EP: The debate over who should be our heroes is about more than just the man Columbus. Discuss.
NOTE: All the reading here as you scroll down applies to this examination question. It is recommended that you read all of it so as to better ascertain what is the best evidence for you to use to argue your thesis. The title of each specific selection is in bold print.
The cowards think of what they can lose, the heroes of what they can win.--JM Charlier
How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!
I want to be a hero, a small and good kind of hero, even though I know heroes have very short lives. --Boris Becker
Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes. --Bertolt Brecht
Every ship that comes to America got its chart from Columbus. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
When asked by an anthropologist what the Indians called America before the white man came, an Indian said simply, "Ours." ~Vine Deloria, Jr.
Columbus brought many good things, and many bad things.
SECONDARY SOURCE: James Loewen, ch. 1--Handicapped by History
As you read, address these issues:
- What are wart-less heroes and what two examples does he develop?
- What are the three taboo subjects?
- Should we accept or reject heroes?
SECONDARY SOURCE: Loewen Ch. 2: 1493.
THE CON ARGUMENT: "Glass half empty regarding Columbus"
- How did Columbus get a day on the calendar?
- What five factors help explain European expansion?
- What two things did Columbus introduce to revolutionize the world?
- How does Loewen evaluate him?
A Letter from Christopher Columbus to the King & Queen of Spain (1490's)
Most High and Mighty Sovereigns,
In obedience to your Highnesses' commands, and with submission to superior judgment, I will say whatever occurs to me in reference to the colonization and commerce of the Island of Espanola, and of the other islands, both those already discovered and those that may be discovered hereafter.
In the first place, as regards the Island of Espanola: Inasmuch as the number of colonists who desire to go thither amounts to two thousand, owing to the land being safer and better for farming and trading, and because it will serve as a place to which they can return and from which they can carry on trade with the neighboring islands:
- That in the said island there shall be founded three or four towns, situated in the most convenient places, and that the settlers who are there be assigned to the aforesaid places and towns.
- That for the better and more speedy colonization of the said island, no one shall have liberty to collect gold in it except those who have taken out colonists' papers, and have built houses for their abode, in the town in which they are, that they may live united and in greater safety.
- That each town shall have its alcalde [Mayor] ... and its notary public, as is the use and custom in Castile.
- That there shall he a church, and parish priests or friars to administer the sacraments, to perform divine worship, and for the conversion of the Indians.
- That none of the colonists shall go to seek gold without a license from the governor or alcalde of the town where he lives; and that he must first take oath to return to the place whence he sets out, for the purpose of registering faithfully all the gold he may have found, and to return once a month, or once a week, as the time may have been set for him, to render account and show the quantity of said gold; and that this shall be written down by the notary before the aIcalde, or, if it seems better, that a friar or priest, deputed for the purpose, shall be also present
- That all the gold thus brought in shall be smelted immediately, and stamped with some mark that shall distinguish each town; and that the portion which belongs to your Highnesses shall be weighed, and given and consigned to each alcalde in his own town, and registered by the above-mentioned priest or friar, so that it shall not pass through the hands of only one person, and there shall he no opportunity to conceal the truth.
- That all gold that may be found without the mark of one of the said towns in the possession of any one who has once registered in accordance with the above order shall be taken as forfeited, and that the accuser shall have one portion of it and your Highnesses the other.
- That one per centum of all the gold that may be found shall be set aside for building churches and adorning the same, and for the support of the priests or friars belonging to them; and, if it should be thought proper to pay any thing to the alcaldes or notaries for their services, or for ensuring the faithful perforce of their duties, that this amount shall be sent to the governor or treasurer who may be appointed there by your Highnesses.
- As regards the division of the gold, and the share that ought to be reserved for your Highnesses, this, in my opinion, must be left to the aforesaid governor and treasurer, because it will have to be greater or less according to the quantity of gold that may be found. Or, should it seem preferable, your Highnesses might, for the space of one year, take one half, and the collector the other, and a better arrangement for the division be made afterward.
- That if the said alcaldes or notaries shall commit or be privy to any fraud, punishment shall be provided, and the same for the colonists who shall not have declared all the gold they have.
- That in the said island there shall be a treasurer, with a clerk to assist him, who shall receive all the gold belonging to your Highnesses, and the alcaldes and notaries of the towns shall each keep a record of what they deliver to the said treasurer.
- As, in the eagerness to get gold, every one will wish, naturally, to engage in its search in preference to any other employment, it seems to me that the privilege of going to look for gold ought to be withheld during some portion of each year, that there may be opportunity to have the other business necessary for the island performed.
- In regard to the discovery of new countries, I think permission should be granted to all that wish to go, and more liberality used in the matter of the fifth, making the tax easier, in some fair way, in order that many may be disposed to go on voyages.
I will now give my opinion about ships going to the said Island of Espanola, and the order that should be maintained; and that is, that the said ships should only be allowed to discharge in one or two ports designated for the purpose, and should register there whatever cargo they bring or unload; and when the time for their departure comes, that they should sail from these same ports, and register all the cargo they take in, that nothing may be concealed.
- In reference to the transportation of gold from the island to Castile, that all of it should be taken on board the ship, both that belonging to your Highnesses and the property of every one else; that it should all be placed in one chest with two locks, with their keys, and that the master of the vessel keep one key and some person selected by the governor and treasurer the other; that there should come with the gold, for a testimony, a list of all that has been put into the said chest, properly marked, so that each owner may receive his own; and that, for the faithful performance of this duty, if any gold whatsoever is found outside of the said chest in any way, be it little or much, it shall be forfeited to your Highnesses.
- That all the ships that come from the said island shall be obliged to make their proper discharge in the port of Cadiz, and that no person shall disembark or other person be permitted to go on board until the ship has been visited by the person or persons deputed for that purpose, in the said city, by your Highnesses, to whom the master shall show all that he carries, and exhibit the manifest of all the cargo, it may be seen and examined if the said ship brings any thing hidden and not known at the time of lading.
- That the chest in which the said gold has been carried shall be opened in the presence of the magistrates of the said city of Cadiz, and of the person deputed for that purpose by your Highnesses, and his own property be given to each owner. -
I beg your Highnesses to hold me in your protection; and I remain, praying our Lord God for your Highnesses' lives and the increase of much greater States.
The Crimes of Christopher Columbus
Multiculturalism is presented by its advocates in the schools and universities as a benign alternative to monoculturalism. Historian Peter Stearns insists that the multicultural debate "is between those who think there are special marvelous features about the Western tradition that students should be exposed to, and others who feel it's much more important for students to have a sense of the way the larger world has developed." This is the unmistakable appeal of multiculturalism: it is obviously better to study many cultures rather than a single culture, to have diverse points of view rather than a single one.
Yet if multiculturalism represented nothing more than an upsurge of interest in other cultures, it would be uncontroversial. Who can possibly be against hundreds of thousands of American students studying the Analects of Confucius or the philosophical writings of Alfarabi and Avicenna? The debate about multiculturalism is not over whether to study other cultures but how to study the West and other cultures. Multiculturalism is better understood as a civil conflict within the Western academy over contrasting approaches to learning about the world.
Critics of multiculturalism such as Allan Bloom, E. D. Hirsch, and Arthur Schlesinger have argued for an emphasis on Western civilization. Bloom asserts in The Closing of the American Mind that American students are aliens in their own culture-abysmally ignorant of the philosophical, historical, and economic foundations of the West. Hirsch in Cultural Literacy lists numerous literary references, historical facts, and scientific concepts that American students should know but apparently don't. Schlesinger argues in The Disuniting of America that students should study Western civilization because it is their own. "We don't have to believe that our values are absolutely better than the next fellow's. People with a different history will have differing values. But we believe that our own are better for us."
Schlesinger's relativist argument for a Western canon is open to the objection, What do you mean we, white man? Literary critic Gerald Graff asks, in an ethnically diverse society, "who gets to determine which values are common and which merely special?" Barbara Herrnstein-Smith contends that different groups share "different sets of beliefs, interests, assumptions, attitudes, and practices. . . . There is no single comprehensive culture that transcends any or all other cultures."
At its deepest level, multiculturalism represents a denial of all Western claims to truth. In a recent book, literary critic Stanley Fish spurns the very possibility of transcultural standards of evaluation. "What are these truths and by whom are they to be identified?" In Fish's view, "The truths any of us find compelling will all be partial, which is to say they will all be political." Another scholar, Barbara Johnson, identifies the multicultural project with "the deconstruction of the foundational ideals of Western civilization." Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo urges the rejection of "timeless universals," and philosopher Richard Rorty declares the need "to abandon traditional notions of rationality, objectivity, method, and truth." The multicultural challenge is cogently summarized by philosopher John Searle: Religion, history, tradition, and morality have always been subjected to searching criticism in the name of rationality, truth, evidence, reason, and logic. Now reason, truth, rationality, and logic are themselves subject to these criticisms. The idea is that they're as much a part of the dogmatic, superstitious, mystical, power-laden tradition as anything that they were used to attack.
"Culture" for modern scholars (and also in colloquial use) has nothing to do with Matthew Arnold's deployment of universal standards of reason and taste to identify "the best which has been thought and said in the world." Today's advocates of multiculturalism uphold rival propositions: that there are many cultures, that Western standards are invalid for understanding non-Western cultures, that all truths are ideological, and that cultures should therefore be placed on a roughly equal plane. Cultural relativism-the presumed equality of all cultures-is the intellectual foundation of contemporary multiculturalism.
"Show me the Proust of the Papuans," Saul Bellow is reported to have said, "and I'll read him." Bellow did not say that the Papuans lack the capacity to produce their own Proust; he simply suggested that, as far as he was aware, they had not. Yet his remark, by hinting at the possibility of Western cultural superiority, seemed to deny to other cultures what philosopher Charles Taylor terms "the politics of equal recognition." As Taylor correctly describes it, the multicultural paradigm holds that "true judgments of value of different works would place all cultures more or less on the same footing." Multiculturalism is based on a thoroughgoing repudiation of Western cultural superiority. Reflecting a widely held view, literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt termed Bellow's remark "astoundingly racist."
Yet both in the world and in the traditional curriculum, all cultures are not on the same footing. Consequently multiculturalism in practice is distinguished by an effort to establish cultural parity by attacking the historical and contemporary hegemony of Western civilization. To do it, activists draw heavily on such leftist movements as Marxism, deconstructionism, and anticolonial or Third World nationalism. Social critic Edward Said blames Western imperialism for the sufferings of "ravaged colonial peoples who for centuries endured summary justice, unending economic oppression, distortion of their social and intimate lives, and a recourseless submission that was the function of unchanging European superiority."
Multiculturalism is based on the relativist assumption that since all cultures are inherently equal, differences of power, wealth, and achievement between them are most likely due to oppression. Sociologist Robert Blauner argues that these global disparities are replicated within the United States, so that blacks, American Indians, and nonwhite immigrations constitute a kind of Third World within the United States. Additionally, the African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates contends that a curriculum focused on the great works of Western civilization "represents the return of an order in which my people were the subjugated, the voiceless, the invisible, the unrepresented."
