Today is the second Monday in October, so allow me to wish you a happy Columbus Day. Or, if you prefer, a happy Indigenous People's Day, which is how the annual commemoration has been rebranded in quite a few progressive precincts (like the one I live in).
You can argue all you like about the "War on Christmas," but this is the national holiday that really raises hackles. For decades, the idea of a holiday honoring the Admiral of the Ocean Sea — that was the title given to Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of Castile and Aragon, following his first voyage to the New World — has had its passionate defenders and equally passionate detractors. In the 1950s, the eminent Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison could write of Columbus that "his fame and reputation may be considered secure for all time." But that had changed a generation later, with the approach of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's 1492 journey to the Americas.
The Admiral of the Ocean Sea was a man of grievous flaws, but he was also a history-changing mariner of extraordinary valor and genius who propelled the human story forward as few men or women ever have.
Surveying the cultural landscape in 1991, the writer/critic Stephen Goode reported that the "Columbus Wars" were growing fierce:
On one side: Columbus's defenders, who consider him a mariner of extraordinary skill who brought his men across the Atlantic and discovered the New World, in a single blow broadening mankind's vision of itself as it had never before been broadened. This spirit of discovery ushered in a new age of exploration and discovery in other fields, such as science, medicine and agriculture. On the fabled ships Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria , he took four voyages that altered forever the face of the world. His admirers see in Columbus a man akin in spirit and achievement to his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci.
On the other side: the debunkers, who consider Columbus guilty of a host of crimes, from a callous and wasteful attitude toward the world and environment he encountered to slavery or outright genocide in the wholesale slaughter of the Indians he and his colleagues met. This is Columbus as a cross between baby-seal poacher and Adolf Eichmann.
There is no doubt that Columbus was a man of enormous flaws: He was a zealot, greedy and ambitious. He was capable of cruelty and deception. He tolerated ruthless bloodshed and pillage. Nor is there any doubt that Columbus opened the door to a European encounter with the New World that would bring with it the worst of 15th- and 16th-century Europe's savagery and avarice (more on this in a moment).
But not even Columbus's most implacable bashers can deny that he was a history-changing mariner of incomparable skill — a self-taught genius of towering valor and grit, who was seized by an unshaken, audacious conviction that he could reach the East by sailing west. Columbus propelled the human story forward as few men or women ever have. If his shortcomings were enormous, so were his achievements, for it was he who sowed the seeds of Western civilization in the New World.
What we too often forget — or never even consider — is that among those "seeds of Western civilization" were the very concepts of human rights, natural law, justice, and morality that Columbus and the Europeans who followed him are condemned for violating.
It wasn't woke 21st-century liberals who first found grievous fault with Columbus's behavior toward the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It was his contemporaries. The orders issued to Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella included a mandate that he and the men under his command "treat the Indians very well and lovingly, and abstain from doing them any harm."
When Columbus was accused of failing to follow those instructions, the Spanish sovereigns took action. They commissioned Francisco de Bobadilla, a member of the religious Order of Calatrava, to investigate and report on the admiral's conduct. After gathering information from Columbus's supporters and detractors, Bobadilla filed a no-holds-barred indictment that detailed the cruelties Columbus and his men had inflicted in the lands they had discovered.
"Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets, and selling them into slavery," reported The Guardian when a copy of the report was discovered in 2006 in a state archive in the Spanish city of Valladolid.
"One man caught stealing corn had his nose and ears cut off, was placed in shackles, and was then auctioned off as a slave. A woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was punished by his brother Bartolomé, who had also traveled to the Caribbean. She was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule."
Some scholars suggest that Bobadilla was biased against Columbus because he craved his position as governor of the Indies. Perhaps he was. But the point is that the charges against Columbus were taken seriously at the highest levels — so seriously that he and his brother were arrested in 1498, shackled, and shipped back to Spain. Though he eventually received a royal pardon, Ferdinand and Isabella refused to restore his position as governor of the newly discovered lands.
What came to the New World with Columbus, in other words, was not just the most debased of 15th-century European values, but also the most lofty. History has recorded no Indian teachers or leaders who railed against the bloody practices that were then common in much of Latin America — the cannibalism of the Island Caribs, for example, or the industrial-scale human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs. But almost from the moment Europeans set foot on American soil, some among them cried out in protest at the horrors committed by their kinsmen.
One of the first Spaniards to arrive in the Americas was Bartolomé de las Casas. He sailed with Columbus on his fourth and final voyage and joined in the bloody conquest of Cuba. Then he underwent a profound change of heart. Las Casas took holy orders in 1512, freed his slaves in 1514, and spent the rest of his (very long) life passionately and repeatedly denouncing the "robbery, evil, and injustice" done by European colonists.
That was pretty much all I knew of Las Casas until last week, when I read his most famous work, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which he published in 1542.
It is ferocious. Card-carrying progressives today may be unsparing in their condemnation of how Europeans treated indigenous Americans, but they have nothing on Las Casas, whose righteous defense of the Indians' humanity, and of the malignant brutality to which they were subjected by the Spaniards, is unmatched.
His outrage had three components. First, he regarded (or at least described) the American natives he encountered as unusually gentle and trusting, and was therefore especially heartsick at the abuses they suffered. He lauds their placid nature at the very start of his book:
God made all the peoples of this area, many and varied as they are, as open and as innocent as can be imagined. The simplest people in the world — unassuming, long-suffering, unassertive, and submissive — they are without malice or guile, and are utterly faithful and obedient both to their own native lords and to the Spaniards in whose service they now find themselves. Never quarrelsome or belligerent or boisterous, they harbor no grudges and do not seek to settle old scores; indeed, the notions of revenge, rancor, and hatred are quite foreign to them.
