|Statue of Christopher Columbus near the Cooper River, New Jersey.|
In January of 2018, vandals threw paint on this statue.
Rather than celebrate Columbus, many would now prefer to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. I assume this would be a new holiday created by modern-day myth-builders of the Liz Warren variety—that is, goofy individuals of European descent who identify as native because it is considered "woke." Sadly, as Catholics can see from the ridiculous antics going on before our eyes at the Amazon Synod, many within the Church have drunk the fire-water and some graying relics the flower-child generation are now quite open about their preference for the naked state of nature as opposed to the awful, rigid, moralistic confines of Christendom.
However, before the rest of us benighted, non-woke Catholics meekly go along with such brazen script-flipping, we should take a fresh look at the history absent the jaundiced eye of Howard-Zinn-style intellectual dishonesty.
Were there aspects of indigenous pre-Columbian culture that are worth celebrating? Sure. However, the overall human condition in the Americas prior to Columbus's arrival is not something that anyone in their right mind wants to revive. Frankly, when one delves into the primary source material, it’s hard to argue that the perpetual warfare, slavery, torture, cannibalism and other atrocities that existed among the tribes before the arrival of the Europeans was anything other than repulsive. Even at a distance of four hundred years, it's difficult to read such accounts and not lose your lunch.
But let's start with Columbus himself and his motivations. To begin, I think all can agree that Christopher Columbus had many flaws. Though an outspoken and zealous Catholic, Columbus's greatest flaw seems to have been that he was a worldly man of his time. He saw gold everywhere and the desire that his mission be a financial success drove him ever onward. He was fixated on monetary gain largely because he wished to demonstrate to the sovereigns who had put their trust in him—King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain—that they would benefit from his bold venture and that their trust in him had not been misplaced.
That said, one should not assume that Columbus’s eagerness for wealth had anything to do with a desire to live like a an oriental potentate or accrue political power to himself. His own personal comfort and exaltation were often the farthest things from his mind. Instead, he wished to use the wealth he garnered from his discoveries to launch an even greater expedition: a new Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from from Islamic captivity. In this excerpt from a letter written by Columbus to Ferdinand and Isabella on March 4, 1493, we can see Columbus's idealistic intentions clearly in the form of a vow which, in hindsight, seems ridiculously optimistic:
I conclude here: that through the divine grace of He who is the origin of all good and virtuous things, who favors and gives victory to all those who walk in His path, that in seven years from today I will be able to pay Your Highnesses for five thousand cavalry and fifty thousand foot soldiers for the war and conquest of Jerusalem, for which purpose this enterprise was undertaken. And in another five years another five thousand cavalry and fifty thousand foot soldiers, which will total ten thousand cavalry and one hundred thousand foot soldiers. [Taken from Letter to the Sovereigns of 4 March 1493]If you read more of Columbus's writings, they are littered with similar outbursts of unrestrained enthusiasm for a new crusade against Islam.
When studying any historical figure, context is of the utmost importance. It is worth remembering that in AD 1453, forty years before Columbus's voyage and two years after his birth, Constantinople—that great capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire—was conquered by the Turks. This event sent shock-waves across a Christian Europe which trembled in fear as the Ottomans gathered their strength for additional thrusts to the west. It is within this civilizational context that Columbus's desire for a new crusade funded by riches gained from his discoveries should be understood.
One of the other common criticisms of Columbus is that he attempted to impose slavery upon the peoples he discovered. While this is certainly true, we should remember that in Columbus's day, slavery was practiced throughout the world—in Europe certainly, but with considerably greater vigor and ubiquity in the Islamic east, China, Africa, and, yes, among the native tribes of the Americas themselves. Thus, what Columbus did was in no way novel. If Columbus proposed to the sovereigns of Spain that a slave trade of the warlike Carib Indians could be established in order to offset some of the expenses involved in colonization, his fault may be mitigated somewhat by the brutal practicalities of his age. Similar suggestions, no doubt, could have come from the mouths of courtiers serving the Ottoman Empire, Ming China, Mughal India, Ivan the Great's Russia, or anywhere else at the time. To their credit, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain rejected the idea.
