Quotes from Bartholome de Las Cases writings (priest who traveled with Columbus)
They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!
And never have the Indians in all the Indies committed any act against the Spanish Christians, until those Christians have first and many times committed countless cruel aggressions against them or against neighboring nations.
They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike.
They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.
Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits.
They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house
These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world.
They made a grid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them.
With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim’s neck, saying, “Go now, carry the message,” meaning, Take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains.
We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million.
Michel de Cuneo quote from the Journal of Christopher Columbus: https://www.vox.com/2014/10/13/6957875/christopher-columbus-murderer-tyrant-scoundrel
It’s somewhat old hat at this point to point out that Christopher Columbus — in whose name children are off school and mail isn’t delivered today — was a homicidal tyrant who initiated the two greatest crimes in the history of the Western Hemisphere, the Atlantic slave trade, and the American Indian genocide.
Rehashing all of his crimes would require a much longer article, not least because evaluating the claims of contemporary primary sources is a somewhat tricky historiographical enterprise. Philadelphia Magazine’s Michael Coard has a good survey here; Howard Zinn’s work on this is controversial, but you can find a good excerpt at Jacobin and an illustrated version at the Oatmeal.
Here are just a handful of specific cases, mostly culled from Laurence Bergreen’s biography (2011), Columbus: The Four Voyages, of unimaginable cruelty inflicted by Columbus and his crew during their time in the Caribbean.
1) Columbus kidnapped a Carib woman and gave her to a crew member to rape
Bergreen quotes Michele de Cuneo, who participated in Columbus’s second expedition to the Americas (page 143):
While I was in the boat, I captured a very beautiful woman, whom the Lord Admiral [Columbus] gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked — as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought she had been brought up in a school for whores.
2) On Hispaniola, a member of Columbus’s crew publicly cut off an Indian’s ears to shock others into submission. Hispaniola, now divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. NASA/JPL/SRTM
After an attack by more than 2,000 Indians, Columbus had an underling, Alonso de Ojeda, bring him three Indian leaders, whom Columbus then ordered publicly beheaded. Ojeda also ordered his men to grab another Indian, bring him to the middle of his village, and “‘cut off his ears’ in retribution for the Indians’ failing to be helpful to the Spaniards when fording a stream” (Bergreen, 170-171).
3) Columbus kidnapped and enslaved more than a thousand people on Hispaniola
According to Cuneo, Columbus ordered 1,500 men and women seized, letting 400 go and condemning 500 to be sent to Spain, and another 600 to be enslaved by Spanish men remaining on the island. About 200 of the 500 sent to Spain died on the voyage, and were thrown by the Spanish into the Atlantic (Bergreen, 196-197).
4) Columbus forced Indians to collect gold for him or else die
Columbus ordered every Indian over 14 to give a large quantity of gold to the Spanish, on pain of death. Those in regions without much gold were allowed to give cotton instead. Participants in this system were given a “stamped copper or brass token to wear around their necks in what became a symbol of intolerable shame” (Bergreen, 203).
5) About 50,000 Indians committed mass suicide rather than comply with the Spanish
Bergreen explains, page 204:
The Indians destroyed their stores of bread so that neither they nor the invaders would be able to eat it. They plunged off cliffs, they poisoned themselves with roots, and they starved themselves to death. Oppressed by the impossible requirement to deliver tributes of gold, the Indians were no longer able to tend their fields, or care for their sick, children, and elderly. They had given up and committed mass suicide to avoid being killed or captured by Christians, and to avoid sharing their land with them, their fields, groves, beaches, forests, and women: the future of their people.
6) 56 years after Columbus’s first voyage, only 500 out of 300,000 Indians remained on Hispaniola
Population figures from 500 years ago are necessarily imprecise, but Bergreen estimates that there were about 300,000 inhabitants of Hispaniola in 1492. Between 1494 and 1496, 100,000 died, half due to mass suicide. In 1508, the population was down to 60,000. By 1548, it was estimated to be only 500.
Understandably, some natives fled to the mountains to avoid the Spanish troops, only to have dogs set upon them by Columbus’s men (Bergreen, 205).
7) Columbus was also horrible to the Spanish under his rule
While paling in comparison to his crimes against Caribs and Taino Indians, Columbus’s rule over Spanish settlers was also brutal. He ordered at least a dozen Spaniards “to be whipped in public, tied by the neck, and bound together by the feet” for trading gold for food to avoid starvation. He ordered a woman’s tongue cut out for having “spoken ill of the Admiral and his brothers.”
Another woman was “stripped and placed on the back of a donkey … to be whipped” as punishment for falsely claiming to be pregnant. He “ordered Spaniards to be hanged for stealing bread” (Bergreen, 315-316). Bergreen continues:
He even ordered the ears and nose cut off one miscreant, who was also whipped, shackled, and banished from the island. He ordered a cabin boy’s hand nailed in public to the spot where he had pulled a trap from a river and caught a fish. Whippings for minor infractions occurred with alarming frequency. Columbus ordered one wrongdoer to receive a hundred lashes — which could be fatal — for stealing sheep, and another for lying about the incident. An unlucky fellow named Juan Moreno received a hundred lashes for failing to gather enough food for Columbus’s pantry.
8) Settlers under Columbus sold 9- and 10-year-old girls into sexual slavery
This one he admitted himself in a letter to Doña Juana de la Torre, a friend of the Spanish queen: “There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.”
9) Indian slaves were beheaded when their Spanish captors couldn’t be bothered to untie them
Benjamin Keen, a historian of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, noted that multiple sources confirmed accounts of “exhausted Indian carriers, chained by the neck, whose heads the Spaniards severed from their bodies so they might not have to stop to untie them.”
Update: A prior version of this article used another translation of Columbus’s letter that wasn’t as clear that he was speaking of 9- and 10-year-olds; a different translation was substituted for clarity.