Thanks to social media, we now know that Christopher Columbus was the only person who ever mistreated anyone in the history of the world. Everywhere we read that Columbus was a cruel tyrant of a man who facilitated slavery, wanted nothing but gold, and brought about a genocide of a people. To read these narratives, it would seem that Columbus was a man capable only of evil, that no one in his day opposed his cruelty, and nothing good ever came from his efforts.
For those who aren’t quite eager to believe the revisionist fancies found across the Internet, here is some perspective on the anti-Columbus outrage from the authority on Western cultural history, Jacques Barzun:
The outcry in the United States denouncing Columbus during his 500th anniversary year takes us back to Madrid around 1540; for contrary to common opinion, the concern about exploitation of the natives dates almost from the beginning of Spanish colonization. Queen Isabella herself condemned the abuse and issued edicts against it; so did Charles V. The strongest of the protesters, Bartolome de Las Casas, had continual access to the emperor and aroused the public by his vehement writings. In “New Spain” itself, the clergy and the religious orders, Dominican and Jesuit, were active opponents of the evils of forced labor and lawless brutality. By Charles’s legislation these were crimes with definite penalties attached; enforcement was the difficulty: it depended on the character of the officials on the spot. Preaching the truth that these “Indians” were not red devils but fellow men loved by God even though they were not Christians could influence but few. The men and women who left the homeland for America were a mixed lot with mixed motives; on Columbus’s second voyage were “ten convicted murderers and two Gypsy women.”
From the 2000 masterpiece, From Dawn to Decadence, by Jacques Barzun.
The conquistadors’ impelling goals have been summarized as “Gold, Glory, and the Gospel.” At any time, neither Gold nor Glory is a respecter of persons, and Gospel occasionally sins; together they do their worst when the scene is vast and sparsely populated, when communication is slow and policing haphazard. If we think back to the western frontier of the United States down to 1890, we find not exactly anarchy but free-wheeling crime and violence that took its toll of lives and goods, and sent not a few venturers scuttling back to the relatively civil order of the Midwest.
The Spanish colonists committed atrocities from greed and racist contempt that nothing can palliate or excuse. But to blame Columbus is a piece of retrospective lynching; he was not the master criminal inspiring all the rest. It is moreover a mistake to think that because the native peoples were the sufferers, all of them were peaceable innocents. The Caribs whom Columbus first encountered had fought and displaced the Anawaks who occupied the islands. The Aztecs whom Cortez conquered had originally descended from the north and destroyed the previous civilization. To the north and east many of the tribes lived in perpetual warfare, the strong exploiting the weak, and several — notably the Iroquois — had slaves. In short, what happened on the newfound hemisphere in early modern times continued the practice of the old: in ancient Greece alien tribes marching in from the north; likewise in the making of the Roman Empire, in the peopling of the British Isles by Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and Normans; in France, Italy, and Spain by Franks, Normans, Lombards, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and later by Arabs. Everywhere the story is one of invasion, killing, rape, and plunder and occupation of the land that belonged to the vanquished. Today, this fusion or dispersion of peoples and cultures by means of death and destruction is abhorred in principle but flourishing in fact. Africa, the Middle and Far East, and South Central Europe are still theaters of conquest and massacre. And Columbus is not the responsible party.