The Charges Against Columbus
A controversy of historic proportion
by Logan Chamberlain
Within the last half century, many historians have come to criticize Columbus's legacy and question whether he should be publicly honored with a holiday. This Columbus issue has become enmeshed in larger cultural discussions about history, such as the debate about Confederate monuments around the U.S.
We here at Infoplease thought we should present the historic charges against Columbus and offer a bit of context for this contentious debate.
The Columbian Exchange
Columbus did not "discover" America. He was not the first person in the Western hemisphere, as several hundred nations predated his arrival. Nor was he the first foreigner—among other things, sweet potatoes and chickens in Polynesia and South America suggest contact a long time ago. Nor was he even the first European. The Vikings were aware of North America, which they called Vinland, and there is evidence they settled in Canada.
As a side note, he also definitely did not prove the Earth was round. The ancient Greeks knew the Earth was round, and it was as accepted by educated people in Columbus's time as it is today. The Spanish Crown wouldn't give the man boats and money if they didn't believe that you could sail around the globe. And, in fact, Portugal refused to fund Columbus because they knew it was round; advisors to the crown warned that Columbus underestimated how long it would take to sail around the Earth based on their observations.
However, his "discovery" of America is singularly important. Prior to his voyages, the immense majority of people in Europe (and Asia and Africa) had no inkling whatsoever about the Americas. They also didn't know about the unique resources there and vice versa. Columbus initiated perhaps the greatest material change in world history. Corn, tomatoes, and potatoes came to Europe and Africa. Horses, pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and cats came to the Americas. All kinds of stuff crossed the Atlantic for the first time ever. The ways people eat and live were fundamentally upended in what we now call the Columbian Exchange. And, credit where it's due, the voyage was difficult, and probably would have failed with a less competent captain.
The sheer historic importance of Columbus's voyages makes it worthy of study and discussion. That isn't in doubt.
Despite the obvious importance of Columbus's voyages, the road from landing to holiday is a bit winding. We have a timeline here with some more details. Columbus day began as a celebration of Italian heritage during the second wave of immigration. Columbus came from Genoa, and so he became a symbol of pride and grandeur to the discriminated Italian population. Prior to this point, the mostly Anglo-American population didn't want to give too much credit to Catholic Italians and Spaniards for founding their country. There are obvious exceptions, such as the name of the nation's capital (The District of Columbia) and in the many cities nationwide called Columbus.
The first public declaration celebrating the voyage was on its four-hundredth anniversary in 1892. It wouldn't become a recurring holiday until the Great Depression, and wouldn't take its current date until the late 1960's under President Johnson.
Scholars and public figures have begun to criticize the holiday's existence. There are two basic threads of criticism surrounding the holiday. The first one, and the easier to explain, is that the connection between Columbus and the U.S.A. is pretty thin.
Christopher Columbus never once set foot in any region currently held by the United States. He wasn't directly responsible for settling any part thereof. Some further argue that the U.S. only really began with English colonization over a century later. This editor doesn't agree with that Anglocentric stance. But, even acknowledging the importance of Spanish and French settlement to U.S. History, the bulk of this occurred well after Columbus's lifetime.
The second thread of criticism is that Columbus was a man who did horrible things of consequence, so we shouldn't be honoring him so much as we should be discussing his legacy. This is the issue that tends to raise a lot of strong emotions, and so it's what we're going to focus on.
To keep the air clear, we also need to emphasize that much of the violence and villainy we're discussing wasn't directly enacted by Columbus, but by members of his crew, members of his administration, and citizens of his colony. Columbus tends to be the sole target of these criticisms, largely because it's easier to discuss the man himself than it is to discuss deep structural and societal ills. Just as he was singled out for praise he is singled out for blame.
What's very important to note about this kind of criticism is that it's a lot older than you might think. There are many cases where presentism, or looking at historical events through a modern framework, can negatively affect our ability to interpret and understand history. However, within living memory of Columbus he had harsh critics. More importantly, perhaps, the Spanish system of colonization had harsh critics.
The most famous of these was the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas. who advocated on behalf of the indigenous population in the Caribbean and whose father sailed with Columbus. His seminal work, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (full text available here) exaggerated the situation, as is quite common in historical writings, but if things were half as bad as he describes it still paints a horrific picture of Spanish colonial life in the Caribbean.
Life on Hispaniola
Columbus landed on the island best known in English as Hispaniola (or La Española in Spanish). After his voyages, he became governor of the new colony. He oversaw the creation of the island's administration and economy. This led to the implementation of what is called the Encomienda. The Encomienda was, in essence, imposed feudalism. The conquering Spaniards would take into their employ and "protection" a number of native people. On Hispaniola these were the Arawaks, or Taíno. This was theoretically different from slavery. The Pope formally forbade slavery of the natives in 1537. But by that time the forced labor economy was deeply entrenched, and would continue in various forms. (Again, this issue extends far beyond Columbus himself.)
