Monday, October 12, 2009

The Discovery of Columbus

As today is Columbus Day, think with me for a couple of minutes about the discovery of Columbus. Usually, the emphasis is upon what Columbus discovered, but let’s think about the aboriginal people's discovery of Columbus on their land.
In 1493, Columbus established the first permanent European settlement in what came to be known as the West Indies on an island he called La Isla Española, a name translated into English as Hispaniola. But as Bob Corbett of Webster University points out, “Columbus did not discover a lost or unknown land. There was a flourishing civilization of native Americans” already there. Those “Indians” discovered Columbus and the other Spaniards invading their land. 
Hispaniola was inhabited by as many as 500,000 aboriginal Tainos in 1493. (Some estimate a much greater population.) According to Corbett, by 1507 the number of Tainos had shrunk to around 60,000 and by 1531 the number was down to 600. The discovery of Columbus was bad news for the native Americans.
In my previous blog article I wrote about Hispanics. That term that comes from Hispania, the name given by the Romans to the whole of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain, Portugal, etc.). Then Hispaniola, as mentioned, was the name given to the island now occupied by the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
As we honor the Hispanics in this country, as we should, perhaps we need even more to honor and to affirm the personhood of all the indigenous peoples of Central and Latin America who were exploited and mistreated in many ways by the Europeans (Hispanics) who colonized the many countries in the Americas where Spanish (or Portuguese) is now spoken.
Spanish (or Portuguese) is spoken in the Latin American countries due to colonialization. Thus, as we work against the mistreatment of Hispanics in American society, we realize that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries their ancestors mistreated the aboriginal peoples in what is now Central and South America—just as most of us are descendants of Europeans who mistreated the aboriginal peoples of what is now North America.
Except for the Native Americans and the descendants of those who were once slaves, most of the people in all of the Americas today are descendants of people with blood on their hands. And it all began with the discovery of Columbus.
For those of us who are Christians, Columbus’ “missionary” zeal is one of the saddest aspects of his discovery. According to what he wrote, spreading Christianity was one the main motives for his voyages to the “new world.” But what we see in him, as in too much of the missionary activity through the centuries, is the corruption of Christianity by power and greed. Christianity can never be wedded to political or economic interests without being corrupted.


  1. Dr. Thomas Howell, my friend who is Professor of History at William Jewell College, sent me the following comments not long after I made the posting on Columbus:

    "If anything, you are far too kind to Columbus. I'm always embarrassed by this holiday. At least we could call it Discovery Day or some such, if we must have it. But, in fairness to Columbus, his is but one name on a very long list of the equally guilty. The arrogance is overwhelming, and I am not sure that we are over it yet."

  2. I enjoy reading your blog. On Columbus Day, I would recommend reading Howard Zinn's "Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress," from A People's History of the United States.

    Since the conquistadors from Spain often intermingled with the indigenous peoples (for example, 60-80% of the population of Mexico is mestizo), honoring Hispanics today is to recognize both their Spanish and native ancestry.

  3. Karen, thanks for your comments, and for your recommendation of reading Howard Zinn, whom I came to appreciate even more after watching a movie about him a few months ago. Thanks, too, for pointing out that honoring Hispanics often does mean, to a degree in many cases, honoring native Americans also.

  4. What is undeniably true is that each human being comes from a very, very long line of survivors (or we wouldn’t be here). That surviving often may have seemed like aggression from the perspective of those who didn’t survive. No one is pure – certainly native Americans and African tribes were routinely warring against each other as well. I wonder about the extent to which moral judgment is meaningful for other eras when the circumstances were so different and our understanding of the facts limited.

    I find it an interesting mind experiment to wonder how we would have wanted to see things play out in a perfect world--is it imaginable that North America should have remained lightly populated by native Americans while much of the rest of the world was overwhelmed?

  5. Keith, thanks for presenting a different perspective, one that elicits the need for serious consideration. I want to follow up on this in a posting a couple of weeks from now.

  6. A very enjoyable post today. We've come along way from my elementary school days when we looked upon Columbus with such respect and awe. I mean...a holiday named for you. That's big! Fortunately, it's much different now, and wouldn't be much a holiday at all if the banks and government would cooperate.

    My wife, Carolyn, has long called this "holiday" White, Male, European Aggression Day!

    I'm glad to be at work not observing

  7. David, thanks for your comments. And please tell Carolyn that I like her designation for today.