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Monday, October 14, 2013

Why We Must Sue Native Americans This Columbus Day

521 years ago, Cristóbal Colón stepped off his ship and onto the shore of San Salvador (Bahamas). This first step, which was arguably the most influential "first step" in world history (rivaled only by Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon), inaugurated a new era of European settlement and discovery in what became known as the "New World." It also sparked a debate that has, for good and for bad, continued with us for over half a millennia.

The paradox that is Christopher Columbus is one of the most polarizing and puzzling in all the annals of human history.  He is loved and hated by millions across the world who hail him as both a brave explorer and a cruel tyrant.  Speaking for myself, I have, over the years, had my own struggles when trying to reconcile Columbus with my own interpretation of what is right and wrong (you can read a couple of older posts here and here).  But regardless of how we may feel about Columbus, the truth of the matter is that none of us will ever truly be able to know or understand the man who has become synonymous with controversy.

Over the past five centuries, Christopher Columbus has been accused of a plethora of crimes ranging from theft to genocide.  Columbus' prowess as a navigator was matched only by his ineptitude as a governor.  And make no mistake; Columbus' inability to effectively lead is a catalyst for much of the controversy that surrounds his legacy today.

But there is a far deeper and uglier controversy that has gone overlooked these past five centuries. It's a controversy that has evolved to become a corporate conspiracy involving billions of dollars in revenue, at the cost of millions who have died horrible deaths.  It is a conspiracy that ushered in centuries of slavery and addiction and despite our best efforts, has no apparent end in sight.  

In his journal entry of October 15, 1492, Columbus wrote:
We met a man in a canoe going from Santa Maria to Fernandina; he had with him a piece of bread whice the natives make, as big as one's fist, a calabash of water . . . and some dried leaves which are in high value among them, for a quantity of it was brought to me at San Salvador (my emphasis).
A few days later a landing party Columbus had sent ashore returned to report that the natives "drank the smoke" of those curious dried leaves. This was astonishing to the Europeans who had never seen anything like smoking before. For a long time they were puzzled and disgusted by this strange habit. But soon they, too, would be drinking smoke from those leaves, and spreading the plant and the habit of smoking it all over the known world.

Yes, it was the innocent Native Americans (whom Columbus later pillaged and subjugated to the yoke of slavery), who first introduced tobacco to the European world, inaugurating an era of chemical dependency and lung cancer.  For future generations of European settlers, it was tobacco that became the dominant cash crop that sustained these communities, many of which employed imported Black slaves to plant and care for this new found addiction.

And, as we are all aware, tobacco has remained to this day, evolving to become a multi-billion dollar a year industry.  Thanks to the Native Americans, more than 5 million Europeans die every year due to tobacco use.  Tobacco-related illnesses cost the American economy, on average, $193 billion a year ($97 billion in lost productivity plus $96 billion in health care expenditures). Yes, thanks to these first Native Americans, who clearly bamboozled an innocent and naive Christopher Columbus, we today must suffer from the physical, financial and psychological impact caused by their poisonous product!

It is for this reason that I call for an unprecedented class action lawsuit against all Native American people.  If they would have only kept those dried leaves to themselves instead of sharing them with our guiltless ancestors, we today would not have to suffer from the bondage that is tobacco addiction! Clearly the fault rests with them and compensation for this atrocity is more than overdue.

Let's Keep It Real Now

Ok, hopefully my tongue-in-cheek commentary won't be taken literally by too many people.  I'm not advocating that we sue Native Americans, nor do I blame them for the millions of cases of tobacco addiction that have plagued humanity over the centuries.  But I do hope that this ridiculous argument will help to highlight some of the nuances of the history of "first contact" between Columbus and the native people of the "New World."

It is both easy and convenient for us to place all of the blame for the atrocities committed against Native Americans at the feet of Christopher Columbus.  After all, he's a PERFECT scapegoat. Like any significant figure from history, Christopher Columbus was a complicated character.  He exudes characteristics that are both admirable and appalling.  As stated earlier, Columbus' prowess as a navigator is only matched by his ineptitude as a governor.  He is both fire and ice; saint and sinner; hero and villain.  The hero who "discovered" a new world and ushered in an era of exploration and colonization was eventually destined to die as a poor and destitute scoundrel whose legacy was never fully understood by his contemporaries or by subsequent generations of scholars who both revere and rebuke his accomplishments.    
   
Much of the problem with understanding Columbus' true nature and legacy has to do with the historical sin of "presentism."  To project modern day standards of morality and conduct onto those of the past is akin to contaminating a crime scene.  Our desire to play Monday Morning Quarterback with Columbus' legacy actually does more to distort true history than anything.  In the same way that each individual is to blame for his/her own tobacco addiction, we must judge Columbus by the standards of his time and according to the world as he saw it.

