Statues of historical characters have become the focus of controversy in recent months. While statues of Confederate generals were the initial focus, statues of Christopher Columbus have also been targeted. This Columbus Day will again draw ample criticism from Columbus detractors for whom the discoverer has become a symbol for oppression and genocide. In all the vitriol, there will not be much interest or mention of intellectually honest historical analysis or discussion.
Not to say that there will not be ample references to historical material. Dylan Matthews, writing for Vox, lists “9 Reasons why Columbus was a Murderer, Tyrant, and Scoundrel.” Every reference he makes is to a modern secondary source, Columbus: the Four Voyages, by Laurence Bergreen, which is largely a retelling of previous modern publications. Matthews, citing Bergreen citing Columbus, includes this comment:
Settlers under Columbus sold 9- and 10-year-old girls into sexual slavery
This one he admitted himself in a letter to Doña Juana de la Torre, a friend of the Spanish queen: “There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.”
This is an accurate quote, but it is inaccurate – and intellectually dishonest – to suggest that Columbus condoned such behavior. The sentence is excerpted out of context from a portion of a letter in which Columbus is lamenting the terrible evils being perpetuated by the Spanish settlers. Here is the quote in context:
A hundred castellanos 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, and for all ages a good price must be paid. I assert that the violence of the calumny of turbulent persons has injured me more than my services have profited me; which is a bad example for the present and for the future. I take my oath that a number of men have gone to the Indies who did not deserve water in the sight of God and of the world. (1)
In 1504, writing from Jamaica, Columbus lamented, “I never think of Hispaniola or Paria or these other countries without tears in my eyes. I thought that our settlement there would be an example to others. But on the contrary, they are in a state of exhaustion.” (2)
In December of that year he wrote to his son, “The Indies are being lost, they are in a thousand flames.” (3) Eighteen months later, the Admiral died, still discouraged over the depredations of the Spaniards in the New World.
Much of what you read or hear about the cruelty of the early Spanish settlers this Columbus Day may be true, but very little of it is true about Columbus personally. The most serious accusation against Columbus is that, during the brief period he served as governor in Hispaniola, he failed to control the greed and cruelty of the early settlers. He was a master mariner, but a poor administrator on land. Nevertheless, as the contemporary historian Las Casas observed, even “the Archangel Gabriel would have been hard put to govern people as greedy, selfish, and egotistical as the early settlers of Hispaniola.” (4) In fact, Columbus’s successors as governor did not fare much better as governors, and they were certainly more cruel. The contemporary historian Oviedo wrote that any early governor of Hispaniola, “to succeed, must be superhuman.” (5) Neither Columbus nor his successors were superhuman, and a great deal of destruction resulted from the inability to govern the early settlers.
In all of the argument and polemics about Columbus this Columbus Day it is easy to lose sight of the tremendous impact he had on the world. As the historian Samuel Eliot Morison observed, “This night of October 11-12 was one big with destiny for the human race, the most momentous ever experienced aboard any ship in any sea.” October 12, 1492, marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age. One would be hard pressed to find any other single historical person of the past 2000 years who has had such a dramatic effect on world history and civilization. Perhaps for that reason alone, we should take a few minutes this Columbus Day to reflect, honestly and dispassionately, upon the life and achievements of Christoper Columbus. For better or for worse, we live in a world that in large measure was created by his daring voyage of 1492.
(1) Consuelo Varela and Juan Gil, Cristóbal Colón, Textos y documentos completos, Alianza Editorial, Madrid (2003), p. 434. Translation from “Letter of Columbus to the Nurse of Prince Juan,” Document No. AJ-067, Wisconsin Historical Society (2003), p. 378. The letter was written in 1500.
(2) Varela and Gil, p. 499.
(3) Varela and Gil, p. 512.
(4) Morison, The Southern Voyages, p. 135.
(5) West and Kling, Libro de la Profecías, p. 105.