Columbus – Rediscovered?
This year has been called the Year of Columbus, in memory of the man who accidentally stumbled upon America 500 years ago. The actual date of his arrival was October 12, and anniversary celebrations will climax on that date. Preparations are everywhere in full swing, and memorial books, essays, and articles on Columbus's voyage have been appearing for a number of years already. With this series we join in remembering the 15th-century explorer. I will begin with a look at contemporary evaluations of Columbus.
Uses of the Past
Writings inspired by this year's Columbus-anniversary are of various kinds. Some authors obviously have as their aim to add to our understanding of what happened 500 years ago, both in western Europe and in the Americas. Others appear less interested in understanding the past than in trying to see how it influenced the present. Most of these authors are not dispassionate observers, but people who are motivated by an intense involvement in present-day issues. They tend to judge Columbus and his contemporaries according to one standard: was what they did in accord with whatever cause the author is promoting, or not?
As often as not that question is answered in the negative. Why this is so tells us as much about our own times as about those of Columbus. As a 19th-century historian said: All history is contemporary history. He meant that we turn to history not first of all for the sake of the past, but because of contemporary concerns. Sometimes we approach the past with respect, believing that it has left us a goodly inheritance, and even asking it to provide answers for present-day problems. At other times the opposite happens: the past is despised and blamed for today's difficulties, and is studied mainly to provide examples that must at all costs be avoided. The second attitude is prevalent in our days, and it characterizes many of the contemporary accounts of Columbus and his work.
One important reason is no doubt the declining self-confidence of the western world; especially its embarrassment at having colonized and dominated the rest of the globe. Previous Columbus-anniversaries were celebrated in (to use as modern term) Eurocentric times. Western Europeans, with their American cousins, were proud of Columbus. They believed that his discovery of America had been for the good of all humanity (although especially for that of Europeans and white Americans), and they tended to treat him as a hero. Unfortunately for Columbus, his quincentennial falls in a period when Eurocentrism is politically incorrect. Instead of being praised for opening up the ocean blue and preparing the way for European colonialism around the globe, he is now blamed for it. And that not just by non-westerners, but by a large number of Europeans and (white) Americans as well.
Columbus's crime is not only that he helped inaugurate the modern age of European expansion and global dominance. In the eyes of many of his detractors he is simply the prototype of the much-despised "dead white European male," which means that he personifies most other kinds of western traditions and habits that are now very much under attack. They include the western feelings of racial and cultural superiority, the West's militarism and imperialism, its tradition of exploiting the environment, and so on. As far as Columbus's impact on the Americas is concerned, he is accused of bringing the horrors of war to peaceful nations, of destroying advanced aboriginal cultures, of genocide (the extinction of entire Indian tribes), of "ecocide" (the despoliation of the environment), of mass-murder, exploitation, cruelty and greed, and, to mention no more, of introducing the horrors of imperialism and slavery to the western hemisphere.
Worse than Hitler?
Some of the accusations I quoted above are found in a resolution passed in 1990 by the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A. This resolution states that, from the point of view of the "descendants of the survivors" of the Columbian invasion, a celebration of the quincentennial is inappropriate. According to The United Church Observer, Canada's largest protestant church is in agreement. So, apparently, are other mainline protestant churches, both in North and in Latin America.
The case is less clear-cut with the Roman Catholic church. Some liberal churchmen and church members agree with the condemnation of Columbus, but the church as a whole does not. For Rome Columbus has always been a hero, who spread the faith beyond the Atlantic ocean. For that reason Pius IX (who was pope from 1846 to 1878) considered declaring him a saint. American bishops have made it clear that they will celebrate the quincentenary, giving as the main reason that the discovery of America aided the expansion of Christianity, and that it brought to the peoples of the western hemisphere "the gift of the Christian faith with its power of humanity and salvation, dignity and fraternity justice and love."
Hispanic Americans, anxious for an opportunity to stress the glories of Hispanic culture in America; also say good words about Columbus, and an executive director of a Hispanic Catholic Centre has called the statement of the National Council of Churches a "racist depreciation of the heritage of most of today's American peoples, especially Hispanic."
But these admirers are over-shouted by the critics. And the protestant churchmen I just mentioned are by no means the only anti-Columbians. They are joined by ecologists, anti-imperialists, globalists, leftists of all possible descriptions, as well as native and black Americans. Some of these people are considerably more outspoken than the churchmen. Well-known is the remark by the native American activist Russell Means that Columbus "makes Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent." Hans Koning, author of a recent biography on Columbus, made a similar comparison when he declared that from an Indian point of view Columbus was "worse than Atilla the Hun." Still others have spoken of Columbus's "rape of America," and one columnist called the American conquest "an eternal reproach to human arrogance."
