The Hidden History of Guns and the 2nd Amendment
Chapters 4 & 5
From Columbus to Jamestown
They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.
—President Andrew Jackson, in his fifth State of the Union address to Congress, December 3, 1833
When Columbus and his crew arrived on their second visit to Hispaniola, they came with enough cannons, guns, and swords to take captive about 1,600 local villagers who had come out to greet them.
Miguel 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 island’s fort] in the vicinity that anyone who wanted to take some of them could do so, to the amount desired, which was done.”1
Cuneo further recalled that he took a beautiful teenage Carib girl as his personal slave, a gift from Columbus himself, but when he attempted to have sex with her, she “resisted with all her strength.” So, in his own words, he “thrashed her mercilessly and raped her.”
As a reward, Columbus frequently presented his men with local women to rape. As he exported enslaved Taino to other parts of the world, the sex-slave trade became an important part of his business.
Columbus wrote to a friend in 1500: “A hundred castellanoes [a Spanish coin] are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten [years old] are now in demand.”
And 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.”2
In this regard, the Spaniards carried a thought-virus or world view that’s very much alive today in America: the notion that nonwhite peoples are inferior and not fully human, and thus appropriately bought, sold, and controlled with violence and guns.
However, the Taino turned out not to be particularly good workers on the plantations that the Spaniards (and later the French) established on Hispaniola: they resented the Europeans who stole the lands and their children, and they attempted to ﬁght back against the invaders or they fled.
Since the Taino were obviously standing in the way of Spain’s progress, Columbus sought to impose discipline on them.
Columbus referred to the Taino Indians as cannibals, but there has never been any evidence that this was so. 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 the people.
Throughout history, when a culture wages a campaign of brutality and genocide, it’s typically invented stories of the enemy’s brutality and inhumanity to justify the culture’s own brutality.
Columbus’s men would cut off an Indian’s nose or ear for even a minor offense, so that the Indian could go back to his village to impress the people with Spanish brutality. Columbus and his men attacked the Taino 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 Córdoba wrote to King Ferdinand in a 1517 letter:
As a result of the suﬀerings and hard labor they endured, the Indians choose 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 not to leave them in such oppressive slavery.3
Eventually, Columbus, and later his brother Bartholomew Columbus, whom he left in charge of the island, simply resorted to wiping out the Taino altogether.
A similar pattern played out on continental North America over the course of the next two centuries: English settlers first attempted to dominate the Native American tribes that populated the continent and then eventually changed tactics from enslavement to genocide. And genocide was made more efficient with every improvement of European gun technology.
Prior to Columbus’s arrival, most scholars place the population of Haiti/Hispaniola at around 300,000 people. By 1496, it was down to 110,000, according to a census done by Bartholomew Columbus. By 1516, the indigenous population was 12,000, and, according to the most famous of Columbus’s missionaries, the priest Bartolomé de Las Casas (who was there), by 1542 fewer than 200 natives were alive. The census of 1555 found every single one dead.
From Columbus in Haiti to Cortez in Mexico to John Smith in Virginia, European settlers used their firearms to dominate or wipe out the indigenous people. They were able to do so not because the Spanish or English soldiers outnumbered the Taino in Haiti, the Aztecs in Mexico, or the Powhatan in Virginia, but simply because they possessed more destructive and more lethal weaponry: guns.
From Genocide to Slavery
The settler and pioneer at bottom had justice on their side; this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages. Moreover, to the most oppressed Indian nations the whites often acted as a protection, or, at least, they deferred instead of hastening their fate.
—Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West, Vol. 1, 1889
The bloody and violent dimensions of today’s uniquely American gun culture have deep roots in the genocide of Native Americans.
Author and professor of American studies David E. Stannard writes eloquently about that blood-drenched era in his 1992 book American Holocaust, noting that the “vast majority” of native peoples in North America had been exterminated “within no more than a handful of generations following their first encounters with Europeans.”1
Stannard writes that the “depopulation” rate in most historical and contemporaneous sources is between 90 and 98 percent, so that “for every twenty natives alive at the moment of European contact—when the lands of the Americas teemed with tens of millions of people—only one stood in their place when the bloodbath was over.” He adds, “The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world.”
Racism, racial pseudoscience, and greed ignited a hellfire of death and destruction that stretched, in the Americas, from the Arctic Circle in the north to the Strait of Magellan in the south. Europeans were told by their kings and priests that the people they were exterminating were merely heathens. To the extent that they were human, death would liberate them to heaven.
Scientists of the day proclaimed that Indians weren’t even fully human, the same as they had declared of Africans. Thus Indians were suitable for the slave trade or for extermination.
That the European invaders had internalized this narrative is summed up well in an anecdote from a book written by Diego de Landa, a Franciscan monk who was sent in 1554 to the Yucatán to convert the natives to Christianity. In 1566, upon his return to Spain, he published a book titled Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (“A List of Things in the Yucatán”). Both David E. Stannard and the Bulgarian-French historian and author of Memory as a Remedy for Evil, Tzvetan Todorov,2 refer to de Landa’s story of Europeans meeting a three-year-old Indian boy:
There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, travelling on the sand.
I saw one man get off his horse, at a distance of about seventy-five yards, and draw up his rifle and fire—he missed the child. Another man came up and said, “Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.” He got down off his horse, kneeled down and fired at the little child, but he missed him.
A third man came up and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.3
This story is remarkable not only for the callous brutality wrought by Spaniards in the Yucatán but also for its demonstration of how limited gun technology has historically been, from the time of Europeans’ first arrivals until the early 20th century. Today, a single gunman can use an AR-15 to gun down a roomful of children in nearly the same amount of time as it took three men to fire three shots at a single child in the 16th century—and this was the case well into the 19th century.
The history of commissioned killers telling stories to dehumanize their targets is as old, no doubt, as humanity. And it still works today: witness the anti-Semitism and racism of the modern white supremacy movement that has taken hold of much of the Republican Party (as, with Nixon’s “southern strategy,” they explicitly picked up the bigots who used to populate the southern Democratic Party); the slaughters taking place in the Middle East and Myanmar; and the way Hitler turned an entire continent into a killing machine against Jews, gypsies, and other “untermenschen” (“subhumans”).
The Spanish conquerors thought so little of the Mayans that they destroyed and discarded their culture, de Landa recorded: “These people also used special characters or letters with which they recorded in their books their histories and knowledge, as well as figures, and particular signs in those figures explained it all, and lent it meaning and understanding. We found a great number of books containing such letters, and as they did not contain an iota in which there was not superstition and falsehoods of the devil, we burned them all, which dismayed and distressed them greatly.”4
So here, then, are several influences on modern American gun culture. There was the need to use guns to perpetrate a massive, continent-wide genocide; there was the need to develop individual gun skills to take on the Indian woodsmen who’d been targeted for genocide; and there was the need to keep slaves from revolting while terrorizing them into working and reproducing.
Howard Zinn notes in The People’s History of the United States that in colonial Virginia, a law was passed as early as 1639 decreeing that “all persons except Negroes” were to get arms and ammunition.5
Zinn speculates that the arms were likely used to fight Virginia’s Indian population. The law, however, doubly empowered the European settlers, who wielded their guns both to eradicate the Indians and to subjugate the colony’s growing number of black slaves. Virginia was only one of several American colonies with such a law on the books.
To commit the largest genocide in known human history, a society must create an implacable police state to terrorize millions of people into remaining in slavery. And to maintain that police structure to prevent those former slaves and genocide victims from fully participating in modern society, the society will need guns. Lots of guns.
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