Columbus was a religious fanatic.  He believed that the end times were just around the corner and that it was his job (and the job of all other good Christians) to vehemently defend the Kingdom of God.  His quest for a new route to the "Indies," which he effectively sold to Queen Isabella, was also motivated by his desire to finance a new crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the infidel Muslims (who had just been kicked out of Spain a year earlier).  Columbus was also a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The pious Spanish crown was eager to take advantage of his zeal, and a newly-invented Gutenberg press was more than ready to spread his story far and wide.

Columbus represents the end of Medieval thinking rather than the dawn of early Enlightenment thinking.  His mystical world must be understood through the lens of his quest to do God's will more than anything else.  And make no mistake, Columbus believed he was on a mission from God.  As he stated in a letter to Queen Isabella:
With a hand that could be felt...the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project. This was the fire that burned within me when I came to visit Your Highnesses...Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Scriptures.
During his 3rd and 4th voyages, Columbus composed his "Book of Prophesies" which he believed proved his role as "Christ-bearer."  Many historians dismiss these writings as proof of Columbus' insanity but such a dismissal is irresponsible.  These writings help us to better understand the man v. the cultural myth. As Historian De Mar Jensen points out:
The Book of Prophecies was not the ranting of a sick mind. It was the work of a religious man who was not afraid to put his ideas into action and his own life into jeopardy. Columbus knew the scriptures as well as he knew the sea, and he saw a connection between the two. The central theme of his book was that God had sketched in the Bible His plan for the salvation of all mankind and that he, Columbus, was playing a role assigned to him in that plan.
In the book’s first section, Columbus presents a collection of sixty-five psalms that deal with his two major themes: the salvation of the world and the rebuilding of Zion. He calls special attention to several verses in the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah that speak of the Gentiles as a people chosen to inherit the Holy Temple, their conversion in the last days, and the gathering to Zion. The inheritance of the Gentiles is further cited from St. Augustine, whose quoting of Ps. 22:27 is paraphrased by Columbus as “All the ends of the earth and all the islands shall be converted to the Lord.” After quoting Matt. 24:14, Columbus comments that the gospel has been preached to three parts of the earth (Asia, Africa, and Europe) and now must be preached to the fourth part. The second section of the Book of Prophecies concerns prophecies already fulfilled. The theme is the ancient greatness of Jerusalem and its subsequent fall.
In the next section, Columbus deals with prophecies of the present and near future, emphasizing the theme of salvation for all nations. Isaiah is cited frequently. Columbus then furnishes several texts from the New Testament: Matthew 2:1–2; 8:11 [Matt. 2:1–2; Matt. 8:11]; Luke 1:48; and notably John 10:16, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”
The final section of the book deals with prophecies of the last days, which Columbus introduces by calling attention to Jeremiah 25 [Jer. 25], where the prophet predicts the restoration of Jerusalem prior to the Final Judgment. Finally, he quotes twenty-six scriptures that refer to the islands of the sea and their part in the last days.
With this construct in mind, I believe we can better understand why Columbus was the way he was and why both his successes and failures carried with them so much weight.  Whenever you invoke the name of God and hold yourself up as one of His chosen servants, you carry with it serious and long-lasting repercussions.  It also help us to see that painting Columbus with wide (and modern day) brush strokes is about as idiotic as blaming Native Americans for tobacco addiction.

I for one am grateful for the legacy and contributions of Cristóbal Colón, for they remind us that the line between success and failure, hero and villain is thinner than we think.  Columbus Day serves to remind me that judgement really is in the eye of the beholder.  It is easy (and perhaps in some instances appropriate) to cast stones at Columbus for his mistakes, but in the end, it was he who had the foresight to cross a frontier that all others saw as too daunting.  Such is the case with heroes.  Heroes receive all the praise and acclaim when they make the last second shot, but also reap all the blame when they miss; a reality that Columbus understood all too well.

The legacy of Christopher Columbus will probably always be shrouded in controversy and mystery. In no way is my humble little blog post going to fix that.  But I do hope it helps to illustrate that the true history of Columbus is found in the nuances of history as opposed to the grandiose claims of heroism and villainy.  To throw out blanket claims of genocide, racism and brutality is akin to blaming Native Americans for all tobacco addiction.  It's our luxury to analyze the man with 500+ years of history at our disposal, but in the end, it was Columbus who had the vision to venture out into the undiscovered country. As Columbus himself stated:
You cannot discover a new world unless you first have the courage to lose sight of the shore. 

