Letter to the editor
When I first read Mr. Newkirk’s piece, I thought it was a troll. It drips with the unwarranted smugness of conservative pundits like Ben Shapiro. It loudly proclaims its ignorance of the subject, while at the same time denouncing its critics as “historically illiterate,” and parades opinions as fact. The author spends quite a bit of time rambling about…identity politics? I’m not sure what he was trying to do in the introduction, aside from hit all the right right-wing keywords to maximize his appearance in search results. Perhaps it’s an attempt to “trigger” the audience? I am embarrassed that the Spectrum would run such clickbaity garbage, even under the guise of an opinion piece. Initially when I saw the tweet asking for responses to the piece, I felt it was best ignored, as Mr. Newkirk is clearly looking for attention, but the historian in me will not let gross inaccuracies parade itself as historical fact.
History is much messier than anyone would like to admit, and attitudes toward what is and isn’t acceptable change with the times. Things that we don’t think twice about will be considered despicable by our descendants. However, even by the standards of the 15th century, Columbus was considered monstrous. He was motivated by greed, not any sense of love or even paternalism for the inhabitants of the Caribbean. This isn’t a moral gray area on par with FDR or MLK cheating on their wives, this is a man who came to the new world looking for a quick passage to Asia, was greeted by a people with weapons no more sophisticated than spears, and exploited them for he could once he discovered gold. When the Spanish monarchy were informed of what was going on in their new colonies, he would be brought back in chains, then forgotten for the next 300 years.
Yes, 300 years. Columbus Day is a recent holiday, becoming official in 1971, thanks to the relentless lobbying of The Knights of Columbus. (NIAF). In the late 19th century, European immigrants poured into the United States, many of them Catholic. Viewed as an invading hoard, Catholics faced exclusion in this era because it was believed they were loyal to the Pope, not their country, and were part of a plan to destroy the Protestant American way of life (sound familiar?). Italians were stereotyped as dimwitted, lazy, and criminal, and faced intense discrimination. Looking to prove that both Catholics and especially Italians deserved to be here, they searched for a figure to prove their worth, and found it in Columbus. He was born in what is now Italy, the son of a wool weaver. In 1492, this son of a common man, would sail the ocean blue, discovering the new world, bringing both himself and Europe great riches. A perfect example of the American dream, the myth of Columbus was born. This rose colored myth that cast Columbus as the founder of our nation spread throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to Columbus Day becoming a national holiday in the early 1970s.
The concept of race as we understand it today didn’t exist in Columbus’ day, so it is true that he did not view the natives as racially inferior. However Europeans of this era, including Columbus, ascribed to a hierarchy that put European Christians at the top, and everyone else at the bottom. It would have been unthinkable to enslave a fellow Christian, even if he belonged to the wrong sect (Blackburn, 1997). Colonial writings about Native Americans, including those by Columbus and his men, emphasize their animalistic nature, even when praising their “human” aspects (Smedly and Smedly 2012). The idea that Columbus viewed them as equals is laughable. He wrote not of their potential to be fellow merchants or leaders, but servants (the man himself). This is not how one speaks of an equal, in 1492 or 2019.
Slavery was common during this period, but chattel slavery was unique to European colonies. In most societies slaves were prisoners of war, criminals, or paying off a debt to their owner. Their children were born free, and the slave could earn their freedom back. There were typically laws ensuring the humane treatment of slaves. It had more in common with the indentured servant system than what was practiced in Colonial America (Smedly and Smedly). Columbus was a cruel master, even by the standards of the day. He and his men murdered people for fun, raped women (Ripa, 1992), and doled out brutal, unwarranted punishments, such chopping off ears and noses, and in the case of a woman who suggested he was “of low birth” [a commoner], he paraded her around the village naked before cutting out her tongue (The Guardian, 2006). Slaves who did not meet their increasingly impossible quota for gold had their hands chopped off. The indigenous people of Hispaniola were pushed to mine gold above all else, leading to food shortages and making the overworked, malnourished people even more susceptible to the diseases brought by the Spanish (Stannard, 1993). When a group of Dominicans arrived in 1510 to help convert the people of the Caribbean to Christianity, as Columbus’ primary objective was supposed to be, they were horrified by what they saw, and immediately sent word home of the atrocities being committed by supposedly Christian men on behalf of Spain. (Riga). The Spanish monarchy had intended Columbus to spread the word of God, first and foremost, and enrich their kingdom second. Instead, he and his men ran wild on a people unable to properly fight back due to inferior weaponry and their susceptibility to diseases brought by their conquerors. When word got back to Spain of the atrocities being committed on Hispaniola, Columbus was immediately stripped of his governorship and recalled, brought home in the chains like an animal (The Guardian). While he would eventually be freed, he was barred from ever holding a position of power again. He would die in obscurity.
Finally, on the question of whether Columbus committed genocide, I think the UN’s definition of genocide provides the answer:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.