July 16, 2013
Chapultepec Castle is not, by Mexican standards, particularly old. Though the 12th-century Toltecs named the 200-foot-high outcrop on which the castle stands the “hill of the grasshopper”—chapoltepec in Nahuatl, probably for the huge numbers of the insects found there—the castle itself wasn’t built until 1775, as a residence for Spain’s viceroy. It was converted to a military academy in 1833, which was the extent of its martial history until September 13, 1847, when two armies faced off there in the climactic battle of the Mexican-American War.
After more than a year and a dozen engagements on land and sea, the U.S. had yet to suffer a defeat. General Zachary Taylor had crossed the Rio Grande with an expeditionary force of a little more than 2,000 men and defeated much larger Mexican armies at Monterrey and Buena Vista. Winfield Scott, America’s most senior general and the hero of the War of 1812, had taken Veracruz with a brilliant amphibious assault and siege, and defeated Mexico’s caudillo and president Antonio López de Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo. Then he had taken Puebla, Mexico’s second-largest city, without firing a shot.
There are any number of reasons why the Americans dominated the fighting. They had better artillery in front of them (rockets, siege weapons and highly mobile horse-drawn howitzers that could fire canister—20 or more lead balls packed in sawdust and cased in tin, which turned the American six-pounder cannons into giant shotguns). They also had a stronger government behind them (in 1846 alone, the Mexican presidency changed hands four times). However, the decisive American advantage was not in technology or political stability, but in military professionalism. The United States had West Point.
Though neither Scott nor Taylor nor their division commanders learned the military art at the U.S. Military Academy, virtually every junior officer in the Mexican campaign—more than five hundred of them—had. Under Sylvanus Thayer, who became superintendent in 1817, and his protégé Dennis Hart Mahan, the academy became more than just a fine engineering school. In accord with legislation Congress passed in 1812, the course of studies at West Point required cadets to master all the skills not only of an officer, but of a private and a noncommissioned officer as well.
It made for a revolution in military education. Mahan, an advocate for turning the military into a profession equal to that of physicians or attorneys, had completed a fundamental study of the art of war, which he would publish in 1847. The first American professional military journals—the Army and Navy Chronicle, the Military and Naval Magazine and the Military Magazine—all started publication between 1835 and 1839.
This environment produced the staff and line officers who accompanied Taylor across the Rio Grande and Scott from Veracruz to Chapultepec. One of them, Ulysses S. Grant (USMA Class of 1843), wrote, “A better army, man for man, probably never faced an enemy than the one commanded by General Taylor in the earliest two engagements of the Mexican War.” Scott shared his “fixed opinion that but for our graduated cadets the war between the United States and Mexico might, and probably would, have lasted some four or five years with, in its first half, more defeats than victories falling to our share, whereas in two campaigns we conquered a great country and a peace without the loss of a single battle or skirmish.”
The academy graduates proved extraordinary in Mexico (and even more so in their subsequent careers in a far more bloody conflict). When Scott landed at Veracruz, his junior officers included not only Grant, but also Robert E. Lee (USMA 1829; commanding general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862). Captain Lee led his division through the “impassible ravines” to the north of the Mexican position at Cerro Gordo and turned the enemy’s left flank. The path to Mexico City, over the 10,000-foot pass of Río Frío, was mapped by First Lieutenant P.G.T. Beauregard (USMA 1838; general, Army of the Mississippi, 1861) and First Lieutenant George Gordon Meade (USMA 1835; commanding general, Army of the Potomac, 1863). Captain (soon enough Major) Lee found the best route to the relatively undefended southwestern corner of Mexico City, through a huge lava field known as the pedregal that was thought to be impassible; American engineers—accompanied by First Lieutenant George McClellan (USMA 1846; commanding general, U.S. Army, 1861)—improved it into a military road in two days, under regular artillery fire. The Molino del Rey, a mill that Scott mistakenly thought was being converted into a cannon foundry during a cease-fire, was occupied, after some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, by Lieutenant Grant and First Lieutenant Robert Anderson (USMA 1825).
