Columbus exposed as iron-fisted tyrant who tortured his slaves

Christopher Columbus was a despot who ruled his subjects with an iron fist, according to documents which have emerged 500 years after his death.

The man who discovered America for Europe routinely tortured slaves and starved his subjects in colonies on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

Columbus was known to have mistreated native people when he was viceroy in Santo Domingo, the capital of today's Dominican Republic, at the end of the 15th century. But until now it had been put down to his lack of political sensitivity.

The documents suggest a hidden face to the man who, after arriving in the Caribbean in 1492, fell from grace eight years later because of his conduct in Santo Domingo. In 1500, Columbus was brought back from the city as a prisoner on the orders of the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, to stand trial.

Statements from 23 witnesses at his trial were uncovered at the archive of Simanacas, near Valladolid, by an archivist, Isabel Aguirre, who spent a year transcribing them.

Consuelo Varela, a historian in Seville, has studied the documents and believes it is the most important discovery about Columbus's life for a century. Her research, which appears in La Caida de Cristobal Colon (The Fall of Christopher Columbus), reveals the brutal life in the first colony which Columbus set up.

Varela told the Spanish daily El Pais: "Life in the colony in these first seven years was hard and terrible. There was a great deal of hunger, envy, rancour and rumours of all sorts. It was a primitive, insular life, rather like what we see in Western films."She said people, including white Spanish slaves, were auctioned in the main square of Santo Domingo. "We hear of a poor boy who was caught stealing wheat grain. They cut off his ears and nose and put shackles on him and made him a slave. Columbus ran the colony with an iron fist.

"One woman happened to say that Columbus came from a working-class family and that his father had been a weaver. Columbus's brother Bartholme had her tongue cut out, after parading her naked through the streets on a donkey. Christopher congratulated his brother on defending the family honour."

There were many attempts at mutiny in the colony, she said.

The 46-page document shows Columbus and his brothers Bartolme and Diego as tyrants who ruled through summary justice. They also forbade natives from baptism so they could used as slaves. Varela said the documents showed Columbus's "immense greed". He was eventually arrested, tried and dismissed as viceroy of Santo Domingo and governor of the Indies.

"Now we know why he was removed from office and the good reasons for it," she said. "Nobody likes to air dirty laundry, but this is what the document shows."

The exposure has already provoked an angry reaction. Critics say some of the accounts may have come from enemies of Columbus, who were out to damage his reputation. But other accounts come from members of his own close group, even trusted friends. "Even they told of the atrocities that happened," said Varela. "Columbus's government was tyrannical, with no trials or anything similar."

The revelations come as the world marks the 500th anniversary of Columbus' death in 1506. DNA investigations on his descendants are under way in several countries finally to pinpoint the explorer's birthplace, usually attributed to Genoa in Italy. A result is expected later this year.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Day In a Page

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England