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The real Christopher Columbus:  a mixed legacy for today

"In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue."

Nursery rhymes are great, as long as we do not confuse them with history.

Unfortunately, we have had a tendency to take myth as fact, and in the process whitewash the ambiguity and nuances of real world history.  

Recall the speech by then president George H.W. Bush in 1989, about Christopher Columbus:   "Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished through perseverance and faith." 

So in President George H. W. Bush’s reckoning, Columbus was a model of “perseverance and faith.”  
Yet one wonders how many today would come to associate the actions of Columbus with “faith” if we knew the real history.  

There are always multiple sides to every narrative, different points of view.   We cannot let the “victors” to write the history books   Instead, we also have a humanistic responsibility to look at life through the experiences of those who have been weak and marginalized.   There are of course multiple narratives about Columbus, from a crusading missionary to a slave-exporter to a megalomaniac.  What is important for our purposes is that the debate about Columbus cannot be had without also telling the story from the point of view of the native peoples who bore the brunt of Columbus’ “exploration” on their bodies and in their lives.

Here are a few of the aspects of Columbus’ treatment of the native population that do not often get a full treatment:  

*Columbus immediately engaged in slavery. 

Columbus writes about this in his own words, and justifies it according to his understanding of his faith.

"Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."

*Columbus sold native girls, as young as nine or ten years old, into sexual slavery.    This information is from his diary:  

"A hundred castellanoes [Spanish coins] are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand."

*Despair among indigenous people
The native people, such as the Taino, faced such a situation of hopeless and despair as a consequence of slavery that some of them resorted to mass suicide as the only means of escaping their dilemma.   [see the letter from Pedro de Cordoba to King Ferdinand in a 1517. ]

*population impact was one of a mass-scale genocide
The late historian Howard Zinn offers us an overview of what can be called nothing short of a genocide:

“In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.  When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.”

For another account, see here.

Fortunately, the response of the European Catholics was not uniform.  
While many of the Spanish explorers engaged in this slavery and genocide, some spoke against it.  
Columbus’ cruel treatment of the indigenous peoples was already denounced in his own lifetime.  One of the explorers who arrived in the Antilles, Bartolomé de Las Casas, wrote a devastating work called “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.”

De Las Casas recounts horrifying acts by Columbus’ crew, including the Spaniards cutting off the legs of children to see how sharp their swords were, and taking wagers to see who could cut a person in half with one motion.     De Las Casas recounts the death and rape of three thousand people in a single day.    De Las Casas, who turned to priesthood as a way of atoning for what he had seen, states:

"Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel…
My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”

Columbus’ discovery (and by now the absurdity of that term should be obvious to all) forever changed the balance of world power. 
It sent a massive amount of wealth and slaves to Europe, and fully ushered in the era of European colonialism of Asia, Americas, and Africa.   
Any attempt at understanding global history of the last five hundred years without accounting for the pivotal nature of colonialism is futile.  

I go through these accounts, not to insult the dead.   (I am not unmindful of the way that the legacy of Columbus has been especially dear to the Italian-American population.) 

Insulting the dead does nothing to redeem their sins, and can actually send our rage towards the past when we need our resolve here and now in addressing the injustices of today.    
My intention is to remind us that the injustices we see around us today, from the appalling condition of most Native Americans to the situation of African-Americans and the working poor has to be confronted with eyes wide open.   

our histories—all of our histories—are tainted, combinations of extraordinary accomplishment with unfathomable cruelty.     We are all heirs to such a mixed bag.     There is no point in whitewashing or denying this history.  The only moral response is confronting it, addressing it, and figuring out how to deal today with the legacies of this injustice. 

If there is a way of restoring a sense of honor to Columbus Day, this repentant approach with eyes-wide-open would seem to be a necessary start.   

We can start by reading Howard Zinn’s masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States of America   Or David Stannard’s American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World.   Alongside that, addressing the ongoing plight of Native Americans, five centuries after first contact with the Spanish explorers, would be the necessary next step.

Then someday, perhaps, our children can sing a nursery rhyme not based on a myth, but on reconciliation through justice, on a forgiveness that was earned after brutal exploitation and injustice.    

We work today, so that our children can sing a true song tomorrow.

Tags: catholic, christianity, christopher columbus, columbus day, explorer, genocide, missionary, native, slavery


  1. What cheers me most is that Native Americans are returning to their Ancient traditions and heritage, throwing off the yoke of forced religions imposed upon them by missionaries. In many cases, they are taking the best of both worlds and creating new paths based on both models.