In Defence of Columbus
These are samples of negative judgments. There are positive ones as well. I already mentioned Roman Catholic churchmen and Hispanic Americans. They are supported by several non-Roman Catholic and non-Hispanic authors, many of them conservatives. Most of these authors will agree that the discovery of America was accompanied and followed by a great deal of destruction and exploitation, and that there is indeed much to censure, especially with respect to the treatment of aborigines. They disagree, however, with the verdict of the Columbus-bashers on a number of important points.
One of these is that in a sense Columbus merely happened to be the right man at the right time. In his days western Europe was bursting at the seams and sailors were exploring everywhere. In 1487, for example, five years before Columbus sailed, Bartholomew Diaz had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama would open the sea-route to India. The voyages of Cabot, Cortez, Magellan (the first one to sail around the world), Pizarro, Cartier, and others would follow shortly, well before the middle of the 16th century. If Columbus had not discovered America, someone else would have done it. Considering the American land mass, it would have been impossible to avoid it. So why blame Columbus, they say, for bringing Europe to America? If judgment indeed must be passed, would it not be better to blame the times? Or the Europeans collectively?
In the second place, Columbus's defenders argue, it is unfair to blame Columbus for all the wrongs committed by his civilization, and unhistorical to judge him according to late 20th-century standards. He was a man of his times. These times glorified conquest, imperialism, and most of the other evils associated with the Columbian invasion. It is equally unhistorical, they add, to portray pre-Columbian America as an idyllic, peaceful, egalitarian society, a kind of unspoiled and harmonious paradise. Although there were peaceful societies, native Americans did not live in an age of innocence, any more than Europeans did. Some pre-Columbian tribes were known for their militarism, empire-building, elitism, genocide (the extinction or forcible assimilation of other tribes), the custom of slavery, and in certain cases, cannibalism. Some of them also engaged in ritual torture and in large-scale human sacrifice.
Still a third argument is that the record of Columbus and of the European colonizers was not all black. Although Columbus was certainly motivated by thirst for gold and glory, it is now known (thanks to a new translation of the Book of Prophesies which he wrote in 1502) that he also saw it as his task to bring the gospel to the new world. So did at least some of the colonists and of the clergy who accompanied or followed him. Efforts were also made to protect the natives against ill-treatment by Europeans. A well-known case is that of the 16-century Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas, the man who defended the rights of the Indians and violently denounced the evils brought to the Americas by the Spanish conquerors. European traditions such as the belief in freedom and democracy, and the western respect for life and for the rights of the individual, are mentioned as other benefits the European conquest brought to the Americas.
Who is Right?
The defenders of Columbus are no doubt right on several points. Columbus ought not to be judged according to present-day standards, and a distinction must indeed be made between his own acts and those of his successors. They are also correct in stating that it won't do to paint the Europeans all black, and the Indians lily-white. To list the evils that were present in aboriginal societies is not to excuse the crimes perpetrated by the Europeans, but it does show that evidence of "man's inhumanity to man" is not found among Europeans only. It is a worldwide phenomenon, for it is a consequence of mankind's fall into sin. The Indians are part of mankind and share in its sin.
As to the missionary and civilizing efforts of the Spanish, while they may not always have been successful, sincere efforts were nevertheless made to look after both the material and the spiritual wellbeing of the natives. And there is no need to apologize for the attempts to Christianize the natives, as is so often done nowadays. As Jack Kapica, the religion reporter of The Globe, pointed out in a column some months ago, the gospels say nothing about leaving aboriginal religions undisturbed. Christians who prefer dialogue to proclamation should take notice!
All this does not mean that the other side ought to be ignored. They, too, make valid points. It remains true that, in spite of the efforts of many individuals, natives in both Latin and North America have been shamefully treated, and even now the consequences of their repression and neglect are painfully evident. The solution to their problem will not, however, come by ignoring history. What has happened cannot be undone. And the celebrations may as well go forward: Columbus's achievements are not only negative, not even for the natives.
But these celebrations should serve to bring renewed attention to the natives' plight, and to their needs. Also among Reformed Christians. It should not just be the mainline churches that speak for them. To quote Jack Kapica once more, the problem these churches have with Columbus and his legacy is more cultural than religious, more political than spiritual. And that is not good enough.