“Since the Middle Ages, Muslim traders from North Africa had traded in Africans from below the Sahara, where slavery was widespread. In much of Africa, labor, not land, constituted the sole form of property recognized by law, a form of consolidating wealth and generating revenue, which meant that African states tended to be small and that, while European wars were fought for land, African wars were fought for labor. People captured in African wars were bought and sold in large markets by merchants and local officials and kings and, beginning in the 1450s, by Portuguese sea captains. Columbus, a veteran of that trade, reported to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 that it would be the work of a moment to enslave the people of Haiti, since ‘with 50 men all of them could be held in subjection and can be made to do whatever one might wish.’ In sugar mines and gold mines, the Spanish worked their native slaves to death while many more died of disease. Soon, they turned to another source of forced labor, Africans traded by the Portuguese.”
from Jill Lepore's much-recommended “These Truths: A History of the United States.” I was actually hoping for some redemption for Columbus here but didn't find much. Ms. Lepore will be speaking in Seattle this Friday at Benaroya Hall. The Columbus quote about “50 men” comes from the “Diaro of Christopher Columbus,” which isn't the original (that's lost) but something transcribed by Bartolome de Las Casas in the 1530s.