“I ordered that everyone [the natives] be treated honorably because they are the best and gentlest people in the world…”
Columbus has become a very controversial character in history. Some adore him but it seems as if these days most people think he was anywhere from very bad to completely evil.
All the information and misinformation had me confused for years. First, I liked him, then I hated him. He’s the perfect fall guy for the current social trend to hate all things Christian, white and male.
So who was he? Saint or sinner? Before I could present a Columbus day narrative to my children I HAD to know the truth, or as close to the truth as I could reasonably get.
So here it is. My best assessment of Christopher Columbus and I must say that where my research took me was not somewhere I expected to go.
I went into this project thinking, “OK, he was probably bad but was he that bad? You know, ear cutting, slave taking, cold blooded murderer that some pieces would make him out to be- bad?” and I ended up coming out at the other end of my research thrilled to have studied him!
I can honestly say he truly was a very brave, smart and faithful man. His journal logs were so inspiring that I’ve decided to make his entire log book mandatory reading for my boys as they come of age.
I would even venture to call him a “hero.”
I know that’s a bold statement in today’s world. No doubt what happened AFTER Columbus was terrible for the Native peoples. As the Spanish came and eventually the migration to North America of the Europeans, millions of Natives lost their lives to European disease and slave labor.
Despite the fact that millions of Europeans found refuge in a New World and had their lives saved from religious prosecution and death in Europe, it cannot excuse what happened to the Natives of Central and North America and even though Columbus was not really the first to “discover” these areas nor did he personally exploit them (he died in poverty) others used Columbus’ research and discoveries in an indefensible way.
Not all of those indefensible actions, however grave, can be laid upon the shoulders of a man who died only 14 years after he found this New World.
So let’s get some of the “ugly” out in the open. Columbus is accused of horrible acts. He is accused of enslaving the native population onto farming plantations during his 3rd visit to the islands. Men, women and children died by the thousands during his reign as governor of this territory.
Did those thousands die of cruel treatment, or did they die of disease? Some most likely died of cruel treatment during his governorship and we know countless people lost their lives to European diseases. This is fact.
What is not fact however is how Columbus or his brothers, who were ruling with him, treated the natives. All of the negative accounts of Columbus’ treatment of the natives comes from, or was gathered by, one man. Just one and he was not unbiased.
His name was Francisco de Bobadilla. Bobadilla was sent to check up on Columbus. After only a few days Bobadilla had Columbus and his brothers returned to Spain in chains without a chance to offer a defense.
Christopher wrote to a friend at court…
“It is now seventeen years since I came to serve these princes with the Enterprise of the Indies. They made me pass eight of them in discussion, and at the end rejected it as a thing of jest. Nevertheless I persisted therein … Over there I have placed under their sovereignty more land than there is in Africa and Europe, and more than 1,700 islands … In seven years I, by the divine will, made that conquest. At a time when I was entitled to expect rewards and retirement, I was incontinently arrested and sent home loaded with chains … The accusation was brought out of malice on the basis of charges made by civilians who had revolted and wished to take possession on the land … I beg your graces, with the zeal of faithful Christians in whom their Highnesses have confidence, to read all my papers, and to consider how I, who came from so far to serve these princes … now at the end of my days have been despoiled of my honor and my property without cause, wherein is neither justice nor mercy”
Once in Spain Columbus and his brothers went before the King’s court and where they were acquitted of the charges. They were allowed to return to the islands but Columbus could not be governor any longer. Meanwhile Bobadilla had established himself as governor.
So, what are the facts here? Did Bobadilla have reason to arrest Columbus? Yes, he wanted Columbus’ job and he got it! Did the King and Queen have reason to acquit Columbus yet not reinstall him as governor? What kind of verdict was that anyway -he was guilty enough not to be governor but too innocent for jail?
But you see, under the Capitulation’s of Santa Fe, the Spanish Crown owed Columbus 10% of the wealth found in the New World. So, of course when he asked for his retirement money, an old man with severe arthritis, they said “Nope, sorry, remember, we had to let you go.”
Like an old time cop drama “He was just two weeks away from retirement!!!”
But why when reading this history do I give Columbus so much benefit of the doubt? Because I read his logs. Whether or not he acted perfectly in every situation after reading his logs upon his first discovery of the New World I can safely say I know what his intent was.
He wanted to convert them, not kill them.
You see Columbus was a deeply religious man who had two goals, spread his faith and get gold for the court who funded his trip.
“But maybe he was trying to convert them through force?” some might ponder.
Columbus wrote in his logs on October 12, 1492 “I know they [the natives] are people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Faith more by love than by force.”
In his logs he was always looking for gold but he had nothing but love and honor for the native people.
He wrote, “They are very well-built people, with handsome bodies and fine faces.” October 12, 1492
“They traded everything with goodwill, but it seems to me that they have very little and are poor in everything. I warned my men to take nothing from the people without giving something in exchange.” October 12, 1492
Columbus gave strict orders to his men to treat the natives with the utmost respect. When they rowed ashore to an island and found that the villagers had fled their homes Columbus ordered his men not to touch or take anything from the Native’s abandoned homes.
“I ordered that everyone [Natives] be treated honorably because they are the best and gentlest people in the world…”
“I gave them [Natives] glass beads, brass rings and hawks’ bells, not because they asked for anything but because it seemed to me to be the right thing to do…” December 21, 1492
“…I do not believe there is a better people or a better country. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the softest and gentlest voices in the world and are always smiling.” December 25, 1492
During his travel among the islands many of the native people told Columbus of some tribes on nearby islands that committed horrible murders, slaughters and were cannibals. They even showed him men from their tribe with chunks of flesh torn from their bodies and told Columbus it was the cannibals who had done it.
Columbus did not believe them and still attempted to visit all the islands and natives that he could on his travels, which to me means two things. First, that Columbus was very brave and second, that there may have been natives in the area that Columbus later had to defend himself against in a violent way.
Perhaps Columbus abandoned his faith and began slaughtering the Natives later in life? Not likely. Records from his son show us that Columbus, who already praised the Lord every few sentences in his early journals, only grew MORE devout and faithful in his advancing age.
Conclusion and citations…
The issue is this: we may never know the full truth of who exactly Columbus was and what role he played in the deaths of the native peoples of America but that is no reason to demonize Columbus. There are far more historical evidences of his virtues than of anything else.
I do invite you however to read Columbus’ personal logs. You can find them in The Log of Christopher Columbus by Robert H Fuson, PhD (complied by the National Geographic Columbus Project 1986) from which I derived most of this information. After considering many Columbus resources I found this to be the one which would give the best historical accuracy. I also cited Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus p. 576.