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It’s time to tear down Christopher Columbus

By Christian Lowry, October 15 2021—

The destruction or vandalism of at least 33 statues of Christopher Columbus during the anti-racist protests of 2020 was deemed “cancel culture” or “political correctness” by conservative media commentators such as Michael Graham, Ophelie Jacobson and Christine Flowers. Whether Columbus’s role and influence in the erasure of Indigenous nations, his unelected rule over his dominions, the later construction of 149 public statues in his likeness across the United States, the 1938 institution of Columbus Day as a federal holiday, the naming of Ohio’s capital city and the District of Columbia (in which the U.S. capital of Washington resides) after him also constitutes “political correctness” or “cancel culture” is rarely considered. 

A brief recounting of Columbus’ misdeeds is in order. For example, in February 1495, he launched a slave-catching raid in which he attempted to take 1,600 people, but could only fit 550 on the ships he and his men had with them. The 400 whom no settler wanted were allowed to go free and “in order the better to escape us […] left their infants anywhere on the ground and started to flee like desperate people.” The living conditions of enslaved people on the ships were abominable. Of those taken, 200 (or 36 per cent) died before reaching Europe and most of the rest died soon after. In short, he founded the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Nor was this the only such incident. In 1499, 300 Spanish settlers returned across the Atlantic to Seville, each with an enslaved Indigenous person gifted by Columbus. In May alone, another 600 enslaved people arrived aboard five of Columbus’s ships. Nor were enslaved people simply sent across the Atlantic — the entirety of the Indigenous population was subjected to some kind of servitude. To turn a profit, Columbus struck a bargain with Indigenous leaders who recognized the authority of the Crown, in which Spanish troops would be required to remain in the settlements they built if Indigenous leaders would exact payments of gold from Indigenous people in Spanish mines and on farms. The quotas were never met, since they toiled for so long that they did not have time to procure food, resulting in mass starvation from 1494 through 1496. Columbus himself wrote that in the vicinity of the settlement of Cibao, two-thirds of the 50,000 enslaved people there died of hunger without fulfilling their quota.

In the minds of the Spanish, the enslaved people could do more than the harsh manual labour that the colonizers thought beneath them. A letter home from one of Columbus’ men describes how the “Lord Admiral” Columbus gifted him an Indigenous woman, whose beating and rape he boasts of in graphic detail. Perhaps the most chilling result of his life was briefly alluded to by Columbus himself in a letter written in 1500. He recalled, “A hundred Castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten [years old] are now in demand.” In a free enough market, anything (and anyone) is for sale. 

This gruesome résumé has not stopped admirers such as Steven Crowder from praising him because he “brought civilization” to Indigenous peoples. In 2017, conservative firebrand Michael Knowles postulated that Columbus’ crimes were fabricated by Francisco de Bobadilla, Columbus’ successor as governor of Hispaniola, to obtain Columbus’ prestigious job. Unfortunately, Knowles forgets that Bobadilla had been selected by the Crown to fill Columbus’ position in May 1499, before ever arriving in the Americas. Hence, he had no reason to slander his predecessor. Bobadilla also had access to 21 enslaved Indigenous people who had lived under Columbus but were freed in Spain, with fresh memories of conditions in the New World. Nineteen traveled back to the colonies with Bobadilla. Another source is Michele de Cuneo, a Genoese nobleman and guest of Columbus, who wrote detailed letters home describing events.

As stated previously, Columbus himself left behind many descriptions of life under his boot, and did not minimize, deny, or excuse the bloody results. He certainly didn’t shy away from slavery. For instance, in one letter, written soon after his first voyage to the Americas, he enthusiastically promised the Spanish monarchs “gold as much as [they] may need,” “as many slaves as they order to be shipped” and “a thousand other things of value.” In his diary entry of Dec. 16, 1492, he opined, “[The Indigenous peoples] are fit to be ordered about and made to work, plant and do everything else that may be needed and build towns and be taught our customs.”