  2. Amusing article for a Muslim. How about applying the same highminded attitude toward Muhammad and the Muslim invasions?

    Plus, invoking Howard Zinn makes it clear that this is a thinly veiled attack on America and the West.


  3. Essem, I don’t know you, you don’t know me.  The “Zzzzz” you end with is nothing other than a reflection of how boring this tired response of your is, instead of engaging the point of the blog.  As for your ad hominem attack, that a Muslim has no right to write a article critiquing racism, sexism, and colonial abuse is an absurd one.  It is the responsibility of all of us human beings to work inside our own communities and all over this planet to strive for justice.  As a Muslim, as an American, and ultimately as a human being that is the ideal that I strive for.   

    I am simply going to end this by saying that adopting the standard you have developed (that criticizing means you don’t love) is one that would eliminate much of the progressive social forces in American history.  Put aside Howard Zinn, whom you are dismissing as “an veiled attack on America.”  I am not sure how much you know about the anti-racism tendencies in this country, but so much of it is rooted in this approach of critiquing because you love. Let me invite you to go study the legacy of Dr. King, and mediate on this quote:

    “Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Viet Nam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road which can lead to national disaster…”

    I hope it leads you to a better place. Peace, out. omid

  4. Professor, while I appreciate your article, I respectfully disagree with the premise from which you work off of. You are applying a modern, liberal value system on a man who did not share – was not even aware of – these values. I explain my view in detail in my own blog:

    I’d be curious and interested in hearing your response.

  5. hi Barzin.  Thank you for your post.  I read your blog.  I do agree of course that retrospectively projecting back historical values is not good history. However, what we are talking about here is something so fundamental:  chopping people in half, cutting off limbs to test the sharpness of swords, selling 9 year old girls into prostitution slavery.  I don’t need modern liberal ethics to tell me that these actions are vile.  Can you imagine Christ or the Prophet ever having engaged in any of these acts?  omid safi

  6. Professor, the issue of selling 9-year-old girls into slavery is touchy, because as we well know, 9-year-old girls have been sold into coercive relationships – be it “marriage” or “slavery” that’s merely an issue of semantics – for most of history, and across most cultures and religions. To me, what’s most objectionable is that this practice still continues in many societies.The reason why Islam gets a bad rap. The fact that so many Muslims either tacitly or blatantly tolerate (and engage) in this form of slavery is absolutely unacceptable (as Iranians, both of us can appreciate this). To me, no amount of cultural or religious relativism permits people in the 21st century to behave this way. Globally, we should know better.

    But I digress. Getting back to Columbus, yes chopping people in half was brutal. But again, in context, Columbus literally viewed his relationship to Native Americans as a relationship of human and animal (and animal rights didn’t exist either). Also, it is more than a little likely that Columbus and his men were scared of the natives. They were scared that their few hundred men could so easily be killed by the natives, and the atrocities they committed were in part a show of strength designed to strike fear. Their display of the power of steel as compared to the stone weapons strikes me as not much different than most warlords who conducted war throughout history. This can be said for the Muslim conquests, the Christian Crusades, or even the Incan human sacrifices.

  7. hi Barzin, I see your point, but we are going to disagree.  I am equally opposed to underage marriages, but will not equate that to sexual prostitution of children.  And I also will differ, and rest on that difference, that the colonial exploitation of natives—whether in Africa or the New World—is something to be called out and confronted, and not merely excused under differing value systems.  Respectfully,  omid

  8. To see the real Columbus we most start with his name otherwise if he was alive today he wouldn’t know who Columbus is at all. He was born Cristoforo Colombo but during his youth in Spain change his name and became famous and die as Cristobal Colon the name that all his children also had and pass along to all their bloodline.  Also I NEVER understood why the Italians in the USA, which most of them are 50 or 80% Irish, even valued him. Colon never got any help from Italy during his youth or even later. In fact he never return here at all. His home was mainly Spain and that is how he found fame and fortune. Nothing to do with Italy or Italians but with their European cousins the Spaniards.  Yes Colon was cruel and brutal but so were most of those folks and conquerors from that time. The Native Americans, that includes everyone from the Americas, had their cruel and savage feast too and cutting people’s heart and offering it to their gods was very common. Today 500 yrs later we have men like Bush and Cheney doing the very same by invading a land based on lies and for no reason at all and killing into tiny pieces or pulverize over 200,000 innocent Iraqi babies, women and men yet they are walking free. So not much have change since 500 yrs ago. Crimes against humanity continues and we turn our heads.
    Marta Paglianni from Napoli Italia

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