The plundering genocide against the Indigenous population of the Americas

According to Marx, “The discovery of the gold and silver deposits of America, the extermination, enslavement and burial in the mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and plunder of the East Indies, the conversion of the African continent into a hunting ground for black slaves: these are the facts that mark the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These processes represent fundamental factors in the movement of original accumulation”.

October 12, 1492 is a date that, annually, is celebrated with jubilation by many Spaniards. Probably many of them will not know what this date really means, apart from the partisan and manipulated use that the Spanish state has given it for years, qualifying it as the day of the race, an element of the highest xenophobic and racist expression, as the day of the discovery of the new world, as if America existed only since 1492, or as if this event had meant something positive for the indigenous American population.

However, far from perceiving it from this distorted point of view, for many people this unfortunate date symbolizes the beginning of the decadence, exploitation and misery of the entire American continent for centuries; first through European exploitation and later through Creole exploitation.

Thus, on October 12, 1492, the Spanish ships captained by Christopher Columbus (who would later demonstrate his skills of command and exploiter of slavery), Juan de La Cosa (a wealthy cartographer) and the brothers Vicente Yáñez and Martín Alonso Pinzón (representatives of the Andalusian high bourgeoisie) arrived at the Caribbean coast of Guanahani, This information is not very precise since it is also possible that they disembarked further south, on the coasts of Cayo Samaná, where the indigenous Americans contemplated for the first time the crosses and banners of the unknown westerners, ignoring at that first moment the disaster that this fact was going to suppose for their civilization.

Immediately the most shameful conquest, colonization and massive plundering in history began. First of all, the Castilians limited themselves to the theft of the jewels and valuable objects that the natives possessed. When they were exhausted, they continued with the plundering of the precious metal mines, exploited through the forced labor of an enslaved indigenous population that soon registered a worsening of their standard of living, reflected in a very pronounced increase in the mortality rate in a short period of time.

In this aspect, it is worth highlighting the responsibility not only of the Castilian soldiers, but also of Christopher Columbus himself, so idealized by many, who initiated the first foreign government in America. His government in the Caribbean islands (since the American continent had not yet been explored) lasted from 1492 to 1500, time that Columbus took advantage of for his own personal enrichment and that of his family. Irrefutable proof of this are the enormous powers granted to him in the capitulations of Santa Fe of April 17, 1492, where he obtained absolute powers:

The Spanish royalty not only made Christopher Columbus  viceroy and governor general in the islands and lands that he discovered but of all the merchandise that he stole he got to keep a tenth of it  for himself. And in these newly occupied islands should any lawsuit arise, he or his lieutenant, but no other judge, shall hear the lawsuit and decide on the outcome. (History of the Indies, Bartolomé de las Casas, 1527-1561).

Thus Columbus began, with an iron fist, his government in America. But the economic situation was becoming unsustainable; gold and silver were running out, and he saw the need to look for another resource. His brilliant alternative was not long in coming; trafficking indigenous slaves as merchandise would be the perfect alternative to continue taking economic advantage of the American colonies, so that in a short time enormous quantities of indigenous people passed to the peninsula to be traded and enslaved in the territories of the crown.  Logically this was met by strong reaction of resistance and rejection on the part of the indigenous population, so that in the middle of 1493, and after suffering the exploitation and abuses of the Castilians, they revolted and exterminated the first European colony in America, called Fort Christmas.

After this situation, which quickly got out of Columbus’ hands, Queen Isabella of Castile decided to suspend the inhumane slave trade and put an end to slavery, although we will see later that she did so not for humanitarian reasons but for mere economic interests, to limit Columbus’ absolute power in favor of that of the Castilian-Aragonese crown.

However, this idea of Columbus did not disappear with his expulsion in 1500, and unfortunately passed on to his political successors, such as the government of the clergyman Fray Nicolás de Ovando (1502-1509), who organized the Caribbean enclaves administratively, economically and politically, but who continued with his racist measures against the indigenous population, including a system of forced labor of the indigenous population used as slave labor throughout the islands. In addition the conquistadors revived remnants of the dark medieval past, with the reinstatement of the encomienda system, which produced so many conflicts.

