Indigenous Peoples Day: Judging Columbus

Led By Bill Kronholm

Opening Reading:


From the papal bull Dum Diversas, issued by Pope Nicholas V, in 1452: “We grant you by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property . . . and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”



Relatives from California visited Joyce and I this summer, and we took them to Deer Lodge to tour the old prison. There was a T-shirt in the gift shop there displaying a famous 1873 photo of Geronimo and three of his Apache warriors, holding rifles and posing for the camera. The caption read: Homeland Security. Fighting foreign terrorists since 1492.


I love the sentiment. But, of course, it isn’t accurate. When Christopher Columbus first landed in the Caribbean, the natives didn’t fight him. The greeted him as a peaceful visitor.  And what was Columbus’ response? His journal entry that day was this: “They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. … If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”  Two days later, Columbus noted in his journal their lack of defenses, and calculated that “with 50 men, they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.”


Columbus Day is tomorrow. As holidays go, it isn’t what it used to be. Fewer and fewer states celebrate it, and even Columbus, Ohio, quit holding a Columbus Day parade 25 years ago. In 1991, activists persuaded the Berkeley City Council to declare October 12 a “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.” There has been a growing movement to appropriate “Columbus Day” as “Indigenous People’s Day.” Several states have changed the holiday’s name and many more cities have taken similar action.


The reason, of course, is that Columbus is no longer seen by most people as the brave discoverer of a New World. He is recognized as the vanguard of a European invasion. And that European invasion had a terrible impact on Native Americans. Disease, loss of territory, loss of culture, and loss of freedom, destroyed whole civilizations.


When Cortes invaded Mexico in 1520, the population was around 20 million. A century later it was less than 2 million. The principal reason was disease, particularly smallpox and measles. Natives had never been exposed to them before and lacked any immunity. Add to this the cultural devastation caused by enslavement and attempts to convert natives to Christianity, and it is no wonder that Columbus Day is a day of mourning for Native American peoples. It was the beginning of the end for their culture and way of life.


For the moment, however, let us ask how we shall judge Columbus as a person. Most historians say that it is unfair and unrealistic to judge historical figures by the moral standards of today. They should be judged according to the standards of the world in which they lived. Thus, we can look harshly on Thomas Jefferson as a slaveholder because we know – “all men are created equal” – that he recognized the evil of slavery and yet engaged in it and profited from it. But we generally do not consider Abraham Lincoln a racist, even though his writings  clearly show that he considered African-Americans as inferior beings. Virtually all people of that time, even abolitionists, looked upon blacks as inherently inferior.


So how do we judge Columbus?


The fact is that Columbus was not a very nice person. Consider this: When Columbus embarked upon his journey, King Ferdinand promised a lifetime pension to the first man who sighted land. A lookout on the Pinta, Rodrigo de Triana, spotted land about two o’clock in the morning of October 12, 1492 and immediately alerted the rest of the crew with a shout. The captain of the Pinta alerted Columbus by firing a cannon.  But when they returned to Spain, Columbus maintained that he himself had seen a light on the island hours earlier and claimed the pension for himself. Not the act of a hero.


More significantly, colonists on later voyages complained to King Ferdinand that Columbus prevented priests from baptizing natives who had accepted Christ. By preventing baptism, the natives could not be recognized as Christians. And if they did not become Christians, they could be sold as slaves under the pope’s edict. It was a profitable venture for Columbus. He noted in his journal in 1498 that, quote, “From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold.”


On his second voyage, in 1493, he set out with 17 ships and about 1,200 people, intent on colonizing the New World. His treatment of natives is beyond any defense. Every native male over age 14 was ordered to bring an allotment of gold or cotton. Those who could not had their hands cut off and were left to die. A friend who accompanied Columbus recounted in his journal how Columbus gave him a native woman as his personal sex slave.


To be fair to Columbus, Europeans in general did not know how to view the native peoples of the New World. As Europe realized that the Americas represented regions of the Earth previously unknown to them, there was intense speculation over whether the natives were even humans. A substantial school of thought held that they were not.