Second, Las Casas — who lived for years in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola, and was named bishop of Chiapas in 1544 — raged against the sadistic ferocity, greed, and treachery of the European conquerors. In a chapter on Hispaniola (the island that today comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he describes the Spaniards' crimes in chilling detail. (Warning — this is graphic):
They forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual's head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes. They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mothers' breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks. Others, laughing and joking all the while, threw them over their shoulders into a river, shouting: 'Wriggle, you little perisher.' They slaughtered anyone and everyone in their path, on occasion running through a mother and her baby with a single thrust of their swords. They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burn them alive thirteen at a time. . . . Some they chose to keep alive and simply cut their wrists, leaving their hands dangling, saying to them: "Take this letter" — meaning that their sorry condition would act as a warning to those hiding in the hills. The way they normally dealt with the native leaders and nobles was to tie them to a kind of griddle consisting of sticks resting on pitchforks driven into the ground and then grill them over a slow fire, with the result that they howled in agony and despair as they died a lingering death.
A constant theme in LasCasas's Short Account is the insatiable hunger of the Spaniards for gold, and their willingness to torture and kill to get more of it. He recounts with particular loathing the duplicity and viciousness of Pedro de Alvarado, the conquistador who seized Guatemala in 1523-24:
As soon as he set foot in the kingdom of Guatemala, this tyrant proceeded to kill the inhabitants in large numbers. Nonetheless, the chief of Utatlán, the largest city in the kingdom, came out to receive him with all due ceremony, having himself carried out of the city on a litter amid fanfares of trumpets and the beating of war-drums, staging lavish entertainments to mark his arrival, setting before the visitors a sumptuous banquet, and inviting them to make free with whatever they could provide. That night, the Spaniards camped outside the city, impressed as they were by the defenses and afraid that they might be in danger if they risked spending the night within the walls. On the morrow, the Spanish captain summoned the chief and the leading citizens and when they came, all unsuspecting, he seized them and demanded a certain sum of gold. When they replied that they had none, there being no gold in Guatemala, he declared them guilty on that count alone and without any due process of law directed that they be burned alive. . . .
Thus it was that, in this way and in others, they plundered and ravaged an area of more than a hundred leagues by a hundred leagues that was among the most fertile and most heavily peopled on earth, killing all the leaders among the native population and, with all men of military age dead, reducing the survivors to the Hell of slavery.
The third element of Las Casas's passionate advocacy was religious. He was a Catholic priest who believed deeply in the mission to Christianize the inhabitants of the Indies. And he hated what the Spanish conquerors did to those inhabitants not only because it was inhumane, but because it blackened the image of the church. In one passage, he recalls the caustic response of Hatuey, a native chieftain in Cuba, who was to be executed, but was urged by a missionary to accept Christianity and thereby earn passage to Heaven after his death.
Once he was tied to the stake, a Franciscan friar who was present, a saintly man, told him as much as he could in the short time permitted by his executioners about the Lord and about our Christian faith, all of which was new to him. The friar told him that, if he would only believe what he was now hearing, he would go to Heaven there to enjoy glory and eternal rest, but that, if he would not, he would be consigned to Hell, where he would endure everlasting pain and torment. The lord Hatuey thought for a short while and then asked the friar whether Christians went to Heaven. When the reply came that good ones do, he retorted, without need for further reflection, that, if that was the case, then he chose to go to Hell to ensure that he would never again have to clap eyes on those cruel brutes. This is just one example of the reputation and honor that our Lord and our Christian faith have earned as a result of the actions of those 'Christians' who have sailed to the Americas.
Columbus introduced Christendom to a previously unknown continent, and in so doing, eventually drove the church to declare that American Indians were, like Europeans, human beings created in God's image. In an eloquent bull in 1537, Pope Paul III firmly renounced the claim "that the Indians of the West and the South, and other peoples of whom we have recent knowledge, should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, [or thought of as] incapable of receiving the Catholic faith. The Indians are truly men."
Cover of a 1598 edition of Bartolomé de las Casas's "Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies"
To a modern mind, it may seem crashingly obvious that native Americans, like all people, are as entitled to human rights as anyone else on Earth. But in the early 16th century, it was anything but obvious. Indeed, many of the Spanish conquistadores vehemently denied the Indians' human status. That view went down to defeat — not because of the Indians' religion and philosophy, but because of Europe's. Only the culture that made possible the Age of Exploration could make possible "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal." And that culture is epitomized in Christopher Columbus, whose final claim to fame, whose true glory, is not that he discovered America, but that he set in motion the American epic, the pinnacle of Western ideals.
Whether you call it Columbus Day or Indigenous People's Day, what we mark on the second Monday in October is a voyage that, in Barack Obama's words, "changed the trajectory of our world." That change didn't come easily or painlessly, but by a vast margin it proved to be change for the better. It was a great day for mankind when the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria set sail, heading west under the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, carrying with them the kernels of greatness that would ripen, in the fullness of time, to the foremost beacon of liberty and achievement in the annals of life on Earth.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --
Want to read more Jeff Jacoby? Sign up for "Arguable," his free weekly email newsletter.