Examining the Historical Columbus

The politicization of America’s history has been popularized by protests surrounding monuments, statues, and dedications commemorating historical figures. As we at The Review have covered, Amherst College controversially eliminated any mention of Lord Jeffrey Amherst in school sports and apparel, Princeton University is debating progressive President Woodrow Wilson’s legacy, and Yale University renamed hotly contested Calhoun College. Outside of higher education, protests against monuments honoring Confederate political and military leaders have triggered towns and cities across the country to reevaluate their commemoration.

Dartmouth College’s unique heritage as a school founded for the education of Native Americans, and its subsequent straying from that mandate, make our College in particular a platform for the debate surrounding Christopher Columbus. While not the first European to make contact with North America, Columbus opened the New World to European colonization, religious missions, and commercial ventures. He has long been commemorated on Columbus Day, but aspects of his governorship of Hispaniola have led many to shun his celebration, instead opting for “Indigenous People’s Day.” This debate falls primarily along partisan lines, with many on the Left decrying Columbus as a sadistic brute and the Right responding with the usual defense of tradition, Christianity, and Western Civilization. We intend to examine the historical Columbus: his vision, leadership, successes, and failures. Debate over his commemoration inevitably includes the centuries of conflict succeeding first contact, but the unobjective and partisan slander or praise of Columbus warrants a more specific interrogation of his actions.

One common charge leveled against Columbus was that he permitted the trade of underage Indian girls for sexual slavery. While this human trafficking certainly occurred during colonization and is an abhorrent moral blight upon the epoch, we cannot actually be certain of Columbus’ role in the practice. In his oft-quoted letter to Dona Juana de la Torre, Columbus stated, “There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.” Many of Columbus’ detractors have claimed that this sentence indicates the explorer’s complicity in the trade of sex slaves. However, when taken in context with the following lines from the letter, “I assert that the violence of the calumny of turbulent persons has injured me more than my services have profited me; which is a bad example for the present and for the future. I take my oath that a number of men have gone to the Indies who did not deserve water in the sight of God and of the world,” we see his explicit condemnation. Although we can never be completely certain of Columbus’ actions in the Caribbean, it is clear in his writings that he wholeheartedly disavowed the sexual traffic of minor indigenous women.

Another popular accusation is that Columbus instituted the brutal labor system of the encomienda that pervaded the Spanish colonies in the early 16th-century. The encomienda entrusted Spanish settlers with the control of a number of Indians in a specified area and the ability to exact tribute in gold from them; it was a system prone to common and grave human rights abuses. Many have named Columbus as the mastermind of the encomienda, but this is far from the truth. Historically, it was established by a later Governor of the Indies, Nicolás de Ovando, well after Columbus was ousted from this role by royal decree. More accurately, Columbus presided over the labor system of the repartimiento, which was indeed a system of forced labor, but with more legal protections for the indigenous workers, including mandatory wages. In fact, the creation of the repartimiento was forced on Columbus by revolting Spanish settlers, who left him with no choice but to institute the system. Certainly, abuses of the Indians did occur under the this system, but Columbus’ role in implementing is complicated by political pressure for forced labor and a profitable venture. He can be faulted neither directly for these nor for the broader and more pervasive mistreatment under the encomienda system.

One of the most significant allegations made against Columbus declares that he was the perpetrator of a genocide of the indigenous Taino people. Proponents of this claim suggest that by the time smallpox, the largest killer of Native Americans, arrived in the New World in 1518 nearly all of the Taino had already been massacred by the Spanish. The historical record from Columbus’ first voyage shows that his initial interactions with the Taino were peaceful, but that the first colony that he founded on Hispaniola was destroyed by the natives. Columbus responded with brutal military reprisals for the deaths of the men he had left behind to establish the settlement. The Spanish victory in this retaliatory conflict was the first recorded instance of slave-taking by settlers. Hundreds of Taino men were detained as prisoners of war and used for labor. Columbus’ role in later clashes with the Taino is not exactly clear, but it is certain that he hand some hand in the earliest violence between settlers and the natives including a harsh response to the Taino attack. However, the greatest Spanish atrocities committed against the Taino occurred after he had been relieved of his position as Governor of the Indies.

