The Story of Columbus

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Christopher Columbus and his crew leaving the port of Palos, Spain for the "New World." Library of Congress

Gone are the days when a historian like Howard Zinn could simply point out that the Europeans exploited, plundered, and enslaved Native Americans in their quest for gold, spices, and a connection to Asia.

Now, many popular accounts insist that what happened is more complicated. They argue that environments, diseases, and technology — rather than the expansionist avarice of Columbus and his band of rapacious explorers — should be singled out as key causes of American Indians’ extermination. And when they do introduce human agency into their analyses, it’s often on behalf of elite actors.

In Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, environmental factors are elevated to the “ultimate causation” in explaining why Columbus and other Europeans swept across the continent.

Diamond never asks why the initial meetings between Europeans and Native Americans led to violence and enslavement. Assuming that encounters between two distinct groups of people inevitably produce conflict, he instead concentrates on the types of crops, animals, and resources geographically available to Eurasian populations (as opposed to American and African populations). Based on the former’s advantages, he argues that a kind of egalitarian imperialism obtained: any group of people who began in Eurasia would, in the long run, have fared far better and likely dominated any other group of people that began in non-Eurasia.

To be fair, Diamond’s book does attack the purported role of biological determinism in shaping historical events. Yet it still refuses to view human beings as political subjects, treating them instead as agents of environmental prophecy. Where the invasion of Columbus was concerned, the political motivations of the people involved apparently had no bearing.

A similar tendency is at work in journalist Charles Mann’s 2005 book 1491, which tells a story about Native Americans molding the environments in which they lived. While his intention is to show that the civilizations of the Americas were far more advanced than popularly imagined, Mann is even more forceful in his rejection of moral complicity for the violence and destruction Europeans soon carried out.

Examining the demographic data, Mann concludes that the rate of coincidental death — via diseases the Europeans could not control — far exceeded the rate of death via deliberate violence. “How can they,” Mann asks, “be culpable for it [the deaths of hundreds of thousands]?”

Diamond and Mann are part of a wave of writers who embraced environment- and disease-related explanations precisely when historians concluded that the written record had confirmed the deplorable misdeeds of Columbus and his confederates.

For these contrarians, 1492 marked the beginning of an age where groups of people across the world began to create a global world-system. Or at least their ruling classes did. The old narrative of conquest, violence, and atrocity was thus transformed into a story where elites made modernity, the popular struggles waged against them receding into the background.

Changing perceptions about Native American societies played an interesting role in the development of this globalization narrative.

Until the mid-twentieth century, the lack of interest in Native American history helped perpetuate myths about indigenous society and culture as a romantic Eden, subsequently corrupted by the sins of Europe.

Yet indigenous societies were quite stratified — especially those of the Aztecs and Incans. Far from egalitarian paradises, such societies had a clear elite class that exploited subordinate groups.

The myths about a Native American Eden came less from the writings of people living in 1492 and more from naturalists, philosophers, and scientists of the nineteenth century, who painted a blissful image of the “Indian” as ineluctably in tune with nature, lost to those who were “civilized.”

But as that rosy view began to crumble, uglier depictions took its place. Now some historians describe the Aztecs as a “culture obsessed with death.” Even more astute historians mistake the grotesque actions and behaviors of the elite ruling class as representative of Native American societies as a whole.

At the same time, crusading Spaniards are increasingly offered apologetics, or even hailed for their ostensible benevolence.

The chief example is Bartolomé de las Casas — “Defender of the Indies.” While de las Casas freed his slaves — and dedicated nearly half a century to fighting for Native Americans in the courts of Valladolid, Barcelona, and Seville — he kept his critiques of colonial endeavors confined to violent outbreaks. He still clung to a belief in Christian authority, whose supremacy Native Americans challenged when they asked why crosses came at the barrels of guns. Even the historian most responsible for our current knowledge and study of Las Casas — Lewis Hanke — saw the Bishop as representing the more benevolent elements of Hispanic conquest.

Whether or not the Spanish monarchy was in favor of providing good treatment for their vassals, it is clear the enforcement of such treatment was not a high priority. The only time the Crown contested abuses and atrocities in the Caribbean — and later New Spain — was when they coincided with larger struggles of authority over an increasingly restless American Spanish elite.

In short, rather than supplying a more nuanced view of Spanish conquest, the revival of Las Casas’s intellectual writings has conveniently obscured questions of actual brutality.

Human Terms, Political Stakes

So if the prevailing narrative is lacking, what’s a more accurate depiction?

Let me offer a counter-synthesis: in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed across the Caribbean, intending to land in the richest part of Asia. Mistakenly believing he had accomplished his task, Columbus reported back that it was only a matter of time before the Crown could collect on its investment.

On his return journey, Columbus brought back six Native American slaves, ushering in a network of Native American slavery throughout the Spanish world (and replicating what Europeans had done on the Mediterranean for centuries).

Realizing that the Spaniards intended to establish a permanent presence and brutally exploit them, Native American groups like the Taíno and the Caribs fought back, joined by African slaves brought to the Caribbean. The failure to find gold in Hispaniola, compounded by mounting debt and an increasingly scarce supply of food, drove the colonists to desperation. And Native Americans paid the price. While diseases exacerbated the number of casualties, the primary cause of death for Native Americans, especially between 1492 and 1550, was enslavement, famine, and exhaustion.

This might have been the end of the story: a failure to colonize the Caribbean. But Hernan Cortés, in defiance of Cuban governor Diego Velázquez, sailed from the Caribbean to Veracruz, where he docked — and subsequently sank — the ships that had brought his crew. With only one way forward, Cortés’ group, flanked and subsumed by an independent Tlaxcalan army, invaded Tenochtitlan. The heart of the Aztec Empire fell to Spanish rule.

More than likely, Aztec and Incan societies were themselves predicated on social stratification between elite and commoner classes, with the former paying the latter in taxes and tribute. Such a structure was largely co-opted by the Spaniards, who became the system’s ultimate benefactors.

While directly connecting this moment to the development of a world-system of capital is difficult, the violent struggle between Spanish and English conquistadors and intellectuals undoubtedly sustained the countries in their wars on the European continent. What’s more, this exploitation gave Europe the time and space it needed to finally catch up with regions like China and pull ahead of Native cities like Tenochtitlan and Cuzco. The cost, however, was millions of Native American lives and an expansive and racialized slavery regime the likes of which the world had never seen.

Parts of this narrative are debatable; it is not meant to be the story of the Americas. But it is a narrative that is debatable in human terms, with political stakes. Disease, environments, and technology are part of the story, but each requires a particular political will to be potent aspects.

It is a narrative of moral culpability, and political motivations. And if it bears on modern political discussions, it does so only when we ask what decisions humans make to help or hurt one another.

So happy Columbus Day. Donate your time and energy today to building something Columbus stood firmly against: a society based on the fundamental humanity of all.