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Happy Genocide Day

[ 104 ] October 12, 2012 |

On this date 520 years ago, Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the island of Hispaniola Bahamas while looking for Asia. This is the most important event of human history in at least the past 1500 years.

And after Columbus reached the New World, nothing bad ever happened again….

Comments (104)

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  1. John says:

    I thought October 12 was the day he landed in the Bahamas?

    • actor212 says:

      Correct. He first landed on what he called San Salvador, the native Arawak called Guanahani but today is known as Plana Cays

      • rea says:

        Plana Cays is someone’s recent theory, but the case for Watlings Island always seemed to me to be more convincing, and it’s certainly more widely accepted.

        • Aaron Baker says:

          Hmmm, I think Samuel Eliot Morison thought it was Samana Cay. It’s probably like the question which Alpine pass Hannibal used to invade Italy–endlessly contestable.

          • rea says:

            Nope–he thought Watlings. The case for Samana Cay is much more recent, and depends on the notion that Samana Cay has changed significantly since the time of Columbus.

    • rea says:

      Yeah, he didn’t discover Hispaniola until December 5 (and wrecked Santa Maria on the coast on Christmas day).

      • c u n d gulag says:

        Tha Bahamas.

        Maybe Columbus wasn’t looking for a shortcut to the East, but a place to store his money off shore from Spain?

  2. actor212 says:

    Talk about illegal immigrants…

  3. Clark says:

    Flip Wilson provided the best historical account.

  4. j.e.b. says:

    520 years, not 510, but what’s a decade among enemies?

  5. somethingblue says:

    One could hardly pick a more appropriate day for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to … the European Union!

    Next year: the Koch Brothers share it with BP.

    • Vance Maverick says:

      For an entire (somewhat strangely delimited) continent to stop massacring each other, cold turkey, is pretty impressively irenic. Whether the credit belongs to the EU discretely is arguable.

      • somethingblue says:

        Well, if we ignore the minor, erm, genocide in the former Yugoslavia …

        Personally I can’t see that the EU is doing much right now except working hard to achieve the immiseration of a good many of its citizens. There are, to put it mildly, more deserving recipients.

        • Vance Maverick says:

          Nah, even if we don’t ignore it, it’s the exception that proves the rule. Up through 1945, the people on that continent were slaughtering each other on a far greater scale. Since then, not so much. While I’m with you on the current economic effects of the system, that doesn’t take away from the achievement of peace.

          • ajay says:

            Not only has the EU/EC/EEC been impressively good at stopping its members going to war for a record 60 years and counting, it has also been fairly good at encouraging non-members not to go to war either (or be dictatorships) if they want to become EU members one of those days. Not entirely successful – former Yugoslavia – but, again, a decent record.

            They don’t deserve sole credit, true, and their economic record isn’t unblemished. It might have been better to have given the Peace Prize to NATO.

            And take a look at

            • mpowell says:

              I agree. It’s either NATO or the EU, but I’d give the EU the nod. Obviously, there are a lot of factors at work, but I think it’s the best way to say, hey, peace in Europe has been a pretty big deal and the type of thinking represented by the EU is more or less responsible. Everybody kind of knows that war is a negative sum game but having an entity like the EU out there does a great job of just cutting out the possibility of political developments that would allow states to do something against their interests like start a war.

            • I don’t think NATO deserves the credit. The European Union required its member-states to engage in serious transformations, both of their internal policies and of their relationships with their neighbours. NATO, for its part, counted Salazar’s Portugal and the Greece and Turkey of the juntas among its members.

              • Rhino says:

                Something about handing a peace prize to NATO, which fields an army, seems somehow surreal.

              • ajay says:

                NATO, for its part, counted Salazar’s Portugal and the Greece and Turkey of the juntas among its members.

                Well, that’s true, but it isn’t the Nobel Democracy Prize, it’s the Nobel Peace Prize. And NATO’s got better; the Partnership for Peace programme had some impact on democracy promotion. In the 1990s there was a clear path for the former Warsaw Pact nations through PFP into NATO and thus into the EU.

