Monday, February 8, 2016

Did Columbus Introduce Slavery to the New World?

Christopher Columbus
Pioneer Park, SF, CA

Many have asserted that Christopher Columbus introduced slavery into the New World.  Here is one example of the charge leveled at the Genoese explorer...  Here is another account that accuses Columbus of enslaving the indigenous people  (

But are these claims really true?  Did Columbus introduce slavery to the New World?

Certainly Columbus was no emancipator.  He was a man of his time and his era took slavery for granted. According to Bartolom√© de Las Casas, Columbus in 1492 described the native people he encountered on what became known as the island of Hispaniola with a mixture of curiousity and compassion...
Columbus and the Taino
"I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force, I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us. Afterwards they came swimming to the boats, bringing parrots, balls of cotton thread, javelins, and many other things which they exchanged for articles we gave them, such as glass beads, and hawk's bells; which trade was carried on with the utmost good will. But they seemed on the whole to me, to be a very poor people. They all go completely naked, even the women, though I saw but one girl. All whom I saw were young, not above thirty years of age, well made, with fine shapes and faces; their hair short, and coarse like that of a horse's tail, combed toward the forehead, except a small portion which they suffer to hang down behind, and never cut. Some paint themselves with black, which makes them appear like those of the Canaries, neither black nor white; others with white, others with red, and others with such colors as they can find. Some paint the face, and some the whole body; others only the eyes, and others the nose. Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them, for I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their javelins being without it, and nothing more than sticks, though some have fish-bones or other things at the ends. They are all of a good size and stature, and handsomely formed. I saw some with scars of wounds upon their bodies, and demanded by signs the of them; they answered me in the same way, that there came people from the other islands in the neighborhood who endeavored to make prisoners of them, and they defended themselves. I thought then, and still believe, that these were from the continent. It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants (CRK's Italics) and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord, I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn our language."

Columbus did apparently bring six of the Taino people from the isle of Hispaniola back to Barcelona.  Little is know of their fate though all were dead within six months, probably from disease.

So Columbus did think that the natives represented an opportunity for the Catholic church to convert their souls.  He was a devout Catholic whose name, after all, means "bearer of Christ".  He also thought that they were "ingenious" and would make "good servants".  Could those words not have come out of the mouth of Robert Crawley on Downton Abbey?

In Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World we wrote, "In 1492 Christopher Columbus, sailed west from Europe to the New World and changed the world forever. The intrepid navigator was not the first European to reach what would become known as the Americas,
but the impact of this “Italian Invasion” was profound, and its effects are being felt to this day.
Columbus would later be mythologized as the man who dared sail off the edge of the world. Ditties would instruct schoolchildren that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” More recently, Columbus has come under fire by those who point to his lust for gold, his tolerance for slavery, and the sufferings of Native Americans.

Columbus cannot, however, be blamed for all the sins of European colonialism. Slavery was widespread throughout the world in the fifteenth century, and he needed to deliver a return on Ferdinand and Isabella’s investment in his venture. At the end of the day, Columbus was an unbelievably brave visionary who transformed our world."

Aztec Tlacotin

Christopher Columbus was NOT the first to introduce slavery to the New World -- it had been introduced by indigenous people themselves many centuries before Columbus.  The Aztecs had a form of slavery which they called "tlacotin".  Aztec slavery was personal and not hereditary.  Slavery was sometimes used as a criminal punishment.  (

The indigenous peoples of Southern Alaska were a hierarchical society with nobles, commoners and slaves.  A Russian historian wrote, "Institutionalized slavery existed throughout this region in the pre-contact period."  (Source: Russian America, Ilya Vinkovestsky, 2011, p. 20,  The Aleuts had slavery long before the arrival of Europeans as did the Tlingit and Haida tribes.  The Russian Empire, in its pursuit of furs, did little to eliminate slavery in Alaska.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century about a tenth of the Native population were slaves or Kaiury.   Even as late as 1903, after the purchase of Alaska by the USA, there were documented slave sales in the Alaska territory  (

Christopher Columbus had many faults.  He was an Italian invader and he mistook Cuba for a continent.  But it is demonstrably false that he introduced slavery to the New World.

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