To compensate for these historical and curricular injuries and restore cultural parity between ethnic groups, advocates of multiculturalism seek to reinforce the self-esteem of minority students by presenting non-Western cultures in a favorable light. James Banks argues that multiculturalism should fight racism by helping students "to develop positive attitudes" about minority and non-Western groups. Deborah Batiste and Pamela Harris urge in a multicultural manual for teachers, "Avoid dwelling on the negatives which may be associated with a cultural or ethnic group. Every culture has positive characteristics which should be accentuated." Historian Ronald Takaki argues that blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians were no less responsible than whites for shaping the ideas and institutions of the United States: "What we need is a new conceptualization of American history where there's no center, and there's no margin, but we have all these groups engaging in discourse . . . unlearning much of what we have been told . . . in the creation of a new society."
In order to see the multicultural paradigm at work, we would do well to consider the passionate debate that has raged in the academy over the legacy of Christopher Columbus. Provoked by the five hundredth anniversary of the Columbus landing, virtually every leading advocate of multiculturalism-Edward Said, Stephen Greenblatt, Kirkpatrick Sale, Gary Nash, Ronald Takaki, Patricia Limerick, Garry Wills-lashed out against Columbus or his successors. Yet it is not Columbus the man who is being indicted but what he represents: the first tentative step toward the European settlement of the Americas. Consequently, the debate over Columbus is a debate over whether Western civilization was a good idea and whether it should continue to shape the United States. Many critics argue the negative:
- "Columbus makes Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent," asserts American Indian activist Russell Means.
- Winona LaDuke deplores "the biological, technological, and ecological invasion that began with Columbus' ill-fated voyage five hundred years ago."
- The National Council of Churches declares the anniversary of Columbus "not a time for celebration" but for "reflection and repentance" in which whites must acknowledge a continuing history of "oppression, degradation, and genocide."
- Historian Glenn Morris accuses Columbus of being "a murderer, a rapist, the architect of a policy of genocide that continues today."
- "Could it be that the human calamity caused by the arrival of Columbus," African-American writer Ishmael Reed asks, "was a sort of dress rehearsal of what is to come as the ozone becomes more depleted, the earth warms, and the rain forests are destroyed?"
- "All of us have been socialized to be racists and benefit from racism constantly," Christine Slater laments in the journal Multicultural Education. "The very locations on which our homes rest should rightfully belong to Indian nations."
- Literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt alleges that Columbus "inaugurated the greatest experiment in political, economic, and cultural cannibalism in the history of the Western world."
Let us examine the consistent portrait that emerges in multicultural literature about the legacy of Columbus. The advocates of multiculturalism are unanimous that Columbus did not discover America. As Francis Jennings writes in The Invasion of America, "The Europeans did not settle a virgin land. They invaded and displaced a native population." American Indian activist Mike Anderson says, "There was a culture here and there were people and there were governments here prior to the arrival of Columbus." Kirkpatrick Sale contends, "We can say with assurance that no such event as a 'discovery' took place." Novelist Homer Aridjis contends that Europeans and native Indians "mutually discovered each other." Garry Wills, Gary Nash, Ronald Takaki, and other scholars typically speak not of a "discovery" but of an "encounter."
But all of this is wordplay. The real issue, as Leszek Kolakowski points out, is that "the impulse to explore has never been evenly distributed among the world's civilizations." It is no coincidence that it was Columbus who reached the Americas and not American Indians who arrived on the shores of Europe. The term "encounter" conceals this difference by implying civilizational contact on an equal plane between the Europeans and the Indians.
The multiculturalists are equally unanimous that Columbus, as the prototypical Western white male, carried across the Atlantic racist prejudices against the native peoples. Gary Nash charges that Columbus embodied a peculiar "European quality of arrogance" rooted in irrational hostility to Indians. In a similar vein, Kirkpatrick Sale in The Conquest of Paradise argues that Columbus "presumed the inferiority of the natives," thus embodying the basic ingredients of the Western racist imagination that was bred to "fear what it did not comprehend, and hate what it knew as fearful." For Sale, Europeans are especially predisposed to violence, while the native cultures live in a "prelapsarian Eden." Sale concludes, "It is not fanciful to see warring against species as Europe's preoccupation as a culture."
It is true that Columbus harbored strong prejudices about the peaceful islanders whom he misnamed "Indians"-he was prejudiced in their favor. For Columbus, they were "the handsomest men and the most beautiful women" he had ever encountered. He praised the generosity and lack of guile among the Tainos, contrasting their virtues with Spanish vices. He insisted that although they were without religion, they were not idolaters; he was confident that their conversion would come through gentle persuasion and not through force. The reason, he noted, is that Indians possess a high natural intelligence. There is no evidence that Columbus thought that Indians were congenitally or racially inferior to Europeans. Other explorers such as Pedro Alvares Cabral, Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan, and Walter Raleigh registered similar positive impressions about the new world they found.
So why did European attitudes toward the Indian, initially so favorable, subsequently change? Kirkpatrick Sale, Stephen Greenblatt, and others offer no explanation for the altered European perception. But the reason given by the explorers themselves is that Columbus and those who followed him came into sudden, unexpected, and gruesome contact with the customary practices of some other Indian tribes. While the first Indians that Columbus encountered were hospitable and friendly, other tribes enjoyed fully justified reputations for brutality and inhumanity. On his second voyage Columbus was horrified to discover that a number of the sailors he left behind had been killed and possibly eaten by the cannibalistic Arawaks.
Similarly, when Bernal Diaz arrived in Mexico with the swashbuckling army of Hernan Cortes, he and his fellow Spaniards were not shocked to witness slavery, the subjection of women, or brutal treatment of war captives; these were familiar enough practices among the conquistadors. But they were appalled at the magnitude of cannibalism and human sacrifice. As Diaz describes it, in an account generally corroborated by modern scholars:
They strike open the wretched Indian's chest with flint knives and hastily tear out the palpitating heart which, with the blood, they present to the idols in whose name they have performed the sacrifice. Then they cut off the arms, thighs, and head, eating the arms and thighs at their ceremonial banquets. The head they hang up on a beam, and the body of the sacrificed man is not eaten but given to the beasts of prey.
When Cortes captured the Aztec emperor Montezuma and his attendants, he would only permit them temporary release on the promise that they stop their traditional practices of cannibalism and human sacrifice, but he found that "as soon as we turned our heads they would resume their old cruelties." Aztec cannibalism, writes anthropologist Marvin Harris, "was not a perfunctory tasting of ceremonial tidbits." Indeed the Aztecs on a regular basis consumed human flesh in a stew with peppers and tomatoes, and children were regarded as a particular delicacy. Cannibalism was prevalent among the Aztecs, Guarani, Iroquois, Caribs, and several other tribes.
Moreover, the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of South America performed elaborate rites of human sacrifice, in which thousands of captive Indians were ritually murdered, until their altars were drenched in blood, bones were strewn everywhere, and priests collapsed with exhaustion from stabbing their victims. The law of the Incas provided for punishment of parents and others who displayed grief during human sacrifices. When men of noble birth died, wives and concubines were often strangled and buried with them.
Multicultural textbooks, committed to a contemporary version of the noble savage portrait, cannot acknowledge historical facts that would embarrass the morality tale of white invaders despoiling the elysian harmony of the Americans. Kirkpatrick Sale dismisses all European accounts of Indian atrocities as fanciful: "Organized violence was not an attribute of traditional Indian societies." Seeking to explain away the gory evidence, Sale adds, "It is hard to think that European seamen would be able to distinguish a disembodied neck or arm as distinctly human, and not from a monkey or a dog, and in any case there is no evidence that they were to be eaten." Stephen Greenblatt acknowledges the existence of human sacrifice but faults the Europeans for not recognizing its "deepest resemblance" to one of their own cultural practices: after all, Greenblatt says, the Spanish themselves symbolically consumed the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and ritual murder is merely a "weirdly literal Aztec equivalent."
Consider a recent analysis of two books on the Aztecs, published as a guide for teachers in Multicultural Review. The first book, Francisco Alarcon's Snake Poems: An Aztec Invocation, receives high praise as "a wonderful celebration of Aztec religion, beliefs, and customs, intermingled with the thoughts and feelings of today's Mexican Americans." The second book, Tim Wood's The Aztecs, is denounced for its "sensationalistic and lurid manner. . . . The Aztec practice of human sacrifice is described in gory detail. This book is a distortion of the Aztecs." This review illustrates the way in which the relativist ideology shapes the predispositions of the advocates of multiculturalism.
In the next item of the multiculturalists' indictment, Columbus-and by extension the West-is accused of perpetrating a campaign of genocidal extermination, a holocaust against native Americans. Kirkpatrick Sale charges the successors of Columbus with "something we must call genocide within a single generation." Claude Levi-Strauss charges that millions of Indians "died of horror and disgust at European civilization." Tzvetan Todorov in The Conquest of America accuses his fellow- Europeans of perpetrating "the greatest genocide in human history."
The charge of genocide is largely sustained by figures showing the precipitous decline of the Indian population. Although scholars debate the exact numbers, in Alvin Josephy's estimate, the Indian population fell from between fifteen and twenty million when the white man first arrived to a fraction of that 150 years later. Undoubtedly the Indians perished in great numbers. Yet although European enslavement of Indians and the Spanish forced labor system extracted a heavy toll in lives, the vast majority of Indian casualties occurred not as a result of hard labor or deliberate destruction but because of contagious diseases that the Europeans transmitted to the Indians.
The spread of infection and unhealthy patterns of behavior was also reciprocal. From the Indians the Europeans contracted syphilis. The Indians also taught the white man about tobacco and cocaine, which would extract an incalculable human toll over the next several centuries. The Europeans, for their part, gave the Indians measles and smallpox. (Recent research has shown that tuberculosis predated the European arrival in the new world.) Since the Indians had not developed any resistance or immunity to these unfamiliar ailments, they perished in catastrophic numbers.
This was a tragedy of great magnitude, but the term "genocide" is both anachronistic and wrongly applied in that, with a few gruesome exceptions, the European transmission of disease was not deliberate. As William McNeill points out in Plagues and Peoples, Europeans themselves probably contracted the bubonic plague in the fourteenth century as a result of contagion from the Mongols of Central Asia-some twenty-five million (one third of the population) died, and the plague recurred on the continent for the next three hundred years. Multicultural advocates do not call this "genocide."
The reason advocates of multiculturalism charge Columbus with genocide is that they need to explain how small groups of Europeans were able to defeat overwhelming numbers of Indians, capsize their mighty native empires, and seize their land. Hernan Cortes rode into Mexico with around five hundred men, sixteen horses, and a few dozen long-barrel guns. The Aztec force that he faced numbered more than a million. When Gonzalo Pizarro confronted the Inca he had three ships, 150 men, one cannon, and thirty horses. The Incas had several hundred thousand troops ruling over a population of several million. Yet the Aztecs and the Incas were routed.
How did the Spanish prevail? The triumph of the Spanish over the Indians is an interesting dilemma because no army, however well-trained, can overcome such numerical odds. Nor did the slow-loading European rifles provide a decisive advantage. It is true that many Indians were astonished at the mobility of European troops on horseback-the Indians had no horses before the Spanish imported them to the Americas-but the novelty of Spanish cavalry could only have caused temporary confusion in the ranks of the enemy. Undoubtedly one factor that contributed to European victory was the defection to the Spanish side of a sizable number of Indians who came from tribes that had long been colonized and persecuted by the Aztecs and the Incas. Yet these are only partial explanations.
Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer and statesman, offers an arresting theory. However small their numbers, however crude their representatives, Europeans came to the Americas with a civilizational ideology that was unquestionably modern, even if embryonically so. Among the ingredients of this modernity were a rational understanding of the universe and a new understanding of individual initiative.
By contrast, the Indians still lived in the world of the spirits-the enchanted universe. They could not adapt to changing circumstances. They confused the Europeans with gods. They sought to reverse casualties by sacrificing their own soldiers to the totems. When Montezuma's military advisers and soothsayers warned him of ill-omens he ordered them imprisoned and their wives and children killed. The Indians were held in paralyzing obedience to the emperor. They were accustomed to exterminating their inferiors but were unfamiliar with the challenges of combat against well-armed peers.
In short, the Indians were defeated and massacred because, by a cruel juxtaposition of history, they encountered, even in the persons of "semi-literate, implacable, and greedy swordsmen," a Spanish civilization that was superior both in the sophistication of its arms and its ideas. Even today, Vargas Llosa argues, the principles of the West continue to shape the modern world, and "the nations that reject those values are anachronisms condemned to various versions of despotism."
Because of his defense of the West, Vargas Llosa has been criticized for advancing a reactionary position. Yet in a similar vein the left-wing Mexican novelist and diplomat Carlos Fuentes argues that the Europeans prevailed over the Indians because their empirical approach to knowledge gave them enormous civilizational confidence. By contrast, the Indians relied on a combination of direct perception, dreams, hallucination, and appeals to the spirits. Fuentes writes in The Buried Mirror, "The so-called discovery of America, whatever one might ideologically think about it, was a great triumph of scientific hypothesis over physical perception."
The West even supplied the Americas with a doctrine of human rights that would provide the basis for a sustained critique of Western colonialism. We may join Kirkpatrick Sale, Stephen Greenblatt, and others in expressing outrage at wanton Western seizure of Indian lands and abuses of basic rights. But upon reflection we would have to admit that these criticisms depend upon concepts of property rights and human rights that are entirely Western. Long before Columbus, Indian tribes raided each other's land and preyed on the possessions and persons of more vulnerable groups. What distinguished Western colonialism was neither occupation nor brutality but a countervailing philosophy of rights that is unique in human history.
Shortly after the Spanish established their settlements in the Americas, the King of Spain in the mid-sixteenth century called a halt to expansion pending the resolution of a famous debate over the question of whether Spanish conquest violated the natural and moral law. Never before or since, writes historian Lewis Hanke, has a powerful emperor "ordered his conquests to cease until it was decided if they were just." The main reason for the King's action was the relentless work of exposing colonial abuses that was performed by a Spanish bishop, Bartolome de las Casas. A former slave owner, Las Casas underwent a crisis of conscience which convinced him that the new world should be peacefully Christianized, that Indians should not be exploited, and that those who were had every right to rebel. Las Casas wrote his Account of the Destruction of the Indies, he said, "so that if God determines to destroy Spain, it may be seen that it is because of the destruction that we have wrought in the Indies."
Although Las Casas is sometimes portrayed as a heroic eccentric, in fact his basic position in favor of Indian rights was directly adopted by Pope Paul III, who proclaimed in his bull Sublimis Deus in 1537: Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by the Christians are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen it shall be null and of no effect. Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.
Leading Jesuit theologians such as Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez interpreted the Bible and the Catholic tradition to require that the natural rights of Indians be respected, that their conversions be obtained through persuasion and not force, that their land and property be secure from arbitrary confiscation, and that their right to resist Spanish incursions in a "just war" be upheld.
More than a century before Locke, and two centuries before the French and American revolutions, theologians at the University of Salamanca developed the first outlines of the modern doctrine of inviolable human rights. Although these rights were often abused in practice, largely because there was no effective mechanism for enforcement, they provided a moral foundation for the eventual enfranchisement of the native Indians. Multicultural textbooks are typically sparse in their acknowledgment of the liberal tradition of the West associated with Las Casas. The reason for this reticence is that liberalism is uniquely a Western achievement, and hence could provide a possible foundation for a claim to Western cultural superiority.
In order to undermine this claim, advocates of multiculturalism insist on the contribution of the American Indians to the West. There is little doubt that American Indians taught the white man a great deal: about canoes, snowshoes, moccasins, and kayaks. The hammock is an Indian invention. Indians also introduced Europeans to new crops: corn, potatoes, peanuts, squash, avocados, and other vegetables and fruits. Ronald Takaki informs us that "the term okay was derived from the Choctaw word oke, meaning: it is so." Yet even when one adds the heroic exploits of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Geronimo, it is not clear that American Indian society has established cultural parity with the West.
Consequently, advocates of multiculturalism frequently proceed to make an audacious claim: that the fundamental institutions for the recognition of liberal rights, such as the U.S. Constitution, were not the exclusive product of Western civilization but were decisively influenced by such groups as the Iroquois Indians. Anthropologist Thomas Riley asserts that the League of the Iroquois served "as a model for the confederation that would make up the United States." Alvin Josephy credits the Iroquois with being "particularly influential" on the thinking of the framers in Philadelphia. Jack Weatherford in Indian Givers observes that the Iroquois provided a blueprint "by which the settlers might be able to fashion a new government."
If these claims are true, then surely the past refusal of teachers to credit the Iroquois for the Bill of Rights and other vital instruments of liberal freedom provides a classic example of the kind of bias that multicultural advocates have insisted pervades the traditional curriculum. Historian Elisabeth Tooker investigated the issue and discovered that the main evidence linking the Iroquois to the American founding is a letter written by Benjamin Franklin in 1754.
It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to executive it in such a manner as that it has subsisted for ages and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous, and who cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interests.
Franklin is saying, in other words, if the barbarians can work out their problems and form a union, surely we civilized people can do as well.
In her inquiry, Tooker explores the similarities between the Iroquois League and the American Constitution and finds that they are virtually nonexistent. The League consisted of tribal chiefs whose title was partly hereditary. Only one tribe, the Onondagas, were permitted as "firekeepers" to present topics for consideration. All rulings by the League required unanimous consent. The claim that the Iroquois were the secret force behind the American Constitution is a myth, sustained only by ideology.
While advocates of multiculturalism are right to criticize many of the old texts, in which Columbus is presented as a valiant adventurer and American Indians are scarcely to be seen, contemporary activists merely replace the old biases with new ones. Columbus has metamorphosed from a grand crusader into a genocidal maniac and a precursor to Hitler. American Indians are now beyond reproach, canonized as moral and ecological saints.
In order to establish cultural parity, multiculturalists are routinely compelled to emphasize Western oppression and non-Western virtue. They are driven to downplay the illiberal traditions of other cultures even as they suppress the distinctively liberal tradition of the West. The consequence is that multiculturalism becomes an obstacle to true cultural understanding, and implants in students an unjustified animus toward the liberal societies of the West. Both truth and justice suffer as a consequence.
Ultimately cultural relativism itself, the intellectual scaffolding of multiculturalism, becomes the issue. One of the starting premises of relativism is that most Americans cannot objectively study minority and non-Western cultures because they will necessarily view them through a prism of Eurocentric assumptions. The multiculturalists are certainly right that none of us approach other societies in a culturally nude state: our perspective is necessarily shaped and perhaps clouded by our prior beliefs. But if this means that we have no way to transcend our beliefs and approach the ideal of objectivity, then multiculturalism becomes an illusion-for other cultures would constitute inaccessible and incommensurable worlds, and Westerners could only project their own values onto the cultures they appear to be studying. The assumption that other cultures are self-contained and untranslatable systems leads, ironically, to the conclusion that it is a waste of time for outsiders to attempt the inherently impossible project of understanding other cultures. Richard Rorty has reached precisely this conclusion, arguing in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth that Westerners should be unabashedly ethnocentric because they cannot be anything else.
The vast majority of multicultural advocates reject Rorty's position, because it exposes multiculturalism as Eurocentric, whereas activists like to think of themselves as fighting Eurocentrism. Multicultural advocates such as Renato Rosaldo, Richard Delgado, and Ian Haney-Lopez typically argue that schools should recruit minority and Third World representatives who can provide much-needed black, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian perspectives. In some cases, activists insist that it is inadequate for minority recruits to have the right skin color: they must also espouse progressive and left-wing views.
Of course, the question remains how we know that these progressive, left-wing, minority recruits truly represent their cultures. They may well represent marginal factions, or even be Eurocentric imposters.
Multicultural advocates typically avoid this problem by asserting that education does provide a bridge between cultures, and with proper training students can be taught to appreciate the equal worth of all cultures. "If we develop cultural consciousness and intercultural competence," Christine Bennett writes, "we may be able to understand that we might very well accept and even participate in such behaviors had we been born and raised in that society." But this conclusion does not follow from its premises. If standards of judgment derive from within cultures, we cannot arrive at external standards of evaluation that permit us to judge all cultures as valid for the people who live under them. Multicultural activists rely on the sleight-of-hand in which "I cannot know" becomes "I cannot judge" which becomes "I know that we are all equal." A skeptical confession of ignorance mysteriously becomes a dogmatic assertion of cultural egalitarianism.
This is not to condone approaching other cultures with a presumption of their inferiority. As Charles Taylor argues, "It makes sense to demand as a matter of right that we approach the study of other cultures with a presumption of their value." Thus cultural relativism may provide a valuable methodological starting point of humility and intellectual openness. Yet as Taylor points out, in evaluating other cultures "it can't make sense to demand as a matter of right that we come up with a final concluding judgment that their value is great or equal to others." Perhaps a careful examination of other cultures will reveal good reasons to be critical of other cultures, just as we are often critical of our own culture.
Indeed the first thing we notice when we study other cultures is that without exception they reject the cultural relativism that is a uniquely Western ideology. It should come as no surprise that relativism provokes a sharp resistance from people in other cultures. Imagine the legitimate anger of a Muslim who is cheerfully informed by a Western academic that Allah's teachings are true for him, when he deeply believes that they are universal principles. Moreover, as Leszek Kolakowski points out, it seems paternalistic to say that Islamic practices such as punishing thieves by cutting off their limbs represent legitimate judicial options-for those people. Such arguments, implying that our kind of people deserve democracy and human rights but their kind of people do not, seem self-serving and destructive to the contemporary aspirations of millions of Third World peoples. In a stunning admission, Claude Levi-Strauss writes: The dogma of cultural relativism is challenged by the very people for whose moral benefit the anthropologists established it in the first place. The complaint the underdeveloped countries advance is not that they are being Westernized, but that there is too much delay in giving the means to Westernize themselves. It is of no use to defend the individuality of human cultures against those cultures themselves.
A sincere effort to study other cultures "from within" requires a rejection of the Western lens of cultural relativism. Multiculturalists who wish to take non-Western cultures seriously must take seriously their repudiation of relativism. Otherwise a humble openness to other cultures becomes an arrogant dismissal of their highest claims to truth.
