Recently in America, we celebrated Columbus Day, or Indigenous People’s Day, or whatever. Many people do not Celebrate Columbus’ discovery of America, but instead choose to celebrate the newly dedicated Indigenous People’s Day. This is being done because a certain segment of the population does not want to publicize Columbus and his contributions to America. In many circles he is seen as a bad person in history.
Contemporary focus on Columbus has come to center on his treatment of the Indians, or shall I call them Native Americans? History is full of people who were not of the utmost moral quality, yet aspired to do incredible things. In this age, the untrained tend to judge historical figures by 21st century standards, and not by the age in which they lived. This is historiography, and I have written on it before. 1
Is it fair to judge Columbus in such a negative way? When I was growing up, Columbus Day was celebrated and we talked about him in school. We spoke of him as the person credited with discovering America. Later, this fallacy was given to Leif Ericson the Viking who landed on the coast of New Foundland around 1000 CE (Common Era, after the year 0). 2 The Vikings left without establishing a permanent colony and their voyage fell by the wayside. Before even the Vikings it is thought the Chinese, or early people from India came to the North and South American continents. They came and traded with the ancient American empires. Whether Columbus was first is not really the issue. Has history blamed him too harshly for the results of this actions in the late 15th century? Should we dismiss some of his actions as a bi-product of the period?
George Washington was a slave owner. He owned upwards of 300 slaves during his 50+ years as a slave owner. While he did allow for their release, it would not occur until two years after his death in 1799. This was only due to his wife Martha, signing a manumission that released the slaves from their duty to the Washington/Custis estate. 3
Thomas Jefferson was also another great American that we speak highly of. He was also a slave owner. His home at Monticello was built by slaves. He freed fewer than five slaves in his life. Despite having a relationship with Sally Hemmings, a slave of his for almost 40 years, and through which he had six children. Jefferson also wrote he did not believe Africans and Anglos could coexist in the same environment. 4 This is the same person Americans hold in such high regard. I have written on Jefferson’s shortcomings before.
Whereas many “great” Americans hold a special place in the hearts of Americans for their contributions, so too does Christopher Columbus. As children, many of us were taught he was looking for an all water route to China, but instead he “discovered” America. He did not discover a new continent. The Chinese and Vikings had already been to North America. What Columbus did stumble upon was a series of islands in the Caribbean and never set foot on North American soil. 5
Columbus did not set out to open the world to new discoveries. Like most sailors of the time, Columbus wanted to make money. A westward, all water route to China would open that door. It would be much faster than travelling around Africa and the Indian Ocean to China.
When Columbus landed on Hispaniola, he recorded his observations of the natives, claiming he thought they would “make good servants and I am of the opinion that they would very readily become Christians as they appear to have no religion.” 6 Shortly after landing, Columbus planned to build a fort, but stated in his diary fortifying the place was unnecessary because the natives were “simple in war-like manners.” 7 Columbus obviously thought the Indians were primitive and he could easily conquer and enslave them if he chose. He wrote of this several times in his diary.
In the 15th century, slavery was a way of forcing barbarians (foreigners) to accept Christianity. God, gold, and glory were the reasons for Spanish exploration. When encountering natives, he recounted numerous times the natives noted him and his explorers as the people who came from the heavens. 8 Logic dictates the people from the heavens were the Spanish. Indians learned the Spanish language very quickly and him vice versa. This seems to be the case if one takes Columbus at his word in his diaries. When looking at the historiography, Columbus may have simply heard what he wanted to hear. European ideas of the time dictated they were the vastly superior race of the time, and therefore they could bend the world to their will. After all, the Europeans had defeated the Muslims and pushed them out of France. This feeling of invincibility became even more evident with latter explorers.
On his second voyage in 1493, Columbus brought several natives back to Spain and forced them into slavery. This was possibly done in an effort to build a slave trade and show how valuable the Indians were. 9 Columbus said they might “be led to abandon that custom which they have of eating men…learning the language, they will much more readily receive baptism and secure the welfare of their souls.” 10 Obviously the push was to develop a slave trade, similar to that which was being created in Africa at the same time. It should also be evident of the push for spreading the word of God, as was the goal of the Spanish government.
Also on that second voyage, he brought colonists with him who desired to exploit the natives for their gold. When the gold was hard to find, the Spanish began to kill the natives, who in turn resisted. Columbus ordered more forts built and required the Arawak Indians to bring gold dust. 11 Those who did not pay the tribute would be hunted down and killed. Eventually, the Spaniards revolted against Columbus and his cruel treatment of the natives. The Spaniards wanted to share the land with the natives and have them work the land, much like the feudal system of medieval Europe.
Because of the argument signed with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Columbus had the power to administer any island he claimed for Spain and was entitled to profit from them. 12 It is clear from letters he wrote to the king that he planned to obtain gold. In these letters he explained an elaborate system for keeping track of the gold. On his second voyage he enslaved a number of Indians to be returned to Spain, while many more were to be forced to mine for gold.13 After he was imprisoned by the Spanish and sent back to Spain, Columbus wrote another letter explaining his actions. In it, he speaks of how he should be judged, “…as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a numerous and warlike people…” 14 This certainly gives credence to the belief Columbus set out to obtain wealth and certainly took pride in forcing other to do it for him.
In the end, I think those who think only in present day terms have judged Columbus a bit too harshly. Perhaps it is because of the desire to revise history, or to make amends for past mistakes. On that I have no idea. However, I feel Columbus acted as any other European explorer with an edict from the King of a world power would. He sought to make money, which he never did. Columbus sought to line his pockets through any method necessary, including building a slave trade, raping the population of their resources, and pushing upon them a new religion. If we are to judge Columbus as a villain of history, then should we also judge Washington and Jefferson the same? After all, they did own slaves and did participate in its trade during their lives. Or perhaps we should simply look at the time period and apply the societal norms and then make a judgment about their character and intentions.
Sources and for further reading:
**Eventually I will clean up my citations and reference list. I know I am not using the proper format. Maybe I should write an entry sometime about how to do historical research and documentation.