Columbus, Indians, and the Guanches

Learn more in my book The Race to the New World

When Christopher Columbus strode ashore in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, he famously called the indigenous people he met “Indians.” The main talking points of his legacy are still the consequences of his arrival for the people who bear that incongruous label: millions would suffer and die, and cultures would struggle to endure the coming waves of the European invasion. We recall as well that on first glance Columbus thought the people of the Bahamas might make good Christians, but also good slaves. It is also about time that we considered more closely his remark, as he approvingly sized up their physiques, that these people resembled Canary Islanders. Because it was in those Atlantic islands off the coast of north Africa, which Columbus and his three ships had departed in early September, that the Imperial machinery of which he was one prominent cog was already consuming another people. The same individuals supporting and funding Columbus on his voyage were also turning the Canary Islands into sugar plantations and enslaving the local people, the Guanches.

Columbus didn’t sail only to prove a better route to the spice islands, but likely as an advance party to support a new phase of conquest of the Canaries. Only when the assault was ready to hit the beach of Tazacorte on La Palma would he strike out west to see if there was yet more wealth to be had from the Indies’ riches for the same circle of financiers. The course Columbus steered followed the money trail to the Canaries and then extended it far beyond, to unimagined opportunities and horrendous consequences.

The references to his Genoese character are so rife among contemporaries, including people who knew him personally, that we need to move on where his “real” nationality is concerned. Instead we have to appreciate how entwined this Genoese was in the maritime commerce of the Atlantic realm funded by fellow Genoese as well as Florentine merchants based in southern Spain. He had found his way initially into the Portuguese Atlantic realm as a representative for prominent Genoese merchant families. There were also Genoese in prominent positions in the Spanish court bureaucracy, including the treasurer of the old kingdom of Seville.

It’s no secret that Columbus borrowed the money for the charter of his flagship, the Santa Maria, from a Florentine slaver in Seville named Gianotto Berardi. Far less appreciated is the fact that as Columbus departed Spain in August 1492 on his celebrated voyage, Berardi was putting up part of the money for a privatized Spanish conquest of one of the holdout Canary Islands, La Palma. A fellow financier of that campaign was a Genoese merchant in Seville named Francesco de Riberol, who probably had met Columbus by then and would become one of his main financial backers. There were other connections, too. Queen Isabel’s accountant promoted both the Canaries conquest and Columbus’s scheme. So did the Genoese treasurer of her old kingdom of Castile, and his nephew would serve as treasurer of the Indies enterprise at Seville.

Never mind notions of spreading Christianity to the benighted of the world, or pursuing humanity’s insatiable love of adventure: money, then as now, sought fresh opportunity, and where opportunities were not at hand, they needed to be created. This was a seamless world of Italian merchants and financiers, Spanish court officials, and mercenary adventurers bent on extending the Spanish realm and making everyone rich in the process. Conquest and the exploitation of new trade routes were what the churn of capital demanded.  Columbus sailed out of an Old World that was at that moment focused on a fresh round of subjugation, and he ended up exporting its sensibilities to the New World that he did find.

But not before he paused in the new theatre of conquest. Columbus and his little fleet lingered in the Canaries for about a month. We don’t know much about what he was up to, beyond having repairs and modifications made to the Pinta on Gran Canaria while he bided time about 100 miles to the west, on Gomera. But Gomera happened to be right next door to doomed La Palma. The invasion, which was under way no later than late September, was gathering logistical steam at this time, hiring foot soldiers on both Gran Canaria and Gomera in preparation for the amphibious assault by about 900 men.

A month was a long time for a voyage commander like Columbus to have lingered in the archipelago, with some ninety men and three ships on two different islands a day’s sail apart, consuming supplies all the while. He was fortunate to even have a flotilla by the time he hoisted sails again. One tradition has it that he was holed up with an old lover, Beatriz de Bobadilla, the governess of Gomera. But a passionate tryst is a suspect explanation for why someone who had spent about a decade trying to find backing for his voyage scheme shed his forward momentum so soon after finally getting under way with a royal commission. We can do better. That he was fulfilling an advance role for the La Palma invasion on behalf of his current financier, Berardi, and his future financier, Riberol, is well worth considering.

Columbus then took with him to the New World not only a ship funded by Berardi, but a slave merchant’s sensibilities. They were on display as he cast a predatory gaze on the people of the Bahamas and wondered if these folks who looked like Canary Islanders would make good Christians or chattel labor. By the time he returned to Spain in the spring of 1493, the La Palma conquest was in its final, bloody throes. Its partners turned to conquering the last island holdout, Tenerife. Columbus for his part sailed back to the discoveries he claimed were on the perimeter of Asia, smarting from the debts he still owed Berardi over the Santa Maria charter. He’d lost the ship on the north coast of Espanola on the first voyage; on the second voyage, he turned that island into a branch operation of the Canaries by mounting a scorched-earth military campaign against the Arawaks who resisted his authority.

When Columbus began rounding up Arawaks, terrified women dropped their infants on the ground and fled into the forest. Some 500 prisoners were sent home—about 200 died on route—to be sold in the slave market of Seville to address his Berardi debt. Alonso de Lugo, the third partner and the military commander in the Canaries venture, tried doing exactly the same thing with Guanche prisoner to address his own personal debts.

Queen Isabel halted the Columbus slave sale. The papal authority that granted Spain the right to Columbus’s discoveries was predicated on the notion of spreading Christianity to the heathen, not on sending the heathen back to Spain as a bulk commodity. But the machinery of conquest chugged on, in both theatres. Tenerife finally succumbed in 1497, and the Spanish found ways to essentially enslave indigenous people in the New World with the encomienda system of enforced labor.

The Canaries were too lucrative to be considered a mere dress rehearsal for the New World’s conquest—and the New World was not even supposed to be in the way of Columbus’s proposed shortcut to Asia’s wealth. But the New World nevertheless was a lucrative spinoff of the subjugation that Columbus’s partners and court supporters tested and proved in the Canaries, where merchant capital of Columbus’s fellow Genoese flooded into the plantation economy. And when Columbus’s discoveries proved to lack trade opportunities with Asia, and to be not quite so bountiful in gold as he’d promised, sugar cane cuttings and the commercial logic behind miserable human labor were imported from the Canaries, to be planted in fertile soil.

Only the inconvenient papal prescription that these heathen were to be converted, and not immediately hacked down or enslaved, slowed the initial grind of the machine. Other nations came forward, eager to operate the machine in the New World with their own sources of capital, and they found ways to categorize people they encountered as irredeemable, incorrigible, or not worth saving. Columbus may have called the people of the New World “Indians,” but really, they were all Guanches.

©2011 Douglas Hunter

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