MN Writes Reads

Columbus and Sex Trafficking

This is an adapted excerpt from Christine Stark’s “Strategies to Restore Justice for Sex Trafficked Native Women.” (photo by Sarah Whiting)

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” is the beginning of a poem children have been taught for generations about the Spanish explorer’s landing in the Caribbean.

Although Columbus never set foot in mainland North America, his expedition is venerated throughout the U.S.  Every  second  Monday in October, Spain’s “discovery” of the “American” continent and its peoples are celebrated as a national holiday. However, over the past six decades organized resistance from Native people and allies regarding the accuracy about Columbus’s expedition has called attention to brutality unleashed on the continent and its people by Columbus and  the Europeans that arrived after his initial voyage.

As an academic researcher and an organizer around my Native ancestry, I have researched the business ventures that Columbus led. His first order of business was to send four sailing ships back to Europe, loaded to capacity with 550 Natives that were auctioned off in Mediterranean markets.

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An international law called the Doctrine of Discovery enabled Columbus to make three expeditions to conquer non-Christian people and their territories. In 1493, after the ‘discoveries’ made by Columbus, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal decree that indicated more explicitly that only Christian rulers could legitimately claim land ownership.

The result: a centuries-long process of attempted genocide and colonization of Indigenous people, including the enslavement of 2.5 to 5 million Indigenous people, death of Indigenous people from disease and murder, dismemberment, rape, land theft, destruction of  animals and natural resources, starvation, removal, concentration camps, and forced religious conversion. In combination with coerced, unfair, and unfulfilled treaties, the pre-contact Indigenous population who resided in the land that is now the U.S. was ultimately reduced by 90 percent.

Less known is that Columbus and his men raped, abducted, traded, and sold for sex Indigenous women and girls. According to Columbus’s notes, men “seized about five women each as their concubines, while others marauded across the island in search of villages with gold.”

Columbus wrote about the Taino, the first Indigenous people he encountered. “A hundred castellanoes [Spanish coin] are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm … there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls. Those from nine to ten [years old] are now in demand.”

As more European men invaded and enslaved the people living in what would come to be called Central and North America, most Native slaves were women and children, with women being valued at 50 to 60 percent more than men.

Historian Andres Resendez, author of “The Other Slavery,” a 2016 National Book Award finalist, writes that sexual exploitation and reproductive capabilities were part of the higher price paid for Native women. He adds, “Indian slavery constitutes an obvious antecedent to the sex traffic that occurs today.”

A more accurate phrasing, then, of the mantra for schoolchildren might be: In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, becoming the first known sex trafficker of the Americas, which became a central component of U.S. colonization.


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