Thursday, October 15, 2009

Re-Thinking Columbus

Keith Seat, my son who is a full-time mediator and arbitrator in the D.C. area, raised some important issues in his comments posted under my October 12 posting. He wrote, "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." That is an important matter to consider.

One looks in vain for any examples of toleration of other religions or cultures in the fifteenth century. King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, under whose patronage Columbus undertook his voyage, began the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. A historian who died in 1492 estimated that the Inquisition had burned at the stake 2,000 people by 1490. Columbus, as we all are, was a person of his time, and the fifteenth century was not a time of celebrating diversity.

Keith also wrote, "No one is pure--certainly native Americans and African tribes were routinely warring against each other as well." I think that is important to realize also; violence was not used just by the Europeans. Those who in the present day tend to idealize native Americans sometimes seem to overlook how they were often involved in intertribal wars for survival--or the enhancement of their own tribe at the expense of other tribes.

What we know as the Caribbean today got its name from the Caribs, a far more warlike people than the Tainos that Columbus found on the island of Hispaniola. According to one source, "During their numerous battles against the dwindling Arawak [Taino] population, they [the Caribs] massacred the men and kept as many of their women as possible." The Caribs were also cannibals, and another source says if the Taino had not been destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, they likely would have been eaten by the Caribs.

Finally, Keith wrote, "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?" That is a question well worth pondering, and I want to respond to it in a subsequent posting.

I welcome your comments in response to Keith's last question, as well as positive comments, should there be any, about Columbus as we re-think the ramifications of his coming to the "new world."


  1. You wrote that "One looks in vain for any examples of toleration of other religions or cultures in the fifteenth century."

    What about the Ottoman Empire? The sultans did not force conversion of non-Muslims in their empire, and the city of Constantinople, after it was conquered in 1453, became a vibrant city full of Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.

  2. With respect to the reference regarding the Americas being "lightly populated," archaeological and anthropological evidence indicates that the Americas were not, in fact, "lightly populated," but were, rather, well populated, with many cities of the Americas having populations well in excess of the populations of European cities. I would suggest that folks read the book "1491" regarding indigenous population and culture in the Western Hemisphere prior to European invasion.

    With respect to wars between Caribs and Tainos, I would question the source that indicated that one would have destroyed the other but for European invasion. I assume that the "source" is European, which smacks of bias, justification and rationalization (and poor rationalization at that for justifying genocide based on a hypothetical future genocide among populations that had yet to commit acts of genocide). The Tainos and Caribs had lived in proximity to one another for quite some time without extinction of one by the other. Need we remind anyone that extinction of such populations occurred only by the European invaders?

    As for representations of people groups as "cannibals," this has been a common ploy among Western invaders to de-humanize the invaded so as to justify invasion and extermination, and questions have arisen as to the validity/legitimacy of such assertions. In the United States, Indian people were often viewed and described as savages (blood-thirsty no less) at a time in which U.S. soldiers were mercilessly killing women and children in Indian camps while the men were away because (as Officer John Chivington, also a Methodist preacher, indicated) "knits make lice," and at a time in which such soldiers were keeping skins and skulls of Indian men and women killed as trophies (please read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown).

    True, there have been wars between populations, cultures and societies since the beginning, but there may be no more extreme example of genocide as has occurred in the Western Hemisphere (given the scope duration of the same)outside of the holocaust (also perpetrated by Europeans). Speaking of the holocaust, Hitler himself indicated that his program of relocation and extermination was based on the U.S. government's handling of American Indian people groups (relocation, etc.) which he found to be a particularly effective means of dispossessing and, ultimately, disposing of, racial/ethnic groups.

    Please note that, with respect to your comment about religious toleration, such searches are "in vain" because the sources of those searches tend to be Western and we Westerners are not tolerant people, generally. There is no record of indigenous wars being fought on religious principles, quite possibly due to the relativistic, and invididualistic, view of spirituality shared by indigenous peoples generally --- something for us to consider as we continue conversations about pluralism and relativism, etc.

    In my mind experiment, we, the Western invaders, would have remained at home (for many of us, home being Europe) and would be talking, not about the tragic loss of Indian nations, peoples and societies due to the brutality of European invaders, but, rather, about the splendid diversity of God's creation found in all people groups that survived because the genocide that did in fact occur in the Western Hemisphere would not have occurred. Also in my mind experiment, we would honor our own legal system that demands the return of things stolen and return lands taken (by theft, as the Supreme Court has admitted with respect to the Black Hills in particular).

    The acts and violence perpetrated against indigenous peoples are not historic footnotes as many of our current laws and policies are based on the very "discovery" doctrines that justified Columbus and others in their invasion of foreign lands and extermination of foreign peoples.

  3. I have issues judging other eras by our own standards which in another generation will probably be different from our current standards. I am far more interested in learning from history that humans have generally been inhumane to fellow humans when the situations favored this course of action. Humane treatment of others again occurs from time to time in history but is again based on circumstances at that given time. In other words, people tend to treat others well when it is in their interest to do so and to take advantage of others when it is in their interest to do so. The most riveting source that I have seen on this topic is the Pulitzer prize winning work of Jared Diamond in "Guns, Germs, and Steel", which I highly recommend for an even-handed view of human interactions with other humans without the moral judgments.

