Jul 13, 2020
Christopher Columbus has become a target of protest in recent weeks. In Baltimore, protesters tore down that city’s Columbus statue and threw the pieces into the harbor. Other cities have taken down their statues before they could be destroyed. Columbus, Ohio, is even reportedly considering changing its name.
As many protestors point out, Columbus brought disaster to the indigenous people who lived in the Americas. Columbus’ voyages also helped to tremendously accelerate the development of capitalism on the scale of the world. From its beginning, this development rested on slavery and the death and displacement of peoples to concentrate wealth in the hands of a capitalist class centered first in Europe.
In 1492 when Columbus set out, the process of capitalist development was in its early stages. The European economy was still overwhelmingly based on agricultural production by peasants, with a ruling class of aristocrats feeding off of them. But especially in northern Italy, the capitalist class was growing, basing itself on trade in silk, cotton cloth, spices, and other commodities that came from Asia. The Spanish monarchy had a big interest in finding ways to get around the Italian control of the trade of these commodities. The funding of Columbus’ voyage was done to find a new route to Asia.
Instead of finding a new route to Asia, Columbus landed in the Bahamas. Columbus would make three more voyages to the Caribbean, establishing the first European colony in the Americas on the island of Hispaniola, in what is now Haiti.
Columbus’ own colony was a disaster for the native people. From day one, Columbus and his fellows sought gold or other riches—that was the point of their voyage. To find these riches, they tortured and enslaved the people they encountered, and killed those who resisted. Within just a few years, most of the Taino people who had lived on Hispaniola were dead.
This was a foretaste of what was to come as the Spanish, English, Portugese, French, and Dutch each carved out their piece of the Americas. These European powers competed to extract the wealth of this “New World” for their own ruling classes. To do so, they destroyed the natives’ means of survival, took their land, and forced this indigenous population into slavery to work on plantations or in mines.
In addition to this brutality, they spread diseases to which the indigenous Americans had no immunity, especially smallpox, but also typhus, yellow fever, and the bubonic plague. Everywhere the Europeans went, they brought death. For instance, Mexico dropped from an estimated population of 22 million indigenous people in 1500 before the Spanish arrived, to about one million by the early 1600s.
As the indigenous population died in huge numbers, the colonial ruling classes sought another source of labor. Their solution was to import enslaved people from Africa as a labor force. Plantations based on the labor of Africans and their descendants expanded throughout the Carribean islands, and they would soon stretch from what is today Maryland all the way south to Brazil. Tens of millions of people were ensnared in a brutal nightmare that lasted for more than 300 years. Other colonies relied on a labor force of indentured servants from Europe—many of whom also died within a few years of their arrival.
The European conquest of the Americas set off by Columbus was not just a disaster for a big part of the human family: it was also central to the development of capitalism. In the centuries to come, huge amounts of wealth would flow from throughout the Americas into the hands of the European capitalist class. This wealth formed a large share of the initial capital that made possible Europe’s economic development, and later the development of the United States with its ruling class imported from Europe.
The conquest of the Americas more than 500 years ago helped lay the basis for today’s concentration of the world’s wealth in the hands of the capitalist class of a few rich countries.