Friday, October 10

Demythologizing Columbus

1. Several sources make much out of the “fact” that Columbus “captured” more than 500 Native Americans on his second voyage to bring back to Isabella and Ferdinand. The problem with this much-repeated “fact” is that the second voyage included only 17 ships, each carrying less than 100 men. The crew numbered 1,200 alone—so, there was hardly room for another 50 souls, much less 500. Do the math. To be sure some Tainos Islanders were brought aboard ship and taken back to Castile and Aragon, but not as slaves. Rather, they were brought back more as exotic, foreign emissaries and representatives--the objects of both curiosity and evangelism.

2. It is often mentioned that Columbus brought his “captives” back from the second voyage in 1494 to be sold in the slave markets of Seville. The problem is that those markets did not open or receive royal sanction until 1508. Columbus died in 1506.

3. On the third voyage, his close friend and personal secretary, the young Bartolomé de las Casas, began reworking the transcripts of Columbus’ logs—which is the sole source of virtually all of the Admiral’s writings. Years later, de las Casas would become the fiercest critic of the emerging imperialistic slave trade amongst the Castilian and Aragonese conquistadors. Interestingly, in his scathing and encyclopedic books exposing the horrors of chattel slavery, he never once criticized Columbus—or even implicated him to any degree. To de las Casas, Columbus always remained a Christian hero--flawed, like any other sinner, but a hero nonetheless.

1 comment:

Deidrel said...

I never heard those myths, and it seems likely that whatever Columbus said about slaves was rhetorical and politically motivated, but Columbus was an idiot at best. How else could Michel de Cuneo state that a native woman had been "given" to him by Columbus, to share his quarters on the ship? (She was, unsurprisingly, beaten and forcibly raped into submission, as Michel cooly recounts). I understand there wasn't much room on the ships, and that Columbus didn't always have good control of his crews, but.. no. How can there be an excuse?