Last Updated on October 12, 2021 by David Vause
Christopher Columbus and I have history. In the mid-1970s, while sitting over lunch in a villa overlooking Santa Margherita, I remarked that Columbus had apparently spent some time as a pirate after reading an article in the International Herald Tribune about his privateering days. In response, my estranged Genoese step-father physically assaulted me.
I acknowledge that Columbus was probably a brilliant man. The son of a Genoese merchant, he was brought up in the same tradition. He took to the sea at an early age, traveled widely, and learned from those travels. He was self-taught in Latin, Portuguese, and Castilian. He read widely about astronomy, geography, and history. Importantly, he learned cartography. He, along with the major scholars of Europe, knew that the earth was round. From the Ninth Century Islamic scholar Al-Farghani, also knew the Earth’s circumference to a great degree of accuracy, though confusion over the difference between nautical and Arabic miles caused his estimate to be far shorter.
In the capitals of Europe, Columbus his idea that sailing to the Orient could be accomplished by going west over the Atlantic. He tried Portugal, sent his brother to try England, and was on his way to France when the King and Queen of Spain stopped him and brought him back for more discussions. Eventually, he would negotiate the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and Viceroyship and Governorship of new lands he claimed for Spain. Additionally, he would get 10% of all revenues from the lands he discovered and an influence in the choice of appointees to office in those lands.
Much of Columbus’ life is mired in conflict and controversy. Even in his own time, his treatment of both colonists and natives drew much criticism. He spent time in jail in Spain for his actions in the Americas at one point.
On his first trip to the Americas, Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, called by the natives “Guanahani”. His journal entry for 12 October 1492 on the topic of the inhabitants provides insight to the man: “They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion”. Of the Arawak peoples, he noted that their primitive weapons and military tactics made them susceptible to easy conquest. He wrote: “these people are very simple in war-like matters … I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”
On his second voyage, he encountered the Caribs. To be blunt, the Americas were no idyllic paradise; Native Americans were not monolithic. Some were timid and ran off upon the approach of the Europeans. On the other hand, the Caribs were as ruthless and violent as the colonizers. The two groups collaborated and fought each other. Both routinely engaged in murder, butchery, rape, and slavery of their own kind and of each other. However, the Europeans had the resources to do so on the scale of hundreds or thousands of Native Americans: males, 14 and up, were forced into gold mining, the women into sex slavery.
His last two trips were failures. On the third, the Spanish Crown relieved him of command for his harsh suppression of a rebellion by his own European colonialists. It instituted an investigation which resulted in him being sent back to Spain and imprisoned. His negotiation skills won him freedom at the hand of the Crown and support for a fourth voyage. On this one, he was refused harbor entry by his own governor upon the approach of a hurricane. He barely made it back to Spain with his life and partial crew.
To say that Columbus committed genocide is silly hyperbole. However, his arrival was the start of a long history in which a population rich in advanced technology, weaponry, and immune system response decimates a population without these strengths. There were many instances where Native Americans were specifically targeted for removal or destruction with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. In fact, this is the entire history of the American West, of which so many in the United States are so proud and see as their foundational myth: the policy of forcibly removing Natives to reservations is, by definition, genocide.
About the man Columbus himself, I suspect the worst we can say is that he was a man of his time. The Fifteenth Century was not a pretty place, either in the Americas or in Europe. On both sides of the Atlantic, humans were amazingly brutal to one another. Eight hundred years later, we view these events through the lens of the French Enlightenment. Essentially put, the notion that human life has some intrinsic value, that “pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason, and the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state” are the ideas of dead white western men living in France and England in the 18th Century. Before this time, there simply was not a concept of human or personal rights.
I have often said that it is unreasonable to judge people in history based on concepts that did not exist a the time. Columbus enslaved because that is what you did to conquered people in those days. Slavery will not be questioned until the French Enlightenment. Before that, it reaches back into time. The word “slave” comes from Slav. In the Middle Ages, more western European people routinely enslaved Slavs. The great Moslem Empire, with running water, lighted streets, and libraries from Constantinople to Cordoba, had them. In the Moslem Empire, Islamists, Christians, and Jews could all live and pray, because it is written in their Book. But they had slaves. Reaching back to the dawn of art, Hecuba laments her impending fate as a slave as Troy falls and its women are raped.
Sure, Columbus may have been a man of his time. His own biography indicates that while he was a good negotiator with the Spanish Crown, he was a poor leader and organizer. And he was, by current standards, a butcher. So, should he be lionized now?
It is ironic that Columbus Day was instituted to alleviate early Twentieth Century racism directed at incoming Italians and other Southern Europeans. In this time of continued racism and neglect of the original people of the Americas, perhaps it is time to refocus our attention on the millions who lost a continent and are now living lives of intractable poverty and neglect on paltry, remote, pieces of lands not even of their choosing. I think we are overdue. Do we celebrate a brutal time in the past that hopefully, we have moved beyond as civilization? Do we do something to make our present world a better place for those in need?
Dump Columbus, it’s time for Indigenous Peoples Day.