Many of these claims of genocide regarding Columbus are based on the excerpted writings of his contemporaries, Francisco de Bobadilla and Bartolomé de las Casas. A report by Bobadilla accuses Columbus of the most grievous offences and is often cited by the most vitriolic anti-Columbus publications; however, this report is inherently skewed. Bobadilla was a vicious political opponent of Columbus and schemed, ultimately successfully, to depose him as Governor of the Indies. Bobadilla was certainly no friend of the Indians, as he pardoned the rebel leader responsible for the establishment of the repartimiento system. He also accused Columbus of abusing the Indians and had him sent back to Spain in chains for these alleged misdeeds. Though his report is accepted as a piece of objective history by Columbus’ opponents, it should be viewed as a piece of political slander to discredit Columbus, furthering Bobadilla’s selfish bid to become Governor of the Indies.

Las Casas, a Catholic friar and contemporary historian, is widely viewed, even by Columbus’ detractors, as the greatest supporter of indigenous rights among the earliest Spaniards in the New World. His writings reveal serious and harrowing cruelties perpetrated by the Spanish against the indigenous peoples. It is important to note that Las Casas did not arrive in the New World until 1508, two years after Columbus died in Spain. Las Casas did write, however, of his admiration of the late explorer, viewing him as having opened the doors for Christendom in the New World, and thought that he had been treated unfairly by the monarchs of Spain when he was recalled from his post.

The Atlantic slave trade has been suggested as a long term and devastating impact of Columbus’ perceived misdeeds. Though it is obvious that Columbus opened the avenues of trade in general from Europe to the Americas, he played no historically evident role in moving slaves across the ocean or importing slaves from Africa. It was later colonial figures, including Las Casas, who encouraged the importation of African slaves to replace indigenous labor. It is irrefutable that Columbus actively conscripted and coerced Native Americans into labor that was often life-threatening, but it is more of a stretch to suggest that Columbus was a particular pioneer in this practice. Columbus was hardly the father of the Atlantic slave trade, but can be seen as possessing early significance in it. The slave trade was expanding worldwide at the time of the first voyages to the New World and the forced labor systems of the Spanish were, at the time of Columbus’ expeditions, nothing peculiar. To fault Columbus for tolerating the presence and employment of slavery in his colonies is presentism, plain and simple.

Some historians, such as Kirkpatrick Sale and Howard Zinn, view Columbus’ motivation as imperialism and the expansion of the Spanish colonial network. This perspective contrasts with Columbus’ own writings and those of Las Casas, which celebrate his accomplishments in terms of spreading the Christian religion.

Columbus definitely had considerable personal shortcomings, but none of these promote the touted image of him as a genocidal mercenary. His navigation to the New World was deeply flawed, relying on a system of navigation known as dead reckoning and widely understood as imprecise. His own calculations to find land across the Atlantic Ocean were completely incorrect. He was convinced that he had sailed to China and the Indies and claimed this to his death, despite evidence to the contrary. He was also nepotistic to a fault, appointing his brothers and sons to high colonial positions regardless of the resentment of Spanish settlers. The positive image of Columbus as a visionary scholar, first to discover the roundness of the Earth, is also invalid; contemporary belief never was that the world was flat. Columbus was undoubtedly a man of great personal faith and drive, but is possible that these motivations caused him to overlook many misdeeds occurring under his own nose.

It is a mistake to conflate Columbus with the atrocities of colonialism that succeeded his voyages. Columbus Day should neither be a moment of absolute praise or condemnation, but an opportunity to appreciate mutual discoveries between European and Indians, learn from mistakes that were made, and celebrate moments of coexistence.