Columbus and the Indians

It’s controversial holiday time, again. Yaaayyy!!!

famous painting of Christopher ColumbusColumbus Day is celebrated as a U.S. federal holiday (since 1936) in honor of the intrepid explorer Christopher Columbus’ initial landing in the Bahamas and, therefore, the Americas. The facts that Columbus was a) not the first non-native to “find” the New World (ask Leif Erickson) and that b) his discovery was accidental do not matter. It still represents momentous developments in world history and Western civilization. The American colonies favored Columbus over John Cabot, a Venetian explorer who sailed under the British flag and whose landing on Newfoundland in 1497 was considered by some to be the founding of the British Empire. The words “Columbus” and “Columbia” were used commonly in writings throughout the American Revolution, and the new nation of the United States of America proved its veneration of Columbus by naming its federal capital (DC), two state capitals (OH & SC), and a river after him.

Technically, Columbus first “arrived” in the New World — instead of the East Indies he was hoping for — on Oct. 12, 1492, and it is still celebrated on Oct. 12th in other parts of the world. But, since 1970, all but three of the states in the U.S. celebrate Columbus Day on the second Monday of October. (Hawaii, Alaska, & South Dakota don’t celebrate it at all, and Berkeley, CA, replaced it with “Indigenous Peoples Day” in 1992.) This year, it’s on Oct. 14th.

Columbus Day is also the traditional time when those steeped in politically-correct, anti-European (and/or anti-imperialist), anti-capitalist historical revisionism go about demonizing Christopher Columbus, casting aspersions on his character and accusing him of all manner of moral crimes, from greedy capitalist pig to brutal tyrant to genocidal maniac and “father of the transatlantic slave trade”. So, I decided to examine a few of these claims and present a bit of a corrective based on actual, historical facts and (un)common sense. But, first, let’s review some basic facts about Columbus the man and his historic voyages.

Christopher Columbus was born to a middle-class family in the Republic of Genoa (i.e., modern-day northwestern Italy) somewhere between Aug. 26 and Oct. 31, 1451. He first went to sea as a young lad. Beginning in his early 20’s, he apprenticed as a business agent for a few prominent, Genoan families. Columbus was largely self-taught and well-read in a number of subjects; though, according some historians, he did not always fully grasp what he read and came up with some incorrect ideas about the world that he stubbornly held onto. He was also an avid student of the Bible (including the Apocrypha) and biblical prophecy & eschatology.

Columbus spent a lot of time on trading vessels over the years, sailing as far south as Ghana on the coast of West Africa and possibly as far north(west) as Iceland. He married a Portuguese nobleman’s daughter, had children, and visited his family when he could. On a stop in Lisbon in 1479, he reconnected with his brother Bartholomew (aka Bartolomeo), a cartographer, and they began working on a project together.

Since the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, the “Silk Road” route to the Orient — source for silk, gold, jewels, rugs, dyes, spices, and opiates, all very much in demand in Europe — had become increasingly treacherous. This made things difficult for traders and ate into their profits. In hopes of gaining competitive advantage, various navigators/explorers and their backers tried to find a safer, alternate route to the Indies (i.e., roughly all of south and east Asia). To this end, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain were eventually convinced (after initial rejection) to support Columbus’ plan, which would use a naval route devised by Christopher and Bartholomew to cross the “Ocean Sea”, i.e., Atlantic Ocean. (Note: Spain was not in great financial condition, having just spent a lot to conquer the Muslim-held, Iberian province of Granada. So, roughly half of the financing for Columbus’ first trip was actually from private Italian investors.) In the “Capitulations of Santa Fe“, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agreed to give Columbus the rank of “Admiral of the Seas” (and later “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”), promised him a share of the profits in perpetuity, and made him Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands he could claim for Spain, with the option to buy into any commercial ventures with those lands.

