Happy Columbus Day

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Happy Columbus Day

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken


Everybody loves a parade. Except, it seems, those who hate Christopher Columbus. Denver had its annual Columbus Day “event” with a parade put on by the Italians and a protest put on by the Indians (or those pretending to be Indians like Ward Churchill).

Yet, if it weren’t for the protest not many would even notice that it was Columbus Day at all. Indeed, even the protest was generally ignored. One of the local dailies has a story on it buried deep in its web site. The other local daily doesn’t seem to have a story on it at all. The protestors need a new PR strategy.

I must say, though, that I’m not a big Columbus backer. I do oppose that nonsense about disparaging his voyage to the New World as being neither novel nor courageous. It clearly was both. But, to be sure, Columbus was more or less just an ambitious man of questionable morals who, when judged by the standards of his own time, was not a good man.

Even his supporters considered his rule as governor in the New World to be tyrannical and marked by atrocities against the Indians and his enemies. Among other terrible practices, Indians who failed to make regular payments in gold may have had their hands cut off per Columbus’ orders. Columbus was enthusiastic about slavery, and sent slaves back to Spain in violation of Spanish law. The slaves were eventually sent back to their homes in the New World.

Some of the charges against Columbus were perhaps lies spread by other ambitious men, but Columbus was hardly known for his kindness or even competence. Columbus was eventually imprisoned and thrown out of power for mismanagement and for making a great number of enemies during his time as governor. And then there’s that embarrassing bit about Columbus never figuring out that America was a new continent, even though many others did.

Columbus himself had not been an object of any particular veneration prior to the 19th century. He was respected, but not an object of adulation for school children. There’s a large plaza featuring him in Madrid for obvious reasons, and the Genoese sometimes revere him as one of them.

But it seems that 19th-century American nationalists invented the myth of the semi-divine Columbus who needs a government-invented holiday for his proper veneration. He provided an important addition to the mythology of national origin — something very precious to nationalists everywhere — but Columbus was especially useful because he made America’s roots seem more ancient, and also more adventurous and heroic.

Columbus was helpful as an illustration of the presumed virtues of American imperialism in the late 19th century. For the imperialists, Columbus took civilization to the New World much in the same way the Americans were taking civilization to the Filipinos or the Mexicans or the Hawaiians.

In pursuit of their own nationalistic myths, the Latin Americans erected monuments to him as well, and everywhere Columbus became something of a symbol of progressive and modern liberalism triumphing over the dark ages of the past.

Few things illustrate this better than the obviously false assertion that everyone but Columbus in the 15th century thought the earth was flat. We are made to envision Columbus debating the ignorant and superstitious professors of Salamanca who lacked Columbus’ great modern wisdom. Of course, the Dominican faculty of Salamanca, as disciples of Aquinas and Aristotle, knew full well the planet’s shape. The debate was over the width of the ocean. The professors thought Columbus had underestimated its width. They were right.

But the myth endured for quite some time, helped along by Anglo-Saxon propagandists who always sought to cast the Spaniards as superstitious barbarians who, in this case, were shown up by the Italian man of the Renaissance, Columbus.

Yet in spite of all his faults and the foolishness of the mythology that surrounds him, there is a problem with hating Columbus. The anti-Columbus narrative is dangerous because Columbus has become a proxy for all Europeans of his age, and he is used today as a device to illustrate the allegedly extraordinary brutality of the European settlers in the New World over the centuries.

As we’ve seen, Columbus was judged harshly by his own contemporaries, and we know that the treatment of the Indians was a hotly contested topic in 16th century Spain and elsewhere. By 1537, Pope Paul III had issued Sublimus Dei which said:

notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by 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; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved…

Of course, then as now, few listen when the Pope speaks, so the Europeans went right on stealing from and enslaving the Indians. The Spanish Crown’s Laws of the Indies in 1542 further attempted to improve the conditions of the Indians, although to little effect.

And it should be noted that the treatment of the Indians at the hands of the Europeans was hardly worse than that afforded most of the American indigenous population at the hands of their Aztec or Inca masters. With their human sacrifice, slavery, endless warfare, and absolute despotism, life was hardly that of the noble savages invented by Rousseau in a later age. The Aztec and Inca emperors of the New World enjoyed absolute power known by no European until the 20th century.

Yet, those who villainize Columbus and all of European civilization for its treatment of the Indians maintain that the Europeans were unsurpassed in their cruelty and in their supposedly unquenchable thirst for gold and blood.

Interestingly, in America at least, much of this has its roots in the Black Legends about Spain and the Catholic Church spread through Anglo-Saxon propaganda since Elizabethan times. Spaniards were supposed to be extraordinarily bloodthirsty, greedy, aggressive, lazy, and dirty. They therefore must have treated the Indians far worse than the noble Englishmen, and by extension, the Americans.

The Elizabethan English, locked in a global imperialist struggle with Spain, were highly nationalistic and were happy to believe anything about Spain that made the Spaniards out to be barbarians. Most notable are the stories they invented about the Spanish Inquisition. The stories claimed that 50,000 innocents had been put to death by such allegedly superstitious oppression. (The figure was more like 4,000 people over a 350-year period with 1% of the accused receiving the death penalty after public trials. Meanwhile, in England, one could be put to death for damaging a rich man’s shrubbery.)

The treatment of the Indians was then naturally seen as an extension of Spain’s barbarous Inquisition. Some even claimed — and still claim — that the Inquisition was somehow comparable to the practice of Aztec human sacrifice which killed anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people per year for many years. The details of the stories vary, but over the centuries, many non-Indians have competed to illustrate how horrendous was the treatment of Indians by their Spanish masters.

In North America, the wars against the Plains Indians, the Trail of Tears, and a general American policy of apartheid and extermination did little to exempt the Anglophone settlers from the picture. So by the 20th century, the Black Legends, already so effectively painting some Europeans as rapacious brutes, was turned against all Europeans to great effect.

Yet, pointing out the avarice of certain European bureaucrats like Columbus hardly provides sufficient evidence for the indictment of all Europeans or of their view of human rights.

Not only does the anti-Columbus narrative ignore the efforts of the Europeans to extend universal rights of liberty and property to the Indians, it goes on to attribute even accidental deaths to European cruelty.

Take the issue of communicable diseases. Disease was undoubtedly the most deadly single cause of death for the Indians, and the Europeans are held morally responsible even for this. Perhaps the anti-Columbus movement thinks that the Europeans were happy about syphilis and smallpox? If Europeans are murderers for being infected with disease, perhaps Europeans should still be blaming the Chinese and the Mongolians for killing 20 million Europeans with the Black Death. Of course such an assertion would be ridiculous as well as pointless.

It’s unfortunate that Christopher Columbus has become a symbol for European settlement of the New World. Columbus was not the renaissance humanitarian American nationalists painted him as in the 19th century, but there were many learned and influential Europeans of that era who opposed the enslavement and oppression of the Indians. It seems, however, that no one is interested in celebrating a holiday named for Bartolomé de las Casas.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.

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