Friday, September 30, 2011

Judging Columbus


In his journal entry of October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus wrote:

“The people here …are friendly and well-dispositioned… who bear no arms except for small spears and they have no iron… I want the natives to develop a friendly attitude towards us because I know they are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Catholic Faith more by love than by force. I therefore gave red caps to some and glass beads to others. They hung the beads around their necks …And they took great pleasure in this and became so friendly that it was a marvel. They traded and gave everything they had with good will, but it seems to me they have very little and are poor in everything. I warned my men to take nothing from the people without giving something in exchange.”

In 1510, Anton Montesino, a Dominican friar, preached a sermon at the main church in Santo Domingo. Many of the main empire builders of New Spain were in the congregation that morning, including Diego Colon, the royal governor—Columbus’s own son. The sermon had been written jointly by Montesino and the other members of his Dominican community:

“Your greed for gold is blind,” Father Montesino declared. “Your pride, your lust, your anger, your envy, your sloth, all blind… You are in mortal sin. And you are heading for damnation… For you are destroying an innocent people. They are God’s people, these innocents, whom you have destroyed. By what right do you make them die? Mining gold for you in your mines or working for you in your fields, by what right do you unleash enslaving wars upon them? They lived in peace in this land before you came, in peace in their own homes. They did nothing to harm you, to cause you to slaughter them wholesale… Are you not under God’s command to love them as you love yourselves? Are you not out of your souls, out of your minds? Yes. And that will bring you damnation.

 A Cherokee poet named Jimmie Durham has written:

In school I was taught the names
Columbus, Cortez, and Pizzaro and
A dozen other filthy murderers…

No one mentioned the names
Of even a few of the victims.
But don't you remember Chaske, whose spine
Was crushed so quickly by Mr. Pizzaro's boot?
What words did he cry into the dust?

What was the familiar name
Of that young girl who danced so gracefully
That everyone in the village sang with her--
Before Cortez' sword hacked off her arms
As she protested the burning of her sweetheart?

That young man's name was Many Deeds,
And he had been a leader of a band of fighters
Called the Redstick Hummingbirds, who slowed
The march of Cortez' army with only a few
Spears and stones which now lay still
In the mountains and remember.

Greenrock Woman was the name
Of that old lady who walked right up
And spat in Columbus' face. We
Must remember that, and remember
Laughing Otter the Taino who tried to stop
Columbus and who was taken away as a slave.
We never saw him again.

In school I learned of heroic discoveries
Made by liars and crooks. The courage
Of millions of sweet and true people
Was not commemorated…

It used to be so easy. We knew what our history was. We knew who our heroes were. And we just went along with it.

But then, we realized that other peoples had different stories, different histories. The price of freedom in this postmodern age means trying to see things from all available perspectives. It means collecting all the data and listening to all the evidence, and trying to come to some more truthful view of reality.

Of course, the “real story” about Columbus and those who came after him was never too far beneath the surface. Historians always had “the facts”. It is just difficult to fathom, perhaps, why it took the rest of us so long to discover them. What, exactly, do these “facts” tell us? What did Columbus wrought among the native peoples of the Western hemisphere? It is a sad litany which, I’m afraid, bears repeating every year as we approach Columbus Day:

It is estimated that there were between 75 million and 80 million inhabitants of what came to be called the Americas in the year 1492, just before Columbus landed. By 1550, the native population stood at just 10 million. In Mexico, the population on the eve of the European conquest stood at 25 million; by 1600, only 1 million people remained. The population of Santo Domingo in 1492 was somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million; by 1530, only 10,000 of the native people were left. In 1492, the population of Cuba stood at 600,000 inhabitants; by 1570, only 270 households remained.

This historical data reveals a genocide of unimaginable proportions—beyond a doubt, the most wide scale genocide in the history of human “civilization”. Of course, not all of those killed were slaughtered by the Spanish conquistadors. The major causes of the destruction of the native populations of the West Indies were disease and famine. By 1496, the limited surplus food supplies of the Taino people of Hispaniola, whom Columbus himself governed, were depleted and the native population was surviving largely by eating immature sweet potato and manioc tubers. By the next year, the native people of San Salvador were in the midst of a major famine, and demographers estimate that the population declined at annual rates exceeding 30% for almost the next decade.

The Spanish conquistadors

But it wasn’t just these “acts of God” (if you really want to call them that) like famine and disease that took their toll. From its very start, European subjugation of the New World was marked by severe and blatant cruelty and abuse. Of his first meeting with the natives, Columbus wrote of converting the native peoples he saw “more by love than by force”. But then, by October 14, Columbus was writing: “With but fifty men, you could subject every person in San Salvador, and make them do what you wished.” Columbus’ “holy intentions” lasted all of two days! So much for operating “more by love than by force”!