These scholars speculated that since God withheld from Europeans the knowledge of the native’s existence and thus delayed bringing them the Gospel for centuries, it could only mean they were not human or possessed no souls. They noted that the New Testament said the gospel had been preached to all nations; since the gospel had not been preached to the Native Americans, perhaps they did not count.


In addition, European scholars at that time believed humanity was divided into three distinct races — Europeans, Asians, and Africans — one for each of the three sons of Noah after the Great Flood. Native Americans simply did not fit.


This, then, was the mindset of Europeans at the time of Columbus and for decades afterwards. Given this, was the treatment of the natives inevitable?


Let me introduce two other figures of the era, both Catholic friars  – Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolome de las Casas.


Montesinos was among a group of Dominican friars who landed on Hispaniola in September 1510. And on December 21, 1511, he preached a sermon that still resonates in history.


Listing the injustices that the indigenous people were suffering at the hands of the Spanish colonists, Montesinos proclaimed that the colonists, quote, “are all in mortal sin and live and die in it, because of the cruelty and tyranny they practice among these innocent peoples.”


He then asked: “Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold ….”


Among those who heard him that day was de las Casas. At the time, he was not a crusader for native rights. He had come to the New World in 1502 as the 18-year-old son of a colonist and soon became both a landowner and a slave-holder in his own right. He participated in slave raids and military expeditions against the natives, but he also, in 1510, became the first priest ordained in the Americas. Montesinos’ sermon did not change him immediately; indeed, he was among the colonists who were outraged by his sermon and lobbied the king – successfully – to recall the Dominican friars as agitators.


But the sermon planted a seed. In 1513, he served as chaplain on the military conquest of Cuba, and he was appalled at what he saw. He later wrote: “I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.” In 1514, while studying a religious text to prepare for a sermon, he concluded that the actions of the Spanish in the New World were a great injustice to God. He gave up his slaves and urged other colonists to do the same. And in 1515, he sailed to Spain, hoping to persuade King Ferdinand to end the system of forced labor and tribute demanded of Indians.


Ferdinand died before las Casas could see him. And las Casas was known as a stubborn and difficult man. He did not win allies or converts to his views easily. Still, he devoted the rest of his life to various plans to end slavery, arguing and writing extensively on the cause. De las Casas has come to be seen as an early advocate for a concept of universal human rights. He was among the first to develop a view that “all people of the world are humans” with a natural right to liberty. In a sense, he was an originator of our own First Principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And in 2000, the Vatican began the process of his beatification, the first step toward sainthood.


And we should also note that in 1537, Pope Paul III issued a papal bull titled Sublimis Deus, which forbad the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The pope declared that the native peoples were rational beings with souls. The principles in the papal bull  eventually became the official position of the Spanish crown, although it was often ignored by the colonists and conquistadores themselves.


The point is this: For Columbus to behave decently toward the native peoples of the Caribbean might have been a stretch, but it was not an impossible stretch. There were forward thinking individuals who recognized the rights of native peoples, even in the early 1500s. And his failure to move even slightly in that direction is the final point of judgment. We can say that Christopher Columbus fails the test of humanity.


So Columbus was a brutal tyrant who saw natives as nothing more than a route to riches. But if we had been a crewman or colonist on one of Columbus’ ships, how would we have behaved differently? Would we have been able see the humanity, the inherent worth and dignity, of the native people, and treat them accordingly?


We want to say, of course we would! We are decent people; we are nothing like Columbus! For myself, I don’t buy it. I suspect if I were a member of Columbus’ crew, I would have viewed the natives as simple-minded savages, certainly not my intellectual or moral equal. As a good Catholic, I would have known that the pope authorized me to enslave any who did not embrace Christianity, and I would have believed that such enslavement in the long run would lead more natives to become Christians. I would be doing God’s work by taking a heathen slave. But I also like to think that I would not engage in gratuitous brutality, rape and murder. I like to think I would treat natives at least as kindly as a faithful animal. I like to think I would have listened to Montesinos and Las Casas and thought carefully about what they preached.


We’ll never really know, of course. But perhaps the question can prod us to think of how we react to the new, the unexpected, the unknown. Do we simply the follow the crowd, or do we consider our principles even when it is uncomfortable? These are questions that Columbus obviously never asked himself.  Perhaps we now know better.


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