So it’s scarcely surprising that when the final attack on Chapultepec Castle began on that September morning in 1847, one of the columns was led by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Johnston (USMA 1829; commanding general, Army of Tennessee, 1863). Or that, when the Americans were pinned down after they’d fought to the top of the hill, Second Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson (USMA 1846; lieutenant general and corps commander, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862), commanding two six-pounder cannon at the far left of the American line, rushed forward in support. As he did so, a storming party of 250 men reached the base of the castle wall and threw scaling ladders against the 12-foot-high fortification. There, Captain Lewis A. Armistead (USMA, 1838, though he never graduated; brigadier general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1863) was wounded; so was the officer carrying the regimental colors of the 8th Infantry, First Lieutenant James Longstreet (USMA 1842; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862), which were then taken by Second Lieutenant George E. Pickett (USMA 1846; major general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862). In an hour, the castle was taken.
And, in less than a day, so was Mexico’s capital. Jackson, who had been under fire for more than 12 hours, chased more than 1,500 Mexicans down the causeway that led into the capital “for about a mile…. It was splendid!” Grant, commanding a platoon-sized detachment, dragged a six-pound howitzer to the top of a church belfry, three hundred yards from the main gate to the city at San Cosmé, and put a withering fire on the Mexican defenses until he ran out of ammunition. A day later, Scott rode into the Grand Plaza of Mexico City at the head of his army. Though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo would not be signed until February of 1848, the battles of the Mexican-American War were over.
Not, however, the battle over the war’s narrative: its rationale, conduct and consequences. Los Niños Heroes—six cadets who from the Chapultepec military academy who refused to retreat from the castle, five of them dying at their posts and the sixth throwing himself from the castle wrapped in the Mexican flag—synthesize the Mexican memory of the war: brave Mexicans sacrificed by poor leadership in a war of aggression by a neighbor who, in one analysis, “offered to us the hand of treachery, to have soon the audacity to say that our obstinacy and arrogance were the real causes of the war.”
The enlargement of the United States of America by some 500,000 square miles, plus Texas, was certainly a valuable objective, but it’s uncertain that achieving it required a war, any more than the 800,000 square miles of the Louisiana Purchase did. Grant himself opined that the Mexican war was “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Even more uncertain is the argument, voiced by Grant, among others, the American Civil War “was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War.” The sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery might have been different without Monterrey, Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec, but no less pointed, and the Civil War no less likely—or less bloody.
However, it would have been conducted very differently, since the men who fought it were so clearly marked by Mexico. It was there they learned the tactics that would dominate from 1861 to 1865. And it was there they learned to think of themselves as masters of the art of war. That, of course, was a bit of a delusion: The Mexican army was no match for them. They would prove, tragically, a match for one another.
What the Mexican War created, more than territory or myth, was men. More than a dozen future Civil War generals stood in front of Chapultepec Castle in 1847—not just the ones already named, but First Lieutenant Simon Bolivar Bruckner (USMA 1844; brigadier general, Army of Central Kentucky, 1862), who fought alongside Grant at Molino del Rey and would surrender Fort Donelson to him in 1862; Second Lieutenant Richard H. Anderson (USMA 1842; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia 1863); Major John Sedgwick (USMA 1837; major general, Army of the Potomac 1863), the highest-ranking Union Army officer killed during the Civil War; Major George B. Crittenden (USMA 1832; major general, Army of Central Kentucky, 1862); Second Lieutenant A.P. Hill (USMA 1846; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1863); and Major John C. Pemberton, (USMA 1837; lieutenant general, Army of Mississippi, 1862), who joined Grant in the steeple of the church at San Cosmé and defended Vicksburg against him 16 years later.
The Duke of Wellington spent his life denying he had ever said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Much more apt to say that the Battle of Chapultepec was won on the parade grounds of West Point, and that the Battles of Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg were won—and lost—in the same place.
