Sunday, October 11, 2015

Columbus: Hero or Villian?

Listen to the Podcast of this Episode

Christopher Columbus has for centuries been portrayed as the hero explorer who discovered America for the Europeans. Yes, there is some evidence that Vikings may have arrived first.  But since they did not publicize their discovery, it meant rather little to the world.  Columbus has numerous cities, towns, counties, named after him throughout the western world.  The US capital bears his name, as does a South American Nation.  Columbus Day is a national holiday in the US and  he is widely celebrated.

Christopher Columbus
Like any figure, the man also has his detractors.  Many Native American groups blame Columbus for all woes caused by the great European migrations to the Americas in the centuries following his discovery.  Some academics deride him as a criminal guilty of enslavement and genocide.

Certainly his discoveries changed the world forever.  Many benefited, many were harmed by subsequent events. There is no doubt his discovery had a greater impact on world history that even most kings and generals ever achieve.

There are many great books that go into the details know of Columbus' life and the systems that his discovery facilitated.  My little blog post cannot address all of that.  Instead, I intend to focus on his four voyages and what his actions tell us about the man and his motives.

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean:

The year 1492 is one of those years all students of history learn as a key turning point in history.  It is the year of Columbus' first expedition across the Atlantic Ocean to what would become known as the New World.

Columbus, an Italian (actually, from Genoa as there was no Italian nation at that time) had for many years tried to convince various countries to back his attempt to cross the Ocean and find a shorter route to the Indies (what we know today as China, Japan and SE Asia). He or his brother met with monarchs in Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain.  Contrary to popular myth, he was not rejected because they thought the world was flat.  That was a fiction apparently invented by Washington Irving, who wrote a Biography of Columbus in 1828.  Rather, scientists of the time calculated the curvature of the Earth to estimate the size of our planet.  By those calculations, they concluded (correctly) that there was simply too much distance between Europe and Asia for any ship of the time to cross the ocean without running out of food and water.

Still, even if there was a small possibility of finding such a route, the cost of a small expedition against the potential riches of finding a new trade route.  The reality is that there had been various voyages into the Atlantic in search of new lands.  King John II of Portugal authorized such an attempt after hearing Columbus' proposal.

Columbus was not the first choice to head such an expedition for several reasons.  One was that he was a foreigner. Probably more importantly were his excessive demands.  As a reward for his expedition, Columbus wanted to become a Spanish Noble, obtain a hereditary title of "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" which could be passed to his children, the right to serve as Governor and Viceroy of all lands  he discovered, and ten percent of all revenues from trade with the newly discovered lands. Such wealth and power bestowed on a commoner and foreigner was not a comfortable position for many leaders.

Columbus eventually got approval because he convinced the Spanish Queen that he could be successful where everyone else failed.  Part of it was his dedication to the mission.  He sailed so far that if he had not found land, he would not have had the supplies to return.  He even had to lie to his crew about how far they had sailed in order to prevent a mutiny.  Most other explorers were not willing to put their lives on the line like that.

The other reason was that Columbus knew something that others did not.  Years earlier Columbus had married the daughter of the Portuguese former Governor of the Azores, Islands in the Atlantic. According to some researchers, his father-in-law's papers included a great many charts providing information related to wind patters and sea currents.  Columbus realized that winds across the Atlantic blew consistently to the west and others to the east.  By using these paths, later known as the trade winds, Columbus was able to use square rig sails, which allowed his ships to travel much faster across the ocean.  Other attempts used more traditional sails, which had the advantage of going the direction you wanted to go, even if the winds were not going in exactly that direction.

The First Voyage:

Historians typically say that Columbus' goal was to find a new trade route to the orient.  Detractors often argue his goal was focused more on military domination and suppression. In fact, Columbus' own stated goals mention neither of those things.  His diary, which was clearly written with the intent that it would be read by others and become public, states his primary goal of spreading Christianity to the Indies:

"Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and are enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet [Muhammad], and of all idolatry and heresy, determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith..."

Cynics have argued that conversion was merely a way to convince Queen Isabella to support his voyage.  The Queen had just spent years of war expelling the Muslims from Spain centuries after the Moors had invaded and occupied much of the land.  She also forced the expulsion or conversion of all Jews in Spain.  Clearly, conversion to the "true faith" was a highly motivating factor.  It is possible that Columbus simply played on the Queen's religious faith in order to get what he wanted.

But a closer look at everything Columbus wrote, and his many actions indicate he was a true believer in propagation of the Christian faith.  He had read the writings of Marco Polo and was focused on the interest of the Grand Khan's desire to receive emissaries from the Pope as well as holy oil from Jerusalem.  Columbus understood this to mean the people of the east were eager for conversion and would receive the word of God if offered to them.