The immensity of the damage to the native population can't be overstated, and so we'll give that it's own section. But, even the Spanish account of Columbus's rule isn't terribly bright. When Columbus set out on a voyage and left his brother in charge of Santo Domingo, he returned to a colony in turmoil. The brothers would continue to rack up complaints and grievances, prompting the Spanish Crown to investigate life in the colony. Columbus's son detailed this episode in his own writings.
Admittedly the most thorough surviving report we have is from the man who would take Columbus's job, Francisco de Bobadilla, and so one must suppose that a bit of cherry-picking and exaggeration is at play. All the same, the details of the investigation—the record of which exists in hard copy in the Archivo General de Simancas in Spain—are horrific. Among other things, the report describes summary executions and violent crackdowns on native rebellion, including a public display of the corpses to dissuade further resistance. Although the Crown exonerated the brothers Columbus of criminal wrongdoing, they were permanently barred from governorship.
According to A Short Account, which we might characterize as the most damning report of life on Hispaniola, life for the native laborers was torturous. They would be forced to find an amount of gold each month, or otherwise be maimed and left without treatment. This typically meant cutting off both hands. Accounts further describe Arawaks committing suicide en masse to escape the labor, or using abortifacient plants to prevent birthing children under Spanish rule. A diary entry from Columbus's friend Michele de Cuneo infamously describes an incident when Columbus "gifted" him a native woman—unfortunately for the women, this wasn't an uncommon practice at the time in many cultures. The letter can be found at several sources, although the contents aren't very family friendly.
Per estimates in the mid-1500s, there were over a quarter million Arawak before Columbus arrived, and less than 1,000 within fifty years of his arrival. Some amount of this can be attributed to disease, which can only questionably be laid to blame at anyone's feet. But, some historians, like UC Davis professor Andrés Reséndez, contend that killings and forced labor can be blamed for even a majority of these deaths.
Not only were hundreds of thousands of people killed and enslaved, but Taíno culture was wiped out. Within a century, a whole culture had to be referred to with "was" instead of "is."
The Black Legend
We want to take a quick aside to discuss one more fraught part of the history surrounding Columbus, and surrounding Spain in general. Much of Spanish history is cast in the shadow of what some historians call the Black Legend of Spain.
The idea of the Black Legend supposes that English and Dutch histories (and histories in the many countries influenced by the Netherlands and England) cast Spain as a dark and nefarious Other, against which their own activities don't seem so bad. The Inquisition and the Reconquista are also common subjects of Black Legend discussion, with some arguing that Spain wasn't much different from England and France in persecuting religious minorities.
Some can take refuting the Black Legend a bit too far, and attempt to cover up or deny real bleak episodes from history. But, it is true that the violent, impassioned Spaniards were pointed to as a "bad example" of colonization, against which English principles of terra nullius were sensible. (Terra nullius is the idea that "unused land" is free to claim and use. Today it's most often discussed in Australia, where it was common practice until very recently).
Some historians refute the idea of the Black Legend, or some people ascribe Black Legends to other countries. That's a bit beyond the scope of our discussion. It is, however, worth bringing up.
The Colonization of the Americas
Picking up where we left off in the days of de las Casas, the Spanish Empire had by this time conquered most of central America, parts of South America and of the Caribbean. The Portuguese Empire was ramping up its colonization, and France, England, and the Netherlands would participate in their empire building within a few generations.
The colonization of the Americas would lead to the mass enslavement, displacement, and extermination of millions of people. It precipitated the destructive colonization of Africa. It contributed to wars on a global scale. Every nation around the world is still contending with the history of colonization, and lots of fingers get pointed in lots of directions. It's quite natural that Columbus, as the man who set the ball rolling, rouses people's passions.
Columbus can't be blamed for all the evils of imperialism. And, it is a historical truth that the United States wouldn't exist if not for colonization, so he has to be given some small amount of credit.
However, critics argue that by elevating the figure of Columbus, we not only erase the suffering and destruction he caused, but honor them. And, indirectly, we erase the difficult history of U.S. actions against Native Americans. We don't have to be self-flagellating about our history, but we also don't need to celebrate some of its darkest episodes.
The Holiday (Again) and Alternatives
So, Columbus Day. Some maintain that this attack on Columbus is in fact mostly presentism, and argue that Columbus himself was a nobler man than the people under him who mostly acted out the villainy described above. Especially in many Catholic communities, he is honored due to his role in spreading Christianity and due to some surviving accounts that suggest he tried to limit the cruelty of his subordinates. Most people who look up to Columbus aren't deliberately praising colonialism and mass oppression.
But for many people, Columbus Day is simply an indirect way of celebrating the founding of the U.S. by celebrating an event that preceded it. To those people, the figure of Columbus isn't as important as a Monday off.
Many towns and cities are now promoting a separate holiday, Indigenous Peoples' Day, which coincides with Columbus Day. If, as critics say, Columbus Day glorifies the dark history of colonization, then the best response is a counter-holiday commemorating (or, unfortunately, memorializing) the native cultures that were affected.
If you'll permit a bit more editorializing, I'd like to request that all readers (even the ones who are still celebrating Columbus Day) also consider this holiday. The cultural legacy of the hundreds of native nations is immense and worthy of more appreciation than it gets. If you can, look into any local events or native cultural organizations in your area.