What is genocide? How does it connect to the story of Columbus and the Arawak Indians?

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According to the United Nations, the definition of genocide is as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;

  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

While the word genocide was coined after World War II to define what had been done to the Jews by the Nazi’s, the word has also been applied to other times in history when one group of people has been targeted by another based on their national, racial, ethnic, or religious characteristics.

As such, it is possible to label what happened to the Arawak People after their encounter with Columbus as a type of genocide. The Arawak were a native people in the Caribbean and South America. There are only a small number of South American Arawak left today. The Taino people that Columbus encountered when he landed on Hispaniola were a subgroup of the Arawak. In his logs, Columbus said that he believed the people would make good servants, and that they would be easy to take as slaves.

Columbus and the Spanish did attempt to enslave the Arawak, but they resisted more than he had expected. The Arawak even began to commit suicide in large numbers rather than work in Spanish mines. The ones who did go to the mines died of starvation and deprivation. Many others died of European diseases. Within thirty years, the Arawaks had virtually disappeared as a people.

There is debate as to whether the term genocide truly applies to the fate of the Arawak. While Columbus certainly intended to enslave them, he did not intend for them to die out as a people and would certainly have preferred to see them as slaves. However, the methods the Spanish used to enslave these people certainly brought about their demise.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

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