Columbus and the Indigenous Peoples

Christopher_Columbus

The fair city of Seattle recently abolished Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.It is tempting, then to embark on an impassioned polemic about how Columbus was either a monster to be reviled or bemoan the continual attacks on our traditions from those ornery and persistently unassimilated minorities. As much fun as that sort of moral masturbation is, I’d like to tread a slightly different path. That is, was the figure of Christopher Columbus unique or, more fundamentally, was he even significant?

When we look at the historical man, we need to appreciate that Columbus was indeed pretty nasty in his dealings with the natives. He supervised systemized rape campaigns, murdered willy-nilly and enslaved like some unholy hybrid of Jefferson Davis and Caligula. It only gets worse when we consider the specifics of these outrages. There are stories involving literally barbequing human beings, for exmple.  If that’s not a 9.995 on the bastard scale, I don’t know what is.

Or is it that cut and dried? How much of the moral condemnation we point at Columbus a reflection of the fact that we, safely ensconced in the 21st century, do not stand to profit by murdering Native Americans and taking their things? If you believe that we moderns differ from our ancestors only in the sense of culture, if you don’t think we have somehow genetically evolved better morals in the last 500 years (evolutionarily a blink of the eye), then there’s a simple test we can apply. Have there ever been situations analogous to North America’s discovery that did not end in mass outrages at the expense of the Native American analogs? What would a Native American analog look like?

The first thing I’d suggest is to look at the relative power of the groups. Columbus had guns, the Taino (Cuban natives) had weapons made from stone and bone. Columbus had galleons, the Taino had dugout canoes. Columbus had access to the collected, written wisdom of hundreds of civilizations and thousands of years, the Taino had village elders. Columbus’ backers sent him forth with the things learned from the Arab Golden age – an unmatched fountain of mathematics and medicine, the Romans – the greatest empire builders in history, and the Mongol Hordes – the greatest military power the earth had seen to that point. The natives countered with illiteracy and a lifestyle just sedentary enough to make them easy targets. If the Portugese were a mixture of Ghengis Khan, Julius Caesar and Saladin, the Taino were Teletubbies.

The second thing I’d suggest in our search for analogs is the value of the weaker party’s land. In the case of the Taino, the land was unfortunately very valuable. Gold, at first, then tobacco and sugar and slaves. If the Native Americans had been luckier, if their land had sucked a little big more, they could have perhaps hoped for an existence like that enjoyed (possibly enjoyed?) by the Sentinel Islanders or Deep Amazonian tribes.

So relative weakness and valuable land – is it possible to survive this combination? As far as I can tell, no. It wasn’t fun to be an Ainu when the modern Japanese showed up. Being a Hottentot during the time of the Zulu meant slavery was the high end of your possible life outcomes. Being a Bushman in the land of Hottentots meant you were literally hunted for sport. Being a Lapp when the Scandinavians showed up had outcomes ranging from slaughter to concentration camps. Mass rape and only killing the males was a good outcome, comparatively, when the Mongols met the medieval Slavs. The Mauri would straight up eat you. Belgians treated Congolese a lot like cattle, except that you wouldn’t intentionally cripple a cow. Meeting the Aztecs as a hunter gatherer usually ended with a trip to the top of a blood stained pyramid and it’s difficult to imagine a fate worse than that met by the Australian aborigines.

But surely it can be better. A morally righteous discoverer would take these weaker people under his arm and protect them. He would recognize that his greater strength comes from his luck and treat the aborigines with respect and brotherhood. He would not be tempted by the riches or the ease with which those riches could be stolen. He would recognize the humanity of these walking bullseyes and treat them as equals, right? Even if such a person existed, I know of literally zero instances of a weak civilization with resources meeting a strong civilization and escaping obliteration. Perhaps this hypothetical good Columbus could convince his poor, uneducated and ambitious crewmen not to ransack and, doing so, make themselves minor nobles. Perhaps he would not face mutiny for leaving gold behind on the beaches. Perhaps he could be that inspirational, but how could even this Jesus-figure prevent the kings and queens back home from sending a normal human being next time?

The conclusion here, if you accept my premises, is that the Native Americans were doomed in direct proportion to their weakness. If they were the Taino and wholly unable to fight back, that meant wholesale destruction. If they were the Sioux and capable of continued nuisance, it meant oppression short of obliteration. If they were a civilization like Inca, it meant a much gentler process. Not because the Inca were morally better (which is irrelevant), but because they had a much greater capacity to retaliate. If they were the Aztec or Tlaxcalans and really capable of retaliating, it meant becoming nominally Catholic and settling in as the mayors and aldermen of a preferable political order under token Spanish governance.

 

None of this is to imply that Columbus was a good guy, it’s to go several steps further and say it doesn’t matter if he was good or bad. Or in other words, we should change the old saying “the wages of sin are death.” It seems to me the wages of weakness are death.

 

 

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12 comments

  1. I’ve never heard of the so-called atrocities by Columbus? Is it some revisionist libtard nonsense history? I doubt if there are any actual records to verify. However, here’s what I do know. It is very common to broadly criminalize ethnic groups, and it is too often done to Italian-Americans. I often wonder if that is the true motivation behind the criminalization of Columbus.
    If Columbus were black, Hispanic, Asian, or female, this path would never be taken among academia to besmirch his legacy.

    1. He did massacre and BBQ people but, the point I was trying to make, is that those things would have probably happened regardless of who discovered North America.

      Being the much weaker party when two groups meet, particularly when you are sitting on valuable resources, means that you are going to die, if you accept my thesis.

  2. I would like to know the source of that information.

    1. “They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things… They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

      “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”

      “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” (Referring to the natives of Trinidad.)

      Source – letters from Columbus in his own hand.

      BBQ of natives and cutting off hands/noses.
      http://www.wdl.org/en/item/515/view/1/199/

      http://www.wdl.org/en/item/515/view/1/201/

      Bartolome de las Casas.

      As for why Europeans appear almost exclusively on the “Evil Imperialists” list – it’s because they had the power. If you don’t have power, there is no chance of you using power to commit atrocities.

      That was the entire point of the article. Columbus’ moral makeup is irrelevant and those natives were gonna get barbecued no matter who discovered them.

    2. More Bartelomo de 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…. “ Las Casas describes how Spaniards rode on the backs of natives. How the Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas adds “two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.”

      The wages of weakness is death.

  3. It is generally understood that De Las Casas was known for exaggerating. Also, this was a period of intense “Cold-war” between the Catholic Spanish and the Protestant Dutch and English. They were known for taking any smidgen of information that could be used against Catholicism and utterly blow it out of proportion.
    I say this because I noticed that some of the woodcuts for De Las Casas stories were made by Flemish artists. The Spaniards actually refer to these stories as “The Black Legend”.
    I’ll have to look into this a bit more.

  4. I enjoyed this back and forth very much. The Tainos, the indigenous tribes of the Caribbean, were wiped out, by the way, and this cannot be denied. We are all displaced by these people and their decisions and subsequent actions.

    1. I enjoyed it, too. Thanks for your engagement. 🙂

      The solution, in my mind, is not to morally judge the conquerors (or spotlight stealing husbands, as the case may be), but to simply put everything we have into not being Taino.

      Weakness is like a magnet drawing knives and arrows to itself, and no amount of moral disapproval is going to change that, in my opinion.

      1. I understand your point, and will certainly think about it.

    1. You have one hour to comment further or I delete your link.

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