Students do need to be exposed to the great accomplishments of other cultures, as well as their influence on the West. But when multiculturalism goes beyond this to insist that we should understand cultural differences without applying (inherently biased) standards of critical evaluation, it forbids at the outset the possibility that one culture may be in crucial respects superior to another. An initial openness to the truths of other cultures degenerates into a closed- minded denial of all transcultural standards. Seeking to avoid an acknowledgment of Western cultural superiority, relativism ends up denying the possibility of truth.
The purpose of a liberal education, as Cardinal Newman defined it, is to "educate the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it." Schools and colleges should provide young people with an authentic multicultural curriculum that begins at home but is nevertheless open to the world beyond. Such a canon would be modestly Eurocentric, in recognition of the facts that we live in a Eurocentric world, that Europe has dominated the rest of the globe in the modern age, and that while the popular culture in America is culturally hybrid, the philosophical, political, legal, and economic institutions of this country are the product of European culture and no other.
Yet this new curriculum would also be cosmopolitan, seeking to criticize and enrich Western civilization with ideas imported from abroad. An authentic multiculturalism would expose students to "the best that has been thought and said" not simply in the West but in other cultures as well. The object is not diversity but knowledge: students should learn ways to seek to distinguish truth from falsehood, beauty from vulgarity, right from wrong. Knowledge is both a matter of ascertaining fact and a developing of the tools to formulate "right opinion." To use Plato's famous image, we live our lives in a cave, mistaking shadows for reality, but it is the aspiration of an authentic multicultural education to help us move from opinion to knowledge, to climb out of the darkness into the illuminating light of the sun.
SECONDARY SOURCE: The Christopher Columbus Controversy THE PRO ARGUMENT: "Glass hall full regarding Columbus"
Western Civilization vs. Primitivism
Summary: It was Columbus' discovery for Western Europe that led to the influx of ideas and people on which America was founded--and on which it still rests.Columbus Day approaches, but to the "politically correct" this is no cause for celebration. On the contrary, they view the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 as an occasion to be mourned. They have mourned, they have attacked, and they have intimidated schools across the country into replacing Columbus Day celebrations with "ethnic diversity" days.
The politically correct view is that Columbus did not discover America, because people had lived here for thousands of years. Worse yet, it's claimed, the main legacy of Columbus is death and destruction. Columbus is routinely vilified as a symbol of slavery and genocide, and the celebration of his arrival likened to a celebration of hitler and the holocaust. The attacks on Columbus are ominous, because the actual target is Western civilization.
Did Columbus "discover" America? Yes--in every important respect. This does not mean that no human eye had been cast on America before Columbus arrived. It does mean that Columbus brought America to the attention of the civilized world, i.e., to the growing, scientific civilizations of Western Europe. The result, ultimately, was the United States of America. It was Columbus' discovery for Western Europe that led to the influx of ideas and people on which this nation was founded--and on which it still rests. The opening of America brought the ideas and achievements of Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and the thousands of thinkers, writers, and inventors who followed.
Prior to 1492, what is now the United States was sparsely inhabited, unused, and undeveloped. The inhabitants were primarily hunter-gatherers, wandering across the land, living from hand-to-mouth and from day-to-day. There was virtually no change, no growth for thousands of years. With rare exception, life was nasty, brutish, and short: there was no wheel, no written language, no division of labor, little agriculture and scant permanent settlement; but there were endless, bloody wars. Whatever the problems it brought, the vilified Western culture also brought enormous, undreamed-of benefits, without which most of today's Indians would be infinitely poorer or not even alive.
Columbus should be honored, for in so doing, we honor Western civilization. But the critics do not want to bestow such honor, because their real goal is to denigrate the values of Western civilization and to glorify the primitivism, mysticism, and collectivism embodied in the tribal cultures of American Indians. They decry the glorification of the West as "Eurocentrism." We should, they claim, replace our reverence for Western civilization with multi-culturalism, which regards all cultures as morally equal. In fact, they aren't. Some cultures are better than others: a free society is better than slavery; reason is better than brute force as a way to deal with other men; productivity is better than stagnation. In fact, Western civilization stands for man at his best. It stands for the values that make human life possible: reason, science, self-reliance, individualism, ambition, productive achievement. The values of Western civilization are values for all men; they cut across gender, ethnicity, and geography. We should honor Western civilization not for the ethnocentric reason that some of us happen to have European ancestors but because it is the objectively superior culture.
Underlying the political collectivism of the anti-Columbus crowd is a racist view of human nature. They claim that one's identity is primarily ethnic: if one thinks his ancestors were good, he will supposedly feel good about himself; if he thinks his ancestors were bad, he will supposedly feel self-loathing. But it doesn't work; the achievements or failures of one's ancestors are monumentally irrelevant to one's actual worth as a person. Only the lack of a sense of self leads one to look to others to provide what passes for a sense of identity. Neither the deeds nor misdeeds of others are his own; he can take neither credit nor blame for what someone else chose to do. There are no racial achievements or racial failures, only individual achievements and individual failures. One cannot inherit moral worth or moral vice. "Self-esteem through others" is a self-contradiction.
Thus the sham of "preserving one's heritage" as a rational life goal. Thus the cruel hoax of "multicultural education" as an antidote to racism: it will continue to create more racism.
Individualism is the only alternative to the racism of political correctness. We must recognize that everyone is a sovereign entity, with the power of choice and independent judgment. That is the ultimate value of Western civilization, and it should be proudly proclaimed.
SOURCE: http://www.capmag.com/articlePrint.asp?ID=1967 (Oct. 2002)
Secondary Source: www.cnn.com/2000/US/ 10/09/christopher.columbus/
Columbus Day holiday arrives on stormy historical waters
WATERTOWN, Massachusetts (CNN) -- According to the classroom rhyme, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered America. But these days, the old mariner is sailing into controversy ... even as a federal holiday bearing his name is celebrated the second Monday of every October.
The Italian explorer who flew the banner of Spanish monarchs is accused of brutalizing the indigenous people of the Americas.
In Denver, Colorado, last weekend, Italian-Americans holding a Columbus Day parade faced protests from Native Americans and Hispanic activists. Scores of demonstrators were arrested, including American Indian Movement activist Russell Means.
Some educators are also disturbed about how the story of Columbus is being taught in the classroom.
Former history professor James Loewen wrote a book titled, "The Lies My Teacher Told Me," in which he maintains that virtually all textbooks and teachers still place too much emphasis on the heroics of Columbus without mentioning his misdeeds.
Loewen calls Columbus a racist killer, saying he enslaved Indians, handed them over to his men for sex and set in motion their annihilation.
"They would even take Indians from place to place with them -- as dog food -- as a kind of mobile dog food," said Loewen. "When they got to where they were going for the night, [they would] allow the dogs to tear one of them apart and eat them." That story came from the contemporary account of a priest, Bartolemy de Las Casas, who knew Columbus.
New World's first slave trader
Columbus' own diaries also extensively document his four voyages to the new land to gain riches for his patrons, Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand.
Columbus also brought with him diseases, against which the native people had no defense.
"As a result of Columbus coming to Haiti, we find that by 1555 -- which is about 60 years after he got there -- Haiti does not have any Indians left, except a few mixed people, partly Indian, partly Spanish," said Loewen. "It had had a population probably of about 3 million. That's complete genocide." Columbus was the New World's first slave trader, sending thousands of Arawak Indians to Spain. The African slave trade would largely originate to replace cheap Indian labor which was dying off from the Spanish sword and European diseases, some historians say.
Teaching complex history to fifth-graders
In Watertown, teacher Mary Callahan struggles to teach her fifth-grade class about the complexities of Columbus.
While her students learn that he did land in the Bahamas, they also learn that Indian necklaces mattered more to the explorer than did the Indians themselves.
"He says, 'I can get the gold that they have.' He wants to be rich. Columbus wants to be a superstar," Callahan says in explaining Columbus' motives to her class. Some educators say children could handle more facts about the actions of the early explorers.
"It has to be done carefully. You don't want to crowd into their minds horrible pictures of violence and blood -- we don't want to do what the movies and television do to them all the time," said Howard Zinn, historian and author of "A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present."
"And yet at the same time, we must not hide the truth from them. Because if you begin hiding the truth from them at that early age -- then it goes on and on," he said.
Some Columbus critics say to sugar-coat his deeds is to be less vigilant about evil, and that ignoring the truth of the past is a good way to repeat it.
However, Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan accused the Columbus Day parade protesters in Denver of "cultural Marxism."
"I think what is going on here is an intolerant, militant left-wing group is attempting to deny Italian-Americans their right to march under a banner of their hero, who is also a hero of Western civilization," Buchanan said in an interview Monday.
"It's all part of a political correctness, which is another name for cultural Marxism. It is anti-European and anti-Western civilization," Buchanan said. "We have a right to our heroes, and they to theirs."
Was Columbus an Imperialist?
YES: Kirkpatrick Sale, from The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990). Sale, a contributing editor of The Nation, characterizes Christopher Columbus as an imperialist who was determined to conquer both the land and the people he encountered during his first voyage to the Americas in 1492.
NO: Robert Royal, from 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History (Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1992). Royal, vice president for research at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, objects to Columbus's modern-day critics and insists that Columbus should be admired for his courage, his willingness to take a risk, and his success in advancing knowledge about other parts of the world.
On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus, a Genoese mariner sailing under the flag and patronage of the Spanish monarchy, made landfall on a tropical Caribbean island, which he subsequently named San Salvador. This action established for Columbus the fame of having discovered the New World and, by extension, America. Of course, this "discovery" was ironic since Columbus and his crew members were not looking for a new world but, instead, a very old one -the much-fabled Orient. By sailing westward instead of eastward, Columbus was certain that he would find a shorter route to China. He did not anticipate that the land mass of the Americas would prevent him from reaching this goal or that his "failure" would guarantee his 'fame for centuries thereafter.
Columbus's encounter with indigenous peoples, whom he named "Indians" (los indios), presented further proof that Europeans had not discovered America. These "Indians" were descendants of the first people who migrated from Asia at least 30,000 years earlier and fanned out in a southeasterly direction until they populated much of North and South America. By the time Columbus arrived, Native Americans numbered approximately 40 million, 3 million of whom resided in the continental region north of Mexico.
None of this, however, should dilute the significance of Columbus's explorations, which were representative of a wave of Atlantic voyages emanating from Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. Spawned by the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance in combination with the rise of the European nation-state, these voyages of exploration were made possible by advances in shipbuilding, improved navigational instruments and cartography, the desirability of long-distance commerce, support from ruling monarchs, and the courage and ambition of the explorers themselves.
Columbus's arrival (and return on three separate occasions between 1494 and 1502) possessed enormous implications not only for the future development of the United States but for the Western Hemisphere as a whole, as well as for Europe and Africa. These consequences attracted a significant amount of scholarly and media attention in 1992 in connection with the quincentennial celebration of Columbus's first arrival on American shores and sparked often acrimonious debate over the true meaning of Columbus's legacy. Many wished to use the occasion to emphasize the positive accomplishments of Europe's contact with the New World. Others sought to clarify some of the negative results of Columbus's voyages, particularly as they related to European confrontations with Native Americans.
This debate provides the context for the selections that follow. To what extent should we applaud Columbus's exploits? Are there reasons that we should question the purity of Columbus's motivations? Did the European "discovery" of America do more harm than good?
