Challenging Racism, Challenging History
James W. Loewen
Racist acts by white men in the Americas began on October 14, 1492, two
days after the arrival of Christopher Columbus.∞ In his journal, Columbus
tells about his actions that day: ‘‘These people are very unskilled in arms, as
Your Highnesses will see from the seven whom I caused to be taken in order
to carry them o√.’’≤
Indeed he brought the seven Tainos back to Spain to
show to his patrons, along with parrots and produce. Ferdinand and Isabella
then provided Columbus with 1,200–1,500 men, 17 ships, cannons, cross-
bows, guns, cavalry, and attack dogs for his return. This second voyage
marks the real significance of Christopher Columbus, for in 1493 he under-
took an enterprise altogether new in human history: the conquering of one
land (Haiti, first) by another (Spain) an ocean away. At the same time he
started the subjugation of one people (‘‘Indians,’’ as renamed by Columbus)
by another (‘‘Europeans,’’ as they later came to be called, or ‘‘whites’’),
concomitantly introducing the ideology of racism. Soon enough a Catholic
bishop in Spain was denying the basic humanity of Native Americans to
rationalize enslaving them. We live with the consequences to this day.
Antiracist acts by white men in the Americas likely began shortly thereaf-
ter, but the first such are lost to history. Perhaps some sailors on the first
voyage argued against capturing the seven Tainos. As the Spanish conquered
first Haiti, then Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, they started the practice of
encomiendas—‘‘commending’’ a whole village to one Spanish conquistador
for his private governance, use, and enrichment. We do know that by 1511,
some Spaniards were speaking out against the resulting enslavement and
maltreatment of Native Americans. On Christmas Day of that year a Domin-
ican friar, Antonio de Montesinos, thundered from a pulpit in Haiti: ‘‘Tell
me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel
and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged a detestable
war against these people who dwelt quietly and peaceably on their own
land? . . . With the excessive work you demand of them they fall ill or die, or
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