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Commentary

Columbus Day as a Golden Moment

Payback time in the Caribbean is way overdue.

October 12, 2003|Kirkpatrick Sale

On this Columbus Day, 511 years after the explorer arrived in the New World, it's time for Spain to start paying back some portion of the trillions of dollars in gold that it took from the Americas after the Taino Indians allowed Christoper Columbus to discover them.

In order not to seem punitive, I am not suggesting that Spain pay it all back. In fact, it might just start by returning the equivalent of a single year's take, with interest, of course. And to be especially fair, I would suggest that the year be 1503. That is an appropriate quincentennial date, when the Spanish had just gotten started on their looting of the island they called Espanola -- now the countries of the Dominican Republic and Haiti -- and their haul was not especially grand.

Columbus, after seven years of finding nothing but a few nuggets and trinkets of gold, finally hit pay dirt around Christmas of 1499 when he said, "I learned there were 800 leagues of land and mines all over it." That would be about 250 miles of gold mines, as extensive a find as Europe had ever known. From 1502 to 1519, when the mines were exhausted, they produced tons of gold each year for the sovereign's coffers in Spain, in addition to the sacks claimed by the Spanish settlers and Columbus himself.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 20, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 11 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
New World gold -- The compound interest calculations in an Oct. 12 Commentary article on how much should be repaid by Spain for the gold it took from the New World were incorrectly done, yielding sums 100 times greater than they should have been. Also, the percentage figure used to calculate 1% interest compounded annually for 500 years should have been 14,477.28%.

According to incomplete records, the crown's share of gold between 1504 and 1519 was an average of about a ton a year, although Bartolome de las Casas, the noble friar who was on the island from 1502 to 1509, said the production was closer to three tons a year. Let us average the two estimates and figure that in 1503 the output was two tons -- a reasonable figure considering the average imports of gold to Spain for the entire century and a half of American production was 1.2 tons a year.

Two tons, 4,000 pounds, converted into the troy weight that is now used on the gold market, is 58,304 troy ounces. We can't say what an ounce of gold was worth in 1503, but since we're talking about today, let's figure it at $400 an ounce, which is roughly what gold is going for now. That works out to $23,321,600, a goodly sum.

But of course there is compound interest on this; that's only fair.

At 5% a year, multiply by 3,932,326,182,621.87%, and that comes out to nearly $91,708,138,300,634,200,000, which doesn't seem quite fair, since the whole world couldn't pay that off.

Let's say just 1% interest annually, which is 14,377.28%, and now the repayment is more doable, quite reasonable in fact: just over $335 billion ($335,301,173,248).

I don't think it is really fair for Spain to pay all of that. After all, the multiplier effect of the original gold went all over the Continent. Let's give the burden to the European Union and have those nations pay up -- and we can always threaten to use the 5% interest rate if they don't.

Now, who gets it? Technically, it should go to the people of the Dominican Republic, which is where the mines were, and it would provide a neat $39,072.66 for every man, woman and child (2002 population).

Inasmuch as the damage Columbus and the Spaniards wrought extended around the Caribbean, though, I think it would be fairer to split it up among the 35 million people of the islands, at $9,580.03 per person, and who couldn't use that?

Happy Columbus Day, all of you in the Caribbean. About time.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of 10 books, including "The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy" (Knopf, 1990).

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