In the first selection, Kirkpatrick Sale treats Columbus's arrival as an invasion of the land and the indigenous peoples that he encountered. By assigning European names to virtually everything he observed, Columbus, according to Sale, was taking possession on behalf of the Spanish monarchy. Similarly, one of Columbus's major goals was to build and arm a fortress by which he could carry out the subjugation and enslavement of the native population. Columbus's policies of conquest, religious conversion, settlement, and exploitation of natural resources were an example of European imperialism.
In the second selection, Robert Royal rejects the argument that Columbus was motivated by European arrogance and avarice. He also disputes the notion that Columbus was driven by a desire for gold or by racist assumptions of Native American inferiority. Royal asserts that Columbus exhibited genuine concern for justice in his contacts with the Native Americans and concludes that Columbus, though not without his faults, merits the admiration traditionally accorded his accomplishments.
Was Columbus an Imperialist: YES
From Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990). Copyright © 1990 by Kirkpatrick Sale. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Notes omitted.
Admiral [Cristobal] Colon [Christopher Columbus] spent a total of ninetysix days exploring the lands he encountered on the far side of the Ocean Seafour rather small coralline islands in the Bahamian chain and two substantial coastlines of what he finally acknowledged were larger islands-every one of which he "took possession of" in the name of his Sovereigns.
The first he named San Salvador, no doubt as much in thanksgiving for its welcome presence after more than a month at sea as for the Son of God whom it honored; the second he called Santa Maria de la Concepcion, after the Virgin whose name his flagship bore; and the third and fourth he called Fernandina and Isabela, for his patrons, honoring Aragon before Castile for reasons never explained (possibly protocol, possibly in recognition of the chief sources of backing for the voyage). The first of the two large and very fertile islands he called Juana, which Fernando says was done in honor of Prince Juan, heir to the Castilian throne, but just as plausibly might have been done in recognition of Princess Juana, the unstable child who eventually carried on the line; the second he named la Ysla Espai ola, the "Spanish Island," because it resembled (though he felt it surpassed in beauty) the lands of Castile.
It was not that the islands were in need of names, mind you, nor indeed that Colon was ignorant of the names the native peoples had already given them, for he frequently used those original names before endowing them with his own. Rather, the process of bestowing new names went along with "taking possession of" those parts of the world he deemed suitable for Spanish ownership, showing the royal banners, erecting various crosses and pronouncing certain oaths and pledges. If this was presumption, it had an honored heritage: it was Adam who was charged by his Creator with the task of naming "every living creature," including the product of his own rib, in the course of establishing "dominion over" them.
Columbus went on to assign no fewer than sixty-two other names on the geography of the islands-capes, points, mountains, ports with a blithe assurance suggesting that in his (and Europe's) perception the act of name-giving was in some sense a talisman of conquest, a rite that changed raw neutral stretches of far-off earth into extensions of Europe. The process began slowly, even haltingly-he forgot to record, for example, until four days afterward that he named the landfall island San Salvador-but by the time he came to Espanola at the end he went on a naming spree, using more than two-thirds of all the titles he concocted on that one coastline. On certain days it became almost a frenzy: on December 6 he named six places, on the nineteenth six more, and on January 11 no fewer than ten-eight capes, a point, and a mountain. It is almost as if, as he sailed along the last of the islands, he was determined to leave his mark on it the only way he knew how, and thus to establish his authority and by extension Spain's-even, as with baptism, to make it thus sanctified, and real, and official. (One should note that it was only his own naming that conveyed legitimacy: when Colon thought Martin Alonso Pinzon had named a river after himself, he immediately renamed it Rio de Gracia instead.)
This business of naming and "possessing" foreign islands was by no means casual. The Admiral took it very seriously, pointing out that "it was my wish to bypass no island without taking possession" (October 15) and that "in all regions [I] always left a cross standing" (November 16) as a mark of Christian dominance. There even seem to have been certain prescriptions for it (the instructions from the Sovereigns speak of "the administering of the oath and the performing of the rites prescribed in such cases"), and Rodrigo de Escobedo was sent along as secretary of the fleet explicitly to witness and record these events in detail.
But consider the implications of this act and the questions it raises again about what was in the Sovereigns' minds, what in Colon's. Why would the Admiral assume that these territories were in some way unpossessed-even by those clearly inhabiting them-and thus available for Spain to claim? Why would he not think twice about the possibility that some considerable potentate the Grand Khan of China, for example, whom he later acknowledged (November 6) "must be" the ruler of Espanola-might descend upon him at any moment with a greater military force than his three vessels commanded and punish him for his territorial presumption? Why would he make the ceremony of possession his very first act on shore, even before meeting the inhabitants or exploring the environs, or finding out if anybody there objected to being thus possessedparticularly if they actually owned the great treasures he hoped would be there?
No European would have imagined that anyone-three small boatloads of Indians, say-could come up to a European shore or island and "take possession" of it, nor would a European imagine marching up to some part of North Africa or the Middle East and claiming sovereignty there with impunity. Why were these lands thought to be different?
Could there be any reason for the Admiral to assume he had reached "unclaimed" shores, new lands that lay far from the domains of any of the potentates of the East? Can that really have been in his mind-or can it all be explained as simple Eurocentrism, or Eurosuperiority, mixed with cupidity and naivete?
In any case, it is quite curious how casually and calmly the Admiral took to this task of possession, so much so that he gave only the most meager description of the initial ceremony on San Salvador, despite its having been a signal event in his career. He recorded merely that he went ashore in his longboat, armed, followed by the captains of the two caravels, accompanied by royal standards and banners and two representatives of the court to "witness how he before them all was taking, as in fact he took, possession of the said island for the King and Queen." He added that he made "the declarations that are required, as is contained at greater length in the testimonies which were there taken down in writing," but he unfortunately didn't specify what these were and no such documents survive; we are left only with the image of a party of fully dressed and armored Europeans standing there on the white sand in the blazing morning heat while Escobedo, with his parchment and inkpot and quill, painstakingly writes down the Admiral's oaths.
Fernando Colon did enlarge on this scene, presumably on the authority of his imagination alone, describing how the little party then "rendered thanks to Our Lord, kneeling on the ground and kissing it with tears of joy for His great favor to them," after which the crew members "swore obedience" to the Admiral "with such a show of pleasure and joy" and "begged his pardon for the injuries that through fear and little faith they had done him." He added that these goings-on were performed in the presence of the "many natives assembled there," whose reactions are not described and whose opinions are not
Once safely "possessed," San Salvador was open for inspection. Now the Admiral turned his attention for the first time to the "naked people" staring at him on the beach he did not automatically give them a name, interestingly enough, and it would be another six days before he decided what he might call them and tried to win their favor with his trinkets. They all go around as naked as their mothers bore them; and also the women, although I didn't see more than one really young girl. All that I saw were young people [mancebos], none of them more than 30 years old. They are very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces; their hair [is] coarse, almost like the silk of a horse's tail, and short. They wear their hair over their eyebrows, except for a little in the back that they wear long and never cut. Some of them paint themselves black (and they are of the color of the Canary Islanders, neither black nor white), and some paint themselves white, and some red, and some with what they find. And some paint their faces, and some of them the whole body, and some the eyes only, and some of them only the nose.
It may fairly be called the birth of American anthropology. A crude anthropology, of course, as superficial as Colon's descriptions always were when his interest was limited, but simple and straightforward enough, with none of the fable and fantasy that characterized many earlier (and even some later) accounts of new-found peoples. There was no pretense to objectivity, or any sense that these people might be representatives of a culture equal to, or in any way a model for, Europe's. Colon immediately presumed the inferiority of the natives, not merely because (a sure enough sign) they were naked, but because (his society could have no surer measure) they seemed so technologically backward. "It appeared to me that these people were very poor in everything," he wrote on that first day, and, worse still, "they have no iron." And they went on to prove their inferiority to the Admiral by being ignorant of even such a basic artifact of European life as a sword: "They bear no arms, nor are they acquainted with them," he wrote, "for I showed them swords and they grasped them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance." Thus, did European arms spill the first drops of native blood on the sands of the New World, accompanied not with a gasp of compassion but with a smirk of superiority.
Then, just six sentences further on, Colon clarified what this inferiority meant in his eyes:
They ought to be good servants and of good intelligence [ingenio].... I believe that they would easily be made Christians, because it seemed to me that they had no religion. Our Lord pleasing, I will carry off six of them at my departure to Your Highnesses, in order that they may learn to speak.
No clothes, no arms, no possessions, no iron, and now no religion not even speech: hence they were fit to be servants, and captives. It may fairly be called the birth of American slavery.
Whether or not the idea of slavery was in Col6n's mind all along is uncertain, although he did suggest he had had experience as a slave trader in Africa (November 12) and he certainly knew of Portuguese plantation slavery in the Madeiras and Spanish slavery of Guanches in the Canaries. But it seems to have taken shape early and grown ever firmer as the weeks went on and as he captured more and more of the helpless natives. At one point he even sent his crew ashore to kidnap "seven head of women, young ones and adults, and three small children"; the expression of such callousness led the Spanish historian Salvador de Madariaga to remark, "It would be difficult to find a starker utterance of utilitarian subjection of man by man than this passage [whose] form is no less devoid of human feeling than its substance."
To be sure, Colon knew nothing about these people he encountered and considered enslaving, and he was hardly trained to find out very much, even if he was moved to care. But they were in fact members of an extensive, populous, and successful people whom Europe, using its own peculiar taxonomy, subsequently called "Taino" (or "Taino"), their own word for "good" or "noble," and their response when asked who they were. They were related distantly by both language and culture to the Arawak people of the South American mainland, but it is misleading (and needlessly imprecise) to call them Arawaks, as historians are wont to do, when the term "Taino" better establishes their ethnic and historical distinctiveness. They had migrated to the islands from the mainland at about the time of the birth of Christ, occupying the three large islands we now call the Greater Antilles and arriving at Guanahani (Col6n's San Salvador) and the end of the Bahamian chain probably sometime around A.D. 900. There they displaced an earlier people, the Guanahacabibes (sometimes called Guanahatabeys), who by the time of the European discovery occupied only the western third of Cuba and possibly remote corners of Espanola; and there, probably in the early fifteenth century, they eventually confronted another people moving up the islands from the mainland, the Caribs, whose culture eventually occupied a dozen small islands of what are called the Lesser Antilles.
The Tainos were not nearly so backward as Col6n assumed from their lack of dress. (It might be said that it was the Europeans, who generally kept clothed head to foot during the day despite temperatures regularly in the eighties, who were the more unsophisticated in garmenture-especially since the Tainos, as Col6n later noted, also used their body paint to prevent sunburn.)
Indeed, they had achieved a means of living in a balanced and fruitful harmony with their natural surroundings that any society might well have envied. They had, to begin with, a not unsophisticated technology that made exact use of their available resources, two parts of which were so impressive that they were picked up and adopted by the European invaders: canoa (canoes) that were carved and fire-burned from large silk-cotton trees, "all in one piece, and wonderfully made" (October 13), some of which were capable of carrying up to 150 passengers; and hamaca (hammocks) that were "like nets of cotton" (October 17) and may have been a staple item of trade with Indian tribes as far away as the Florida mainland.