This system consisted of the crown assigning or “entrusting” to the Spanish conquistadors a groups of indigenous people, in order to use them as slave labor and benefit economically from their work, in a situation of absolute exploitation. In addition, as if that were not enough, during this period, the conqueror force fed Western Christian culture to them so that they would forget their past, as well as the Castilian language; a whole process of conquest and acculturation of the American Indians.

With the passage of time, and as a result of the Castilian conquest, an unequal, classist and racist society was initiated and formed, which laid the foundations of the future American society from then on and whose canons, sadly, are still maintained today in these countries. This is the so-called concept of “pigmentocracy” that the explorer Alexander von Humboldt so aptly described in the 18th century, when he said: “In America, the more or less white skin decides the rank of a man in society”.

In this way, social relations in America since the 16th century were based on purely ethnic factors, where the majority of society was socially discriminated against.

For their part, the situation of the black slaves was even more disastrous, since they were legally considered slaves, deported and literally “hunted” like animals in Africa, arriving in America to do the hardest and most unbearable jobs, with terrible sanitation, hygiene and food, and used in extreme working conditions, their freedom was taken away and they were treated as pieces, merchandise and objects, but never as human beings. The conquerors themselves rejoiced in this affirmation (as later the American general George A. Custer would justify the slaughter of North American Indians, in that they were not considered people because they did not have souls and were not Christians). This was a moral recourse widely used at the time.

All this process led, as was logical, to an authentic demographic catastrophe of the American Indian population: 90% of it was exterminated only in the first century and a half of invasion (90 million people). The most accepted theory regarding this fact is the so-called homicidal thesis, pronounced by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in his distinguished book Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, which considers as the main cause of the demographic fall, the continuous tortures, abuses, murders, forced labor, and hygienic and nutritional deficiencies suffered by the Indians since the arrival of the westerners. In this sense, the narrations of the atrocities committed by the Castilians in America are quite explicit, narrated in detail in his book, where we can find testimonies such as these:

The Spaniards made a law that as many Indians of all kinds and ages as they could take alive should be thrown into  holes, as well as pregnant women and children and old men, as many as they could take, were thrown into the holes until they were filled with blood pierced by the stakes.

This is just a fragment of the many detailed killings and tortures that Bartolomé de las Casas was able to see , hear and record of the Spaniards.

Likewise, the documents and testimonies offered from the Castilian sources, such as the so-called “requerimiento” of 1513, where it is textually stated, very explicitly of the treatment of the conquistadors to the Indians:

And if you do not submit, and if you maliciously delay, I will enter powerfully against you and make war against you and subject you to the yoke and obedience of the church and the crown, and I will take your wives and children, make them slaves, sell them, take your goods and do you all the damage and harm that I can, and it is all your fault.

In Galeano’s  book, The Open Veins of Latin America, he  points out that the looting of the Potosi mine alone brought Europe enormous profits, the volume of silver in that one location would have been enough to build a silver bridge between America and Europe. Another bridge could have been built with the corpses of the Indians enslaved in the mine: 8 million Indians were exploited by the Spaniards in the first stage of the plundering of Potosi. An enslaved Indian in Potosi had an average life expectancy of two months (after this period of slavery, he died, and the invaders replaced him with another enslaved Indian). Likewise, the Ouro Preto mine in Brazil swallowed the lives of millions of Africans and brought the invaders capital that would be decisive for European capitalism. As the Iberian Peninsula was indebted because of its holy wars, European bankers reaped all that wealth soaked in human blood and pain.

Following Cecilia Zamudio, October 12 also signifies the beginning of the massive deportation of human beings perpetrated by Europeans from Africa to America: at least 33 million Africans were deported, two thirds of them died in the abominable journeys, and the surviving third were enslaved on the American continent, as well as their descendants for centuries. The European aristocracy and bourgeoisie achieved the greatest accumulation of wealth ever seen, based on the plundering of the American continent, based on the deportation and enslavement of millions of human beings, based on genocide and torture. This unprecedented accumulation of wealth was what allowed European imperialism to cement its supremacy on a planetary level, to drive the industrial revolution, and to establish itself to this day as the metropolis of capitalism. The United States, a former British colony, also established itself as a capitalist power based on slave labor. Among the greatest fortunes in Europe and the United States today are still the descendants of slaveholders and bankers who amassed wealth on the basis of genocide and slavery.

Source: Network in Defense of Humanity, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – English