Christopher Columbus, The New World, and Private Property

With the exception of a few ethnic Italian activists, no American appears to actually celebrate Columbus Day anymore (assuming it was ever “celebrated” in any meaningful sense). And unless you work for a bank or a government agency, you may not even notice it’s a “holiday” at all. Indeed, it’s quite possible that Columbus Day would be all but ignored, if it were not for a perennially enraged group of activists who take the Columbus’ many acts of thievery and murder in the New World and use them to indict people born nearly 500 years after Columbus drew his last breath.

Even in his own day, Columbus was accused of inexcusable brutality, and even his friends had to admit he suffered from extreme vanity, ambition, and a lust to rule over other people. A politician par excellence, he continually lobbied for more and more political power, riches, and favors from the Spanish crown. His record was not impressive, and King Ferdinand refused to grant him the governorship of the West Indies which Columbus so longed for.


His own contemporaries noted with contempt that Columbus presided over the mass murder of the natives, and contrary to the current narrative among anti-Columbus crusaders today, it was hardly European gospel that the natives be treated as unpersons without property rights. Indeed, the natives were regarded by many as having the same rights as all human beings. Being non-European certainly did not bring with it sub-human status, and a papal envoy sent to Peking in the 14th century was  not sent to inform the Chinese that they were to surrender all their property.

In fact, this pro-property position was established clearly, at least among the Catholic countries, by 1537 when Pope Paul III issued the papal bull “Sublimus Dei” which stated that the American natives are rational beings while concluding:

…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; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.

Of course, people listened to the Pope back then about as much as they do now, so much of the New World nonetheless continued along the path of Might Makes Right. The fact that the natives always retained their property rights (in the moral sense) did little to prevent them from losing their property in the face of vastly superior numbers and firepower.

Early claims for the integrity of the property of the natives, as noted by Pope Paul III, however, were almost immediately challenged by those in favor of looting the natives, such as those on the pro-slavery side of the Valladolid debate. No such debate even occurred in the British colonies, of course, where the natives were simply presumed to be incapable of any political or economic relations with Europeans.

Did the natives understand the concept of private property? 

In this multi-centuried milieu of efforts to confiscate lands, conquer, drive out, and generally violate Indian property rights, many myths have been invented to justify the lack of Indian ownership over lands or property that were taken or destroyed. Revisiting these myths is instructional in that many of them are founded not on sound principles of property rights, but on a far-too-limited view of what  constitutes ownership, or simply on ignorance of the complexity of economic views among the natives themselves.

Many 19th-century advocates for confiscation of native lands argued (with varying degrees of sincerity) that since Indian lands were communally owned, they could not be legally regarded as private property. Others argued that since some tribes were nomadic, that they could not lay claim to any particular lands. Unlike 19th century Europeans, however, modern libertarians and many free-market advocates recognize that communal ownership, for example, is not necessarily morally illegitimate, nor does a nomadic lifestyle make one’s claims to lands forfeit.

One of the most long-lasting myths of native economics — and it is so long-lasting because it is forwarded by both sides in the debate — is that the natives were incapable of interacting with the settlers as trade partners or economic actors because they did not understand the concept of ownership. Leftists (or the “anti-settler” side) simultaneously make similar claims, although in their case, it is done with an eye toward making the case that the natives enjoyed some sort of utopian state of economic equality.

Both sides are, of course, incorrect.

It should first be noted that it is extremely difficult to generalize when discussing Indian tribes. Obviously, the economies of the Mayan cities were extremely different from those of the tribes of the North American Great Lakes or Pacific Northwest. But even among those tribes that were in what is now the United States, the economic realities and the economic structures among tribes varied significantly.

But we can note that in all cases, as they were rational humans, of course they understood the idea of private property ownership, and to claim otherwise would be to claim that the natives were essentially non-human.

The fact that some lands were held communally, or had significant easements, or that hunting grounds were not “homesteaded” in the 17th-century English sense of the word, certainly does not mean the lands weren’t owned. Nor do leftist claims about economic equality within tribes invalidate the fact that there were indeed both rich and poor people within single tribal units. Some natives amassed great wealth in the form of horses or other possessions, including slaves, while others were highly adept at trading with trappers and other forms of commerce.

Fortunately, in recent decades, the economic literature on economic systems among the indigenous tribes has proliferated. Here is an interesting list from the Economic History Association.  As the list author notes:

Although most of the essays were published previously, their concentration in one place helps to get across the key idea that Native Americans responded to economic signals in much the same way that economic theory would pr edict for any rational economic agent. The essays cover a wide swath of time, space and issues, and this diversity helps underscore the universality of their responses to economic forces.

Although it is often claimed by anti-capitalists that the natives had devised some sort of superior economic system to that of the Europeans, the economic history of the tribes makes it clear that individuals were more than happy to acquire and use the fruits of the European economies, whether they be horses, weapons, or iron implements of any kind, which were highly coveted. Indeed, amogn the tribes who traded with the Spaniards, the natives quickly developed complex horse-based economies of their own, and as they took advantage of European goods to enhance their own opportunities for wealth, inequality rose within their own societies, precisely because industrialization and Europeans economic ideas enabled them to attain a situation in which not everyone lived at subsistence levels.

In other words, the natives and the Europeans differed little in how they reacted to economic opportunities, and the natives very much asserted ownership over lands, livestock, lumber, game, fish, beaver pelts, and anything else of value. The concept of property was no mystery to them, nor was the idea that with property comes the ability to exclude other people from it. The “other” might not include others in ones family or tribe, but it certainly would often include other tribes and Europeans.

Later claims that lands and water rights were “unowned” simply ignored the realities of the situation.

The bloodshed that resulted from the European arrival in the Americas has often been blamed on “capitalism,” but in reality, the problem was not the pursuit of property, but, as Paul III already could see, a refusal to respect it. This disregard of what was obviously owned in the name of nationalistic, religious, or ideological fancies is what led to so much bloodshed that was at least partially avoidable. The extent of the conflicts that came in Columbus’s wake  had far more to do with the realities of politics, state power, and violence than with private property and markets. Indeed markets were the antithesis of what generally guided settler policies after 1492. Had economic (that is: voluntary) interactions been given a chance (by both sides), the realities of interactions between both natives and Europeans would have been quite different.




12:33 pm on October 14, 2014