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. 


Tom Van Dyke said...

Columbus represents the end of Medieval thinking rather than the dawn of early Enlightenment thinking.

It's good to set the historical record right so that we don't romanticize Christopher Columbus. However, it may be that Europe's crimes committed in the New World are more a function of the modern world than of the medieval--religion [the Church] becomes powerless to thwart the will of the state.

This certainly does not mean that the relations between church and state were devoid of conflicts, or that the Pope always agreed to remain a spectator at the margins of the exceptional historical drama unfolding in the Americas. In 1537, Pope Paul III enacted the bull "Sublimis Deus," in which he used very strong language to call for the recognition and respect of the humanity and freedom of the autochthonous communities. The Pope also sent a brief to the Archbishop of Toledo, Pastorale officium, urging the highest ecclesiastical hierarch of Spain to protect the liberties and rights of the Native Americans.[45] The reaction of the court of Charles V was swift and energetic, forcing the Pope to retract, in 1538. The traumatic events of the May 1527 sack of Rome, in which the imperial troops rampaged through the city, looted everything they could, and humbled ignominiously the Vicarius Christi, were still painfully fresh in the memory of the Roman authorities and prescribed supreme prudence before engaging in any possible confrontation with the Emperor.

The savagery in the New World is a destruction of medieval ideals, not an embodiment of them.

Brad Hart said...

I think that when it came to European colonization of the New World you are probably right, Tom, but speaking of Columbus in particular, I still see him as a final product of the Medieval world. Most of his thought process was very much of that persuasion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad, that's what I was thinking til I read the linked article. [And I'm certainly fine with the de-romanticization of Christopher Columbus, who was jailed by King Ferdinand for his cruelty and incompetence. No point in defending the indefensible.]

But "Medieval" gets a bad rap, a tool to attack religion as superstition, but superstition is really Dark Ages thinking. "Medieval" was what actually got us out of the Dark Ages--Aquinas and the Scholastics confronting Aristotle via the Muslims, Roger Bacon encountering the scientific method via the Muslim world.

The papal bull "Sublimis Deus," establishing the natural rights of the native Americans, was the product of the medieval mind*. The Vatican was forced to withdraw it was because the state [in this case the Holy Roman Emperor] would and did invade the Vatican if it got in the way.

I mean, look at Henry VIII confiscating the entire Roman Church! That's not medieval, it's just the beginning of modern times.
*See also the great Scholastic

It was the governments, the kings and their armies and navies, who spread a reign of terror to the "Indians."

[The question of the American colonists and the Native Ams is a related but different one, also worthy of discussion.]

Brad Hart said...

Oh I totally agree that "Medieval" gets a bad doubt about that. The "Medieval" world was actually quite sophisticated.

But I think Columbus fits more with that than with early Enlightenment thinking.

Brad Hart said...

BTW, awesome sources!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah. We're back to The Black Legend. We still operate under it today. A [needless to say Catholic] rebuttal:
Spain's Black Legend
by Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro

The Black Legend against Spain is part of a vast movement started by the enemies of the Faith to destroy the Catholic religion. It is not an isolated case; other Catholic countries like Italy, Ireland and Poland have had their reputations smeared for their adhesion to the Faith. The Black Legend seeks to throw discredit upon the Faith by building biases and prejudices against Catholicism. A current example of these attacks is Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code, a malevolent cocktail of fake scholarship, lies and half-truths. It seeks to instill in Catholics a sense of embarrassment and shame about the way in which their ancestors lived and practiced their faith. The effect is subtle but too often ends by Catholics then doubting the truth of the Faith.

The Black Legend was fanned largely by Protestant and liberal ideology and, particularly in the twentieth century, the Marxist re-interpretation of history. Even in Latin America, the influence of the so-called "Enlightenment" movement (largely directed against the Catholic faith) led to a type of Black Legend that was used to justify the aspirations of political independence from Spain. In that region political "adulthood" in the early nineteenth century was grounded in a rationalist ideology that repudiated the Hispanic heritage.1 Regrettably, even today many priests and religious of the Church have accepted totally or partially the Black Legend against Spain. They have led protest movements against the celebrations of the Fifth Centennial observing the discovery and conquest of America. They evidently believe it would have been preferable to leave the indigenous paganism with its idolatrous and bloody cults undisturbed and without the preaching of the Gospel.

The Black Legend is "an atmosphere created by the fanatic accounts of Spain which have been published in almost all countries; grotesque descriptions which are constantly being made of the character of Spaniards as individuals and collectively; the negation, or at least, the systematic ignorance of whatever is favorable and worthy of honor in the various manifestations of culture and art; the accusations which are always being launched against Spain are based upon events which are exaggerated, badly interpreted, or totally false." This has created all sorts of negative stereotypes that have been reinforced by the media — particularly Hollywood. It is useful to consider those aspects of the history of Spain that have been the focus of the Black Legend...
I'd add that The Black Legend goes way back

Protestantism found the crimes of the Spanish to be a useful cudgel against Roman Catholicism itself, and of course the anti-religious "Enlightenment" types didn't mind getting their whacks in with The Black Legend as well.