Columbus hired three ships — two caravels named the Santa Clara (nicknamed Niña) and the Pinta, and a larger carrack named the Santa María (aka La Gallega) — with total crew of 90 men and set sail on his first historic voyage on August 3, 1492. Unfortunately, he had made several mistakes in his geographical assumptions, grossly underestimating the westward distance between Europe and Asia. (Note: The King of Portugal had earlier rejected Columbus’ plan, because his experts had pointed out these miscalculations. Columbus refused to be swayed.) Yet, despite the many dangers & hardships (e.g., navigating through uncharted seas; disease & malnutrition; near-mutiny), and thanks largely to his valuable (though imperfect) knowledge of trade winds, Columbus and his surviving crew finally made it to land again, where they were able to rest, gather provisions, and explore before returning home. In addition to discovering new territory to colonize and resources to exploit, Columbus had also found new people groups to introduce to Christianity — one of his personal goals, and one shared by many explorers and colonists of the day.

Ships of Columbus' First VoyageThis was but the first of four round-trips to/from the Americas (mostly in the Caribbean) that Columbus made for Spain between 1492 and 1503. The later trips included many more ships, with passengers and supplies for establishing colonies for Spain. News of these journeys and others brought the “New World” to the attention of governments, businessmen, Church and laymen alike, heralding the initiation of European exploration and colonization of the Western Hemisphere.

If this was of such significance in Western history, one might wonder why they aren’t called the “Columbian” continents. Why did Columbus only get a single, South American country named after him? According to one theory, the key might just lie in Columbus’ stubbornness:

“Columbus always insisted, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that the lands that he visited during those voyages were part of the Asian continent, as previously described by Marco Polo and other European travelers. [This intransigence] might explain, in part, why the American continent was named after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci [who recognized the land for the “new” continent(s) that it was] and not after Columbus.”

On the other hand, others say it was simply that Vespucci’s self-promoting letters — which may or may not have been fabrications by others — describing the New World circulated more quickly than Columbus’ written accounts. (A cartographer and navigator himself, Vespucci was, at the King of Portugal’s request, a professional observer on several Portuguese expeditions exploring the east coast of soon-to-be-called South America from 1499 to 1502.) Thus, Vespucci’s name became sufficiently associated with the discovery that geographers dubbed the land “America” — a feminine form of the Latinized “Americus Vespucius”. In fact, German cartographers Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann are credited with the first recorded usage of the word “America”, on their world map Universalis Cosmographia (1507). I should also note that, by the time of his death in 1506, Columbus had fallen out of favor with the Crown (see below) and was not a popular figure in Spain or the New World.

OK, end of Vespucci tangent. Now, I suppose we can get to the more controversial stuff….

There is plenty of controversy associated with Christopher Columbus, from where he was born to where his true remains are located. But, our concern is with the kind of man Columbus was. Not things like “Was he a good father? A loyal friend? An honest businessman?” No, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the charges are much more serious. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, there appears to be a lot of truth to them. I don’t like admitting that. I thought the worst of it had been debunked, and I was ready to defend Columbus’ honor. But, the case against him does seem pretty damning, and if anyone has been able to show that the relevant documents are fake or have been inaccurately interpreted, I couldn’t find it online. (I didn’t have time to research offline.)

Most of the evidence against Columbus comes from his own letters and logs, and from a 48-page document recently discovered (2006?) in the state archives in Valladolid by Spanish historians. In it, friend (reluctantly) and foe alike — 23 in all — describe some of the hardships and brutalities that occurred under the government of Christopher and his brothers. But, let me back up a step….

There had been a few incidents with the natives, though not many, and Columbus and his men were able to counter and/or administer punishment for any hostilities. It could be (and has been) argued that many of these punitive actions went too far. Columbus probably first knew he was in trouble when he returned from his Third Voyage (Aug./Sept. 1498) to find a rebellion underway by many Spanish settlers against the government led by him and his brothers, Bartholomew and Diego. They were accused of “gross mismanagement” and of overstating the ease and opportunities for wealth. Apparently, some of his crew were involved and he had them hanged! Some returnees to Spain brought these and other charges against him in court, and “Columbus was eventually forced to make peace with the rebellious colonists on humiliating terms.”

Recognizing a growing problem, in 1500 Ferdinand and Isabella stripped Columbus of his governorship and had him arrested and shipped back to Spain in chains. Viewing his actions as a breach of contract, they also refused to continue paying him the royalties from their original agreement. This was the beginning of a long and drawn-out legal battle known as los pleitos colombinos (“Columbian lawsuits”), involving Columbus’ sons and descendants and reaching into the 18th century. Columbus was freed and allowed to return to the New World for a Fourth Voyage in 1502. On the way, he stopped off of Morocco to rescue some Portuguese sailors under siege by the Moors.

