Columbus and a cohort of enslavers and settler-colonialists didn’t visit the Caribbean for sightseeing. They wanted wealth, and lots of it, for themselves and the Spanish Court. Without much immediate gold or spices to be taken, Columbus enslaved and sent back people. First, he sends a few dozen, then a batch of 400 or so, in horrific conditions on the ships. While the Court at first accepted them as curiosities, Queen Isabella didn’t like dealing with slaves herself, so she turned them out to be sold in the local markets.
Instead, she asked, where were the spices, gold, and jewels? The Spaniards on Hispaniola noticed some natives with tiny leaves of gold worn as earrings. Where did it come from? High up in the mountains, in the streams. They took a party to show them, including how to dig a trough in the water, sift the mud, and eventually, a speck or two of gold appeared. The Tainos liked the stuff, but not with anywhere near the madness that overtook the Spaniards.
Herein is the source of much evil and suffering. To condense the story, the native Tainos, by the thousands, were turned into a slave proletariat in hundreds of makeshift gold mines, squeezing a good deal of raw gold out of the hills. The human cost was significant. After a year in these conditions, the native workers were ‘walking corpses,’ according to one observer.
We’re told the Indians died from epidemic diseases to which they had little resistance. True, but only a partial truth. They were first beaten in warfare, then reduced to slave conditions and deprivations, then worked nearly to death, and then, significantly weakened, succumbed to Europe’s pathogens. So the disease theory of depopulation can often mask more than it reveals.
In any case, the Taino were dying in droves, and the Spaniards needed more slaves for digging gold and diving for pearls. They tried seizing a people called ‘Caribs’ on outlying islands, but they were too fierce. The tale was told that the Caribs sliced open their captives and ate their flesh. Whether true or not, it kept the Spaniards at bay. It also got back to the Queen, who was trying to write a law against slavery. She wanted the Indians to be her ‘free vassals’ and converted to Catholicism. But she allowed three exceptions: a native could be enslaved if 1. they were cannibals, 2. they were captured in a ‘just war,’ and 3. they were bought from other natives for whom they were already slaves.
The exceptions became the rule, with one departure. Natives brought to Spain and able to get a decent lawyer–a number of enterprising Spaniards specialized in the field–might win their freedom. But not likely across the ocean. The mainland was said to have many people to enslave, so the pressure was on. The first to rise to the demands was Juan Ponce De Leon, who we all know as the guy who claimed Florida while searching for the ‘Fountain of Youth.’ The ‘fountain’ quest was all myth and hype. His real aim was to seize people, load them on his boats, and make them slaves on Hispaniola and other islands. He succeeded and returned to Spain to be made governor of Puerto Rico. He invaded Florida from the West Indies again, but this time he was seriously wounded in battle with the Calusa people. He made it back to Cuba, died there, and was later buried in Puerto Rico. There were two more invasions with vastly different outcomes. We’ll get to them next time.