Much is also made of Columbus's ill treatment of the Tainos, the natives of present-day Hispanola. But a reading of his journals shows a much more complicated situation than most quick-history websites will permit. An excellent, primary-source-focused overview of the four voyages of Columbus may be found in an old book edited by Julius E. Olson entitled: The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot [published in 1906]. When perusing the sources provided in this book, the reader will see that even as early as 1493—a year after the discovery—relations between the Spaniards and the native tribes in the Caribbean had already devolved to suspicion and murder. Below, I present a summary of how events occurred soon after Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, complete with excerpts from eyewitness accounts.
It is certainly worth reading these passages before passing judgment on Columbus.
When Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground on Christmas day 1492 off the coast of modern-day Haiti, the admiral was surprised to find ready assistance from a local chief named Guacanagari who helped him offload men and cargo from the stricken ship. So impressed was Columbus with his reception, that he recorded the following initial impression of the Taino in his usual effusive style:
The king (Guacanagari) and all his people wept. They are a loving people, without coventousness, and fit for anything; and I assure your Highnesses that there is no better land or people. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their speech is the sweetest and gentlest in the world, and always with a smile. Men and women go as naked as when their mothers bore them. Your Highnesses should believe that they have very good customs among themselves. The king is a man of remarkable presence, and with a certain self-contained manner that is a pleasure to see. They have good memories, wish to see everything, and ask the use of what they see. [The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, page 201]After the loss of his flagship, Columbus did not have enough space or provisions to sail back to Spain with all his men. He therefore made a virtue of necessity and decided to leave 44 volunteers behind with the Tainos. To house them, he caused a fort to be constructed which he named La Navidad. Though the Tainos appeared friendly and harmless, Columbus and his comrades were taking no chances. To demonstrate that the Spaniards would be able to help the Tainos defend against their hated enemies, the Caribs, Columbus conducted a military drill in which arquebuses and canon were discharged, much to the shock of the natives. The editor of Columbus's journal summarizes the admiral's concerns and practical rationale as follows: “All this was done that the King (Guacanagari) might look upon the men who were left behind as friends, and that he might also have a proper fear of them.” [The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, page 209]
However, such precautions turned out to be insufficient. Some time after Columbus's departure, the settlement at La Navidad was annihilated. How or why this happened remains a mystery to this day, but when Columbus returned a year later with a much larger expedition, he met with a puzzling welcome. While approaching the site of La Navidad, the Spaniards discovered several dead bodies ashore, at least a few of which were judged to be European due to the presence of a heavy beard. When Columbus's fleet entered the bay where La Navidad had been planted, one of Guacanagari's cousins came out to meet him. Columbus inquired regarding the welfare of the Spanish who had been left in their care, and he received the following response, as taken from the letter of an eyewitness, Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca:
Guacanagari’s cousin replied that those who remained were all well, but that some of them had died of disease, and others had been killed in quarrels that had arisen among them; and that Guacanagari was at some distance, lying ill of a wound in his leg. [The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, page 300]If this report relieved Columbus, the relief was not to last. As his ship approached the site of La Navidad, Columbus discharged two cannon as a signal, hoping for a reply from the men at the fort. He was met with silence. Landing near the site, his worst fears were realized: the fort had been burnt and leveled to the ground with no sign of survivors. The few Tainos they encountered seemed reticent and fled at the approach of the Spanish. This was a sharp contrast to the warm welcome Columbus had received the previous year. Eventually, the Spanish were able to coax a few Tainos into conversation, and the full extent of the disaster was revealed. Dr. Chanca relates:
When they were asked concerning the Spaniards, they replied that all of them were dead…The king of Caonabo and Mayreni had made an attack upon them and burnt the buildings on the spot, that many were wounded in the affray, and among them Guacanagari, who had received a wound in his thigh, and had retired to some distance. [The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, page 301]When Columbus himself arrived on shore, new details began to emerge. Dr. Chanca continues:
We also learned that they had shown where the bodies of eleven of the dead Spaniards were laid, which were already covered with grass that had grown over them; and they all with one voice asserted that Caonabo and Mayreni had killed them; but notwithstanding all this, we began to hear complaints that one of the Spaniards had taken three women to himself, and another four; from whence we drew the inference that jealousy was the cause of the misfortune which had occurred.For his part, Guacanagari was finally located and he welcomed Columbus with tears, explaining that some of the Spaniards had gone off with Caonabo (another Taino chief) in search of gold and had been slain. Later, Caonabo returned and burned La Navidad as well as Guacanagari's own village. Dr. Chanca tells us that there was much evidence that just such an attack had occurred. However, Dr. Chanca and many of the other Spanish remained suspicious because the wound in Guacanagari's thigh which had supposedly hobbled him, was shown to be completely healed when the Spanish physician removed the bandage and examined it. For what it's worth Guacanagari remained a faithful collaborator with Columbus for the few remaining years of his life, to the point where he was eventually forced to flee to the hills by the other Taino chiefs.