It is hard to see why many are so attached to Columbus. It is increasingly known that he did not discover the Americas in any sense of the word. That distinction belongs to the Indigenous peoples already living there. As Noam Chomsky remarked in a 1992 interview, “One can discover an uninhabited area, but not one in which people live. If I travel to Mexico, I can’t write an article entitled ‘The Discovery of Mexico.’” One could not even make the less forceful case for Columbus discovering the Americas from the European perspective, since that honour belongs to Norse explorers who landed in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 10th century. And even if Columbus had been the first European to make landfall on the Americas, his alleged accomplishments could have been achieved without the genocidal oppression that followed.

Nor did Columbus play a decisive role in creating our modern world. It was created over many centuries and millennia by workers who, in the words of the early anarcho-communist writer Peter Kropotkin, “cleared the land, dried the marshes, pierced the forests, made roads […] created complex machinery and wrested […] secrets from Nature.” He adds that “Millions of human beings have laboured to create this civilization on which we pride ourselves to-day. Other millions, scattered through the globe, labour to maintain it. Without them, nothing would be left in fifty years but ruins.” Those who defend Columbus in such a way don’t clarify where his accomplishments end and those of others begin, moving the goalposts as they see fit.

Oddly, many apologists hold him responsible for all the marvels and wonders of modern society five centuries after his time, while they acquit him of all responsibility for the atrocities during his rule. One cannot have it both ways. Many, including Knowles, also praise the irrelevant skills of Columbus, such as his talent for sailing, his persistence, his faith, his success in the face of all odds in “discovering” new lands, and so on. But these are not much different than defending Adolf Hitler for being a gifted politician and they are of no greater value when assessing Columbus’s place in history.

One of the most puzzling defences of Columbus is that he was merely a “product of his time,” as one Huffington Post contributor calls him. Others, such as Jack Sanderson, call Columbus a “man of his age” and say that he “should be judged by the standards of his own time instead of ours.” Steven Crowder claims that the slavery under Columbus was “an incredible evil” but one “accepted by [the] society of his day,” before praising him as a “hero.”

This seems like a particularly odd way to excuse the actions of Columbus, since apologists point out how incredible his achievements were for their time. The idea that no universal moral values existed at the time is absurd. By no means was Columbus the only product of his time. For every victimizer who has no moral values, there are one or more victims. No great philosophical leaps are needed to understand why force had to be used to subdue Indigenous peoples. Indeed, Columbus compared their innocence and tranquillity with his own cruelty, noting that the Indigenous people he met knew so little of conflict or even weapons that they “took them [the Spanish swords] by the edge and through ignorance cut themselves,” adding that “with 50 men all of them could be held in subjection and can be made to do whatever one might wish.” 

Humanity did not suddenly discover its moral compass with the discovery of the Holocaust in 1945, the abolition of slavery in 1865 or of the slave trade in 1807, the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776, the philosophers of the Enlightenment, or even with the promulgation of the Golden Rule by Jesus, the Buddha and other ancient figures. They simply gave voice to the underlying moral minimum felt by all people in all periods and places of history — namely that pleasure is desirable and suffering is not. “Products of their time” like Columbus would be regarded as evildoers in any era by most people who knew of them. They knew what they were doing was wrong and didn’t care. Giving consideration only to the morality of the conquerors is a convenient dodge when one’s society, pride and privilege rest on the suffering of others. 

My view of people like Christopher Columbus is best stated by Noam Chomsky, who said at the height of the Vietnam War that, by civilly discussing human rights abuses instead of protesting with all one’s energy, “one degrades oneself and to some degree loses one’s humanity.” Indeed, to even view Columbus neutrally is a sign of great moral uncertainty in a person, as though one is undecided on the wrongness of slavery, murder, rape and pillage. 

The world he and his successors created for Indigenous peoples includes smallpox, mass expulsion from their land, subsequent ghettoization in the most remote fractions of it (or “reservations), concentration camps politely known as “residential schools,” systematic poverty, radioactive waste dumping, crime, forced sterilization, rampant drug addiction and alcoholism, missing and murdered women, underfunded public services, legal discrimination, unemployment, cheap labour, intergenerational psychological trauma, suicide, oil spills, sexual assault, boiled water advisories, illegal government surveillance and varying levels of indifference, patronization and hatred from much of settler society for their trouble.

Steven Crowder adds, “Sure, Christopher Columbus had his faults. The man wasn’t perfect.” Yet nobody has demanded perfection. What people ask for is the bare minimum for decent human conduct and Columbus fails the request in almost every way.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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