Christopher Columbus’ lasting legacy

Last week’s column about pirates both local and not, generated quite a few emails. One read in part; “One the best takes on SFD I’ve read and couldn’t agree more. You are at your best when mixing history, cocktails, people, and culture.” Another read; “A timely essay on history and culture. Especially good the day before Columbus Day.”

That last one surprised me, because, you see, I had forgotten all about Monday being Columbus Day!

Christopher Columbus looms large in our culture. And ironically it might be the liquor industry where he looms largest. On his second voyage to the new world, the Genoan (Italy did not become a country until 1861) brought with him sugarcane cuttings from the Canary Islands.  He planted those cuttings on the island of Hispaniola, now split between the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Sugarcane production would explode, spreading throughout the Caribbean. During the production process enormous amounts of molasses syrup were created. The Spanish conquistadors could find no good use for this sticky, smelly byproduct, at least not at first.

Unfortunately for the residents of the so-called “New World,” Columbus had also brought something else with him. He brought smallpox, a virulent viral disease. In 1518-1519, smallpox killed an estimated 90% of the indigenous population of Hispaniola. To put that in perspective, Covid 19 has affected less than 3% of the U.S. population, and killed .07%. Eventually the natives reached “herd immunity” but not before 9 out of every ten people died. It was a calamity unseen before or since in human history. Smallpox and other diseases (measles, typhoid, and influenza) after migrating to the mainland are estimated to have then killed between 75-90 percent of the entire population of Columbus’s new world in less than 30 years. The Spanish Flu and the Black Death pale in comparison.

This left the Spanish with a dilemma. Sugarcane was a hugely profitable crop (in fact some experts believe that sugar production over the centuries, has provided more wealth than all the gold and silver ever mined in the Americas). But sugarcane harvesting was backbreaking work, especially in the tropical heat of the Caribbean. The Spanish settlers weren’t going to do it, neither were the Portuguese, Dutch or English that followed. The solution those colonial powers hit upon was the importation of West African slaves, specifically from lands recently “discovered” by Portuguese explores like Vasco de Gama, who had set out in the opposite direction from Columbus, albeit looking for the exact same thing, a route around the Muslims to the “Spice Islands” of the East Indies.

It was those slaves laboring under the hot Caribbean sun that discovered something else. Something that would prove particularly detrimental to them personally. When the waste product, molasses, was left in the sun, it spontaneously fermented, creating alcohol. And if history is any indication, alcohol is always in demand. The Spanish utilized a process called distillation, discovered ironically by teetotaling Muslim Arabs, whom they had been trying to circumvent in the first place (alcohol is derived from the Arabic word al Kohl). The Spanish began refining rum out of the fermented molasses. By the 1600s, less than a hundred years later, the rum/sugar/slave trade would be one of the largest industries in all of the Americas, fueled mainly by slavery. And a little over 100 years after that, conflicts over the taxation of rum, sugar and molasses, exemplified by the Molasses Act of 1733, the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Revenue Tax of 1766 would ultimately lead to the Declaration of Independence by the new United States of America in 1776.

Christopher Columbus could not possibly have had any idea of the effects wrought by his first contact with this “new world.” Primarily because of two things. 1) Columbus never knew that he had discovered a new world. He thought he had landed in an old one, believing he had landed near Japan. 2) The very idea of a “virus’ wasn’t discovered until 1876. All they knew back then was that sometimes people got sick, and quite often they died.

Leaving me with these thoughts.

-The Marin Museum of the American Indian is typically closed in observance of Columbus Day. In a double irony, this year it is closed because of Covid 19.

-“[He] has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions,” One of the grievances listed against King George III in the Declaration of Independence.

-Part of Larkspur sits on an Indian burial site dating back 4500 years, which is older than Moses, King Tut, or Stonehenge.

-Sometimes accidents are the dumbest things ever, and sometimes they are the most influential. And sometimes they are both.