I was first exposed to an alternative history of Christopher Columbus, who we celebrate this Monday, reading Marxist historian Howard Zinn’s epochal A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present.
“When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure — there is no bloodshed — and Columbus Day is a celebration,” Zinn wrote at a time when Columbus was still widely honored. Yet Columbus, declared Zinn, was responsible for “conquest, slavery, and death.” Moreover, “to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves — unwittingly — to justify what was done.”
Now high school and university students across the nation read Zinn, a critic of American Christianity, capitalism, and republicanism. That explains much of the opprobrium an entire generation feels toward Columbus, who, we are told, is no hero but a racist imperialist responsible for the deaths of millions of indigenous Americans.
Many states and cities — including the District of Columbia, ironically — do not celebrate Columbus Day but Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Should we cast the honoring of “Columbus the colonizer,” like so much else, into the dustbin of our national collective memory, as Zinn urged? Not so fast, I would plead. Indeed, I’d argue the 15th-century Genoese sailor accomplished more than his detractors ever will.
Columbus Sailed for Christianity
What motivated Columbus, explains Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1942 book Admiral of the Ocean Sea, was not gold but Christianity. Columbus, sober, moderate, and deeply pious, wanted wealth to fund further crusades to stem the advances of the aggressive Ottoman Empire that had conquered Constantinople two years after he was born. Columbus possessed great strength. In 1476, after an enemy war fleet sunk a ship he was on, the young, wounded sailor grabbed some wreckage and swam six miles to shore.
Columbus, contrary to what is still taught and assumed by many Americans, did not need to persuade people that the world was round. Almost every educated European in the late 15th century believed the world was round, as had Greeks since before Christ.
Rather, the problem for the Genoese navigator was persuading skeptical court officials that the Earth was small enough to arrive in China and Japan by sailing out into the Atlantic — something he only achieved by grossly miscalculating the circumference of the Earth. Amusingly, Columbus’ skeptical critics were right. If there were no giant land mass between Europe and the Far East, Columbus’ 15th-century vessels never would have made it to “the Indies.”
A Mission of Discovery, Not Conquest
That Columbus would even attempt such an enterprise was original and bold. Yet he had reasons to be hopeful. When he visited the Azores, islands far out into the Atlantic recently colonized by the Portuguese, he learned of carved driftwood and dead bodies of non-Europeans washing up on the shores. Something, he conjectured, was not far away.
But it took Columbus multiple pitches to different royal households before he finally secured Spain’s support for his venture. His three famous ships, Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, were strong seagoing vessels but not equipped (or manned) for conquest, only discovery.
Columbus maintained detailed records of the entire trip, encompassing about 98 percent of the information we possess about the first European encounter with the New World since the failed 11th-century Viking colony in Newfoundland. And Morison, based on his own 1939 trans-Atlantic voyage mimicking that journal, argues no one could have possibly faked the document given its precision. Thus we know an incredible amount about how Columbus permanently linked the Eastern and Western Hemispheres and their civilizations.
Columbus’ Friendly Relations with the Indigenous
Columbus’ first interaction with the native peoples of the Caribbean was entirely positive. “I knew that they were a people who could better be freed and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force,” he wrote.
Some of the natives, he observed, had marks on their bodies, made by the inhabitants of nearby islands who sought to enslave them. Columbus ordered that his men treat these people, the Taino, with respect. The Caribs periodically attacked and enslaved the Taino (though we also know that the Taino had themselves conquered an earlier group, possibly the Guanahatabey).
Other natives he met on that first voyage had gold, but Columbus refused to take it by force. “Unfortunately,” notes Morison, “the Admiral’s kindly acts to the Indians only rendered them less prepared to cope with the kidnappers who followed him. The next Spaniard that came to these parts was Alonso de Ojeda on a slaving raid.”
That said, Columbus did view indigenous peoples as inferiors. Though we may wince or wag our fingers at that sentiment for its bigotry, it is unsurprising. All the indigenous civilizations Columbus met over four voyages were incredibly rudimentary in comparison to Europeans. These were people without a written language, little interest in technological advancement, and incapable of traveling large distances even within their own Caribbean backyard.
Indigenous Relations Deteriorate
And the indigenous inhabitants, far from being innocent “noble savages,” were quite capable of their own cruelties. Caribs on some islands engaged in slavery and cannibalism. On his second voyage, Columbus’ men “found large cuts and joints of human flesh, shin bones set aside to make arrows of, caponized Arawak boy captives who were being fattened by the griddle, and girl captives who were mainly used to produce babies, which the Caribs regarded as a particularly toothsome morsel.” In response, Columbus sought to destroy Carib canoes to stop slaving raids against the Arawaks.
At the end of his second voyage, Columbus’ treatment of indigenous peoples worsened. Columbus was presented with an acute problem: The Spanish crown had given him a huge fleet to explore the West Indies, and it expected a significant return on its investment. If Columbus did not return with some wealth, he would be derided as a failure, and support would dry up.
Thus Hispaniola, the first permanent Spanish settlement, developed a harsh disciplinary system to force indigenous peoples to deliver gold or cotton or suffer increasingly harsh punishment. “The system was irrational, most burdensome, impossible, intolerable, and abominable,” writes Morison. It may not have been Columbus’ idea, but he nevertheless bears responsibility for the tragedy. Within 60 years, approximately 300,000 natives died from a combination of cruel exploitation, murder, and exposure to European diseases.
Celebrate Columbus as an Inspiration and a Warning
Columbus’ later voyages were also remarkable missions of discovery in their own right (on the third he landed on the South American continent), though none identified his greatest desire: a sea route to Asia. Frustrated and increasingly disgraced among his peers, Columbus in his final years stubbornly refused to admit he had failed in that mission. His death provoked little public comment or memorials, and it would take many years before anyone would celebrate him.
Today, critics accuse Columbus of the kinds of evil, such as genocide, that place him alongside the worst criminals in history. The charges are inaccurate and unfair. Columbus’ own journal entries clearly prove his respect for the indigenous peoples he encountered. The grave mistreatment he eventually permitted against them was motivated not by hatred, but ignorance (stupidly presuming the natives would deliver gold if properly incentivized) and fear and threats to his own credibility.
That, of course, doesn’t excuse his behavior. But Columbus was no genocidal sociopath; he was an ambitious, expert explorer disastrously incapable of governance, whose poor decisions had consequences he could hardly have predicted.
We honor Columbus not for the calamitous mistakes he made, which resulted in the destruction of a Caribbean culture, but for having the imagination and tenacity to venture into the unknown and introduce two distant civilizations to one another.
We can also learn from his failures, recognizing that we are just as capable of allowing our ambitions and fears to justify our abuse and exploitation of others. Perhaps the ones most in need of learning that lesson are the ones most eager to extirpate him from our public memorialization.