By Will Falk
What do you see when you look out across San Diego and see the San Salvador being reconstructed?
Do you see the first wave of wave upon wave of white settlers who systematically dispossessed California’s indigenous people of their lands?
Do you see the beginnings of a process that reduced the indigenous population of California from 250,000 in 1800 to less than 20,000 in the matter of a century?
Do you see the face of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo grinning maniacally back at you? Do you see the faces of him and his men joining up with Hernan Cortes in the ethnic cleansing of Mexico?
Do you see Cabrillo and the men who Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the conquistador and chronicler of the Mexican conquest, wrote about when he famously stated, “We came here to serve God. And to get rich”?
Do you see the faces of miners who came here not to serve God, but simply to get rich? Do you see the flames in indigenous villages started by miners in acts where, as Robert F. Heizer described in The Destruction of the California Indians, “It was not uncommon for small groups of villages to be attacked by immigrants…and virtually wiped out overnight”?
Do you hear the clink of gold and feel the excitement of loot in the words of Board of Port Commissioners Chairman Scott Peters when he declares, “One mission of the Port is to activate the waterfront and this will bring millions to the waterfront”?
Do you select “a slice of San Diego’s heritage and history” that fits your agenda while ignoring the facts like Kevin Faulconer did with this reconstruction and that he’s doing with his statements about Barrio Logan?
Do you see the bloody swords of men who ruthlessly slaughtered 1000 Aztec nobles participating in religious celebrations at the main temple in Tenochtitlan?
Do you hear the words of 16th century priest and historian Bernardino de Sahagun who described the scene in the temple, “The first Spaniards to start fighting suddenly attacked those who were playing the music for the singers and dancers. They chopped off their hands and their heads so that they fell down dead. Then all the other Spaniards began to cut off heads, arms, and legs and to disembowel the Indians…Those who reached the exits were slain by the Spaniards guarding them…Now that nearly all were fallen and dead, the Spaniards went searching for those who had hidden among the dead, killing all those they found alive”?
Do you see the armor still dented by Aztec war clubs from the Siege of Tenochtitlan which left 240,000 Aztecs dead? Do you sense a bloodthirst not yet slated?
Or, do you see a group of mostly white San Diegans reconstructing a ship that was originally built by African and Native Guatemalan slave labor?
Do you see, in the reconstruction of the San Salvador, a symbol of genocide?
I am writing this article on February 12, 2014 on the dubious anniversary of the Acoma Massacre where in 1599 five hundred Acoma people were massacred for defending their home from the Spanish in New Mexico. Another five hundred were sentenced to a variety of punishments by the Spanish colonial government under the conquistador, Don Juan de Oñate, including slavery and the amputation of one foot.
And the people remember.
In 1998, before the 400th anniversary of the first Spanish settlement in the American West, a group of Indigenous people sawed the bronze foot off a statute of Oñate in Española, New Mexico. The group sent a snapshot of the foot and sent a message to media outlets saying, “We took the liberty of removing Oñate’s right foot on behalf of our brothers and sisters of Acoma Pueblo. We see no glory in celebrating Oñate’s fourth centennial, and we do not want our faces rubbed in it.”
As a privileged white member of settler culture living on occupied Kumeyaay land (otherwise known as San Diego), as a student of history, and finally, as a human being, I’m deeply troubled by the reconstruction of the San Salvador. We should realize the terrible symbolism inherent in reconstructing one of the machines so essential to a legacy of genocide.
I understand that some see the San Salvador as a symbol of diversity based on the relatively friendly encounter between Cabrillo and the Kumeyaay in 1542. One friendly encounter, however, does not forgive a man or his legacy. One brief encounter cannot erase the memory of the Spanish mission system that sought to destroy indigenous culture. One brief encounter cannot erase the memory of the massacre sites that dot a map of California.
We must also not forget that, according to Iris Engstrand and Harry Kelsey, rumors of Spanish brutality from the Coronado expedition had reached the Kumeyaay before the arrival of Cabrillo. Friendliness is always easier, of course, when you have heard that your “new friends” may attempt to wipe out your village.
We would not build a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest – the Confederate general and first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan – in Encanto just because at one time, Forrest was friendly with his slaves. We would not build a monument to Stephen W. Kearny – the general of occupying American forces in San Diego during the Mexican-American – in Barrio Logan just because he worked diplomatically with Californios.
Do you see how the San Salvador ignores a legacy of genocide?
