From expulsion to native genocide: Columbus’ Voyage and forging the “New World”!

In America, the 12th of October is a national day reserved for “celebrating” Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the “New World” upon arrival in 1492. The discovery narrative is still dominant in America, which precludes alternative ways to read the important events leading up to Columbus’ journey and the consequences emerging from it then and now. One can’t think of Columbus’ voyage without locating its genesis in what is termed the European age of discovery on the one hand and the move to expel Muslims and Jews from Spain, thus leading to defining European identity in specific religious and inimitably racial terms.

Certainly, the 15th and 16th centuries witnessed competition among European powers to fund expeditions in Africa and Asia seeking wealth in distant and yet “undiscovered lands”, to secure new trade routes and access to raw materials. One such expedition resulted in sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and finding an alternative route from Europe to Asia and East Africa, thus bypassing Muslim held lands and avoiding tariffs payments.

On a more global level, Christopher Columbus’ voyage must be connected to Spain and Europe’s campaign against Muslims and Jews in the Iberian Peninsula culminating in the fall of Granada on January 2nd, 1492. The “Reconquista”, a campaign purported to have originated as early as the eighth century, was far more a later development and in reality was a European and Spanish identity construction project emerging in 15th century period than the earlier historically asserted dating.

The Bubonic plague in the 14th and 15th centuries caused the death of 30-60% of Europe’s population, which was utilized by political and religious leaders to launch a campaign to purify the continent from the infidel Muslims and the Jews. A set of distorted theological views on the cause of disease as being God’s punishment on Europe for mixing or allowing Muslims and Jews to exist in the region. While the campaign itself had political and economic motivations; nevertheless the religious mobilization by the Pope and the Church’s hierarchy made for a successful massive campaign culminating in the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain.

The fall of Granada in 1492 coupled with the expulsion and forceful conversion of Muslims and Jews allowed Spain and, by extension Europe, to craft a specific Christian identity that served as the location for the defense of Catholicism on the continent. Europe’s Christian and white racial identity was forged during this critical period and in distinct opposition to Muslims and Jews on the one hand and sectarian Christian conflicts on the other.

The days and months after Granada’s fall witnessed the expulsion of some 200,000 Jews from Southern Spain while those remaining were forced to convert to Christianity (some put the number of Jews expelled at a lower number). Some Muslims initially were permitted to stay but by 1501, all of Granada’s Muslims were subject to new regulations mandating either convert to Christianity, become slaves, or be exiled.

As a matter of official record, all Muslims in the Crown of Castile had been forcibly converted to Christianity in 1502, and a complete prohibition on practice of Islam in the region was instituted. Furthermore, both Jews and Muslims who converted to Christianity earlier were suspected of practicing their religion in private, which resulted in the introduction of the inquisition and a very strict code affecting the private and public spheres. The new code included keeping windows and doors open on Friday to make sure that prayers are not held privately at home, monitor to make sure that washing for religious purposes in not done and dressing in clothing or garments identified with Islam and Judaism. In addition, policing the eating habits of converted Muslims and Jews so as to make sure that they consume pork as a sign of abandoning the religiously mandated dietary restriction.

It wasn’t until September 11th, 1609, during King Philip III reign and on the advice of Archbishop of Valencia Juan de Ribera a decree was issued for the expulsion of all the Moriscos from Southern Spain; these were Muslim converts that continued to practice Islam. Immediately after King Philip’s decree was issued some 2500 Moriscos were killed followed by 650,000 thousands forcefully expelled, some probably being Christians but it did not matter for Spain wanted purity in blood and faith. It is estimated that 2/3 of those expelled died on the way either in crossing the sea or the long journey to various Muslim lands.

Indeed, after Catholicism consolidated Southern Europe by capturing Granada, the last Muslim state, the focus shifted toward finding an alterative route to India with funding of Columbus’ voyage coming from the recently acquired treasures from Alhambra and the rest of the city.

The methods used against Muslims and Jews in the Iberian Peninsula get introduced with renewed vigor in the Americas’. As the effort to claim the land while dispensing with the indigenous population in genocidal project was a similar strategy when looking at the expulsion in Spain. The genocide in the Americas’ was preceded in Europe by the expulsion and a system of religious, cultural and racial otherization directed at non-Whites and non-Christians.

