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The Knotted Line

Evan Bissell, Author

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1495: Creating Wealth

1495: Promising great wealth to Spain, Columbus takes 500 Taino-Arawak Indian slaves to Spain, 200 of whom die en route.  Returning to Hispañola (present day island of Haiti/Dominican Republic), Columbus requires that anyone over 13 must find a quota of gold or have their hands chopped off.

1455: In the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex, the Pope grants Portugal possession of 'discovered' parts of North Africa, allowing for the enslavement of non-Christians and the taking of resources under the auspices of religious conversion.  Later, another Papal Bull justifies Spain's 'discovery' of the Americas under Catholic rule and the enslavement of people and the taking of resources and land.

1823: The U.S. Supreme Court argues that, "discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made," in Johnson v. M'Intosh.  The decision legally justifies 'discovery' as 'ownership' and European control of indigenous lands to that point and subsequent westward expansion.

Actions for Self-Determination:
  • 1493: After establishing the fort La Navidad on Hispañola before returning to Spain, Columbus returns on his second trip to find the fort destroyed and all 40 soldiers dead. Some sources claim the soldiers died of in-fighting and disease while others claim the Tainos killed them after the soldiers attacked the surrounding communities, stole resources and raped women. The Taino Chief, Hatuey,  escapes to Cuba to warn the people there of the Spanish invasion and wages a three-month campaign against the Spanish fort there.
  • 1791: At Bois Caiman (Bwa Kayiman), enslaved people of Haiti participate in a Vodou ceremony led by Cecile Fatiman and Dutty Boukman. The group pledges to overthrow the colonial power and begins the Haitian Revolution - the only nation to gain nationhood through slave revolt.
Discussion Questions:
  • Why do histories of the Americas so often begin with Columbus? Does starting with Columbus serve to erase the complex societies and cultures that were in the Americas prior to European arrival?
  • What was your first introduction to Columbus? 
  • Why do you think Columbus has so often been remembered as a hero?
  • Was Bartolomé de las Casas exceptional in his speaking out? To whom would he be compared today?
  • How do the Papal Bulls and Johnson v. M'Intosh relate to this quote by Michel-Rolph Trouillot: 
    "The symbolic process
    through which the West created itself thus involved the universal legitimacy of
    power – and order became, in that process, the answer to the question of
    legitimacy." What are ways that authority legitimizes power today? What types of order keep power legitimized?

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