Monday, October 10, 2011

What are the lessons to learn from Columbus?

Was Columbus a hero or a villain?  

We all know that Columbus' legacy is a controversial one.  Many history books have painted him as an intrepid explorer and overlooked the facts that would paint him in a negative light.  Some Columbus scholars have admitted that he encited a devastating genocide, but dedicated no more than a sentence to that fact (see, for example, Samuel Eliot Morison).  

So which is it--was Columbus a hero or a villain?  And how do we decide?  One thing that would be important to determine is what Columbus himself thought he was doing.  Perhaps he was trying to do good.  Perhaps he did not mean to exploit and kill all those natives...maybe it was his lower officers that took things into their own hands and got out of control.  

Fortunately, we have Columbus' log, as well as the log of several of his viceroys, and so we can find some answers to this question.  This, for example, is what Columbus wrote about his first encounter with the natives:

They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... . They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Well, he pretty much just comes out and says that he is intentionally subjugating them and making them do whatever they wanted.  And, also according to Columbus' own words, they wanted them for two things: gold and slavery.  So he took many as slaves and set everyone else to the grueling work of looking for gold where there wasn't any to write home about.   The working conditions for finding the gold were miserable, and the penalty for not meeting one's gold quota was chopping off the hands and bleeding them to death.  

The situation was written about extensively by one of Columbus' appointed governors, Bartolome de las Casas, a young priest who initially took part in the conquest and held slaves and such, but became disgusted by the cruelty of the Spaniards.  Here he describes the working conditions for the Arawaks faced under Columbus' rule:

Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides ... they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation.... in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . .. and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile ... was depopulated. ... My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write. ...

When Las Casas arrived in the Bahamas in 1508 he documented the unbelievable scale of the devastation:

"there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it...."

And so the question of whether Columbus' behavior was villainous seems pretty settled, based on his own writings as well as accounts from his officers.  What is not yet settled, for me at least, is how Columbus justified his behavior to himself.  With his reports to the King and Queen of Spain he could talk of subjugation without needing to explain how that is a good thing.  But what was going through his head when he went to sleep each night?  Was there any recognition of the evil actions let alone remorse?  Did he think he was being a hero?  Did he, as a devout Christian, think he was saving the souls of these natives?  If so, did he somehow twist this reasoning to render his maniacal methods as somehow forgivable, even noble?  Is there a way we can ever find this out?

I don't know the answer to these questions, perhaps nobody does and nobody ever will; but I think it is an extremely important set of questions with which to struggle.  You see, Columbus is not the only instance of such a horrible turbulence between two cultures as they newly meet.  If anything, subjugation and genocide seem to be the norm of two intersecting cultures, especially in the Americas.  The same sort of despicable treatment of human beings, from slavery to torture and genocide, accompanied the missions of Cortes in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, and English settlers in English Settlers in Virginia and Massachusetts with the Powhatans and Pequots.

The lessons we learn (or do not) from such conquests could make or break the survival of the Earth, if extraterrestrial beings ever pay us a visit.  Is there a way for two cultures to intersect and mutually reinforce each other, or is war and death the only inevitable outcome?  Or maybe we will one day venture out to the stars, and we could end up being Avatars, i.e., Columbus 2.0.  These are big IF's, of course, but I think it is worth thinking about how we might do things better next time, whichever end of the ordeal we end up on.

Columbus apparently went down a slippery slope, thinking it his spiritual duty to convert these natives and save their souls, which let him to thinking, how better to convert people than by the club, and what makes a better club than a sword?  By turning to the sword, Columbus ultimately succumbed to blind and arrogant self-righteousness which nothing--not the absence of gold nor the decemation of an entire people--could snap him out of.  Let's learn to avoid this in the future, what do you say, fellow humans?

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