Their houses were not only spacious and clean-as the Europeans noted with surprise and appreciation, used as they were to the generally crowded and slovenly hovels and huts of south European peasantry-but more apropos, remarkably resistant to hurricanes; the circular walls were made of strong cane poles set deep and close together ("as close as the fingers of a hand," Col6n noted), the conical roofs of branches and vines tightly interwoven on a frame of smaller poles and covered with heavy palm leaves. Their artifacts and jewelry, with the exception of a few gold trinkets and ornaments, were based largely on renewable materials, including bracelets and necklaces of coral, shells, bone, and stone, embroidered cotton belts, woven baskets, carved statues and chairs, wooden and shell utensils, and pottery of variously intricate decoration depending on period and place.
Perhaps the most sophisticated, and most carefully integrated, part of their technology was their agricultural system, extraordinarily productive and perfectly adapted to the conditions of the island environment. It was based primarily on fields of knee-high mounds, called conucos, planted with yuca (sometimes called manioc), batata (sweet potato), and various squashes and beans grown all together in multicrop harmony: the root crops were excellent in resisting erosion and producing minerals and potash, the leaf crops effective in providing shade and moisture, and the mound configurations largely resistant to erosion and flooding and adaptable to almost all topographic conditions including steep hillsides. Not only was the conuco system environmentally appropriate-"conuco agriculture seems to have provided an exceptionally ecologically well-balanced and protective form of land use," according to David Watts's recent and authoritative West Indies-but it was also highly productive, surpassing in yields anything known in Europe at the time, with labor that amounted to hardly more than two or three hours a week, and in continuous yearlong harvest. The pioneering American geographical scholar Carl Sauer calls Taino agriculture "productive as few parts of the world," giving the "highest returns of food in continuous supply by the simplest methods and modest labor," and adds, with a touch of regret, "The white man never fully appreciated the excellent combination of plants that were grown in conucos."
In their arts of government the Tainos seem to have achieved a parallel sort of harmony. Most villages were small (ten to fifteen families) and autonomous, although many apparently recognized loose allegiances with neighboring villages, and they were governed by a hereditary official called a kaseke (cacique, in the Spanish form), something of a cross between an arbiter and a prolocutor, supported by advisers and elders. So little a part did violence play in their system that they seem, remarkably, to have been a society without war (at least we know of no war music or signals or artifacts, and no evidence of intertribal combats) and even without overt conflict (Las Casas reports that no Spaniard ever saw two Tainos fighting). And here we come to what was obviously the Tainos' outstanding cultural achievement, a proficiency in the social arts that led those who first met them to comment unfailingly on their friendliness, their warmth, their openness, and above all-so striking to those of an acquisitive culture their generosity.
"They are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest," Colon recorded in his journal (December 16), and from first to last he was astonished at their kindness: They became so much our friends that it was a marvel.... They traded and gave everything they had, with good will [October 12]. I sent the ship's boat ashore for water, and they very willingly showed my people where the water was, and they themselves carried the full barrels to the boat, and took great delight in pleasing us [October 16]. They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal [November 12]. Your Highnesses may believe that in all the world there can be no better or gentler people ... for neither better people nor land can there be.... All the people show the most singular loving behavior and they speak pleasantly [December 24].
I assure Your Highnesses that I believe that in all the world there is no better people nor better country. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing [December 25].
Even if one allows for some exaggeration-Colon was clearly trying to convince Ferdinand and Isabella that his Indians could be easily conquered and converted, should that be the Sovereigns' wish it is obvious that the Tainos exhibited a manner of social discourse that quite impressed the rough Europeans. But that was not high among the traits of "civilized" nations, as Colon and Europe understood it, and it counted for little in the Admiral's assessment of these people. However struck he was with such behavior, he would not have thought that it was the mark of a benign and harmonious society, or that from it another culture might learn. For him it was something like the wondrous behavior of children, the naive guilelessness of prelapsarian creatures who knew no better how to bargain and chaffer and cheat than they did to dress themselves: "For a lace-point they gave good pieces of gold the size of two fingers" (January 6), and "They even took pieces of the broken hoops of the wine casks and, like beasts [como besti], gave what they had" (Santangel Letter). Like beasts; such innocence was not human.
It is to be regretted that the Admiral, unable to see past their nakedness, as it were, knew not the real virtues of the people he confronted. For the Tainos' lives were in many ways as idyllic as their surroundings, into which they fit with such skill and comfort. They were well fed and well housed, without poverty or serious disease. They enjoyed considerable leisure, given over to dancing, singing, ballgames, and sex, and expressed themselves artistically in basketry, woodworking, pottery, and jewelry. They lived in general harmony and peace, without greed or covetousness or theft. In short, as Sauer says, "the tropical idyll of the accounts of Columbus and Peter Martyr was largely true."...
One of the alternative possibilities for future Spanish glory in these none too promising islands suggested itself to Colon almost from the first. On his third day of exploration-a Sunday at that he had set out to see "where there might be a fortress [built]" and in no time at all found a spit of land on which "there might be a fortress"-and from which "with fifty men they [the Tainos] could all be subjected and made to do all that one might wish" (October 14). Now, during the second leg of exploration along the north coast of Cuba, this grew into a full-blown fantasy of a colonial outpost, complete with a rich trade and merchants. And so Colon went on, rather like a young boy playing soldiers, turning various pieces of landscape into military sites: Puerto de Mares on November 5, a harbor for "a store and a fortress" on November 12, another harbor where "a fortress could be erected" on November 16, a placed where "a town or city and fortress" could be built on November 27-until finally, as we shall see, misfortune enabled him to translate his fancy into reality.
Now there was no particular reason to go about constructing fortresses"I don't see that it would be necessary, because these people are very unskilled in arms" (October 14)-but that was the way his architectural imagination, suffused with his vision of colonial destiny, seemed to work: a spit of land, a promontory, a protected harbor, and right away he saw a fort. Such was the deeply ingrained militarism of fifteenth-century Europe, in which fortresses represent edifices more essential to civilization even than churches or castles.
It may have been that Colon began his explorations with nothing more than an idea of establishing some sort of entrepot in these islands, a fortressprotected trading post rather like the one the Portuguese had established, and Colon had perhaps visited, on the Gold Coast of Africa, at El Mina. But as he sailed along the coast of Cuba he seems to have contrived something even grander, not just a trading port but an outright colonial settlement, an outpost of empire where Spaniards would settle and prosper, living off the labor of the natives ("Command them to do what you will," December 16) and the trade of the Europeans.
On November 27, toward the end of his sojourn along Cuba, Colon put into a large "very singular harbor" which he named Puerto Santo (today known as Puerto Baracoa, about a hundred miles from the eastern tip of the island) and was nearly speechless at its tropical splendor: "Truly, I was so astounded at the sight of so much beauty that I know not how to express myself." The vision of conquest, however, loosened his tongue, and at great length, too: And Your Highnesses will command a city and fortress to be built in these parts, and these lands converted; and I assure Your Highnesses that it seems to me that there could never be under the sun [lands] superior in fertility, in mildness of cold and heat, in abundance of good and healthy water.... So may it please God that Your Highnesses will send here, or that there will come, learned men and they will see the truth of all. And although before I have spoken of the site of a town and fortress on the Rio de Mares ... yet there is no comparing that place with this here or with the Mar de Nuestra Seiiora; for inland here must be great settlements and innumerable people and things of great profit; for here, and in all else that I have discovered and have hopes of discovering before I return to Castile, I say that all Christendom will do business [dad negociafion] with them, but most of all Spain, to which all this should be subject. And I say that Your Highnesses ought not to consent that any foreigner trade or set foot here except Catholic Christians, since this was the end and the beginning of the enterprise [proposito], that it was for the enhancement and glory of the Christian religion, nor should anyone who is not a good Christian come to these parts.
It may fairly be called the birth of European colonialism.
Here, for the first time that we know, are the outlines of the policy that not only Spain but other European countries would indeed adopt in the years to come, complete with conquest, religious conversion, city settlements, fortresses, exploitation, international trade, and exclusive domain. And that colonial policy would be very largely responsible for endowing those countries with the pelf, power, patronage, and prestige that allowed them to become the nation-states they did.
Again, one is at a loss to explain quite why Col6n would so casually assume a right to the conquest and colonialization, even the displacement and enslavement, of these peaceful and inoffensive people 3,000 miles across the ocean. Except, of course, insofar as might, in European eyes, made that right, and after all "they bear no arms, and are all naked and of no skill in arms, and so very cowardly that a thousand would not stand against [aguardarid] three" (December 16). But assume it he did, and even Morison suggests that "every man in the fleet from servant boy to Admiral was convinced that no Christian need do a hand's turn of work in the Indies; and before them opened the delightful vision of growing rich by exploiting the labor of docile natives." The Admiral at least had no difficulty in seeing the Tainos in this light: "They are fit to be ordered about and made to work, to sow and do everything else that may be needed" (December 16); "nothing was lacking but to know the language and to give them orders, because all that they are ordered to do they will do without opposition" (December 21).
Missed in the dynamics of the assumed right of colonialism was an extraordinary opportunity, had it only been possible for the Christian intruders to know it, an opportunity for a dispirited and melancholy Europe to have learned something about fecundity and regeneration, about social comeliness and amity, about harmony with the natural world. The appropriate architecture for Col6n to have envisioned along these shores might have been a forum, or an amphitheater, or an academy, perhaps an auditorium or a tabernacle; instead, a fortress....
Originally, so he tells us (October 19), Col6n had planned to return to Castile sometime in April, when, he presumably knew from his earlier travels, the North Atlantic would be past its winter storm season. But now, after the wreck of the Santa Maria and with news that the Pinta was not far away, he
apparently decided to sail back immediately. It was a risky decision and most unseamanlike-as he would soon discover, when he was blown off course and almost capsized by two fierce storms in February and March-that leads one to assume that the Admiral's need was dire. Yet all he ever said, a few days later, was that he intended to head back home "without detaining himself further," because "he had found that which he was seeking" (January 9) and intended "to come at full speed to carry the news" (January 8)....
Whatever the reasons for his haste, the Admiral certainly made his way along the remainder of the island's coast with great alacrity, and little more than a week after he met up with Pinzon, the two caravels were off on the homeward leg. Only one notable stop was made, at a narrow bay some 200 miles east of La Navidad, where a party Colon sent ashore discovered, for the first time, some Indians with bows and arrows.
The Admiral having given standing orders that his men should buy or barter away the weaponry of the Indians-they had done so on at least two previous occasions, presumably without causing enmitythese men in the longboat began to dicker with the bowmen with the plumes. After just two bows were sold, the Indians turned and ran back to the cover of the trees where they kept their remaining weapons and, so the sailors assumed, "prepared ... to attack the Christians and capture them." When they came toward the Spaniards again brandishing ropes-almost certainly meaning to trade these rather than give up their precious bows-the sailors panicked and, "being prepared as always the Admiral advised them to be," attacked the Indians with swords and halberds, gave one "a great slash on the buttocks" and shot another in the breast with a crossbow. The Tainos grabbed their fallen comrades and fled in fright, and the sailors would have chased them and "killed many of them" but for the pilot in charge of the party, who somehow "prevented it." It may fairly be called the first pitched battle between Europeans and Indians in the New World the first display of the armed power, and the will to use it, of the white invaders.
