Columbus Day: celebration of a white, genocidal maniac?

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Before beginning this, I would like to confirm a few things. First, I am not saying Columbus is not a good person at all. Second, I am also not saying that genocide did not occur in the New World, because it most certainly did. The argument here is to consider whether or not Columbus himself was a perpetrator of genocide, as many people make it out to be. The definition of genocide, paraphrasing the United Nation's definition, is a series of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. The key word is intent, which would be looking at if Columbus had any intention of destroying the native population prior to when he got there, or during his time as governor of Hispaniola.

Before looking at whether or not Columbus committed genocide, there are a few other misconceptions that need to be cleared up. First, Columbus knew he wasn’t in India. He thought he was somewhere off the coast of Japan. This wasn’t because he miscalculated the distance, but rather because no one really knew how large Asia was, where Japan really was, or whether or not the new land was connected to Asia. Second, Columbus was only the governor of Hispaniola until 1500, when he was removed for mismanagement - a point to be discussed later. Third, around 90 percent of the native population was killed by disease, and many of them died before any European even set foot in the New World. This was an unintended consequence, as the natives had no natural immunity built up to European diseases and disease could spread faster than Europeans can travel.

To determine intent, we have to look at Columbus’ words and actions. This is difficult, as both are often taken out of context. For example, take his journal entries. Many people cite the fact that he wanted to enslave the natives as soon as he got there, but there are a few problems with this. One, his journals are all transcriptions of the original journals that no longer exist. Two, there are multiple translations and they all differ, with some of the English translations a lot more biased than others. Three, many of those quotes get taken out of context. There are two big things people say his journals reveal. To paraphrase, one thing he says is that he wanted to enslave them and the second thing he says is that he could take 50 men and conquer and govern the natives as he wanted to. These are both misleading.

For starters, using a translation found in Readings in Latin American Civilization (thank you, Global Histories), he states that he thinks the people are “ingenious,” could be good servants, and could “readily become Christians.” He also goes on further to say that he wants to bring six of the natives back to Europe so that they can learn the language. Often, the only part of the quote shown is the part where Columbus says they could be “good servants.” But when put in context, that doesn’t mean he wanted to enslave them. The term "servant" could mean servant of God, or just a general servant. As for the other quote, that could hint at an intent to commit violence against the native population. However, this is the part where the different translations can say different things. In many English translations, that quote appears, but in the old Spanish transcription by Bartolome de las Casas, found in The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, there is no mention of Columbus wanting to conquer the natives. He does say that with 50 men, all the natives could be held in “subjection.” But to put that in full context, he’s also asking the king and queen what to do about new settlements, and he’s telling them that 50 men could hold the island if needed. This is corroborated by another translation from an American Journeys Collection document, document AJ-062. Looking at both quotes in full context, we can see that he didn’t come to Hispaniola with the intent to enslave and brutalize the native population.

The second aspect that needs to be considered is his time as governor of Hispaniola. He was removed in 1500 by the monarch because he was mistreating the Spanish colonists under his rule and was put in jail for six weeks. He most certainly mistreated the natives, and there is no doubt about that. But there is a letter he wrote while in jail where he says a few key things. The translation comes from another American Journeys Collection document, document AJ-067. He basically is complaining about native girls as young as nine or ten being sold into sexual slavery (another quote that is often taken out of context), and that there were many colonists who “did not deserve water in the sight of God and of the world.” He also states before that he could have taken advantage of his position, but “the maintenance of justice and the extension of the dominion of Her Highness has hitherto kept me down.” It does seem that his regime in Hispaniola was brutal, but a lot of the violence inflicted against the natives was done by the colonists themselves and not a direct result of Columbus’s orders. Based on this letter, Columbus was even against a lot of that violence and tried punishing the colonists for it. Columbus clearly isn’t a good person, but as of now, we are in the peak periods of his life where his actions and words can be interpreted as having the intention of commit genocide, and nothing really indicates that.

Genocide is a long process. People don’t just wake up one day and then decide to kill off an entire group of people for fun. It’s violence against a group being normalized until it becomes systematic and targeted killings. Based on this, genocide definitely occurred in the new world, but Columbus wasn’t the main perpetrator and didn’t really have the intent to commit genocide. It was later governors of Hispaniola, like Nicolas de Ovando, and later conquistadors, such as Hernan Cortes, who had clear intent to commit genocide, and many individual colonists were part of the process. It’s misleading to attribute such a long span of awful history on just one man, but that’s what seems to have happened. History is much more complicated than that.