6 comments:

Brian Tubbs said...

This is a very well-written article, Brad. In my brief comments, I just want to highlight a couple points that resonated with me...

First, your tongue-in-cheek suggestion that we sue Native Americans for getting modern-day North Americans hooked on tobacco cleverly shows the fallacious "logic" behind much of the extremism we get from angry revisionists drinking the Howard Zinn Kool-Aid and/or who vociferously argue for reparations to be paid them due to sins committed centuries ago. Well done.

Second, when it comes to judging Columbus' legacy, this line in your essay struck me: "Much of the problem with understanding Columbus' true nature and legacy has to do with the historical sin of 'presentism.' To project modern day standards of morality and conduct onto those of the past is akin to contaminating a crime scene."

What your article refers to as "presentism," the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery." It's the underlying premise of liberal progressivism, namely that each generation is (more or less) intrinsically superior to all previous generations, particularly when it comes to matters of morality. If we accept this premise (and I do not), then it's incredibly easy, while also shamelessly arrogant and audacious, for us to so casually dispense moral judgment on people living in such a different time and in very different circumstances. This is all the more outrageous and hypocritical when some of the most vocal critics of Columbus (i.e., liberals) tend to be moral and cultural relativists in political, social, and sexual debates today.

There are only two legitimate ways to "judge" Columbus. If you're a cultural and moral relativist, then to be fair, you must judge Columbus against the standards of HIS day, particularly those to which he himself claimed to adhere. If you believe in God (as do I), then you look to God's morality which transcends all people, all places, and all time - and assess Columbus' actions objectively according to that standard, while (at the same time) judging yourself objectively and CONSISTENTLY against the same standard.

Personally, I believe Columbus deserves credit for being an innovative thinker, inspiring visionary, and courageous explorer. But there are dark aspects to his legacy which we should not ignore. I am sympathetic to those who say we shouldn't have a "Columbus Day." Since we still don't officially have a holiday for Abraham Lincoln and have rendered George Washington's Birthday shallow and meaningless by piling all the other Presidents on it with "President's Day," it's hard for me to argue that Columbus deserves a holiday more than those two men.

Naum said...

Eh, this is a terrible metaphor and one that is simply offensive to many (and not just to those of native American descent).

And @Brian, your comments smacks of hypocrisy, in calling out *liberals* for relativistic thinking, yet the defense of Columbus (making allowances for him because of the zeitgeist of the age, etc.) is a more vivid example of relativism than all the hogwash I hear from contemporary conservatives on liberals.

Here was the 14C Spanish mandate on how they dealt with native populations:

[i]I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do no do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make then slaves … The deaths and injuries that you will receive form here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me. [/i]

And despite the Zinn bashing, Zinn's chapter on Columbus is based upon the original source - Columbus diaries

Here is Las Casas:

Endless testimonies . .. prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives.... But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then.... The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians....

And Zinn is correct when he write:

To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves- unwittingly-to justify what was done. My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)-that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.

Naum said...

Er, meant 15C, and messed up the italics on the mandate blurb…

Equating discovery of tobacco with genocide, even done tongue in cheek is really twisted. And yes, different times, but genocide is genocide. Somehow we don't make that distinction with 20C butchers (oh that Hitler/Stalin were just misguided products of their time… ;))

You're going to retort that a preposterous, but only because you fail to see how the seepage of white culture/privilege colors your historical perspective.

Brian Tubbs said...

Naum,

I actually do NOT consider Christopher Columbus a hero. In fact, I would concede he is closer to the villain camp than the hero camp. But I make that assessment because of an objective moral standard, namely the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God" (as Thomas Jefferson called it).

What I was trying to point out in my article is that most secular liberals (not all liberals, mind you) reject God's existence (or at least relevance) and thereby undercut any credible claim to any kind of objective moral standard. Morality sans God becomes nothing more than individual preference or societal/cultural convention. And if THAT is the case, then why criticize Columbus at all? As Brad points out in his essay, Columbus acted more or less according to his belief system(s). Why is it that we automatically assume ours is superior to his?

Once again, though, let me be clear...I agree with you, Naum, that genocide is genocide and cruely is cruelty. And I think Brad does as well. And, yes, Columbus needs to carry some serious responsibility for those things. They are a part of his legacy. For these reasons, I do not consider him a hero and I do not support him having a holiday. But I make that critique of Columbus based on an objective standard of morality (namely, God's moral laws) and not on the shifting sands of moral and cultural relativism.

Brian Tubbs said...

I said "article" in my above comment. I meant "comment on Brad's article."

Brad Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.