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(Trigger Warning: This article or section, or pages it links to, contains antiquated language referring to people of color which may be triggering to some.)
Revision is seen as a dirty word. Depending on where you are on the old-fashioned Left-Right Spectrum politically, you are terrified of a world of New Speak from the pages of George Orwell's 1984. As I have mentioned before, history is a living and breathing academic study, which changes as new information is found and new interpretations arise. Social science can also fall victim to pseudohistory if not held to a certain amount of scrutiny.
It seems this week I have been reminded of how polarizing a historical figure can be. Take, for example, Christopher Columbus, the famous Italian explorer and navigator. A guy so lauded for centuries he has his own holiday. Pretty impressive to be in such a company as St. Patrick and St. Valentine. But scroll through your social media during a morning constitution. You will quickly see why it's not called "St." Columbus Day. A great deal of political dogma not only influences but actually begins to warp our sense of history. I don't think you can "same sides" everything, but I wanted to start in the middle and weigh out the scales of historical inquiry for myself.
Just remember, this subject fills entire books. I don't have time for the inkling to write one myself. This will be brief as I doubt you or anyone has the attention span required to enjoy this.
Let's start with the good! I love the western hemisphere, especially the United States: home of Hostess Apple Pies and cheap pilsners. The voyages of Columbus are considered a turning point in world history, marking the beginning of globalization and accompanying demographic, commercial, economic, social, and political changes. His explorations resulted in permanent contact between the two hemispheres. The term "pre-Columbian" refers to the culture of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and his European successors. The ensuing Columbian exchange saw the massive exchange of animals, plants, fungi, diseases, technologies, mineral wealth, and ideas. Old World wheat became an American food staple. African coffee and Asian sugar cane became cash crops for Latin America. At the same time, American foods like corn, tomatoes, and potatoes were introduced into European diets.
So, if we stopped now, Columbus should get his statue for providing us with sugar and coffee (sometimes together!).
Despite being an intrepid explorer, it's worth noting that Columbus' landfall was actually a mistake. Columbus made four trips across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain: 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502. He was determined to find a direct water route west from Europe to Asia, but he never did. Instead, he stumbled upon the Americas. His journeys marked the beginning of centuries of exploration and colonization of North and South America.
But as we march on, the lens changes. Until the 1990s, Columbus was portrayed as a heroic explorer. More recently, however, the narrative has featured the adverse effects of the conquest on native populations. Exposed to Old World diseases, the indigenous people of the New World collapsed and were largely replaced by Europeans and Africans who brought with them new methods of farming, business, governance, and religious worship.
I find it interesting that we have always been sold the notion that Columbus was out to prove the world was not flat, and more egregious, that it was his theory of a round planet. Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus popularized the idea that Columbus had difficulty obtaining support for his plan because many Catholic theologians insisted that the Earth was flat, but this is a popular misconception that can be traced back to the 17th-century Protestants campaigning against Catholicism. In fact, the spherical shape of the Earth had been known to scholars since antiquity. It was common knowledge among sailors, including Columbus. Coincidentally, the oldest surviving globe of the Earth, the Erdapfel, was made in 1492, just before Columbus's return to Europe. It contains no sign of the Americas and yet demonstrates the common belief in a spherical Earth.
We also cannot ignore the xenophobia towards Spain that may have lent to building propaganda around the atrocities of colonization. The Black Legend is a theorized historiographical tendency consisting of anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic propaganda. Its proponents claim that its roots date back to the 16th century when it was initially a political and psychological weapon that was used by Spain's European rivals to demonize the Spanish Empire, its people, and culture, minimize Spanish discoveries and achievements, and counter its influence and power in world affairs.
But atrocities are not self-contained events. The ill-treatment of natives, which would later occur in other European colonies in the Americas, was used in the works of competing for European powers to foster hatred against the Spanish Empire. Work was first cited in English in The Spanish Colonie, or Brief Chronicle of the Actes and Gestes of the Spaniards in the West Indies, at a time when England was preparing for war against Spain in the Netherlands. All European powers which colonized the Americas, including England, Portugal, and the Netherlands, ill-treated indigenous peoples. These issues have received greater scholarly attention in recent years, and the historiographical evaluation of colonialism's effects is evolving. While it's quick to dismiss Columbus as being besmirched by the English, there are enough first-hand accounts that would deem otherwise.