And did the Admiral object to this, transgressing as it did his previous idea of trying to maintain good relations with the natives so as to make them willing trading partners, if not docile servants? Hardly at all: now, he said, "they would have fear of the Christians," and he celebrated the skirmish by naming the cape and the harbor de las Flechas- of the Arrows.
It was not the first time (or the last) that Colon was able to delude himself-it may indeed have been a European assumption that violence can buy obedience. Twice before, he had used a display of European arms to frighten the Tainos, to no purpose other than instilling more fear and awe than they already felt: once on December 26, when he had a Turkish longbow, a gun [espingarda], and a lombard demonstrated, at which occasion the people "all fell to earth" in terror and the kaseke "was astonished"; then again on the eve of his departure from La Navidad, when he ordered a lombard fired from the new fortress out at the remains of the Santa Maria so that Guacanagari, when he saw "how it pierced the side of the ship and how the ball went far out to sea," would then "hold the Christians whom [Colon] left behind as friends" and be so scared "that he might fear them." Strange behavior at any time; toward this softhearted kaseke and his kindly people, almost inexplicable.
Was Columbus an Imperialist: NO
From Robert Royal, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History (Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1992). Copyright © 1992 by The Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C. Reprinted by permission. Notes omitted.
Let us hear what their comments are now-those who are so ready with accusations and quick to find fault, saying from their safe berths there in Spain, "Why didn't you do this or that when you were over there." I'd like to see their sort on this adventure. Verily I believe, there's another journey, of quite a different order, for them to make, or all our faith is vain.
- Columbus Lettera Rarissima
After centuries of controversies, the life of Columbus lies beneath mountains of interpretation and misinterpretation. Sharp criticism of El Almirante (the admiral)-and sharp reaction to it-go back to the very beginnings of his explorations, as the passage cited above, written at a particularly threatening moment during Columbus's fourth and final voyage to the New World, graphically shows. Then, as now, it was easy for people who had never dared comparable feats to suggest how the whole business might have been done better. And in truth, Columbus's manifest errors and downright incapacities as a leader of men, anywhere but on the sea, played into the hands of his critics and properly made him the target of protests. His failures in leadership provoked atrocities against the Caribbean natives and harsh punishment, including executions, of Spaniards as well. Stubbornness, obsessiveness, and paranoia often dominated his psyche. Even many of his closest allies in the initial ventures clashed with him over one thing or another. In the wake of the titanic passions his epochal voyages unleashed, it is no wonder that almost every individual and event connected with his story has been praised or damned by someone during the past five hundred years....
Fact and Imagination
The temptation to project modern categories back upon earlier historical periods is always strong. Reviewing these first late-fifteenth-century contacts now, with knowledge of what befell indigenous peoples later, we are particularly inclined to read large-scale portents into small events. If Columbus mentions how easy it would be to subdue the natives, or expresses impatience with his failure to find the high and rich civilization of Asia, many historians readily fall into the error of seeing his attitudes as a combination of careless imperialism and greed, or even as a symbol of all that was to follow. We would do well to recall, however, that the Spanish record after Columbus is complex and not wholly bad, particularly in its gradual elaboration of native rights.
In Columbus the man, several conflicting currents existed side by side. [Bartolome de] Las Casas is an important witness here because of both his passionate commitment to justice for Indians and his personal association with Columbus for several years. In a telling remark, Las Casas notes that while Christopher's brother, Bartolome, was a resolute leader, he lacked the "sweetness and benignity" of the admiral. Columbus's noble bearing and gentle manners are confirmed in many other sources. Nevertheless, Las Casas can be harsh in his criticism. Chapter 119 of History of the Indies concludes with the judgment that both brothers mistakenly began to occupy land and exact tribute owing to "the most culpable ignorance, which has no excuse, of natural and divine law."
After five hundred years it may seem impossible to reconcile the contradictory traits Las Casas mentions. He attempted an explanation of his own:
Truly, I would not dare blame the admiral's intentions, for I knew him well and I know his intentions were good. But... the road he paved and the things he did of his own free will, as well as sometimes under constraint, stemmed from his ignorance of the law. There is much to ponder here and one can see the guiding principle of this whole Indian enterprise, namely, as is clear from the previous chapters, that the admiral and his Christians, as well as all those who followed after him in this land, worked on the assumption that the way to achieve their desires was first and foremost to instill fear in these people, to the extent of making the name Christian synonymous with terror. And to do this, they performed outstanding feats never before invented or dreamed of, as, God willing, I will show later. And this is contrary and inimical to the way that those who profess Christian benignity, gentleness and peace ought to negotiate the conversion of infidels.
As this excerpt shows, Las Casas's style of writing and mode of reasoning do not always yield great clarity, and his assessment here begs several questions. Columbus's policies, and official Spanish policy generally, were much more given to gentleness and kindness in the beginning than Las Casas, who only witnessed later troubled times, allows to appear. There is no question that conflicts with natives and factional infighting among Spaniards drove the admiral to more onerous measures, including enslavement of Indians captured in military actions.
While Las Casas's condemnation is cast in terms of absolute justice and as such has permanent relevance to evaluating Columbus's role in the New World, we should remember that Columbus was placed in unprecedented circumstances and should not be judged in the same way as we would a modern trained anthropologist. Paolo Emilio Taviani, an admiring but not uncritical
recent biographer of Columbus, demonstrates the difficulty attending every particular of the first contact: The European scale of values was different from that of the natives. "They give everything for a trifle"; obviously what was a trifle on the European scale was not so for the natives. For them "a potsherd or a broken glass cup" was worth "sixteen skeins of cotton." Columbus warned that would never do, because from unrestricted trade between the two mentalities, the two conceptions of value, grave injustices would result, and so he immediately prohibited the cotton trade, allowing no one to take any and reserving the acquisition entirely for the king of Spain. A just prohibition, not easy to impose on ninety men-what strength could it have when nine hundred, nine thousand, or ninety thousand Europeans would arrive? Such were the first troubles in an encounter between two worlds that did not understand one another.
If we wish to task Columbus for all the asymmetries that ensued, we should credit him as well for this initial attempt, later repeated by many Spanish governors and theologians, to find some just route through the thicket of massive cultural difference. He failed and permitted far more wicked practices than unequal trade, but we should not let subsequent events blind us to his authentic concern for justice in the first contacts.
Some Brighter Moments
In spite of the cultural gulf, mutual affections and understanding did, at times, appear. After over two months of exploration in the Caribbean, Columbus's ship, the Santa Maria, went aground on Christmas 1492 in what is now Haiti. There Columbus encountered a people and a chief so helpful that his log entries for the following days view the entire episode as providential. He would never have chosen, as he admits, to come ashore or build the settlement of La Navidad (Christmas) there. He did not like the harbor at all. Yet he concluded that his relations with the Tainos and their chief Guacanagari must be part of a divine plan in light of the friendship that sprung up between the two peoples.
Some Columbus scholars, perhaps a bit jaded from staring overlong at the historical lacunae and inconsistencies of the man, see in these log entries only an attempt to cover up the disastrous loss of the ship or a propaganda ploy to make the Spanish monarchs think well of the discoveries. Robert H. Fuson, a modern translator of the log, is a marine historian rather than a Columbus specialist. He is sometimes rightly criticized for his rather naive historical interpretations. But it is precisely because he is not predisposed to suspicion that he notices something overlooked by scholars occupied with weighing too many contradictory theories about the Haiti episode:
Affection for the young chief in Haiti, and vice versa, is one of the most touching stories of love, trust, and understanding between men of different races and cultures to come out of this period in history. His [Columbus's] instructions to the men he left behind at La Navidad, for January 2, clearly illustrate his sincere fondness and respect for the Indians.
The January 2 entry, as we shall see below, indicates that Columbus had some ulterior motives in placating the natives. But that does not negate his genuine good feeling toward them or his gratitude for their generosity. Even if we assume that Columbus is putting the best interpretation on events for Ferdinand and Isabella, some sort of fellow feeling undeniably had arisen, at least temporarily, across the vast cultural divide separating the Tainos and the Europeans. Despite the great evils that would come later, this altruism was not without its own modest legacies.
An extreme but common form of the over-simple charges often leveled against the Europeans in general and Columbus in particular has come from the pen of the novelist Hans Koning. Writing in the Washington Post to influence public sentiments about the quincentenary, Koning insisted that from 1492 to 1500, there is not one recorded moment of awe, of joy, of love, of a smile. There is only anger, cruelty, greed, terror, and death. That is the record. Nothing else, I hold, is relevant when we discuss our commemoration of its 500th anniversary.
Riding the wave of revisionism about American history now sweeping over education, Koning made these claims under the title "Teach the Truth About Columbus." The only problem with his assessment is that every particular in his catalog of what constitutes the truth is false. To take them in order: Columbus certainly records awe at his discoveries throughout his four voyages. His praise of the land's beauty was partly meant, of course, to convince the king and queen of the value of the properties Columbus had discovered for them. But some of it is simply awe; Columbus's enthusiasm for many of the new lands reaches a climax when he describes the sheer loveliness of the Venezuelan coast, which he believed to be the site of the original Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise. If that is not a record of awe, it is difficult to imagine what would be.
The relations between natives and Spaniards before 1500 are not, pace Koning, unrelieved darkness either. If anything, they are a frustrating reminder of a road not taken. Smiles there were-recorded smiles-at least on the native Taino side: "They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the softest and gentlest voices in the world and are always smiling" (Log, Tuesday, 25 December 1492). Columbus had reason to appreciate these people since they had just helped him salvage what was salvageable from the wreck of the Santa Maria. In the feast natives and Spaniards held after the rescue, the cacique Guacanagari placed a crown on Columbus's head. The admiral reciprocated by giving him a scarlet cloak and a pair of colored boots, "and I placed upon his finger a large silver ring. I had been told that he had seen a silver ring on one of my sailors and desired it very much. The King was joyful and overwhelmed." Guacanagari grew so close to Columbus that he asked if he and his brother might return with him to Castile.
When it came time to leave for Spain, Columbus placed thirty-nine men "under the command of three officers, all of whom are very friendly to King Guacanagari," and furthermore ordered that "they should avoid as they would death annoying or tormenting the Indians, bearing in mind how much they owe these people." The emphasis added to this last quotation has a double purpose. Clearly, Columbus recognized the temptations his men would have; just as clearly he was determined, to the best of his ability, to anticipate and block those temptations. This is the entry of January 2 that Fuson reads as expressing sincere kindness and affection. That reading may be a little too simple, but it is not entirely mistaken.
What this incident and the founding of the settlement definitely are not, however, are instances of simple European arrogance and imperialism, or what John Noble Wilford, a recent biographer of Columbus, has called "a personal transition from discoverer to imperialist." Even when full-scale war between some Indians and Spaniards broke out during Columbus's second voyage, Guacanagari remained loyal to Columbus in spite of-or perhaps in opposition tocommands from another local chief, Caonabo, for a cacique alliance. No source denies this loyalty between the Taino and the admiral, even under trying cultural tensions and warfare. Though we are right to abhor many far-less-happy subsequent events between the inhabitants of the two worlds, the record of the early interaction is richer and more diverse than most people, blinded by contemporary polemics, think. Hans Koning might do well to calm down and read some of these passages.
