True or False: Christopher Columbus committed genocide
According to Article II of the Genocide Convention, genocide requires two main components:
- A mental element: the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”; and
- A physical element, which includes the following five acts, enumerated exhaustively:
- Killing members of the group
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
As seen above, genocide requires the “intent to destroy” a particular group. In the case of Columbus, it is well known that his voyage from Europe was motivated by his desire to find an alternative water route to Asia. In addition, he received funding from Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in return for gold, spices, and anything of value he found during his expedition in order to save their kingdom’s economy. There is no evidence to support the claim that Columbus’s voyage was carried out to destroy the tribes living in the Western World. As such, Columbus fails to meet the “mental element” criteria.
In fact, during his very first encounter with the Taíno people, Columbus wrote in his journal:
“In order that they would be friendly to us- because I recognize that they were people who would be better freed [from error] and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force- to some of them I have red caps, and glads beads which they put on their chests, and many other things of small value, in which they took so much pleasure and became so much our friends that it was a marvel.”
“They are loving people, and without greed, and docile in everything. And I assure Your Highnesses that I believe that in the world there are no better people or a better land. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest speech in the world; and [they are] gentle and are always laughing.”
So where does this incorrect but commonplace accusation of genocide come from?
It echoes the sentiment of Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish friar who estimated that of the 3 million original inhabitants of the island when Columbus sailed ashore, only 300 or so remained just 50 years after this historic event. Not only are these figures grossly inaccurate as experts estimate the population of Hispanola to have been closer to between 100,000 and 1 million people (3 million would have exceeded the population totals of entire European countries such as the UK with ~2.6M in the 1500s), but many are under the misapprehension that the death that did occur was the result of European aggression.
In actuality, the vast majority of lives lost during this time stemmed from a pandemic (believe it or not, there were no mask mandates or social distancing requirements back then). Because these tribes did not live within proximity to domesticated and draft animals, they had much weaker immune systems compared to the Europeans and were more susceptible to falling ill from the diseases that the animals carried. Additionally, some Spaniards who arrived from the Old World were carrying smallpox that spread rapidly through the indigenous populations of the Americas who had no immunity. Many historians agree that these animals would have reached America at some point regardless of Columbus’s involvement.
However, back to the definition – we must remember that genocide requires intent, and not even the most highly regarded minds of the late 15th and 16th centuries knew what a germ was at that time, let alone its effect on human health. Germ Theory was not developed until 1861, so no argument can be made to support the idea that Columbus deliberately brought smallpox to infect native populations of the West.
Additionally, many of the deaths attributed to Columbus came long after the explorer died in 1506, casting blame on the navigator based on transgressions that occurred well into the mid-1500s.
For the small percentage of deaths that weren’t related to illness, these instances escalated under the leadership of Francisco Roldán, Francisco de Bobadilla, and Nicolás de Ovando – men who, unlike Columbus, did not care whether the natives were treated fairly. These men permitted the Spaniards to rape and maraude the indigenous tribes they encountered, something that Columbus explicitly prohibited under his governorship. Columbus even executed two of his own men who defied these orders to convey that this behavior would not be tolerated.
The few times that Columbus did fight off the natives, he did so at the request of or with the assistance of other allied tribes (as seen in the “Prisoners of War” section).
Many people who accuse Columbus of genocide have not heard of these men, and perhaps that is the problem. Any and every act of injustice that was inflicted on the Native Americans during this time is tied to Columbus because he was the first to embark on a voyage that no human had attempted before. As a result, instead of being celebrated for this achievement, he receives misattributed blame for the crimes of subsequent corrupt governors in the Indies who are left unscrutinized. Here is a quote from Columbus himself that could not more perfectly capture this sentiment:
“Let those who are fond of blaming and finding fault while they sit safely at home ask, ‘Why did you not do thus and so?’ I wish they were on this voyage. I well believe that another voyage of a different kind awaits them, or our faith is naught.”Christopher Columbus
It is also not common knowledge that Christopher Columbus established the first civil rights legislation of the Americas, which included the following statement at his specific request:
“All the Indians of Hispaniola were to be left free, not subject to servitude, unmolested and unharmed and allowed to live like free vassals under law just like any other vassal in the Kingdom of Castile”
Not only did Columbus fiercely advocate for the rights of the natives, he even adopted Chief Guacanagari’s son following his death, raising him as his own and hosting him as the main interpreter for his remaining voyages.
