Sunday, October 10, 2010

Columbus the Enslaver and Las Casas the Liberator

It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners. That is the opinion of Albert Camus according to Howard Zinn in his widely-read A People’s History of the United States (2005, first published in 1980, p. 10).
The reference to Camus by Zinn (1922-2010) is found in “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” the first chapter of his stimulating book. In that chapter he explains how he prefers “to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks” rather than from the European point of view.
From the perspective of the native peoples such as the Arawaks and Taíno, Columbus was clearly an enslaver—as well as an executioner, either directly or indirectly, of tens of thousands of those original inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands.
All of us who grew up in this country learned about Christopher Columbus, and most of what we learned in school was taught in a praiseworthy manner. And tomorrow is Columbus Day, which became a federal holiday in 1934.
In 1968 the date of Columbus Day was changed to the second Monday of October, and each year the President proclaims that that day shall be observed as Columbus Day. As his predecessors have done through the years, just two days ago the President said, I, Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 11, 2010, as Columbus Day. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities. I also direct that the Flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of Christopher Columbus.”
In contrast to what we heard about Columbus, I don’t think I heard a word about Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566) during my grade school or high school years—or even in college or seminary. Zinn’s book had not yet been published.
Zinn’s stringent criticism of Columbus as the executioner of multitudes of Arawak and Taíno “Indians,” is based on the writings of Las Casas, a Dominican priest from Spain who traveled to Hispaniola in 1502. He later served as a chaplain during the conquest of Cuba, and as such he witnessed the brutality of the Spanish against the Taíno Indians.
As a result of his efforts, Las Casas was finally successful in convincing Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, to enact new laws that were much to the benefit of the native peoples of the West Indies. Through his work of “speaking the truth to power,” Las Casas was, truly, a liberator.
It distresses me that after all the years, Columbus is still widely celebrated and Las Casas and his works of love for the indigenous peoples of the “new world” are still relatively unknown. So if we agree with the assertion that it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners, we still have our work cut out for us.


  1. A few minutes ago my esteemed friend Dr. Glenn Hinson sent the following comments by e-mail:

    "Bravo, Leroy! We do indeed need to remember Las Casas. One of my Brazilian PhD students at Southern wrote a dissertation on him and brought him powerfully into my conscience. He also changed my perspective on missions."

  2. Thanks Leroy, our household have long treated this day with sadness as we remember the oppression brought to this land and the southern lands buy the Spanish. Peace to you

  3. I did a little Google searching, and found a Camus essay, "Neither Victim Nor Executioner." (See this link: Written just as World War II (in which Camus fought) was turning into the Cold War, Camus contemplated a world where everyone's best efforts might simply create a hell on earth for all. Prophetically, he foresaw the Russian/American struggle for supremacy in the Western World giving way to an anti-colonial struggle of the rest of the world against the West.

    Camus marveled at how horrific conflicts flowed from practically everyone having good motives. He speculated that 18th century capitalism and 19th century socialism both needed a major update to survive the horrors of the modern world.

    Now Columbus and Las Casas take us farther into our past. And that past cries out to us. Horror was no 20th century invention. I am nervous, however, about too casually picking good guys and bad guys in remote history. Even the Spanish were deeply conflicted about their conquest of the New World, as Las Casas himself illustrates. Far better, that we ask ourselves what we can learn from this history, to apply in our own time.

    I was going to end with a quote from the Spanish philosopher Santayana, "Those who do not mourn history are condemned to repeat it." Well, Google convicted me of a bad memory. Apparently he said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Well, some of the conflicts around the world are more like "Those who cannot forget the past are condemned to repeat it." From Northern Ireland to Bosnia to Iraq, fights centuries old linger on. So i will go with the "mourn," whoever might have said it. There is much to mourn in the history of Columbus. Yet so much of the history of the world flows from his life a half a millennium ago, that we cannot just wish him away. The modern world would be unintelligible without him. So we must mourn, and try to do better.

  4. A sad requiem for one whose stated ambition was to find a safer route for trade and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    How tangential am I from early, good ambitions?

  5. As my wife Carolyn annually proclaims, "Happy White Male European Aggression Day!"