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March 1, 2013
In July of 1852, a 32-year-old novelist named Herman Melville had high hopes for his new novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, despite the book’s mixed reviews and tepid sales. That month he took a steamer to Nantucket for his first visit to the Massachusetts island, home port of his novel’s mythic protagonist, Captain Ahab, and his ship, the Pequod. Like a tourist, Melville met local dignitaries, dined out and took in the sights of the village he had previously only imagined.
And on his last day on Nantucket he met the broken-down 60-year-old man who had captained the Essex, the ship that had been attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in an 1820 incident that had inspired Melville’s novel. Captain George Pollard Jr. was just 29 years old when the Essex went down, and he survived and returned to Nantucket to captain a second whaling ship, Two Brothers. But when that ship wrecked on a coral reef two years later, the captain was marked as unlucky at sea—a “Jonah”—and no owner would trust a ship to him again. Pollard lived out his remaining years on land, as the village night watchman.
Melville had written about Pollard briefly in Moby-Dick, and only with regard to the whale sinking his ship. During his visit, Melville later wrote, the two merely “exchanged some words.” But Melville knew Pollard’s ordeal at sea did not end with the sinking of the Essex, and he was not about to evoke the horrific memories that the captain surely carried with him. “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”
Pollard had told the full story to fellow captains over a dinner shortly after his rescue from the Essex ordeal, and to a missionary named George Bennet. To Bennet, the tale was like a confession. Certainly, it was grim: 92 days and sleepless nights at sea in a leaking boat with no food, his surviving crew going mad beneath the unforgiving sun, eventual cannibalism and the harrowing fate of two teenage boys, including Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin. “But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection,” Pollard told the missionary. “I hardly know what I say.”
The trouble for Essex began, as Melville knew, on August 14, 1819, just two days after it left Nantucket on a whaling voyage that was supposed to last two and a half years. The 87-foot-long ship was hit by a squall that destroyed its topgallant sail and nearly sank it. Still, Pollard continued, making it to Cape Horn five weeks later. But the 20-man crew found the waters off South America nearly fished out, so they decided to sail for distant whaling grounds in the South Pacific, far from any shores.
To restock, the Essex anchored at Charles Island in the Galapagos, where the crew collected sixty 100-pound tortoises. As a prank, one of the crew set a fire, which, in the dry season, quickly spread. Pollard’s men barely escaped, having to run through flames, and a day after they set sail, they could still see smoke from the burning island. Pollard was furious, and swore vengeance on whoever set the fire. Many years later Charles Island was still a blackened wasteland, and the fire was believed to have caused the extinction of both the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.
By November of 1820, after months of a prosperous voyage and a thousand miles from the nearest land, whaleboats from the Essex had harpooned whales that dragged them out toward the horizon in what the crew called “Nantucket sleigh rides.” Owen Chase, the 23-year-old first mate, had stayed aboard the Essex to make repairs while Pollard went whaling. It was Chase who spotted a very big whale—85 feet in length, he estimated—lying quietly in the distance, its head facing the ship. Then, after two or three spouts, the giant made straight for the Essex, “coming down for us at great celerity,” Chase would recall—at about three knots. The whale smashed head-on into the ship with “such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.”
The whale passed underneath the ship and began thrashing in the water. “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase recalled. Then the whale disappeared. The crew was addressing the hole in the ship and getting the pumps working when one man cried out, “Here he is—he is making for us again.” Chase spotted the whale, his head half out of water, bearing down at great speed—this time at six knots, Chase thought. This time it hit the bow directly under the cathead and disappeared for good.
The water rushed into the ship so fast, the only thing the crew could do was lower the boats and try fill them with navigational instruments, bread, water and supplies before the Essex turned over on its side.
Pollard saw his ship in distress from a distance, then returned to see the Essex in ruin. Dumbfounded, he asked, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”
“We have been stove by a whale,” his first mate answered.
Another boat returned, and the men sat in silence, their captain still pale and speechless. Some, Chase observed, “had no idea of the extent of their deplorable situation.”
