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Pair 1: Columbus and Cuba

Pair 1: Columbus and Cuba

Christopher Columbus, Epistola Christofori Colom cui [a]etas nostra multu[m] debet…
Rome: Stephen Plannck, 1493

One of the earliest items in the Clements Library’s collections is this copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, printed in Rome in 1493. This letter, hailed as a landmark in the literature of exploration and European colonial expansion, presents the fullest account of Columbus’ encounter with the Native people of the Caribbean. The letter is filled with rapturous descriptions of the beauty and fertility of the islands Columbus visited on his first voyage, beginning with his initial landfall in the Bahamas followed by stops on the northeast coast of Cuba and the northwest coast of Hispaniola. The letter praises the generosity and docility of the Native people he encountered, describing them as “remarkably timid and fearful” and “most liberal with all that they have,” although it also carried ominous rumors of a more hostile group that lived on islands farther to the west. In keeping with the letter’s primary purpose—publicizing his findings in order to gain financial backing for future voyages—Columbus stresses the expansion of Spain’s empire that his discoveries represented, and the importance of making thousands of souls available to the conversion efforts of the Catholic church.

Yet the letter also clearly reveals another core purpose of Columbus’ voyage, and perhaps its central purpose: economic exploitation, an effort that was from the outset founded on coerced labor. Columbus writes of working to establishing mutually beneficial trading relationships with the Taino and Arawak peoples he encountered, so that in the future they would be willing to “search out for those things in which themselves abound, and of which we are much in want, and, laying up stores of them, have wherewithal to enter into traffic with us.” Describing the great wealth that the islands could generate, Columbus also highlighted that the Native communities could provide “as many slaves to serve as sailors” as the Spanish royals could desire. The image of a paradise filled with docile Indians is at odds with the clear understanding that making these new colonial possessions pay would require forcing those Native people to work for free. This economic model was so central to Spain’s colonial effort that in only three years, in 1495, hundreds of Caribbean natives were captured and transported back to Spain to be sold into slavery.

The long histories of these forms of labor—enslavement of African and Native people, and the indentured servitude of countless others—are well represented in the Clements collections. One recent area of collecting interest has been to document the extensive use of indentured laborers from China in 19th-century Cuba, as shown in this manifest of the ship Neva from May 1869. This ship carried Chinese laborers to Cuba, where they would work as indentured servants, under conditions only slightly better than those endured by enslaved people of African and Indigenous descent (with the important qualification that their indentures were limited in time, usually to eight years). The fourteen Chinese people listed here would most likely have been recruited in Macao to travel to Cuba to perform agricultural, domestic, or industrial labor, often in sugar mills or on coffee plantations. The manifest lists all of the Chinese indentured servants arriving on the Neva, giving their “Chinese name” and age and assigning each passenger a number and a “Christian name.” The contracts these laborers signed provided that they be paid a nominal sum each month, and that they be provided with food every day and two new changes of clothes every year. The contracts also explicitly prevented Chinese laborers from trying to “evade the power” of their “employers” at any point during their eight years of service.

Manifest of the ship Neva, with names of Chinese indentured servants contracted by La Alianza y Compañía, May 22, 1869.
Partially Printed, Pen, and Ink. Cuba Collection.

The physical difficulties of mining gold and silver and growing sugar, coffee, and cotton in the New World pushed European colonists to seek out other people who they could force to do the backbreaking labor of making these lands profitable. This indenture form shows that nearly 400 years after Columbus’ voyage, this practice was still a constant feature of the Caribbean economy.