“I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see” –
Bartolomé de las Casas, Spanish friar and historian commenting on the massacres that he saw in the Americas, committed by the Spanish colonizers.
Today, as Spain celebrates the día de la Hispanidad (otherwise known as Columbus Day, the day on which he discovered the Americas), many Latin American countries lament the apocalyptic consequences of the discovery to the Native Americans: a cascade of other savage soldiers of fortune like Cortés and Pizarro, massacres, Inquisition Courts, forced conversions, diseases for which they had no immunity, slavery, draining the continent of its natural resources, to the end of the long list.
Spain hailed the conquests as a ‘mission that brought civilization to the savages,’ but it was exactly Spain of the 15th and 16th centuries that wiped out what remained of entire civilizations, namely the Aztecs and the Inca. Other ‘predators’ soon followed, attracted by the smell of blood and the lore of gold: the British, the French and the Portuguese among others. Much has been said and countless articles written about the discovery of America, but one can always share a good story, that of Luis de Torres.
Luis de Torres would have been just another ‘coverso’ (a Jew converted to Catholic Christianity to avoid the horrors of the Inquisition Courts and the inevitable expulsion) if it was not for his skill.
Christopher Columbus needed an interpreter that spoke both Arabic and Hebrew: Arabic because the Arabs controlled a considerable part of trade and commerce in India at the time (one should never forget he was heading to India when he ‘stumbled’ upon America), and Hebrew because Columbus had this fanciful idea about encountering the lost Tribes of Israel. Again, one must remember that Columbus fancied many things, like forming a pact with the Mongols to crush the Muslims!
Imagine this: Columbus lands in America with his crew. He sees the natives and, thinking he was in India, calls them the Indians. Luis de Torres, tempted to think they were probably Arabs (due to their color), addresses them in Arabic, probably, the first ‘non-native’ language they ever heard to that date! But one does not have to ‘imagine’ much because the world is full of cross-cultural anecdotes, and here are two examples: The Arabs use Hindi numerals while the ‘West’ is using Arabic numerals…Europe bears the name of a Phoenician Princess from Lebanon while America bears the name of a European explorer from Italy…but back to Columbus Day, a holiday here in Spain, it makes you wonder what’s ‘holi’ about this ‘holi-day’.