This point is really more semantics, but it's important to note. We should continue by burying the idea that Columbus "discovered" anything. The narrative of discovery and settlement is a dangerous myth. It implies nothing of note existed in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans, thereby justifying the continents' "civilization." This meta-narrative is how white America has justified genocide and ecological exploitation for centuries. The Norse had colonized North America around 500 years before Columbus, with some contact with Europe being maintained until about 1410.
Now the next part gets a little rough. Columbus is on record performing some rather heinous acts during his tenure in the New World. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore in 1492, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features... They do not bear arms and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... . They would make fine servants... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
But it wasn't just Columbus that ratted himself out. The chief source-and, on many matters, the only source of information about what happened on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. Las Casas transcribed Columbus's journal and, in his fifties, began a multivolume History of the Indies. In it, he describes the Indians. Total control led to absolute cruelty.
"(The Spaniards) thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades... two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys."
We also seem to glance over Columbus, the ruler, and tyrant as opposed to the explorer. As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in the Caribbean country of the Dominican Republic. Punishments included:
Physical mutilation was one of his many tricks of the trade. One man caught stealing corn had his nose and ears cut off, was placed in shackles, and was auctioned off as a slave. A woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was punished by his brother Bartolomé, who traveled to the Caribbean. She was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule.
It was before too long that Columbus made powerful enemies. Evidence has been found in a previously lost report drawn up for the Spanish monarchs. They became worried by growing rumors of Columbus' barbarity and avarice. The document was written by a member of an order of religious knights, the Order of Calatrava, who had been asked to investigate the allegations against Columbus by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who ruled Spain together at the time.
Official Spanish documents lay bare fruits of Columbus and his labors as ruler. The report, by Francisco de Bobadilla, lay undiscovered in a state archive in the Spanish city of Valladolid until 2005. Bobadilla had already been named governor of the Indies, replacing Columbus at the report. Bobadilla collected the testimonies of 23 people who had seen or heard about the treatment meted out by Columbus and his brothers.
Needless to say, this did not go over well. So horrific was Columbus's governorship of Hispaniola that he was shipped back to Spain in irons, stripped of his titles, and imprisoned for several weeks. If anyone tries to tell you that anti-Columbus sentiment is a newer Leftist sentiment, kindly point them in the direction of the 16th-century witchhunt that gave his political career a death rattle.
Columbus actually opened up political debate during his time. His death in Valladolid, Spain, in 1506 led to the first-ever European reckoning of colonization, known as the Valladolid debate, in 1550. Spain's colonization and conquest of the Americas inspired an intellectual discussion, especially regarding the compulsory Christianization of the Indians. Bartolomé de las Casas worked for years to oppose forced conversions and expose the treatment of natives encomiendas (a Spanish labor system that rewarded conquerors with the labor of particular groups of conquered non-Christian people). His efforts influenced the papal bull Sublimis Deus of 1537, which established the status of the Indians as human beings. More significantly, Las Casas was instrumental in passing the Laws of the Indies of 1542, which were designed to end the encomienda system.
The current state of the world is tribalism. It seems that we cannot help but throw ourselves into a camp and be prepared to defend that tribe's dogma. We will die on hills all day long just to prove someone wrong if need be. People seem to use confirmation bias to build their own preconceived notion of history, and that is, unfortunately, spreading like a virus. I ask that as scholars and as free thinkers, keep this animalistic nature in check. Don't be in a tribe, be an intellectual vagabond. Be a hobo that rides the rails of historical discovery.
As far as my final adjudication of Christopher Columbus, man is fallible. Capable of changing the world for the better or worse. But I ask a rhetorical question:
Should a person be given a statue or holiday if they were shackled for their crimes against humanity?
Ryan Lancaster wears many hats. Dive into his website to learn about history, sports, and more!