The men were unwilling to leave the doomed Essex as it slowly foundered, and Pollard tried to come up with a plan. In all, there were three boats and 20 men. They calculated that the closest land was the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, and Pollard wanted to set off for them—but in one of the most ironic decisions in nautical history, Chase and the crew convinced him that those islands were peopled with cannibals and that the crew’s best chance for survival would be to sail south. The distance to land would be far greater, but they might catch the trade winds or be spotted by another whaling ship. Only Pollard seemed to understand the implications of steering clear of the islands. (According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, although rumors of cannibalism persisted, traders had been visiting the islands without incident.)
Thus they left the Essex aboard their 20-foot boats. They were challenged almost from the start. Saltwater saturated the bread, and the men began to dehydrate as they ate their daily rations. The sun was ravaging. Pollard’s boat was attacked by a killer whale. They spotted land—Henderson Island—two weeks later, but it was barren. After another week the men began to run out of supplies. Still, three of them decided they’d rather take their chances on land than climb back into a boat. No one could blame them. And besides, it would stretch the provisions for the men in the boats.
By mid-December, after weeks at sea, the boats began to take on water, more whales menaced the men at night, and by January, the paltry rations began to take their toll. On Chase’s boat, one man went mad, stood up and demanded a dinner napkin and water, then fell into “most horrid and frightful convulsions” before perishing the next morning. “Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital” of what came next, Chase wrote. The crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.” They then roasted the man’s organs on a flat stone and ate them.
Over the coming week, three more sailors died, and their bodies were cooked and eaten. One boat disappeared, and then Chase’s and Pollard’s boats lost sight of each other. The rations of human flesh did not last long, and the more the survivors ate, the hungrier they felt. On both boats the men became too weak to talk. The four men on Pollard’s boat reasoned that without more food, they would die. On February 6, 1821—nine weeks after they’d bidden farewell to the Essex—Charles Ramsdell, a teenager, proposed they draw lots to determine who would be eaten next. It was the custom of the sea, dating back, at least in recorded instance, to the first half of the 17th century. The men in Pollard’s boat accepted Ramsdell’s suggestion, and the lot fell to young Owen Coffin, the captain’s first cousin.
Pollard had promised the boy’s mother he’d look out for him. “My lad, my lad!” the captain now shouted, “if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.” Pollard even offered to step in for the boy, but Coffin would have none of it. “I like it as well as any other,” he said.
Ramsdell drew the lot that required him to shoot his friend. He paused a long time. But then Coffin rested his head on the boat’s gunwale and Ramsdell pulled the trigger.
“He was soon dispatched,” Pollard would say, “and nothing of him left.”
By February 18, after 89 days at sea, the last three men on Chase’s boat spotted a sail in the distance. After a frantic chase, they managed to catch the English ship Indian and were rescued.
Three hundred miles away, Pollard’s boat carried only its captain and Charles Ramsdell. They had only the bones of the last crewmen to perish, which they smashed on the bottom of the boat so that they could eat the marrow. As the days passed the two men obsessed over the bones scattered on the boat’s floor. Almost a week after Chase and his men had been rescued, a crewman aboard the American ship Dauphin spotted Pollard’s boat. Wretched and confused, Pollard and Ramsdell did not rejoice at their rescue, but simply turned to the bottom of their boat and stuffed bones into their pockets. Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”
The five Essex survivors were reunited in Valparaiso, where they recuperated before sailing back for Nantucket. As Philbrick writes, Pollard had recovered enough to join several captains for dinner, and he told them the entire story of the Essex wreck and his three harrowing months at sea. One of the captains present returned to his room and wrote everything down, calling Pollard’s account “the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge.”
Years later, the third boat was discovered on Ducie Island; three skeletons were aboard. Miraculously, the three men who chose to stay on Henderson Island survived for nearly four months, mostly on shellfish and bird eggs, until an Australian ship rescued them.
