The enslavement, torture, murder, and extermination of the native people of the West Indies followed quickly on the heels of Columbus and his men. It was obvious from Columbus’s journal that the Tainos were not as used to battle and warfare as the Spaniards. Columbus notes that “with 50 men you could subject everyone and make them do what you wished” and that the natives were “such cowards and so fearful” that they were, therefore, easy to rule. This idea was carried back to Europe, setting the tone for the relationship between the natives and the European explorers.
The search for gold was the primary cause for the mistreatment of the native people. On one of Columbus’s later voyages he ordered his men to complete certain tasks to ensure their survival as a colony. His men, however, disliked such hard labor and refused to act. When Columbus returned a few months later to find things worse than when he left, he punished the natives for the failure of his own men. He blamed them for destroying the settlers’ property, stealing their food, and instilling fear. In retaliation for these acts, few—if any—of which had actually occurred, he had his men round up over 1,500 Taino men, women, and children, then forced the Tainos into slavery.
Columbus, in need of a cargo other than gold and spices to ship to Spain, decided to send the Taino slaves as a show of the wealth available in the New World. He loaded the “best men and women” onto ships and sent them off to Europe, thus beginning the widespread enslavement of the native peoples.
While a fairly large number of men and women were enslaved and sent back to Spain, the fate of those left behind was equally disturbing. With each new island conquered and tribe taken, the leader of the current Spanish expedition would gather the captured natives and ask them to swear their allegiance to Spain and the Pope. This ritual was concluded with the following warning:
I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and Their Highnesses. We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as Their Highnesses may command. And we shall take your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord and resist and contradict him.
The natives understood little of this, since the oath was given in Spanish—a language the natives were never taught. The punishment for failure to agree with the above declaration was severe. The natives were forced into slavery. These slaves were then made to do the work of their captors. From finding gold to building settlements, the natives were forced into hard labor under terrible conditions. And if they failed to comply with the orders from the Spanish guards, they were often beaten, tortured, and killed.
Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish missionary who fought for the rights and protection of the native people, gives accounts of this mistreatment in his books on the Spanish invasion of the New World. He describes in vivid detail the punishments that the natives received at the hands of the soldiers and guards. The search for gold was so important to the Spanish leaders that they forced nearly all of the slaves, except young children, to look for the valuable metal. Those who found enough to fill their quota were given a token which they wore as proof of their success. The biggest problem for the people forced to look for gold was that there was very little of it on the islands. The vast amounts of gold of which Columbus spoke when he returned to Spain were nowhere to be found.
Any attempt by the natives to fight back was put down immediately and efficiently by the Spanish invaders. Those who led and participated in a revolt were punished by death. In order to undermine the authority of chiefs within the Taino villages, the Spaniards would gather thirteen of the leaders and, before a gathered crowd of enslaved natives, burn them alive.
This ruthlessness took its toll on the Taino population. When Columbus arrived at Hispañiola in 1492 there were an estimated 8 million people living on the island. By 1496 the population had been cut nearly in half; three to four million natives had died in less than four years. By 1508 the population was less than one hundred thousand. By 1518 there were fewer than twenty thousand. And by 1535, the entire native population of Hispañiola was gone. In just 43 years an entire culture had been eliminated. In fact, every island in the Antilles experienced similar purges and rapid decreases in population.