A Response to 500 Years of Colonization

by the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP)


When Christopher Columbus set foot on the islands of the Bahamas in 1492, he set into motion a whole new epoch in history. Oct. 12, 1992, marks the 500th anniversary of the historic landing in the Americas.

This discovery of the "new world," or what is being promoted now as the "encounter of two worlds," is, however, an event that singularly marks the advent of conquest: conquest by force and extermination of indigenous peoples that eventually led to the establishment of a colonial system, perpetuating history as it were, through European colonization of vast areas of Asia, Australia, Africa and the Americas.

Looking back at that day in October 500 years ago, one cannot separate Christopher Columbus the explorer-discoverer from the processes that followed later, especially in the "new world." Subjected to the most systematic and sustained act of deculturization, only legend survives to comment on and to rediscover a mislaid history of identity, especially of the indigenous people. Detribalized, dehumanized, the instances are horrifyingly too many to illustrate the devastating consequences of the "romantic" adventures of Columbus.

In three centuries, Europe’s imperial domination over the rest of the world resulted in the extinction of the great civilizations of the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs. Nearly eight million people died in the silver mines of Terro Rico, Potosi, Bolina, to feed the coffers of the Spanish Crown. The inexorable lust to conquer and the greed for new lands, undiscovered foods and flavors (salt, sugar, pepper, potatoes, beans) and free slaves massacred not just people and buffaloes but a whole way of life. In exchange for spicy foods and unrestricted trade, the indigenous people were vanquished.

Like the indigenous people of the Bahamas, who were reduced from 70 million in 1492 to 3.5 million in a period of 150 years, the Arawaks of Xaymaca (Jamaica) were sacrificed in exchange for the Spanish’s greed for gold. To those Arawaks who could not comply with Columbus’ imperial orders to bring gold, "their hands were cut off, and they bled to death." So great was the act of cultural destruction that by 1650 the Arawak Indians had perished "by murder, mutilation and suicide - by even drinking their homegrown cassava juice." In fact, "the accounts of the Spaniards’ treatment of the Arawaks are truly horrifying, almost pornographic in their description of the violence and genocide visited upon this population."

Consequently, those who managed to escape and survive presently live herded onto reservations or in remote forests and inaccessible areas, fighting a day-to-day battle only to exist at the margins of modern society. While their ancestors were victims of colonial homogenization, the children today continue to be victimized in penury, poverty and disease by the very process that ushered the arrival of Columbus; worse, they continue to struggle for an indigenous identity in their own lands.

Enslaved to a history not of their making, what is most disturbing is the proposed re-enactment of 1492 or Columbus Day. The governments of the Americas, Spain and Portugal, among others, are planning to celebrate the 500th anniversary. Included in their events is the recreation of the historic voyage and the lavish wedding of a statue of Columbus with a replica of the Statute of Liberty in Las Vegas in the United States. These celebrations will lead to the 1992 World Fair in Spain whose theme will be "The Age of Discovery."

These celebrations are, as the native Indians point out, "celebrations of the sacking of our resources, the assault on our cultures and the strangulation of our economies." Celebrating 500 years of bloody history "is a renewed attempt to cover up for the colonization and conquest of our continent through the force of arms so that they can continue to justify the political domination of indigenous peoples." Humiliating and insulting human dignity, especially to those who have survived the colonial catastrophe, the celebrations go beyond the event to glorify the attitudes and ideas that promote dispossession, devastation and genocide of millions of indigenous peoples. For others, they reinforce policies the world over that legitimize colonization within a modern context.

In a statement issued after a meeting of more than 120 Indian nations in the Americas, the indigenous peoples have called for a celebration of October 1992 as "500 Years of Resistance." They have appealed to "turn the occasion into an event to strengthen our process of continental unity and struggle towards our liberation." In addition, the year 1993 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Indigenous Peoples, and it is proposed that the opening of the international year begin on Oct. 12, 1992.

1992 then is an occasion for the indigenous peoples of Asia to express our solidarity with the indigenous peoples of the Americas in their protests. It also provides us with an opportunity to collectively reflect and reconsider the history of our present context - which is not very different from that in the Americas. Our struggle for our lands, forests, waters, resources, cultures and future are similar to the struggles of most other indigenous peoples all over the world. They arise and are perpetuated by the same institutions and political processes. For what is at stake today is a fundamental political right to exist humanely as a culture with a history and a future - a future that we indigenous peoples are capable of creating for ourselves.

In responding to "500 years of the same philosophy," we feel the need to come together and plan some activities. These activities need not necessarily be an "Anti-Columbus Day Protest"; they can be instead a living commentary of the present-day realities where we can attempt to take the "struggle for survival" beyond narrow, parochial and national boundaries; they can instead become part of a larger, united, collective struggle for a better tomorrow for the Earth and its peoples.

These proposals are preliminary. They are put forward as a point of departure, as a takeoff point. They are meant to initiate consultation, debate and discussions among ourselves; they are meant to be worked on, to be improved and to be criticized. We look forward to your responses.