    • Jon H says:

      Give the record of Peace Prize recipients lately, a German somewhere probably started growing a funny little mustache and writing a terrible book.

  6. slybrarian says:

    No, no, no. Columbus landed in China, or perhaps that strange land to its east, Japan. The man insisted on this fact to the day he died, and surely we cannot argue with such a great explorer! Nor can we argue with his figures about the size of the Earth, of course, since he had such a successful voyage.

  7. Brandon says:

    Charles Mann’s 1491 was a really interesting review of the Americas before Columbus arrived.

    • The sequel, cleverly titled 1493, was just as good. The two combined do a marvelous job of describing a truly lost world about which we’ll only ever have the tiniest fragments of knowledge.

    • Jeremy says:

      Between this book and Lies My Teacher Told Me, I’ve had to relearn most of what I was taught in school.

      • John says:

        I found Lies My Teacher Told Me to be patronizing and obnoxious, largely because I learned in high school history class most of the stuff he claimed they didn’t teach in high school history classes.

        • Bob Loblaw says:

          You were lucky then, because I sure didn’t learn that stuff in school.

        • Fighting Words says:

          Well, you must have had a much better high school history teacher than I did. I was in high school in the early 1990′s, and read “Lies My Teacher Told Me” around 1996-97, and a lot of what was in “Lies” was never taught to me. I definately got taught the “America can do no wrong, and even when America did do wrong, good hearted white people saved the day,” history.

          • marijane says:

            Same here. In 91-92, my AP History class used _The American Pageant_ for it’s text, which was one of the twelve books Loewen covers. Our teacher chose it because one of the authors, Thomas Bailey, had been on the College Board. I got a 5 on the AP History exam, too.

        • DocAmazing says:

          You are probably younger than forty, n’est-ce pas? Thanks to books like Lies My Teacher Told Me and Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, many changes were wrought in high school history curricula in many states.

        • mpowell says:

          You should be able to recognize that even if a minority of American high school students are taught many of the things he highlights in the book, the book was worth writing. And the fact is that it’s probably more like a majority. He based his claim on textbook content after all. It doesn’t make the book obnoxious just because you were taught better.

    • DrDick says:

      I highly recommend the three volume Columbian Consequences, edited by David Hurst Thomas. A bit older, but a fine multifaceted perspective from established scholars.

  8. Icarus Wright says:

    Colombus’ landing in the Bahamas was faked; the whole thing was shot on a sound stage.

  9. c u n d gulag says:

    Too bad they didn’t self-deport, eh?

    Instead, the Europeans, did a corporate take-over, down-sized the natives, took their assets to make huge profits, fought over those profits amongst one another until finally one group took control, and incorporated as The United States of America, Inc.

  10. Lee says:

    On the other hand, an alterante history without 16th-17th century imperialism or 19th-20th century imperalism isn’t necessarily going to be better than our own. It’ll be very different and probably not worse but at the same time not better. Modernity in all its good and bad forms might not have happened without imperalism and most of us could have still been living in very traditional, hierarchical, and patriarchal societies.

    I haven’t really seen a convincing counter-factual on how to reach the good parts of modernity without the bad parts or why the world would be a better place without the European colonization of the Americas. It would be better for indigenous Americans and untold numbers of Africans but would there have been a general increase in material living standards or even wide-spread democracy without colonization of the Americas. The world might be something more like the Renaissance than the 21st century.

    • Lee says:

      At the time of Colombus hit the Bahamas, my ancestors were recently expelled Jews from Spain on my mother’s side or poor Eastern European Jews on my father’s side. Without the colonization of the Americas, my family and most other Jews could still be second-class citizens of some Christian or Muslim state if societies remained more traditional.

    • Digger says:

      I’m not sure the argument that our civilizations bad acts are fine, because otherwise our lives might not be as nice is going to carry a lot of weight with anyone outside of us. Then again most of them are either dead, or have been impoverished through centuries of colonization and slavery, so it’s not they really count.

  11. DrDick says:

    after Columbus reached the New World, nothing bad ever happened again….

    When Columbus landed on Hispanola in 1492, there are estimated to have been about 500,000 Taino living there. By 1508, that number was reduced to 60,000 and by 1542 there were none (thought there are still mestizos of Taino descent on the island).