For the Spanish, however, the charred remains of La Navidad spelled the end of any illusions they harbored that the Tainos were a peaceful, loving people. And whereas Columbus had previously portrayed life among them as little short of Eden in his journal entries during his first voyage, suspicion is evident in Dr. Chanca's letter, and the enmity generated by this encounter would later lead to a full-scale war between the Spanish and the Tainos. As a result of this war, subsequent famines, and waves of European diseases that washed over them for which they had no immunity, the Tainos would be almost completely wiped over the next 30 years.
But if the Taino failed to live up to the modern Euro-inspired mythology of native peoples as peace-loving, nature-children innocents, their culture nonetheless compared very favorably to their more savage neighbors, the Caribs. Indeed, it was the Caribs who harassed and preyed upon the Tainos prior to the arrival of the Spanish with a ferocity that can scarcely be imagined. Dr. Chanca, writing during Columbus's second voyage in 1493, describes the interactions between the Caribs and the Tainos as follows:
The habits of these Caribbees are brutal….In their attacks upon the neighboring islands, these people capture as many of the women as they can, especially those who are young and beautiful, and keep them for servants and as concubines. And so great a number do they carry off, that in fifty houses, no men were to be seen, and out of the number of the captives, more than twenty were young girls. These women also say that the Caribbees use them with such cruelty as would scarcely be believed, and that they eat the children which they bear to them, and only bring up those which they have with their native wives. Such of their male enemies as they can take alive, they bring to their houses to slaughter them, and those who are killed, they devour at once. They say that man’s flesh is so good, that there is nothing like it in the world; and this is pretty evident, for of the bones which we found in their houses, they had gnawed everything that could be gnawed, so that nothing remained of them, but what from its great hardness could not be eaten. In one of the houses we found the neck of a man, cooking in a pot.
When they take any boys prisoners, they cut off their member and make use of them as servants until they grow up to manhood, and then when they wish to make a feast, they kill and eat them; for they say that the flesh of boys and women is not good to eat. Three of these boys came fleeing to us thus mutilated. [The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, page 290]It should be remembered that it was the Caribs—not the Tainos—that Columbus first attempted to enslave.
It is for these latter attributes that the European discoverer of the Americas ought to be remembered.
We may also celebrate the advent of Christianity in the New World which did much to mitigate the more brutal aspects of both the European and the indigenous American civilizations as they collided in the 16th century. It was Christianity that created an environment in which a humble man like Saint Juan Diego could emerge from the bloodthirsty Mexica peoples and a beautiful lily like Saint Kateri Tekakwitha could bloom among the harsh woodlands of pre-colonial New York State.
As for those modern-day vandals who have no achievements of their own to celebrate but choose instead to tear down the monuments of their ancestors, or to pretend to be descended from native peoples to enhance their own resumes—their words and behaviors should inspire in us nothing but contempt.