The List of Charges
The principal moral questions about Columbus arise essentially from three of his actions:
1. He immediately kidnapped some Tainos during his first voyage for questioning and use as interpreters. In that act he showed not only his contempt for Indian life but his belief that Spanish language, culture, and religion were superior and rightly to be imposed on native peoples.
2. After the destruction of La Navidad and the turmoil that ensued during the second voyage, Columbus foolishly ordered exploratory missions without adequate safeguards to restrain outrageously violent men like Mosen Pedro Margarit and Alonso de Ojeda. He then punished the natives who objected to Spaniards living off the land or who resisted their commands. In addition to setting this evil precedent, he shipped home some natives to become slaves with a very poor excuse: Since of all the islands those of the cannibals are much the largest and much more fully populated, it is thought here that to take some of the men and women and to send them home to Castile would not be anything but well, for they may one day be led to abandon that inhuman custom that they have of eating men, and there in Castile, teaming the language, they will much
more readily receive baptism and secure the welfare of their souls.
3. Columbus instituted a system of gold tribute from the natives that was heavy nearly impossible, in fact, given the small quantity of gold on the island of Hispaniola-and that was harshly enforced.
Each of these charges is true and no amount of admiration for Christopher Columbus can excuse what is simply inexcusable. Even the argument by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, one of the fairest Columbus historians, that "Columbus and his successors were guilty only of applying the best standards of their time" makes two false assumptions. First, that such behavior represents the best contemporary standards.... Second, that individuals should not be criticized for acting like the majority of their contemporaries because they are bound by culture and history. The latter argument draws strength from current philosophical schools that hold there are no privileged or absolute positions outside of historically conditioned views. But if we think we should condemn Aztec human sacrifice as wrong not simply a different cultural form, but wrongthen we must admit there are universal principles that also allow us to criticize improper European use of force, enslavement, and exploitation.
Yet just as we try to understand the reasons behind Aztec human sacrifice or Carib cannibalism, and both tribes' imperialism toward other native peoples, we should also try to see what led to Columbus's behavior. Columbus, as Las Casas testified above, was not by nature a brutal man like Ojeda or Cortes. The first sign of harshness by him, in fact, seems to have been his acquiescence, during the second voyage, in a death sentence against some Indians on Hispaniola who had been caught stealing. Significantly, the pleading of another Indian moved him to remit the sentence in that case (the wavering too is characteristic of the uncertainty in handling questions of governance). Though he apparently regarded the Indians as inferior and always approached them with much the same assumption of superiority that Spaniards approached the Guanches of the Canary Islands and African tribes, he seemed at least partly-and when circumstances allowed-aware that good treatment was both morally called for and favorable to Spanish interests.
A fairer reading of the record reveals some mitigating factors, though these by no means add up to an exoneration.
1. Though Columbus did kidnap some Indians, two interpreters among them, he set one of them free immediately upon returning to Hispaniola during the second voyage. He hoped that the Indian set at liberty would tell others of Spain's wonders and of Columbus's good intentions. This was naive, crude, and manipulative on his part, but shows some perspicacity and good will.
2. Slavery was always a bone of contention between Columbus and the Spanish monarchs-they vehemently opposed this way of "civilizing" their subjects in the Indies. Columbus was not clear in his own mind about the issue. As late as the third voyage, the last in which he would be permitted to visit the growing colony on Hispaniola, Columbus ordered that slaves could only be taken during just war. His thinking was muddled, as was the thinking of the world for at least another half century until several crucial questions about Indian rights and just claims were sorted out.
3. The imposition of gold tribute for Spanish services stemmed from the belief that much gold existed on Hispaniola. And Indian failures to meet what seemed to the Spaniards modest levies were mistakenly attributed to laziness. Indians loved the tiny hawk's bells that the Spaniards brought as trinkets; asking them to fill a bell with gold every two months seemed a reasonable request.
Since all governments tax in some fashion, Spain was doing only what caciques and Carib conquerors had been doing for time immemorial. The Spanish system did not "introduce" a new evil to an idyllic people without politics, but it proved peculiarly burdensome because it was imposed from the outside and in ignorance of the realities on Hispaniola. Furthermore, contrary to many wild charges, the Spaniards never intended to commit "genocide." A ready supply of native workers served Spanish self-interest. European and African diseases, however, soon laid waste whole tribes.
Fernandez-Armesto argues that Columbus's recourse to violence on Hispaniola resulted mostly from his basic inability to rule well, from "misjudgment rather than wickedness." Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, who became the official Spanish historian of the New World, said that to govern the Hispaniola colony correctly a person would have to be "angelic indeed superhuman." Columbus was far from either; in fact, he was far from possessing even normal political acumen. During his second and third voyages he clearly tried to avoid facing political difficulties on Hispaniola by exploring further. The problem was not merely lack of political skill. As a foreigner, he felt that he could trust only family members and close personal friends. (In fact, recent research has revealed that the Columbus family belonged to an anti-Spanish faction in Genoa, a political embarrassment that may help account for some of Columbus's reticence about his early life.) The resentments arising from difficult conditions, moreover, served to reinforce his tendencies toward paranoia. His rule of both Indians and Spanish oscillated between being too indecisive and too harsh.
We should also understand the kinds of Indians and colonists he had to govern. Columbus had trouble enough with the natives and complained: At home they judge me as a governor sent to Sicily or to a city or two under settled government and where the laws can be fully maintained, without fear of all being lost.... I ought to be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a people, warlike and numerous, and with customs and beliefs very different from ours.
Even the Tainos were probably far less gentle than Columbus earlier reported and "not so innocent as Las Casas tried to show." The Caribs, their fierce, cannibalistic enemies, seem to have been as terrified of the supposedly pacific Tainos as vice versa. And recent archeological investigations suggest that the Tainos, contrary to Columbus's impression of them as being without religion, had a complex system of belief and ritual akin to those in Central America and Mexico. They appear to have played a ritual ball game re-enacting the cosmic struggle between light and darkness and ending with the religious sacrifice of one or more human victims. An early Spanish conquistador estimated that twenty thousand people were sacrificed yearly on Hispaniola alone, though that figure may be wildly exaggerated. In any event, native tribes were profoundly other to the unsophisticated sailors and explorers in Columbus's dayand remain profoundly other to us today.
The Spaniards with whom Columbus had to deal were not much better. After the second voyage he asked the monarchs to think carefully about whom they were sending on the voyages and to choose "such persons that there be no suspicion of them and that they consider the purpose for which they have been sent rather than their personal interests." Not only were some of the colonists unusually violent, but many Spanish gentlemen who had come expecting easy wealth resented Columbus, the need to work, and the unhealthy conditions on the island. In dealing with these settlers, as Las Casas observed, "The Admiral had to use violence, threats, and constraint to have the work done at all."...
Bad in Any Case
... In Kirkpatrick Sale [The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy], Columbus is uniquely and doubly condemned for being medieval and for being of the Renaissance. His medieval side reflects superstitions, and his Renaissance side shows the destructive force of naked instrumental and mathematical reason, which Sale largely identifies with Renaissance Europe. Nevertheless, Sale also feels free to castigate Columbus for his lack of interest in numbers, that is, for not giving us the exact mathematical coordinates of the island where he made first landfall. Poor Columbus is merely the product of various opposing evil traditions that define Europe and Europeans-of which we are all the heirs, save, of course, the Kirkpatrick Sales who transcend cultural determinism.
All these attempts at neat categorizations assume that we can define a man, as well as a historical period, with far sharper boundaries than is ever the case. The mixture of human weakness and human greatness in even a key figure is never easy to calculate. The novelist Anthony Burgess has recently .created a Mozart who says, "My desire and my hope is to gain honor, fame, and money." That sentence plausibly formulates a great deal of truth about Mozart's life. Yet few music lovers would deduce from this that Mozart's work is, therefore, solely the product of ambition and cupidity, or try to explain the man and his music by sociological analysis of the late eighteenth century. Columbus similarly spoke of "God, gold, and glory," and many of the Europeans who followed him were driven by multiple motives, not all of which were, by any means, merely self-serving.
Kirkpatrick Sale, as usual, well formulates the ultimate issue behind much of the public controversy over 1992:
In the final analysis, it is not so important whether Columbus was a good man. What matters is that he brought over a culture centered on its own superiority. The failings of the man were and remain the failures of the culture.
This is a strained argument. It certainly does matter, if only for the sake of historical justice, that we try to discern the mix of good and evil in Columbus per se. Furthermore, no one can simply be identified with a whole culture. Every individual both draws on and opposes elements in his surroundings. If the preceding pages show anything, they show that Columbus, like the rest of us, was not simply good or bad. As a great human spirit, both his virtues and faults appear larger and more vivid than they do in most people. And his historical influence reflects the dimensions of what he was. The argument about the European sense of superiority, however, can be engaged quite well without dragging in Columbus, as if he were a mere conduit for European culture.
One reason that freedom arose in the West is the traditional Western separation of the City of Man from the City of God.... [M]any of the early missionaries and theologians showed, in the very face of state power and financial interests, that Christian principles pointed toward other paths than those most often taken by settlers in the New World. Columbus and Las Casas were sometimes at odds over specifics, but were not fundamentally opposed on these matters. Las Casas is the greater figure for his moral passion and courage, but Columbus, in spite of his faults, deserves no little admiration. Emblematic, perhaps, of their relationship is the suggestion of Simon Bolivar in 1819 that a newly liberated area of South America be named Colombia and its capital Las Casas: "Thus will we prove to the world that we not only have the right to be free, but we will demonstrate that we know how to honor the friends and benefactors of mankind."
Was Columbus an Imperialist?
Whether or not Christopher Columbus's actions in the Americas are viewed as the work of an imperialist, there is no doubt that the impact of his arrival in the Western Hemisphere carried with it enormous consequences, not the least of which was the so-called "Columbian Exchange," which involved a reciprocal trade in plants and animals, human beings, diseases, and ideas. For example, the introduction of destructive microorganisms produced epidemic outbreaks of smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, typhoid, and syphilis that decimated human populations on both sides of the Atlantic. On a more positive note, Europeans brought food items such as wheat and potatoes to the New World and brought home maize, beans, and manioc. Native Americans benefited from horses and other farm animals introduced from Europe, but these benefits were offset by the efforts of the Europeans to enslave and kill the indigenous peoples whom they encountered. The best study of these various by-products of European exploration is Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Greenwood Press, 1973).
The effects of the encounters between Europeans and Native Americans is explored in Gary B. Nash, Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early North America, 3rd ed. (Prentice Hall, 1992) and in two works by James Axtell: The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (Oxford University Press, 1981) and The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (Oxford University Press, 1985). Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., examines the pre-Columbian Native Americans in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).
Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (Oxford University Press, 1971); David Beers Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, 1481-1620 (Harper & Row, 1974); Wallace Notestein, The English People on the Eve of Colonization, 1603-1630 (Harper & Brothers, 1954); Charles Gibson, Spain in America (Harper & Row, 1966); and W. J. Eccles, France in America (Harper & Row, 1972) all discuss European contacts in North America. Perhaps the best biographical treatment of Columbus is Samuel Eliot Morison's generally sympathetic Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, 2 vols. (Little, Brown, 1942). For a more recent objective and scholarly study, see Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus (Oxford University Press, 1991).