These are all pieces of the puzzle that seem to be missing from the discourse that surrounds the famed explorer, and it will be increasingly difficult to reach a consensus on his perceived importance until both sides of the argument are explored.
True or False: Christopher Columbus held Prisoners of War
While it is true that Christopher Columbus took prisoners of war, it is worth noting that the statement above does not say “participated in slavery.” This is because there are key distinctions to be made between a “slave” and a “prisoner of war.”
As defined by Brittanica:
Slave (n.) – someone who is legally owned by another person and is forced to work for that person without pay
Prisoner of War (n.) – any person captured or interned by a belligerent power during war
While Columbus did capture approximately 500 natives as prisoners of war, this was in direct response to their cannibalization of many of Columbus’s men whose bodies were found floating, half-eaten, in the water.
In response, Queen Isabella wanted to kill Guacanagari, a Taíno chief who was an ally of Columbus and permitted the explorer to leave the men behind after the Santa Maria had to be abandoned, as she believed his tribe was to blame. However, Columbus intervened as it was in fact a rival chief who was responsible for the slaughter. He was only able to come to this revelation due to his strong relationships with the other tribes, enabling him to piece together who cannibalized his men during his absence through his conversations with tribal leaders.
The rival chief belonged to the Caribs, who victimized the Taínos and Europeans alike to no end. The word cannibal is derived from these people, as they were known for eating human flesh which was just the tip of the iceberg. Women were held against their will in what can only be known as “breeding huts” where they were forced to carry children, whom the Caribs would eat as babies were considered a delicacy.
“These people raid the other islands and carry off all the women they can take…whom they keep as servants and concubines. These women say that they are treated with a cruelty that seems incredible. The Caribs eat the male children…and as for the men they are able to capture, they bring home those that are alive to be slaughtered and eat those who are dead on the spot. They castrate the boys they capture and use them as servants until they are men. Then, when they want a feast, they kill and eat them.” – Dr. Diego Álvarez Chanca, Doctor to the Royal Sovereigns of the Spanish Empire
Not only did these cannibalistic tribes pose a threat to the Europeans, but the non-violent indigenous tribes as well. This is evident by the following quote describing an interaction between Ferdinand Columbus and a tribal leader:
“The chief then prepared to go ashore, inviting the Admiral to a feast… He then complained about the Caribs, who captured his people and took them away to be eaten, but he was greatly overjoyed when the Admiral comforted him by showing him our weapons and promising to defend him with them” – Hernando Columbus
To protect both parties, Columbus held the Caribs captive, as permissible under Spanish law, to prevent any more suffering and torture than what his men and other nonviolent tribes had already endured. This action was also supported by a treaty between Columbus and Guacanagari to protect the Taíno from this enemy tribe. The Caribs were also known to have killed the populations of entire islands, and yet, are able to escape the same scrutiny that Columbus consistently faces.
Contrary to popular belief, Columbus never owned slaves, which was not the case for many of the indigenous tribes he encountered.
The assertion that Columbus held these individuals out of anything other than pure necessity bears no merit and goes directly against Columbus’s wishes. As a devout Catholic (and Franciscan monk), the navigator repeatedly requested that the monarchy send priests to the New World in order to baptize the natives. Since being baptized meant that a person could not be enslaved under Spanish law, it seems fairer to argue that Columbus actively tried to prevent the enslavement of the natives rather than facilitate it.
True or False: Christopher Columbus conspired with other Spaniards to mistreat the natives
There is a common misconception that Columbus was viewed favorably by the other Spaniards that sailed under his guidance. This is far from the truth.
Christopher Columbus (born Cristoforo Colombo) was from the Republic of Genoa in modern-day Italy with no formal education and limited means. His status as a Genoese navigator of low birth, coupled with his refusal to take advantage of the natives, significantly angered the Spaniards who saw an opportunity to abuse the peoples they encountered for their own benefit. As a result, they sought to overthrow Columbus’s governorship.
These rebels, with the permission of Francisco Roldán, committed the atrocities often falsely associated with Columbus.
This was despite specific instruction from Columbus to ensure that the Taínos “receive no injury, suffer no harm, and that nothing is taken from them against their will; instead make them feel honored and protected as to keep them from being perturbed.”