By all accounts, Columbus was a deeply religious man.  Almost all lands that he named were named after Saints or other Biblical references. Columbus solemnly prayed and followed the teachings of the Church.  There is even some evidence that he later joined the Holy order of St. Francis as a lay member of the order.  All evidence indicates Columbus was a deeply religious man and that his primary goal was of a religious nature.

Of course, at this time, there was no separation of Church and State.  Conversion of the natives could be seen as a step toward forcing them into a position of political, economic, and social subservience to Spain as well.  But remember, Columbus was not expecting to encounter a relatively disorganized mixture of tribes with inferior military abilities.  He thought he was sailing to the Indies, a large organized empire with a formidable military.  Clearly he had no illusions about conquering such an empire with three small ships.

At the same time however, Columbus had forced the Spanish to grant him the hereditary authority to be Governor and Viceroy of all lands that he discovered.  If there were people living on those lands, they would already have some form of government, who would not likely simply concede authority to some foreigner who simply stepped on their land.  There must have been some notion from the outset that there would be military force used to take control of the new lands, if not on the first voyage, perhaps on subsequent ones.

At least on the first voyage, however, domination does not seem to be a goal.  These were Columbus' comments on Oct. 12, 1492, when he met the first natives that he encountered:

“I knew that they were a people who could be more easily freed and converted to our holy faith by love than by force, gave to some of them red caps, and glass beads to. put round their necks, and many other things of little value, which gave them great pleasure, and made them so much our friends that it was a marvel to see. They afterwards came to the ship’s boats where we were, swimming and bringing us parrots, cotton threads in skeins, darts, and many other things; and we exchanged them for other things that we gave them, such as glass beads and small bells. In fine, they took all, and gave what they had with goodwill." 

Columbus, however, goes on to indicate he considers the possibility of making the natives into servants:  "They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion. I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses, that they may learn to speak."

Some have taken comments like this to mean that he kidnapped a number of natives to bring back to Spain.  Records indicate he took somewhere between 10 and 25 natives back to Spain and that 6 or 8 of them survived the journey.  The deaths do not indicate any particular harsh treatment.  Ship conditions were ripe with disease.  Natives with immune systems unable to defend against European diseased tended to die in high numbers, regardless of care.

My reading of the original records does not indicate that Columbus took natives by force.  More plausibly, he simply convinced some of them to return with him, probably indicating many benefits to them and their people if they could learn the language of the Europeans.  There is nothing to indicate that they were taken by force or violence or that there was any hostile incident with the natives (which one would assume of taken by force).  It would seem then that they likely came of their own accord.  There are numerous references in his diary to encounters with people who come to the ship to trade and then return to the land.  When the crew brought one native on a ship by force after he refused to climb aboard, Columbus went out of his way to give the man several gifts and to return him to his canoe in order to avoid any hard feelings.  If he was making efforts to remain on good terms with the natives, it seems unlikely he would have several of them simply stored as kidnap victims in his hold.

So while Columbus' first visit seems to have been rather peaceful, there are ominous comments throughout his diary that he is thinking about where to place forts and how the locals might be brought under his authority.

Columbus returned to Spain with the natives, as well as many items received in trade.  Columbus had acquired some gold, which he turned over to the crown along with many new plants and animals, including tobacco.  These would encourage the King and Queen to support a second voyage.

The Second Voyage:

Whatever the unstated motives of his first voyage, the second voyage in 1493 seemed to be geared toward conquest.  Columbus led a fleet of 17 ships, which included over 1200 men.  They clearly planned to establish permanent colonies.  There would also be continued exploration as the expedition searched for mainland China and Japan as described by Marco Polo (Columbus never realized that he was still thousands of miles away from Asia).  Columbus remained in the area for almost three years, sending other ships back and forth across the Atlantic with additional supplies and information.

On his first Voyage, Columbus' largest ship, the Santa Maria, sank in a storm. Several dozen men were left in a makeshift fort to await the return of the next voyage.  By the time Columbus returned, the fort had been destroyed and all of the men killed.  Friendly natives indicated the men had stirred up local anger by forming parties to loot villages and kidnap women.  Columbus nevertheless went to war with the tribe he held responsible for the massacre.

Columbus was under instructions by the Spanish Crown, not to enslave the natives. But it was traditional to enslave those captured in war, if the enemy was not a Christian.  One might argue that these captured prisoners forced into service was a common practice all over the known world at the time.  Columbus captured men, women, and children from the tribe responsible and allowed his men to use them as servants.

If that was the extent of his actions, one might be willing to hold off on criticizing Columbus.  But pressure mounted to show economic returns for his expedition.  Not finding large amounts of gold or spices, Columbus had to do something.  Despite being denied several requests to enslave the natives, Columbus eventually did so anyway.  In 1495, his men rounded up roughly 1600 Arawak natives on Hispaniola and shipped 500 to Spain to be sold as slaves.  There is no evidence that these natives were anything but peaceful and friendly.  They were simply a convenient source of labor and something of value Columbus could send back to Spain. The Crown actually freed and returned some of these natives, but others ended up working as galley slaves for the Queen.