At this period, Christianity and European identity are formed around a racial construct and differentiation is made on its basis between those who mixed with Jews and Muslims; thus are impure versus those deemed to be untainted. The pure blood European is the one who did not have a mixed blood coming from contacts with Muslims and Jews, which for sure was defined in pseudoscientific terms and race theories get developed at the same period.

The racial and religious construct gets introduced immediately in the Americas’ and the native population is treated in similar patterns already developed in Spain and other parts of Europe.

We are certain that Columbus made a total of four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, 1493, 1498 and 1502 landing on the 12th of October in San Salvador in the Bahamas and concluding that it was Japan, then Cuba, which he thought it to be China and finally Hispaniola. Indeed, a more accurate perspective would conclude that Columbus was lost on his way to India and the indigenous people discovered that he was lost.

It was on the second voyage that Columbus took some 1600 slaves from the Arawak tribe sending some 560 of them back to Spain with 200 dying during the voyage and the rest arriving very sick. The door to the indigenous population commodification, otherization and genocide was opened as soon as Columbus and Europeans arrived on the shores of the Americas’ and has yet to stop. The colonization of the Americas’ and the systematic genocide against the native population provided the needed stimuli for the European transatlantic slave trade.

On the European Slave Trade, we must make a direct and explicit association between the genocide of native populations in the Americas’ and the massive exportation of African slaves to work the plantations and build the “new world” to what it became. Free land from the natives and free labor from slaves made it possible for the massive accumulation of wealth for European states and European settlers in the Americas: money drenched and washed in African and native blood is what built the new world.

The modern project was forged on racist basis and the epistemic differentiation between the supposed “civilized” Europe and “barbaric” Southern hemisphere, which served to rationalize the “age of discovery”, conquest, genocide, slavery, colonization and at present the regressive neo-liberal globalization project and militarism. In the Americas’ the new modernity was set in motion and built upon creating different human categories: inferior “Blacks and natives”, superior White Europeans and explicit racial matrix. The indigenous population was assigned a sub-human status that then was mobilized into policy authorizing total dispossession and genocide, but for sure was clothed in Christian religious terms and given a moral and legal purpose through a manifest destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery.

Celebrating Columbus’ “discovery” on 12th of October signifies an acceptance of the methods, strategies and consequences brought about by the new modern world. Certainly with this celebration we get the complete eraser of the link between Muslim and Jewish expulsion, sub-humanization of the indigenous people as well as the omission of the African American slaves toiling from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night to build the US without ever getting recognized or paid for it.

What is required on this day is a call for forming a real “truth and reconciliation” commission that can first develop an inventory of crimes committed against individuals, communities, and nations impacted by the arrival at the modern new world. Also, the commission should take stock of all the properties taken and stolen but more critical accounting for the commodification of Africans past as slaves and presently in the prison industrial complex, being sold as property into slavery in the new world, continued demonization and criminalization. America’s national identity is burdened by the moral weight of genocide of indigenous people, and slavery of African Americans but refusal to confront will not make it go away.

How one can begin to celebrate Columbus day with more native Americans living on the margins, highest unemployment levels in the nation, structurally made addicted to drugs and alcohol, suffering highest rates of infant mortality, teenager suicide, diabetes and heart attacks; highest federal prisoners per-capita rates, drop-outs from school, and the lowest university graduates per capita, lowest business ownership, as well as the lowest standards of living coupled with lowest levels of financial net worth.  If Native Americans were evaluated as an independent nation they would fall into the bottom worst 10 list of countries in the world on all social, economic, educational and health indicators: this is the accumulative effects of systematic and epistemic genocide.

What is the meaning of celebration if the dispossession continues and no rectification has been undertaken, not only in financial terms but more critically in embarking on public recognition of the wrongs done, a profound and sincere national apology and a massive equalizing project! The equalizing project can help America constitute the moral and ethical values needed to make a shift into total embracing of indigenous population, African Americans and all those structurally located on society’s margins.