombo aka Cristóbal Colón did.
Francisco de Bobadilla (Spanish soldier who arrested Christopher Columbus on Santo Domingo (the island of Hispaniola) replaced Columbus as the Governor of the Indies (Columbus was arrested for his crimes) in 1500. He then wrote a 48-page document with witness testimony of the crimes perpetrated by Columbus and at Columbus’ behest, over a 7-year period. What infuriated de Bobadilla wasn’t so much the atrocities committed against the indigenous peoples (although that did bother him), but rather, the fact that Columbus had hanged five spaniards.
While it’s true that Columbus was arrested after he surrendered to the new authorities, charged, and sent back to Spain for his crimes, what’s not so well-known is what happened afterwards. Columbus was set free, the charges were dropped, his honors and titles that were taken from him at the time of his arrest were returned to him, and he was allowed to cross the ocean blue again, to return to Santo Domingo.
But the atrocities against Indigenous peoples didn’t end there. There were others who came after him in Spain’s name: others like Nicolás de Ovando. But this article isn’t about the atrocities committed by Nicolás de Ovando.
So did Barry Clifford find the Santa Maria? Laurence Bergreen says “no” and offers compelling evidence to support his opinion.
In the end, does it really matter if the Santa Maria has or has not been found? What matters is that this announcement has allowed for people to discuss the way indigenous people found by Christopher Columbus were treated and mistreated. And it opens up the dialogue for discussing what continues to be unaddressed wrong doing over the centuries.
Additional Suggested Reading
The Indigenous People of the Caribbean
edited by Samuel W. Wilson
The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus
by Irving Rouse
A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and Carib to the Present
by Jan Rogonzinski
A Concise History of the Caribbean
by B. W. Higman
Idle No More: Heathens and Infidels
by Elyse Bruce