The Haiti curse

This note is in context of understanding how black holes of the failure of human intelligence and spirit like Haiti exist and then also get rocked by one natural disaster after the other.

I am copying below one small chapter from a book which I have found very thought provoking and enlightening and to which I was introduced by Mr. Raj, an alternate health practitioner who primarily works at correcting imbalances in spiritual energy. A close family friend had introduced him to us to work on my fathers terminal cancer in 2007.

He was aware of my work in environmental issues and gifted me his copy of “The Last hours of Ancient Sunlight” by Thom Hartmann.

This  chapter copied below relates to Columbus’ oppression and havoc on the current islands of Haiti as  he landed there first.  Even as I was following the earthquake and then read this article

I was reminded of my having read the chapter below from “Last Hours…” and how there could be a strong possible connection between what happened there 500 years ago and the sustained misery that the country finds itself in. Some comments are after the passage below. The thoughts are in the context of all places where we carry out cultural and environmental genocide even today.

This chapter will always be soul stirring and special to me because I read it first as I was on my first trip to the United States on June 1st 2007. Till then I had been aware of the Spanish savagery in the Americas but had never read a graphic detailed note on the savagery of the discoverer himself. Two decades of awe, fascination and a general inspiration about the spirit of discovery collapsed within an hour and ironically just as I was about to enter the country itself.


Glimpsing a Possible Future in Haiti and Other Hot Spots

The future is made of the same stuff as the present. – Simone Weil (1909-1943)

Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all. – George Bush, 1989 speech

If you fly over the country of Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, the island on which Columbus landed, it looks like somebody took a blowtorch and burned away anything green. Even the ocean around the port capital of Port au Prince is choked for miles with the brown of human sewage and eroded topsoil. From the air, it looks like a lava flow spilling out into the sea.

The history of this small island is, in many ways, a microcosm for whats happening in the whole world. (emphasis is mine)

When Columbus first landed on Hispaniola in 1492, virtually the entire island was covered by lush forest. The Taino “Indians” who lived there had an apparently idyllic life prior to Columbus, from the reports left to us by literate members of the Columbus’ crew such as Miguel Cuneo.

When Columbus and his crew arrived on their second visit to Hispaniola, however, they took captive about two thousand local villagers who had come to greet them. Cuneo wrote: “When our ships…were to leave for Spain, we gathered…one thousand six hundred male and female persons of those Indians, and of these we embarked in our ships on February 17, 1495 …For those who remained, we let it be known [to the Spaniards who manned the islands fort] in the vicinity that anyone who wanted to take some of them could do so, to the amount desired, which was done.”

Cuneo further notes that he himself took a beautiful teenage Carib girl as his personal slave, a gift from Columbus himself, but that when he attempted to have sex with her, she “resisted with all her strength.” So, in his words, he “thrashed her mercilessly and raped her.”

While Columbus once referred to the Taino Indians as cannibals, there was then and today still is no evidence of this: it was apparently a story made up by Columbus-which is to this day still taught in some US Schools – to help justify his slaughter and enslavement of these people. He wrote to the Spanish monarchs in 1493: “It is possible, with the name of the Holy Trinity, to sell all the slaves which it is possible to sell…Here there are so many of these slaves, and also brazilwood, that although they are living things they are as good as gold…”

Columbus and his men also used the Taino as sex slaves: it was a common reward for Columbus’ men for him to present them with local women to rape. As he began exporting Taino as slaves to other parts of the world, the sex-slave trade became an important part of the business, as Columbus wrote to a friend in 1500: ” A hundred castelanoes [a Spanish coin] are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general that there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls, those from nine to ten [years old] are now in demand.”*

* Letter of Columbus quoted in Eric Williams’ Documents of West Indian History (Port – of – Spain, Trinidad: PNM 1963), and Peter Martyr, De Orbe Novo (1516)