Once they arrived in Nantucket, the surviving crewmen of the Essex were welcomed, largely without judgment. Cannibalism in the most dire of circumstances, it was reasoned, was a custom of the sea. (In similar incidents, survivors declined to eat the flesh of the dead but used it as bait for fish. But Philbrick notes that the men of the Essex were in waters largely devoid of marine life at the surface.)
Captain Pollard, however, was not as easily forgiven, because he had eaten his cousin. (One scholar later referred to the act as “gastronomic incest.”) Owen Coffin’s mother could not abide being in the captain’s presence. Once his days at sea were over, Pollard spent the rest of his life in Nantucket. Once a year, on the anniversary of the wreck of the Essex, he was said to have locked himself in his room and fasted in honor of his lost crewmen.
By 1852, Melville and Moby-Dick had begun their own slide into obscurity. Despite the author’s hopes, his book sold but a few thousand copies in his lifetime, and Melville, after a few more failed attempts at novels, settled into a reclusive life and spent 19 years as a customs inspector in New York City. He drank and suffered the death of his two sons. Depressed, he abandoned novels for poetry. But George Pollard’s fate was never far from his mind. In his poem Clarel he writes of
A night patrolman on the quay
Watching the bales till morning hour
Through fair and foul. Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.
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Books: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale, 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers. Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, 2000, Penguin Books. Thomas Nickerson, The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, 2000, Penguin Classics. Owen Chase, Narrative of the Whale-Ship Essex of Nantucket, 2006, A RIA Press Edition. Alex MacCormick, The Mammoth Book of Maneaters, 2003, Carroll & Graf Publishers. Joseph S. Cummins, Cannibals: Shocking True Tales of the Last Taboo on Land and at Sea, 2001, The Lyons Press. Evan L. Balkan, Shipwrecked: Deadly Adventures and Disasters at Sea, 2008, Menasha Ridge Press.
Articles: “The Whale and the Horror,” by Nathaniel Philbrick, Vanity Fair, May, 2000. “Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist?” by Susan Beegel, The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/hn/HN-fall1991-beegel.html. ”Herman Melville and Nantucket,” The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/faq/melville.html. Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, “Biography: Herman Melville,” American Experience, PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/whaling-melville/. “No Moby-Dick: A Real Captain, Twice Doomed,” by Jesse McKinley, New York Times, February 11, 2011. “The Essex Disaster,” by Walter Karp, American Heritage, April/May, 1983, Volume 34, Issue 3. “Essex (whaleship),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essex_(whaleship). ”Account of the Ship Essex Sinking, 1819-1821., Thomas Nickerson, http://www.galapagos.to/TEXTS/NICKERSON.HTM
February 19, 2013
There is a place in South America that was once the end of the earth. It lies close to the 35th parallel, where the Maule River empties into the Pacific Ocean, and in the first years of the 16th century it marked the spot at which the Empire of the Incas ended and a strange and unknown world began.
South of the Maule, the Incas thought, lay a land of mystery and darkness. It was a place where the Pacific’s waters chilled and turned from blue to black, and where indigenous peoples struggled to claw the basest of livings from a hostile environment. It was also where the witches lived and evil came from. The Incas called this land “the Place of Seagulls.”
Today, the Place of Seagulls begins at a spot 700 miles due south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, and stretches for another 1,200 miles all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the “land of fire” so accurately described by Lucas Bridges as “the uttermost part of the earth.” Even now, the region remains sparsely inhabited—and at its lonely heart lies the island of Chiloé: rain-soaked and rainbow-strewn, matted with untamed virgin forest and possessed of a distinct and interesting history. First visited by Europeans in 1567, Chiloé was long known for piracy and privateering. In the 19th century, when Latin America revolted against imperial rule, the island remained loyal to Spain. And in 1880, a little more than half a century after it was finally incorporated into Chile, it was also the scene of a remarkable trial—the last significant witch trial, probably, anywhere in the world.
