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The Age of Discovery

Christopher Columbus! Was he a hero or a villian?

You decide!

Columbus, greed, slavery, and genocide: what really happened to the American Indians?


By Dominic Selwood History Last updated: September 2nd, 2014

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1492. The arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean changed everything for the people already living there (State Archives of Florida)

Given the conquests and consequences we see unfolding every day in the Middle East, now is a good time to look at the timeless reality of what happens to people who are in the way.

Christopher Columbus never set foot in the land that would become the United States of America. In fact, he never even saw it.

His four voyages took him to the Caribbean, a small detour to Central America, and a hop to the north-east coast of Venezuela. He had no idea the continent of North America existed, or that he had even stumbled into a “New World”. He thought he had found China, Japan, and the region of King Solomon’s fabled gold mines.

What he had categorically not done was “discover” anything, as somewhere between 50 to 100 million people already lived there quite happily, just as they had done for tens of thousands of years. On the other hand, what he did was to start a brutal slave trade in American Indians, and usher in four centuries of genocide that culled them to virtual extinction. Within a generation of Columbus landing, perhaps only 5-10 per cent of the entire American Indian population remained.

People can argue the semantics of what genocide means, and whether it is applicable in this context. But if it sounds fanciful, consider the UN’s Genocide Convention, passed by the General Assembly in December 1948. Although President Harry S Truman handed it to the US Senate the following year, the US only finally ratified it in 1986, along with a “Sovereignty Package” requiring US consent for any actions brought against the US. The key reason for the delay and conditional ratification was the senators’ concern that the US could be pursued in connection with its treatment of the American Indians (and also African Americans).

It should come as no surprise that the term “genocide” is highly controversial in the context of the American Indians. Nevertheless, this article will tell the story of the destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Americas — predominantly by the Spanish conquistadores, British Puritans, and finally the American settlers — and you can make up your own mind. To start, here are two definitions:

genocide. The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group. 1940s: from Greek genos ‘race’ +

Christopher Columbus

What did we gain?