Christopher Columbus, Revised
Every age needs its good guys and its 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
I support the idea of 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 Columbus 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
There was some basis in truth 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 much as by 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.