Just like the indigenous people who amputated Oñate’s statue’s bronze foot, I see no glory in celebrating this legacy.
I recently moved to San Diego from Milwaukee, WI where I was a public defender. I am looking for life outside of law. My first passion is poetry and I am interested in the way the land speaks through the poet. If you can’t find me drinking too much coffee in Cafe Calabria, I’ll be on a rock somewhere in Joshua Tree.
John Lawrence says
In the celebration of the building of the reproduction of the San Salvador we should not forget, as you remind us, of the savagery perpetrated on the native peoples by the Spanish conquistadors. In many cases the natives welcomed the Spaniards with open arms only to be slaughtered and their gold taken. This behavior on the part of the European invaders should not be forgotten in recreating the artifacts of history.
Will Falk says
That’s a great point, John. There’s been a great series of pictures of indigenous peoples floating around the internet with the caption “We were the past and we are the future.”
I think the generosity and respect shown by many indigenous peoples should inform our transformation, now.
Brent Beltran says
Unfortunately we do honor Kearney. He has a Mesa and high school named after him. But then Coronado, Balboa, Junipero Serra…
Tom Cairns says
John’s point is well taken. Here in Humboldt County, at Fort Humboldt and at locations near the bay, the history of destruction of Native culture is highlighted. This month, for the first time since 1860, the Wiyot will conduct their world renewal ceremony. In 1860, when they last held it, settlers slaughtered the older men, women and children in the aftermath of the ceremony. Bret Harte wrote an editorial decrying the slaughter, and was run out of town because of it. He equated it to Pizzaro in Peru, and what he did. We have the ovens in Poland to remind us, and we need the sailing ships also, to make us remember what man can do, so it won’t happen again.
Will Falk says
Tom, thank you for the update from Humboldt. The world renewal ceremony is badly needed.
I think you’re right that we need daily reminders of the atrocities this civilization is built on. My problem with the San Salvador is that it’s a celebration. If the ship was being built in a somber mood, full of mournings, and with a complete realization of the destruction European contact meant for this continent then I might have written a completely different essay.
But, the reconstruction is about boosting the port’s economy and celebrating the conquistadors. I see it as nothing more than another genocidal act in a long, long list of genocidal acts.
Frank Gormlie says
Hey Tom, how are ya? Haven’t heard from you in a while. What’s up, dude?
John Wester says
Needless to say, in Mexico there are no statues of, nor towns or streets named after the Spanish conquistadors.
Jamie Edmonds says
Thank you for pointing out the proper perspective with which to view this “tribute” to genocide and man’s general inhumanity to man. Twas ever thus and I’m afraid, based on events ever since, we haven’t made much progress. Perhaps it is our own willingness to settle for the completely fraudulent versions of history we’ve been continually spoon fed by those who must use our blood to grease the machines of their wealth accumulation and planetary destruction. I just finished Howard Zinn’s “A Peoples History of the United States” which starts with Christopher Columbus and here’s a short snippet of how the same story played out on the other side of the continent:
Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.
Columbus wrote: As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.
The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?
[ . . . ]
So, approaching land, they were met by the Arawak Indians, who swam out to greet them. The Arawaks lived in village communes, had a developed agriculture of corn, yams, cassava. They could spin and weave, but they had no horses or work animals. They had no iron, but they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears.
This was to have enormous consequences: it led Columbus to take some of them aboard ship as prisoners because he insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold. He then sailed to what is now Cuba, then to Hispaniola (the island which today consists of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). There, bits of visible gold in the rivers, and a gold mask presented to Columbus by a local Indian chief, led to wild visions of gold fields.
On Hispaniola, out of timbers from the Santa Maria, which had run aground, Columbus built a fort, the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere. He called it Navidad (Christmas) and left thirty-nine crewmembers there, with instructions to find and store the gold. He took more Indian prisoners and put them aboard his two remaining ships. At one part of the island he got into a fight with Indians who refused to trade as many bows and arrows as he and his men wanted. Two were run through with swords and bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain. When the weather turned cold, the Indian prisoners began to die.
Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction: Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful … the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. . . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals….
The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone….” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.” Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.
Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.
The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.
Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.
When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.
Will Falk says
Thanks for this comment, Jamie.
For too long we’ve been taught to celebrate “explorers” and “discoverers” as something like scientists – benign searchers for human knowledge.
If atrocities originate in the cultures from which they spring and culture is the set of stories we tell ourselves, we must work hard to change the stories we’re telling ourselves.