It gets worse.  Desperate to find gold, Columbus issues a decree to all the natives to present him with a small amount of gold every three months.  Those who complied were given a small copper medallion to wear around their necks.  Those without a medallion were considered criminals who could be executed on sight. The common practice was to cut off their hands and allow them to bleed to death.

When it became clear to the Spaniards that there simply was not enough gold to be presented, they started rounding up natives to serve as labor on large plantations.  Those who resisted were hanged or burned alive. Those who submitted often died quickly of disease or poor treatment.  Many natives committed suicide or killed their own children to prevent them from suffering a worse fate. Within two years, half of the native population estimated at around 250,000 were dead.  The remainder continued to die of so that by 1550, only 500 natives were still alive.  A census during the next century indicated every single Arawak had been wiped off the island.

Much of this policy began under Columbus, but continued after he returned to Spain in 1496, leaving his two brothers in control of his Spanish colonies.

Third Voyage:

Columbus does not seem to have been a very good administrator and did not seem to enjoy it very much. At heart, he seems to have enjoyed being at sea as an explorer.  His third voyage began in the spring of 1498 when he took six ships across the Atlantic.  He sent three of his ships back to the colony on Hispaniola. Columbus himself took his other three ships and began exploring other areas.  It was on this voyage that he first actually reached a new continent, South America.

He spent several months exploring the area, trading with the locals.  There does not appear to have been any instances of Columbus engaging in enslavement, war, or violence of any kind during this trip.  After several months, he finally returned to Hispaniola and took back control of the colony.

Based on complaints of mismanagement by colonists, Spain sent Francisco de Bobadilla to investigate the Columbus brothers.  Bobadilla was Spanish noble who had served the Crown with the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the recent war.  Some argue that he was biased against Columbus from the start, not happy that a foreigner and a commoner had been permitted to enter Spanish Nobility. Within days of his visit he had the Columbus brothers arrested, clapped in irons and shipped back to Spain. The fact that Columbus was arrested so quickly either means his maladministration was obvious, or that Bobadilla was biased against him from the start.  The fact that Bobadilla assumed the role of Governor after the arrest certainly gives a selfish motive for his actions.

Bobadilla filed a 48 page report of Columbus' actions as leader of the colony.  A copy of this document was apparently discovered a few years ago in the Spanish archives.  Unfortunately, it has not been digitized, transcribed, or translated as far as I can tell.  It would be interesting to see this original indictment of Columbus, but all I have seen so far are some very short summaries of the accusations against him.  As far as I can tell though, the reasons for arrest had nothing to do with treatment of natives.  It had to do with punishments and discipline taken against the Spanish colonists.  If one looks at nearly any early colony from any country, leaders often must make difficult and unpopular decisions for a variety of reasons.  They rarely seem to be loved by the colonists.  So this action by itself does not contribute to a necessarily negative view of Columbus.

Within weeks after Columbus' return to Spain, he received a royal pardon and had his property and honors restored to him, with one exception.  He was not permitted to reclaim the governorship of the Spanish colonies.  There was never a trial.  Columbus simply met with the King and Queen to discuss the situation. There are no known written records of the conversation.

During this stay in Spain, Columbus had drafted his Book of Privileges which describes in detail all of the honors and benefits he had been promised for his voyages.  It also includes the Papal decree granting Spain control over the Americas.  Since he seemed to be denied some of these promises, it appears he was creating a written record for himself and his family to keep what they had been promised.

Fourth Voyage:

Columbus left yet again for a fourth expedition in the spring of 1502.  He returned to a number of islands as well as the South and Central American coast.  He attempted to return to Hispaniola but the new Governor would not permit him to leave his ship.  He warned the local administration of a coming hurricane.  The Administration ignored Columbus and allowed a fleet of 24 treasure ships to start off toward Spain. The fleet included Bobadilla who had been recalled by the Crown.  Apparently his leadership was not appreciated either.  The fleet was destroyed in the storm.  Bobadilla drowned. Only one ship survived the storm. Ironically that ship was the one carrying Columbus' treasure and his personal effects.

Columbus protected his own ships by taking shelter in an estuary during the storm.  They received some damage but were still seaworthy. Columbus continued his exploration and interaction with natives.  There was no indication that he attempted to enslave, capture, or kill any natives as long as he was not attacked first.

Damage to the ships seemed to get worse as the travels continued.  It appears that they became infected with termites or some similar wood eating insects.  Columbus and his crew were forced to scuttle their sinking ships on Jamaica.  Columbus was able to trade for a canoe with local natives and sent two men to Hispaniola for help.  They arrived, but the Governor, the same one who denied Columbus the right to leave his ship while in harbor, refused to supply any rescue ships.