    • ajay says:

      What happened to the Taino?

      The Caribs are believed to have migrated from the Orinoco River area in South America to settle in the Caribbean islands about 1200 AD, according to carbon dating. Over the century leading up to Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean archipelago in 1492, the Caribs mostly displaced the Maipurean-speaking Taínos, who settled the island chains earlier in history, by warfare, extermination and assimilation.

      • DrDick says:

        The Taino were a large diverse group of peoples who shared a common language and cultural elements, but were divided into many different political groups scattered across many different Caribbean islands. There were 5 different chiefdoms on Hispanola alone and others on the Bahamas, the other Greater Antilles, and the northern Lesser Antilles. The Carib were restricted to the southern Lesser Antilles at contact. The extinction of the Taino on Hispanola was entirely a consequence of the Spanish.

  12. mark f says:

    Columbus’s diary from the day he crashed his ship is awesome. “The people on the island came out and helped us. They were really nice, worked hard and saved our asses, thatsferdamnsure. They’d make really excellent slaves!”

  13. Brandon C. says:

    In the past 1500 years? Since the fall of the Roman Empire? Or did some other thing happen around 500 C.E. I’m forgetting about?

  14. Jeremy says:

    That would be my guess.

  15. rea says:

    Okay, I’ll be the contrarian who points out:

    (1) Incan and Aztec imperialism was every bit as nasty as Spanish imperialism, which is a big part of how Cortez and Pizarro managed to pull of their conquests.

    (2) Without excusing European murderousness, the huge death tolls were racked up by diseases. I’m not sure how transAtlantic contact could have occurred in that era without the diseases resulting. If the Spanish had come as peaceful traders and not conquerers, and handed out free pneys (and pigs) to everyone, everyone dies just the same.

    (3) Columbus was a slaver and a murderer, but not a genocide, unless accidental genocide is possible.

    • rea says:

      ponies, not pneys

    • Joe says:

      Yes. And, “Columbus” wasn’t the problem there. It was the mentality of the times. A mentality that was not purely European either as #1 suggests though I’m more aware of Aztec imperialism than Inca.

      I’m all for realistic analysis here & blithe potshots at Columbus isn’t that helpful there.

      • Lee says:

        Invasion, conquest, raiding, and pillaging were pretty much accepted behaviors for most of humanity. Nobody liked to be the victim of it but it was not seen as weird.

    • DrDick says:

      Actually he did wage genocidal campaigns against the Taino when they revolted against Spanish brutality and exploitation, though most native deaths in the New World were a consequence of epidemic diseases (totally absent in the Americas prior to contact).

      • rea says:

        This sort of thing tends to get bogged down in fruitless discussions of the meaning of “genocide.” I’m not sure that the author of a program of enslavement enforced by mass murder has any claim of moral superiority over over a genocide, even if there is a distinction between the two. The behavior of Columbus on Hipaniola was bad enough to shock even Queen Isabella, and get him chained up, thrown into the hold of a caravel, and shiped back to Spain.

        • DrDick says:

          I tend to avoid overuse of the term, though I think it can aptly be applied to Columbus’s behavior on Hispanola (but not Cortes in Mexico or Pizarro in Peru). Claims that all European colonization was genocidal (or that genocide was ever US policy) are clearly hyperbolic.

          • Anonymous says:

            I think you can call certain incidents and campaigns acts of genocide without concluding ALL European and American interactions with the indegenous Americans were genocidal. The Trail of Tears and the Conquest of the Desert in Argentina come to mind. But yeah, it was mostly disease probably followed by alcoholism which really screwed over the natives.

          • Anonymous says:

            And characterizing American POLICY as deliberately genocidal is pretty ridiculous, though an understandale reaction to the previous narratives about brave pioneers vs brutal savages etc etc.

          • Dr. Dick, I’ve been meaning to ask you:

            What was the plague that killed off most of the people living in New England a few years before the Puritans arrived? Where did it come from?

            Bradford writes about heaps of bones in the woods.

