Christopher Columbus, Revised
Every age needs its good guys and bad guys. In our day, the bad guys par excellence are the colonizers of times past who exploited indigenous peoples and extended empires. Who could fit the bill better than Christopher Columbus, who changed his name, upon moving to Spain, to "Colón" ("the colonizer") and proceeded to infect the virginal western hemisphere with European lust, aggression, and greed?
In recent decades, a spate of revisionist historians have attempted to knock the Genoese discoverer from his timeworn pedestal. In Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale portrayed him as deluded and morally flawed, suggesting he was partially to blame for the subsequent annhilation of Native American peoples. Howard Zinn, in his People's History of the United States, carried the demonization of Columbus further, misleadingly invoking Columbus's contemporary, the morally lucid Bartolomé de las Casas, in support of his re-evaluation.
Last Spring, the faculty of Brown University voted to stop honoring Columbus Day, renaming the federal holiday "Fall Weekend" for purposes related to university affairs. For similar reasons, in Berkeley, California, Columbus Day is now Indigenous Peoples Day.
I support honoring indigenous peoples, but I object to the effort to reduce as complex, fascinating, and in some ways inspiring a man as Christopher Columbus to a caricature. Columbus was ambitious, greedy, proud, and, as governor of Hispaniola, inept. He was also an insatiably curious autodidact, a man of deep and unshakeable convictions, and a brilliant navigator who utilized previously unknown wind patterns to make an extremely challenging voyage feasible with very limited resources. His routes from Europe to the West Indies are used by shipping enterprises to this day.
When Columbus first landed on the shores of the New World, he was impressed by the gentleness of the natives. "I recognized," he wrote in his diary, "that they would be better free and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force." He instructed his sailors not to take anything from them without offering something in return. This is not to say that Columbus was a saint, or that he wanted to engage in fair exchange practices. But he saw the natives as human beings, and that was already quite an accomplishment for a man of his time.
It was not yet firmly established, in the Spanish mind, that pagans belonged to the same species as Christians, Jews, and Muslims. A theological debate fueled this confusion: How could a just God have created human beings who had never heard the name of Christ, and were thus born into a world where salvation was impossible and damnation, inevitable? As late as 1550, Juan de Sepulveda argued at Valladolid that the "Indians" Columbus had discovered were not rational beings. Native Americans, in this view, did not deserve to benefit from the protections of law or judeo-christian ethics. They did not deserve to be free. Their lives were of no value to God. In contrast to Sepulveda and later Spanish governors and explorers,Columbus showed admiration, if not respect, for the Taino Indians he initially met.
Using gestures and sounds, speaking through Columbus's "interpreter" (the Jew Luis de Torres) these gentle natives described for Columbus (or seemed to describe) other tribes in the vicinity, fearsome warriors who hunted and ate human beings. De Torres and Columbus concluded that the tribe they had discovered lived in mortal fear of their neighbors, the Caribs, from whose name our words "cannibal" and "Carribean" derive. Columbus and de Torres forged a personal bond with the Taino chieftain, Guacanagari.
In part to help protect Guacanagari and his tribe, Columbus left behind a colony of some forty European sailors, including de Torres. When he returned a year later, he found their fortress burned to the ground. Many of the Europeans had been murdered. Others had fled. Enraged by what he perceived as treachery, Columbus began to view the natives in a less favorable light.
On this second voyage, Columbus had brought a priest, Friar Buil, who advised him to execute Guacanagari in retribution for the destruction of the fortress and the murder of its European residents. Columbus refused to do so, but took Indian prisoners. Under the European rules of warfare of that day, unransomed prisoners were sold as slaves.
Columbus wanted to govern the lands he discovered, and to convert the natives to Christianity. According to his contract with the monarchs of Spain, he and his heirs were entitled to a tenth of all the goods produced in the lands he discovered. The king and queen, who had not imagined he would find an entire hemisphere, soon recognized that Columbus stood to become immensely wealthy and powerful. They could not tolerate a potential threat to their sovereignty. On trumped-up charges, they had Columbus arrested, deprived of his governorship and other contractual rights, and, for a time, jailed. They also did their best to sully his reputation. He was a bad governor, they maintained, who horded wealth, treated nobles like commoners, and abused his subjects. In his trial, Columbus was not permitted to utter a word of self-defense.
There was some basis to the monarchs' claims. However, it was not Columbus but his successors that imposed the brutal encomienda feudal system, under which the natives were worked to death. Those natives who survived the hard labor were decimated by diseases imported from Europe -- measles, mumps, diptheria, typhoid, and smallpox. The legacy of Spain in the New World is not Columbus's legacy.
We need not romanticize Columbus or try to transform him into a modern hero. He was as much a man of the middle ages as of the renaissance, motivated by religious zeal and divine inspiration as well as greed and thirst for knowledge. "God made me the messenger," he wrote in his Book of Prophecies, "of the new heaven and the new earth, of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St John after having previously revealed it through the mouth of Isaiah. He showed me where to find this new heaven and new earth." To judge Columbus by the standards of our day, when the connotations and the very meaning of the word "colonizer" have changed, is simplistic and intellectually dishonest.
Mitchell James Kaplan. His blog can be found here. By Fire, By Water is available for purchase here.