  4. Ken, thanks for posting your comments. Thanks, too, for pointing out that the situation may have been different in Eastern Europe. I should have said "one looks in vain . . ." in Western Europe. I was thinking specifically about the society in which Columbus lived.

    Whatever the situation may have been in post-1453 Constantinople, the siege of the city was evidently pretty violent. In his book "Constantinople" (1997), Philip Mansel wrote,

    "On the afternoon of 29 May 1453 the Sultan entered the long-desired city. Riding a white horse, he advanced down an avenue of death. The city of Constantinople was being put to the sack by the triumphant Ottoman army. According to an observer from Venice, blood flowed through the streets like rainwater after a sudden storm; corpses floated out to sea like melons along a canal."

    That doesn't sound like much toleration of the "other."

  5. Chris, I appreciate your taking the time to post your rather lengthy comments. I will not attempt to make a complete response here, but I do want to comment on the source cited--and there was a link to the source so one click would have indicated what it was.

    Kim Johnson, who is a research fellow at the University of Trinadad and Tobago was the author I quoted, and he seems to be a Trinadadian. He is the author of "The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus" (1993), a book that is described as follows: "Although Columbus's diaries contain almost all firsthand information about the Tainos, who became extinct as a result of European colonization, the author has managed to piece together a robust chronicle of their past. Sifting through reports on Caribbean archaeological sites and plumbing studies of language and biology for historical clues, he traces the Tainos back to the initial colonization of the West Indies 5000 years ago."

    From what I have been able to learn about him, and I have not read his book yet, Johnson seems to be a competent scholar who is sympathetic to the Taino people.

  6. DHJ, thanks for your comments also. I am sorry to say I have not yet read Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (1997), a book that Ken, who comments above, has also recommended. And now PBS has produced a two-disc DVD set that I also want to see.

    I think the truth of the matter is as you wrote, "humans have generally been inhumane to fellow humans." Where and how has that natural inclination been overcome? Maybe I will make some comments about that on my next posting.

  7. Keith's point is well taken - history cannot be changed. We must live with it and move on.

    Maybe we should only address the tyranny of our immediate time alone. To sort out anything of the past would be impossible - atrocity is intertwined in essentially all "tribes" and religions. The wanderlust of seek out and inhabit "strange new worlds" is not new to any continent. There are few if any isolated indiginous "tribes" remaining, if there ever were.
    But somehow there does appear to be a Story of at least a remnant (and probably propogated the wanderers as well - not just European), of those who diligently seek Truth and the "God" beyond.

    My heritage of Engishmen, French Hugeunots, and Cherokee, and having grown up among several tribes in east central Africa has lead me to the conclusion that all of our histories are repleat with atrocity and victimization. "There is none good", especially historically.
    But some still seek it.

  8. Thanks, TJL, for your comments. I think it is probably true, sadly, that "all of our histories are replete with atrocity and victimization."

  9. To DJH,

    Again, we note our biases in referring to Western historical data collection as "even-handed", as we all bring our biases to our research, as has Jared Diamond. We must be careful to assume that perspectives such as Mr. Diamond's are objective or neutral.

  10. To TLJ,

    Our legal system is based on the belief that we can correct today the crimes of the past, or at least punish criminal actions and make whole our victims. We do in fact return what is stolen in our legal system, or require the criminal to pay for the crime, either to the individual victim or to society through punishment, restitution, compensation, or through what are referred to as equitable remedies. You are correct that the completed act cannot be undone, but if we are believers in our system of justice, then we would expect that bad acts not go unpunished, and that victims of past wrongs receive restitution, compensation or return to the status quo prior to the commission of the crime. We may not be able to change the act once done, but we can certainly do everything possible to make the victim whole.

  11. Leroy,

    With respect to Kim Johnson's assertions regarding the Carib, there are those who dispute his contentions regarding the cannibalism claimed (one of whom is Jack Forbes, professor emeritus and former chair of Native American Studies at UC Davis). Also, I must ask why you fall victim to the same rationale to which those before you have fallen victim, namely, the belief that some instance of savagery (whether or not true) exhibited by or claimed of the victims of genocide somehow justifies or, at least, discounts, the atrocities committed by the actual perpetrators of genocide? Why in a discussion of the wrongs committed by Columbus and others do we even discuss the claimed evil acts of the victims? What use is it to respond to Columbus' and others' atrocities with any form of argument akin to "yeah, but...?" In our legal system, we do not allow character attacks against victims (i.e., we do not allow evidence of past acts of victims as a defense, generally) as doing so is (a) irrelevant to the crime at issue, and (b) simply serves to prejudice the audience, jury, etc. (i.e., it taints the judicial process), nor do we allow the argument most akin to "yeah, but others did it too." To answer whether, or to assert that, the Carib tribe would have ultimately annihilated the Taino tribe but for Columbus' "interference" is speculation and conjecture, whereas the actual annihilation of a people group by Columbus is anything but conjecture. We know that it occurred.

  12. Chris, my reference to even-handedness has to do with exposing all sides of a drama. I am not interested in any particular slant to drama since it is so easy to skew information. Are there biases--certainly! However, a non-judgmental assessment of the information available is my bias.