Columbus ended up spending over a year on Jamaica with his crew.  He as able to trade with the local natives for food and supplies.  Several of his crew mutinied, stole several canoes and began looting the locals.  Columbus continued to trade peacefully for what he needed.  But locals, either angry with the actions of the mutineers or simply out of greed, either stopped trading, or demanded ever larger prices for food.  Limited resources made things desperate.

Columbus resolved his problem through some trickery.  Aware that a lunar eclipse was due one night he summoned the local tribal leaders and told them that starving his crew would result in divine punishment.  As a sign of this punishment, the moon would turn blood red that night.  When the prediction came true, the Indians agreed the Columbus had a power or divine favor that could not be denied and continued to supply his crew.  The fact that Columbus tried to maintain a system of fair trade rather than going to war with the natives indicates he was not the blood thirsty conqueror that many critics contend.

After a year, the men sent originally to seek help in Hispaniola were able to charter ships on Columbus' credit and organize a rescue in the summer of 1504. A few months later, after some time to recover, Columbus returned to Spain.

Final Years:

Columbus spent his last years in Spain, suffering deeply from various ailments.  He focused more on religion, publishing a Book of Prophecies in 1505 which discussed his beliefs of events that still needed to occur before the second coming of Jesus Christ.  He finally died in 1506.

Columbus Tomb in Seville, Spain
Once could argue that Columbus then had a fifth voyage.  In 1537, his bones and those of his son Diego were carried from Spain to Santo Domingo on Hispaniola where they were interred in a new Cathedral.  When Spain ceded Hispaniola to France in 1795. Columbus' remains were moved to Havana, Cuba. In 1898, during the Spanish American War, Columbus' remains were returned to Spain to be interred in the Cathedral in Seville.  There is some debate about whether the Spanish took the right body in 1795, so it is possible his body remains in the Dominican Republic.

Spain went to war with the United States, and the remains were sent back to Spain lest they fall to the Americans. Thus ended Columbus' fifth round-trip journey to the New World…or so it seemed.

Columbus' sons brought several legal actions against the Spanish Crown for the promised power and money that they had agreed to provide his descendants.  But the King of Spain simply would not hand over 10% of all revenues from the Western Hemisphere in perpetuity to one family.  Litigation over the matter continue for centuries, with a final settlement reached in 1790.


Columbus appears to have engaged in behavior considered deplorable by today's standards.  His discovery of lands in the Western Hemisphere began several centuries of Spanish domination, enslavement, and cruelty as Spain shipped much of the wealth of the Americas back home.  It also destroyed indigenous cultures and attempted to blot out their history.

Spain did not bring slavery to the Americas.  Native tribes already enslaved each other.  Indeed, Spanish domination would have been impossible if they had not been able to play warring tribes against one another. Spanish efforts to end human sacrifice and cannibalism are not exactly bad things. It is difficult, however, to justify cruel treatment of natives, as well as the subsequent importation of African slaves for further exploitation.

Many criticisms of Columbus are based on the work of Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish Priest who advocated for greater native rights.  He first arrived in the New World in 1502, several years after Columbus had been ousted as Governor.  At first, he participated in the exploitation of the natives but later became a critic of Spanish methods and abuse of the natives.  But the observations of de las Casas took place after Columbus was removed.  If anything, this shows that abuses remained the same or possibly became worse after Columbus was removed from power.

Much of the blame leveled at Columbus shortly after his death was an attempt to minimize is accomplishments and maximize his failures.  This story line was encouraged by the Spanish Crown as it continued to litigate the Columbus' descendants over their claims to wealth and power resulting from the discovery.

Columbus' short rule in Hispaniola seems to have set a poor precedent for treatment of the native population.  How much of this was initiated by Columbus and how much was simply tolerated as the result of the actions of others and which Columbus could not completely control, seems to be a matter of ongoing debate.  It also seems that Columbus was never comfortable as a Governor, but was most comfortable in his role as explorer and seafarer.

There is no question that Columbus' discovery changed both sides of the globe in a very real and permanent way.  It seems unfair, however, to praise or blame one man for the many events, both good and bad, that took place afterward.  It was a combination of Columbus' skill as a sea captain, daring as a man, and sheer luck that he discovered the Americas.  There is, however, no doubt that he succeeded where many before had failed, and that his discovery changed the course of the world forever.

Further Reading:

There are a number of good online resources about Columbus.  Here are a few that I have found interesting: - an interesting theory that Columbus' desire for wealth stemmed from a desire to launch a new crusade to recover the Holy Lands from the Muslims.

Listen to the Podcast of this Episode

No comments:

Post a Comment