The rest of the sad story emerges clearly enough: On his second journey to Hispaniola between 1495 and 1496, Columbus himself initiated the wide-scale shipment of Caribs, Arawaks, and other native peoples to be sold in Spain as slaves. Those of the “well-formed and handsome people” who remained in the West Indies became nothing more than slaves in their own land.

Columbus also just knew—in the way only a fanatic can know something-- that there were large caches of gold on the islands of the West Indies, just waiting to be mined. Even when it became obvious that there was relatively little gold there, the Indians were pushed harder and harder to find gold—find gold! Each man and woman was given a hawk shell, ordinarily a small ball tied to the foot of a trained falcon. It was their “duty” to fill this hawk shell with gold every three months, and give it to their Spanish masters. Those who failed to meet this quota would have their fingers or hands cut off, and would often be left simply to bleed to death.

This was the reign of terror that Columbus enforced—all force and no love; all for greed, devoid of all humanity and compassion.

Of course, Columbus was just a man of his time. That is what people say, over and over, in his defense: “He was just a man of his time.” But he wasn’t the only man of his time. There was also a Dominican friar named Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas lived at the very same time as Columbus; indeed, the two were close personal friends—for a while. It was Las Casas who transcribed the accounts of Columbus’s first voyage. On the second voyage in 1495, Las Casas returned to the New World with Columbus, and here he would spend the remainder of his life, until his death in 1567.

In time, Las Casas rose to the position of bishop of the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. There, he became known as the apostle to the Indies, protector of the Indians, and friend of the poor. In spite of his former friendship with Columbus, Las Casas would not remain silent in the face of the injustice and oppression he witnessed. He wrote volumes about the terrible crimes he saw committed in the name of Spain and the Christian Church. Largely because of his work, Spain eventually (far too late) adopted a more humane policy toward the native peoples. Faced with what his own eyes could see, Las Casas made his choice—a far different choice than that made by Columbus.

Nor was Las Casas alone (he in a distinct minority certainly, but he was not alone). There were other voices crying out to Columbus and those who followed him to stop the mayhem, to stop the killing and torture and mass exploitation of innocent people.

Another voice in the wilderness was Montesino, the Dominican friar we heard from earlier: “Your greed for gold is blind,” Father Montesino declared. “Your pride, your lust, your anger, your envy, your sloth, all blind… You are in mortal sin. And you are heading for damnation… For you are destroying an innocent people.”

Remember that all the “big wigs” of Hispaniola were was right there in the congregation as Montesino spoke these words. That’s brave. Montesino, too, was a “man of his time”—and he, too, saw the evil which Columbus had wrought—and he, too, chose not to remain silent. He, and Las Casas, and there were others as well, saw what was going on. And Columbus saw it, too. He wasn’t just flotsam and jetsam tossed about by great historical currents over which he had no control. To the contrary, Columbus was an active agent in history. We all are. He was, in fact, probably less hindered by the hand of the past than any other major character in Western civilization. He had the chance to choose, consciously, the course his journey would take. After coming ashore on an island he named Isabella, Columbus had written in his journal:

“It is one of the most beautiful islands I have ever seen… You can even smell the flowers as you approach this coast; it is the most fragrant [place] on earth. The song of the little birds might make a man never wish to leave here. The flock of parrots that darken the sun and the large and small birds of so many species are so different from our own that it is a wonder.”

If only Columbus had listened to the birds, and stayed to smell the flowers, and then glimpsed the deeper wonder—the wonderful humanity—of the people around him so different from his own…

But he didn’t. Columbus chose not to. And so, he must be judged by history.

“History is the record written by victors,” Hannah Arendt once wrote. But history is not necessarily written in indelible ink. In this postmodern world, the winds of change scatter once mighty myths into a million fragments. Heroes are now villains—and one regime’s villains become the next generation’s heroes.

But life isn’t about things being easy, and neither is history. Not in the lives of us as individuals, nor in the lives of nations and civilizations.

Ultimately, of course, more important than the choice Columbus made are the choices we make. Do we ultimately decide to treat other people—or other peoples, other nations-- as mere stepping stones to what we want-- or do we seek to live with them in peace and harmony. I pray that we, too, are people on a long voyage to a New World: a journey away from centuries of conquest, genocide, slavery, exploitation, oppression, and racism, toward a time of turning, healing, reconciliation, and redirection.

History is not an easy journey, and it has been a rough voyage sometimes. May we take up the shattered fragments of the old myths and weave from them, instead, a new view of reality, a new picture of our history. Knowing our history is the first step on the road to transforming society, and changing the world.

Columbus made his choice. Now we must make ours.

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