However the Taino turned out not to be particularly good workers in the plantations that the Spaniards and later the French established on Hispaniola: they resented their lands and children being taken, and attempted to fight back against the invaders. Since the Taino were obviously standing in the way of Spain’s progress, Columbus sought to impose discipline on them. For even a minor offense and Indian’s nose or ear was cut off, so he could go back to his village to impress the people with the brutality the Spanish were capable of. Columbus attacked them with dogs, skewered them on poles from anus to mouth, and shot them. Eventually, life for the Taino became so unbearable that. as Pedro de Cordoba wrote to King Ferdinand in a 1517 letter, ” As a result of the sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians chose and have chosen suicide. Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide. The women, exhausted by labor, have shunned conception and childbirth… Many, when pregnant, have taken something to abort and have aborted. Others after delivery have killed their children with their own hands, so as to not leave them in such oppressive slavery.”

Eventually, Columbus, and later his brother Bartholomew Columbus who left in charge of the island, simply resorted to wiping out the Taino altogether. Prior to Columbus’ arrival, most scholars place the population of Haiti/Hispaniola at around 3 million people. By 1496, it was down to 1,100,000, according to a census done by Bartholomew Columbus. By 1516, the indigenous population was 12,000, and, according to Las Casas (who was there) by 1542 fewer than 200 natives were alive. By 1555, every single one was dead. (today not a single Taino is alive: their culture, people, and genes have vanished from the planet.)

As the transported population of slaves from Africa grew in Haiti, people began cutting the forests to create farmland and to use the trees as firewood for cooking and boiling water. As a result, today trees cover less than one percent of Haiti. The denuded land, exposed to rainfall and runoff sped up by the slope of the country’s hills, has been so thoroughly eroded that it has mixed with sewage and carried the stain a full four miles out to sea from Port Au Prince. Millions of people are crowded into the cities, where they provide a ready pool of ultra-cheap labor for multinational corporations, as well as cheap domestic help and inexpensive child and adult prostitutes for the European and American managers of those corporate interests and the occasional tourist.

The legacy of Columbus is that life in Haiti is more than poor: it is desperate. As much as 16 hours a day are spent by the average country-dweller in search of food or firewood, and an equal amount of time is spent by city dwellers in search of money or edible garbage. Diseases ranging from cholera or AIDS run rampant through the overcrowded population.

While Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, it is not unique. The Dominican Republic, which shares the island, is moving in the same direction, as is much of the rest of Central and South America.”


Some thoughts –

1) The Spanish must be beyond competition the most savage and ruthless set of people to inhabit the planet. And it is interesting how the images of savagery that occupy the popular thought are ones either of Africans in dark rainforests or maybe Oriental. In the South and Central American context also I have always been sickened with the kind of brutality with which the Spanish took control of the land and decimated people and cultures which existed there since millenia. And in popular discourse and in documentary programs the general flavour given for all the killing and pillage is one of adventure and heroism.

2) It is quite possible that in going the Taino must have left a curse that whosoever inhabits the land after them would never ever be happy and that is pretty evident in the history of that land. It is incredibly saddening to read the line which describes the people as living idyllic self-sustained lifestyles on a lush land who came to greet Columbus as a show of good will and curiosity towards visitors and then got wiped out in one century (3 million of them gone).

My wonder is that will the curse come to the Spanish at some time? It is ironical that the Africans who themselves underwent significant misery and still do at the hands of the White and Spanish in particular are the ones who bear the brunt now.

3) Will places like Orissa face the same fate one day? In the next two decades to fill the insatiable demand of educated and upwardly mobile people for metals and minerals almost all the forests and tribal people there will be destroyed – leading to a Haiti kind of imagery when flying from above. Forests which are held sacred by tribal communities as the abode of gods will be scooped out awith gaint excavators and the people themselves sent to tin and cement barracks –  will the deeply disturbed spirits of the gods and the people end up leading to sustained misery in Orissa?

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