This is where Francisco Bobadilla comes in. He is the author of the document many revisionists will point to as justification of Columbus’s wickedness. The report details the crimes committed in Hispanola but used the testimony of men like Roldán and other violent Spaniards who resented the fact that Columbus was in power in an attempt to get him removed. This document was presented by Bobadilla to the King and Queen of Spain so that he could usurp power from Columbus in the West Indies.
Columbus and his brothers were ultimately sent in chains back to Spain to answer these accusations. It is worth noting that the charges were not for crimes committed against the natives, but for the execution of other Spaniards under Columbus, who were tried and hung according to Spanish law. However, the King and Queen were appalled by the baseless claims made by Bobadilla as Columbus had simply carried out the law, and he was immediately exonerated and released.
During Bobadilla’s brief stint in power before he was forcibly removed from his governorship for mutiny after the accusations were proven to be untrue, he pardoned the rebels whom Columbus had placed under arrest for their heinous crimes and told them to “take as many advantages as you can since you do not know how long they will last.”
Why there are still people who believe the words of Francisco de Bobadilla at face value when they were proven to be untrue is a mystery. Doing so not only fails to account for the historical record, but for the clear bias that Bobadilla had as Columbus’s political rival who had everything to gain by having the explorer’s reputation tarnished.
True or False: Christopher Columbus was a rapist and tolerated sex slavery
Here, I would like to address two common accusations against Columbus: Rape and Sex Slavery.
Starting with rape: There is not a single text that supports the assertion that Columbus personally engaged in this heinous activity.
However, there is a common accusation that Columbus permitted the rape of a woman at the hands of a man named Michele de Cuneo. Let’s unpack this charge:
This claim stems from a letter written by Cuneo to a friend, acknowledging that he raped a woman who was given to him by Columbus. This evidence is visible below:
“While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me.”Michele de Cuneo
Yet, Columbus’s detractors seem to only pay attention to the second part of the quote, completely skipping over the part where Cuneo admits that he captured the woman himself. Given the ambiguity here, to say with 100% certainty that Columbus indeed gave his permission is irresponsible at best, especially when we consider that none of the well over 1,000 men present at the time could hear the woman screaming at the top of her lungs during the attack as Cuneo described in his letter.
Additionally, this accusation is at odds with Columbus’s values and religious beliefs. As a Catholic, Columbus observed the three monastic vows, one of which is chastity. This was actually one of the chief complaints that his men had, as the Admiral required them to observe these holy vows as well.
As for the accusation of sex slavery, the evidence that revisionists present to support this claim is below:
“There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.”Christopher Columbus
However, these individuals would understand that this is taken woefully out of context if they bothered to read the very next sentence of the same passage:
“I assert that the violence of the calumny of turbulent persons has injured me more than my services have profited me; which is a bad example for the present and for the future. I take my oath that a number of men have gone to the Indies who did not deserve water in the sight of God and the world; and now they are returning thither, and leave is granted them.”Christopher Columbus
In this quote, Columbus is quite literally pointing out how deplorable these men are for participating in sex slavery.
And yet, his words are somehow used to claim that he supported it.
True or False: Christopher Columbus discovered the United States of America
Christopher Columbus never encountered the lands that we today know as the United States of America. Rather, Columbus and his men landed on what they named “San Salvador” in part of the Bahamas before exploring many other Caribbean islands throughout his remaining voyages.
That being said, it is accurate to say that Columbus discovered the Americas, as no one in the Old World knew of the large continents on the Western part of the globe until he made landfall and communicated his revelation with his European counterparts.
As defined by Merriam-Webster:
Discover (v.) – to make known or visible
While it is true that Leaf Erikson did explore some areas of present-day North America – primarily Vinland (modern-day Newfoundland in Canada) – almost 500 years before the arrival of Columbus, his expedition was not significant in the sense that the two halves of the world still remained separate, with no knowledge of the existence of one another. It was not until Columbus set sail in 1492 that for the first time in history, the entire world became interconnected, setting off an unprecedented chain of immigration, trade, and the exchange of cultures that has ultimately cultivated in the melting pot that Americans are so proud to be a part of today. The argument that Columbus’s discovery was inconsequential simply because he did not step foot in the present-day United States fails to appreciate the foundations upon which the US was built.
The bottom line: Columbus participated in what is perhaps the most important event in the history of the human race, and his accomplishments should be celebrated accordingly.