      • Jon H says:

        “Actually he did wage genocidal campaigns against the Taino when they revolted against Spanish brutality and exploitation, though most native deaths in the New World were a consequence of epidemic diseases (totally absent in the Americas prior to contact).”

        I’m inclined to cut some slack for the diseases, which they had no clue about. Also, if first contact had been from New World people visiting the Old World, then returning to the New World, the same result likely would have happened.

        • rea says:

          Something similar happened in Europe, when contact with China down the overland silk trade route brought the Black Plague

        • T. Paine says:

          They knew about diseases. Tamerlane catapulted diseased bodies over city walls to spread plague. Also, if we’re going to argue about “what does genocide mean?!” let’s recall that you are presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of your actions – which include introducing extremely virulent diseases to populations that didn’t have exposure to them. You don’t have to understand germ theory to know that exposure to such diseases kills people. Put me down for Columbus perpetrating genocide.

          • ajay says:

            They knew about diseases. Tamerlane catapulted diseased bodies over city walls to spread plague.

            Which wouldn’t have worked, because you don’t catch plague from the bodies of plague victims. It’s transmitted via flea bites, and dead people don’t have any fleas. Timur didn’t know this because he didn’t know how diseases worked.

  16. ajay says:

    On this date 520 years ago, Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the island of Hispaniola Bahamas while looking for Asia. This is the most important event of human history in at least the past 1500 years.

    I don’t quite follow the mockery here. Seems like a monumentally important event to me. Initiation of contact between the Old World and the Americas? You don’t think that’s very important?

  17. Josh G. says:

    The best books I’ve read on the Columbian Exchange are Charles C. Mann’s 1491 and 1493. I’d be interested to hear about other posters’ favorite readings on this subject.

  18. The Vikings says:

    You know, we were really the first white guys here but nobody gives us a holiday. :(

    • rea says:

      You missed it–it was 3 days ago.

    • Lee says:

      You forgot to leave a permanent impact. Columbus knew to make his mark.

      • heckblazer says:

        Normally you don’t think of vikings as slackers in the death and destruction department.

        • Rhino says:

          I have heard it opined that the only reason you don’t see much actual genocide from the Vikings is that they didnt actually give a shit about the people they were killing, they just wanted the loot.

          If it was easier/cheaper to trade for it, they would.

          Plus, norse religion is decidedly not evangelical, so they had no religious imperative to ‘kill em all and let god sort em out’.

  19. Brandon C. says:

    Out of curiosity, why did so many natives die of disease and so few Europeans? Were the Europeans just so steeped in bad hygiene practices that their diseases were that much stronger?

    • Josh G. says:

      My understanding is that it is mostly because the native Americans were isolated from other population groups for so long. Most Eurasian diseases jumped from domestic animals (cattle, pigs, etc.) to people; by 1492, natural selection ensured that the surviving Eurasians had at least some immunity or resistance to most of them. But there were few domestic animals in the New World before the Columbian Exchange, and those few (e.g. Incan llamas) were not the same as Old World species. The people of the New World were hit with deadly diseases for which they had no resistance, resulting in death tolls sometimes exceeding 90%. The epidemics spread like wildfire; many natives died without ever seeing a white person.

      • Zoltar the Magnificent says:

        I’d also understood that native Americans branched off of a Siberian hunter-gatherer population with no resistance to diseases of domestication that hadn’t developed yet* and that there was also a population bottleneck/founder effect that resulted in less diversity in the area of the genome governing the immune system

        *AFAIK some Siberian hunter-gatherer groups had death tolls above 80% following contact with European Russians in the 18-19th centuries

    • DrDick says:

      A couple of factors are indicated. Long exposure to these diseases had exerted selective pressure on Eurasian and African populations resulting in more people with genetic resistance to the diseases. Since there were no epidemic diseases in the Americans prior to European contact, few Natives had such resistance. It is also the case that Native Americans are the most genetically homogenous human population (the further you get from Africa, the less genetic variation there is).

  20. Major Kong says:

    In fourteen hundred ninety three Columbus stole all he could see.

  21. Anonymous says:

    What gift to celebrate the occasion would you substitute for the traditional smallpox?

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