January 2, 2013
Breaking on the wheel was the most horrific punishment ever visited on a convicted criminal. It was a form of crucifixion, but with several cruel refinements; in its evolved form, a prisoner was strapped, spreadeagled, to a large cartwheel that was placed axle-first in the earth so that it formed a rotating platform a few feet above the ground. The wheel was then slowly rotated while an executioner methodically crushed the bones in the condemned man’s body, starting with his fingers and toes and working inexorably inward. An experienced headsman would take pride in ensuring that his victim remained conscious throughout the procedure, and when his work was done, the wheel would be hoisted upright and fixed in the soil, leaving the condemned to hang there until he died from shock and internal bleeding a few hours or a few days later.
“Breaking” was reserved for the most dangerous of criminals: traitors, mass killers and rebellious slaves whose plots threatened the lives of their masters and their masters’ families. Yet in the case of one man who endured the punishment, a slave known as Prince Klaas, doubts remain about the extent of the elaborate conspiracy he was convicted of organizing on the West Indian island of Antigua in 1736. The planters who uncovered the plot, and who executed Klaas and 87 of his fellow slaves for conceiving of it, believed it had as its object the massacre of all 3,800 whites on the island. Most historians have agreed with their verdict, but others think the panicky British rulers of the island exaggerated the dangers of a lesser plot—and a few doubt any conspiracy existed outside the minds of Antigua’s magistrates.
December 14, 2012
Salt is so commonplace today, so cheap and readily available, that it is hard to remember how hard to come by it once was. The Roman forces who arrived in Britain in the first century C.E reported that the only way the local tribes could obtain it was to pour brine onto red-hot charcoal, then scrape off the crystals that formed on the wood as the water hissed and evaporated. These were the same forces that, according to a tradition dating to the time of Pliny the Elder, gave us the word “salary” because they once received their wages in the stuff.
Salt was crucially important until very recently not merely as a condiment (though of course it is a vital foodstuff; hearts cannot beat and nerve impulses cannot fire without it), but also as a preservative. Before the invention of refrigeration, only the seemingly magical properties of salt could prevent slaughtered animals and fish hauled from the sea from rotting into stinking inedibility. It was especially important to the shipping industry, which fed its sailors on salt pork, salt beef and salt fish. The best salt meat was packed in barrels of the granules–though it could also be boiled in seawater, resulting in a far inferior product that, thanks to the scarcity of fresh water aboard wooden sailing ships, was then often cooked in brine as well, reaching the sailors as a broth so hideously salty that crystals formed on the sides of their bowls. The demand for salt to preserve fish was so vast that the Newfoundland cod fishery alone needed 25,000 tons of the stuff a year.
All this demand created places that specialized in producing what was known colloquially as “white gold.” The illustration above shows one remnant of the trade in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a sleepy Caribbean backwater that, from 1678 to 1964, subsisted almost entirely on the profits of the salt trade, and was very nearly destroyed by its collapse. The islands’ history is one of ingenuity in harsh circumstances and of the dangers of over-dependence on a single trade. It also provides an object lesson in economic reality, for the natural products of the earth and sky rarely make those who actually tap them rich.
The islands, long a neglected part of the British empire, lie in the northern reaches of the Caribbean, far from the major trade routes; their chief call on the world’s notice, before salt extraction began, was a disputed claim to be the spot where Christopher Columbus made landfall on his first voyage across the Atlantic. Whether Columbus’s first glimpse of the New World really was the island of Grand Turk (as the local islanders, but few others, insist), there is no doubt about the impact the Spaniards had once they began to exploit their new tropical empire. The indigenous population of the Turks and Caicos—estimated to have numbered several tens of thousands of peaceable Lucayan Amerindians—made a readily exploitable source of slave labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines the conquistadores established on Haiti. Within two decades of its discovery, the slave trade and the importation of diseases to which the Lucayans possessed practically no resistance (a large part of the European portion of what is termed the Columbian Exchange), had reduced that once-flourishing community to a single elderly man. (More…)