Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Christopher Columbus: Hero or Murderer?
by Whitney DeWitt
The second Monday in October is celebrated across America as Columbus Day. It is a celebration of the man who discovered America. In school, children are taught that Christopher Columbus was a national hero. In actuality, the man was a murderer. It is true that he found a land that was unknown to the “civilized” world, yet in this discovery, he erased the natives inhabiting the land. With slavery, warfare, and inhumane acts, Christopher Columbus and the men who accompanied him completely destroyed a people, a culture, and a land. These are not actions that should be heralded as heroic.
When his thoughts and actions throughout his voyages are considered, one can see that Columbus was never respectful of the rights of the natives he encountered. His first sight of what he termed “Indians” was of a group of attractive, unclothed people. Speculation is that, to him, their nakedness represented a lack of culture, customs, and religion (Wilford 159). Columbus saw this as an opportunity to spread the word of God, while at the same considering how they could possibly be exploited. He believed that they would be easy to conquer because they appeared defenseless, easy to trick because they lacked experience in trade, and an easy source of profit because they could be enslaved (Fernandez-Armesto 83). It obviously did not occur to Columbus to consider these people in any terms aside from that of master and slave. These thoughts were merely a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Even in Columbus’s own letters one can see the arrogance he possessed in claiming the islands he found. In a letter describing his findings to his friend Luis de Santangel, he wrote, “And there I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their Highnesses.…” (12). Columbus never stopped to consider that these islands were not his to take, nor were the people that inhabited them. He simply took over these lands, even going so far as to rename them all. In order to let everyone know of his great discovery, he returned to Spain with many new items, including kidnapped Indians (Fernandez-Armesto 89). He was attempting to glorify Spain and its monarchs while creating fame for himself.
Columbus’s arrogance and exploitation regarding slavery began on his second voyage. Ferdinand and Isabella had ordered that the natives be treated kindly. In opposition to this order, Columbus began exporting slaves in great numbers in 1494. It was because he was not making any real profit elsewhere on the island that he decided to exploit the one source of income--people--he had in abundance (Fernandez-Armesto 107). When word reached him that the crown did not want him sending more slaves, Columbus ignored it. He was desperate to make his expeditions profitable enough for Ferdinand and Isabella's continued support. Evidently he was not reprimanded because thousands of Indians were exported. By the time they reached Spain, usually a third of them were dead. Bartolome de las Casas wrote that one Spaniard had told him they did not need a compass to find their way back to Spain; they could simply follow the bodies of floating Indians who had been tossed overboard when they died (17). It is horrible to consider that the exportation of these natives resulted in thousands of deaths. It is much worse when one realizes that they were caused by one man’s desire for glory.
The Indians that were not exported were put into slavery on the island. There was literally no way to escape some form of enslavement. Columbus would let the settlers of his establishment choose whomever they wanted for their own. One account claims that each settler had slaves to work for them, dogs to hunt for them, and beautiful women to warm their beds (Fernandez-Armesto 133). This degradation of an entire group of people seemed not to bother Columbus or the Spaniards in any way. They appeared to consider it their right as superiors.
Enslavement of the Indians was not the only violation they were forced to endure; Columbus also terrorized, tortured, and killed them. At one point in time, Columbus sent five hundred men into the hills to search for gold. Upon hearing that the Indians were planning to attack the men, Columbus sent four hundred soldiers to terrorize them in order to show how strong the Christians were (Wilford 173-4). Since Columbus was in charge, he felt he could do as he chose without repercussions. He believed that the Christians could do no wrong and therefore never punished them. One of the Spaniards went through the hills, terrorizing the Indians and stealing their food. Columbus punished the Indian victims instead of the Christian culprit (Wilford 175). Obviously, the culprit was not so much of a Christian. His activities, and others like it, soon led to an all out war between the settlers and the natives. Due to their inferior weaponry, thousands of Indians were wiped out while those that were not were captured.
Other atrocities committed by Columbus and his men were reported by Michele de Cuneo, one of the Spaniards with whom he was traveling. One account tells of how they came upon a canoe and Indians and they attacked them. They thought they had killed one of the Indians and threw him into the water. Upon seeing him begin to swim, they caught him and cut his head with an axe. They later sent the rest of the Indians to Spain. He also gives a relatively descriptive account of his rape of an Indian woman; an act committed with Columbus’s blessing (Wilford 178-9). Columbus apparently believed it was his right to pass the captured women out to his men, and they, in turn, believed they did not need to ask for the women’s consent. As awful as it may be, rape was one of the less violent acts they committed against the Indians.
Columbus and his men could be a very cruel group of people. Under the guise of subduing the enemy, they would engage in horrific activities. At times, they would make an example of an Indian by cutting his hands off and tying them around his neck, telling him to then go and share the message. Other times they would go and massacre an entire village, unconcerned with the age of their victims (de las Casas 16). These are the types of inhumane activities undertaken by the men that Columbus led. This type of treatment continued a pattern seen throughout history. The degradation and belief of superiority can be seen in the way the American Indians were later treated. It can also be seen in the way the Africans were treated. Columbus certainly set a precedent, although it would be a stretch to call it an admirable one.
It is certain that the Indian’s version of the “discovery” would be quite different from the European accounts had they been given the opportunity to tell it. Certain artifacts have shown that they were not an uncivilized community as Columbus had claimed. They had a wide range of abundant food sources, healthy relationships with their neighbors, and were experienced traders. Despite what Columbus believed, they also had their own distinct religion, termed Zemiism. It is believed to be “the personification of spiritual power achieved with the aid of supernatural forces represented as idols” (Wilford 157). The Indian’s story will never be told because they did not write and never had the opportunity to hand it down. Within a generation of Columbus’s landing, their entire group of people and their culture became extinct. Bartolome de las Casas wrote, “And it is a great sorrow and heartbreak to see this coastal land which was so flourishing, now a depopulated desert” (16). When the natives began to die off, they were replaced with African slaves. Today, the descendents of these slaves are the only ones who remain. It is sad that Columbus’s search for fame led to the eradication of an entire culture. Greed and the desire for glory caused him to destroy that which he is famed for discovering.
Christopher Columbus is in no way a hero. All he did was encounter unknown lands while trying to get to Asia. He did not even manage to complete his initial goal of finding a commercially viable route to Asia by traversing the western oceans. He died feeling a failure because of this, not because of the tragedy he had brought to the Indians. His great accomplishment was the destruction of an entire population. How is that heroic?
Casas, Bartolome de las. “From the Very Brief Relation of the Devastation of the Indies.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. 5th ed. Vol. 1 New York: Norton,
Columbus, Christopher. “From Letter to Luis de Santangel Regarding the First Voyage.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. 5th ed. Vol. 1 New York: Norton, 1998. 11-13.
Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Columbus. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Wilford, John Noble. The Mysterious History of Columbus: An
Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy. New York: Alfred