Meanwhile, Columbus’ successor as governor in Hispaniola was a member of the Order of Calatrava named Francisco de Bobadilla. Bobadilla had been tasked by the Crown with investigating the allegations of barbarity and greed by and under the watch of the Columbuses. The result is the aforementioned 48-page document. From it and other documentation, we know that the Columbuses were not above ordering public humiliation, disfigurement, dismemberment, and/or execution for various crimes and offenses. Some of these offenses (e.g., suggesting that Columbus was of lowly birth) seem hardly a big deal to us, and our modern-day sensibilities balk at such cruelty. To be fair, though, matters of family honor, respect for local authority, etc., were considered quite important to defend and maintain; so, while the method of punishment seems barbaric, we can at least understand the seriousness of the offenses in context.

The evidence also seems clear that Columbus, like many of his contemporaries, was involved in the slave trade to some degree. For example, one letter from Columbus to Ferdinand & Isabella says,

“In the name of the Holy Trinity, we can send from here all the slaves and brazil-wood which could be sold…. Although they die now, they will not always die. The Negros and Canary Islanders died at first.”

Assuming this is an accurate quote, it not only indicates that Columbus was involved in the trade but it betrays a stereotypically cavalier attitude toward the lives of indios and others sold into slavery. Here is a quote from another letter by Columbus that some take as evidence he was also involved in the sex trade, even providing very young girls:

“A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”

I have to say, though, that without more context, one could read this more generously as his supplying women & girls for wives and servants. Even then, of course, they were likely captured and sent from their homeland against their will.

Map showing routes of Columbus' 4 voyages to New WorldThere is one area, however, where I did find some information that can help us correct some misconceptions, namely about the severity of the European “mass murder” of indigenous American peoples via warfare, starvation, and disease. We are typically told that Columbus (and other “white devils”) brought all manner of Eurasian diseases with them — e.g., syphilis, smallpox, influenza, plagues, etc. — for which the Native Americans did not have immunity. This effectively devastated the native populations. The term often used is “genocide”, which implies that the Europeans not only knew exactly what they carried but that they purposely infected the indios precisely in order to wipe them out, greatly reducing any opposition to European colonization and exploitation of the land. I haven’t figured out how the European colonizers could plan this and stay healthy themselves, especially with their extremely limited medical knowledge. (Details, details.) Of course, those that survived the new diseases were supposed to have been savagely massacred in war with the white man.

In A Patriot’s History of the United States, authors Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen looked at recent studies and list five points that need to be seriously considered in order to get a realistic view of the numbers and causes of this so-called “genocide”. I’ll do my best to summarize:

1) Inflated estimates for the death toll resulting from European invasion of the New World have been as high as 56 million! This is supposed to represent a little over half of the original population, which would put that at almost 100 million. Problem with those numbers is they just don’t jibe with reality. More reliable numbers put the total population closer to 53 million at the outside, but estimates keep getting revised downward. Some have put the pre-Colombian population of North America alone between 1.8 million and 8.5 million. The adjusted number of estimated deaths, then, while still very tragic, is much smaller than the earlier, grossly-exaggerated estimates.

We should also realize that it is very difficult to accurately estimate how many people were alive in a particular region 500 years ago. One popular method has been extrapolation from estimates given by early explorers, based on those populations they could count. But, this method has been challenged by archaeological studies in the Amazon Basin, with experts concluding that early estimates were exaggerated. In some cases, a “plus or minus reliability factor” of 400 percent(!) has led to overestimates in the millions.

2) “A recent study of more than 12,500 skeletons from sixty-five sites found that native health was on a ‘downward trajectory long before Columbus arrived.’ Some suggest that Indians may have had a nonvenereal form of syphilis, and almost all agree that a variety of infections were widespread. Tuberculosis existed in Central and North America long before the Spanish appeared, as did herpes, polio, tick-borne fevers, giardiasis, and amebic dysentery.” Experts are divided on just how much Old World disease affected the New World, but “[m]any now discount the notion that huge epidemics swept through Central and North America; smallpox, in particular, did not seem to spread as a pandemic.”

3) Indians didn’t generally document how many were lost in battle. Later transcriptions of oral histories revealed that some tribes “emphasize[d] bravery over brains” by exaggerating casualties, while other tribes adjusted their body counts downward, so they didn’t look weak. “What is certain is that vast numbers of natives were killed by other natives….” Can you imagine how many more would have died if they had had better weapons?

4) “According to a recent source, ‘The majority of Southwesternists… believe that many areas of the Greater Southwest [including northern Mexico and the southwestern United States] were abandoned or largely depopulated over a century before Columbus’ fateful discovery, as a result of climatic shifts, warfare, resource mismanagement, and other causes.'”

5) “What has been missing from the discussions about native populations has been a recognition that in many ways the tribes resembled the small states in Europe: they concerned themselves more with traditional enemies (other tribes) than with new ones (whites).”

All of this should tell us that Columbus et al. cannot be blamed for all, or even most, of the death and suffering from war and disease in the Americas in the late 15th century and forward. They contributed, sure, but it does no one any good to blame them for anything more.

This brings up another point I wanted to mention. In a lot of the anti-Columbus/anti-European rhetoric, as well as with other topics of similar controversy, I’ve noticed that the writers & speakers never seem to give the benefit of the doubt regarding a particular piece of historical “evidence”. They always assume the worst, reading/interpreting things in the most negative way possible. What might be an isolated incident is assumed to be regular and habitual. What might be a matter of accident or ignorance is assumed to be intentional. What could be a practice only undertaken reluctantly or under coercion is assumed to be done freely and with enthusiasm. The picture painted of Columbus, then, becomes one of an evil-to-the-core, habitually cruel and savage tyrant, heartlessly issuing orders of torture and death on a whim and sentencing others to lives of great hardship and brutality, all while greedily amassing wealth (mostly gold) at the expense of others. But, I get no sense of him being such a monster. My own impression, even with all of the violence and inhumane crap that went down, was that Columbus was simply a man of his time. That isn’t to excuse most of it. But, it is to recognize that a) Columbus was but one of many European explorers/colonizers who treated native populations harshly at times, and b) though they went overboard at times, Columbus and his brothers probably thought they were acting reasonably to maintain order on the frontier for their masters back home.

"Honesty" written in blue chalkSo, why do they do it? Why does the anti-Columbus/anti-European crowd emphasize and unnecessarily exaggerate the negatives? Many who lean this way are of Central or South American origin or extraction. There is a heavily Marxist influence in those cultures, so it is understandable why many of them are bitter towards European colonization and have fallen for the revisionist claims. Groups like La Raza also feel that their land was unfairly stolen by the Europeans (including American colonists, of course), so there is a longstanding grudge. But, there are also non-Latinos like the late Prof. Howard Zinn — who, ironically, got his MA & PhD from Columbia University — who promote(d) such views. Zinn was influenced by early Marxism but later moved toward anarchism. So, it’s no surprise that he also hated the ideas of private property and capitalism. I can only guess that such people consider anything that makes European (or American) colonization and associated economic concepts look bad is good for their cause. But, there’s probably more to it.

I understand the need to get past the idealistic, thumbnail sketches of “heroes” that we read as schoolchildren. I’ve blogged on this before. But some people go *way* too far the other way to compensate! Christopher Columbus was no saint, but neither was he the evil, genocidal monster they make him out to be. That’s just the facts.

I would like to end with a comment by a HS social studies teacher named Anthony Guzzaldo, which I came across on an education blog:

“If we only recognize the achievements of those heroes of history without flaws, who would be left to recognize?

Rather than present Columbus as purely heroic or, contrastingly, purely horrible, I would rather see the study of Columbus used to help [older] students to grapple with the ambiguities of history. The so-called heroes and villains of history are rarely, in reality, singly one or the other, just as most of history is far more complex and nuanced than it is often presented. The same can be said for the prominent figures and issues of the present day. We do our students a disservice by presenting the past or the present as anything other than that.

So, put down your swords, Columbus worshipers and demonizers alike. You’re both right.”

Yes, we need to acknowledge Columbus’ faults and the negative impact his arrival (and those of many of his successors) had on the New World and its people. But, at least on one day of the year, can’t we focus on celebrating his vision, his persistence, his accomplishment in forever connecting two supercontinents and the positives that came from those extraordinary efforts?


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