That greedy and evil men used religious arguments to justify their crimes is not under dispute. But it didn't take the "Enlightenment" to see these justifications from the first as hollow and a perversion, not an embodiment, of the Gospel.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Blogger Brad Hart said...
BTW, awesome sources!

I was aware of the shape of his argument, but I'd never read [Father] Francisco de Vittoria's brief for the human rights of the Natives of the Americas until today. Its logic is airtight, and for 1532, it reads very well in the modern day, defying both Aristotle's concept of "natural slaves" and any attempt to make them "sub-human."

Query: Are the People of the Indies Rational Enough to Possess Rights?
It remains to ask whether the Indians lacked ownership because of want of reason or unsoundness of mind.
This raises the question whether the use of reason is a precondition of capacity for ownership in general. …
I answer by the following propositions:


[Fourth]--The Indian aborigines are not barred on this ground from the exercise of true dominion. This is proved from the fact that the true state of the case is that they are not of unsound mind, but have, according to their kind, the use of reason.

This is clear, because there is a certain method in their affairs, for they have polities which are orderly arranged and they have definite marriage and magistrates, overlords, laws, and workshops, and a system of exchange, all of which call for the use of reason; they also have a kind of religion.
Further, they make no error in matters which are self-evident to others; this is witness to their use of reason. Also, God and nature are not wanting in the supply of what is necessary in great measure for the race. Now, the most conspicuous feature of man is reason, and power is useless which is not reducible to action.
Also, it is through no fault of theirs that these aborigines have for many centuries been outside the pale of salvation, in that they have been born in sin and void of baptism and the use of reason whereby to seek out the things needful for salvation.

Elegant, but theologically, via natural law, and would pass any non-theological "Enlightenment" sceme of natural rights.

[You know I'm a big apologist for the "medieval" and not too impressed with the "secular" Enlightenment of Hume and Voltaire. Di Vittoria is one of the best minds in human history, but is unfortunately obscured by the agendas behind The Black Legend.]

[Anyway, thx as always for the provocative post, Brad. Good to have you back. As usual, it made me hit the books and do some tapping of the noodle.]

Brian Tubbs said...

Brad, thanks for the well-written article. It has motivated me to make a list of all the temptations, vices, struggles, and difficulties that I've encountered or suffered from (or under) and look for the groups and individuals in the distant past to which I can affix appropriate blame. Blaming the Native Americans for smoking was not something I ever thought of. Thank you!

(tongue firmly in cheek)

Well written article!

Brian Tubbs said...

BTW, I don't smoke, but that doesn't mean I haven't endured its negative effects. I mean, I've had to endure discomfort from people smoking around me. And I've sometimes found cigarette advertisements offensive, and we know that (in this Age of Political Correctness) we all have a right to NOT be offended (unless, of course, you're an evangelical Christian, but I digress). So...yes, I've been negatively impacted by smoking and now I "know" who to blame.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm not sure how much of this I agree with, Brad, but here's some support for your theme [albeit that Columbus's "medieval" faith is used in a positive, foundational sense here]

HAPPY COLUMBUS DAY: Many in the West will demonstrate their fierce originality and intellectual independence today by condemning Christopher Columbus using the same shopworn cliches they used last year. For those of a different bent, I recommend Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, which takes a somewhat different position. Here’s an excerpt:

At the end of 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through studying the pagan past. . . .

Yet, even as the chroniclers of Nuremberg were correcting their proofs from Koberger’s press, a Spanish caravel named Nina scudded before a winter gale into Lisbon with news of a discovery that was to give old Europe another chance. In a few years we find the mental picture completely changed. Strong monarchs are stamping out privy conspiracy and rebellion; the Church, purged and chastened by the Protestant Reformation, puts her house in order; new ideas flare up throughout Italy, France, Germany and the northern nations; faith in God revives and the human spirit is renewed. The change is complete and startling: “A new envisagement of the world has begun, and men are no longer sighing after the imaginary golden age that lay in the distant past, but speculating as to the golden age that might possibly lie in the oncoming future.”

Christopher Columbus belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and symbol of this new age of hope, glory and accomplishment. His medieval faith impelled him to a modern solution: Expansion.

JMS said...

Brad - American history did not start in 1492 (and I’m not referring to Vikings either).

Despite claiming that you are attempting to find some middle ground amidst a controversy that is too often distorted by hyperbole, it is the presumptuous Eurocentric perspective in the following two quotes from your blog that infuriates Native Americans:
1) “it was he who had the foresight to cross a frontier that all others saw as too daunting”
2) “it was Columbus who had the vision to venture out into the undiscovered country”

You know what’s coming next: “undiscovered” by whom? One person’s “frontier” is usually another person’s homeland. You ignore the 2-18 million indigenous peoples inhabiting what would become the “lower 48” states of the USA, not to mention the much higher indigenous populations of Central and South America. They are the real “discoverers” and “settlers” of the “frontier” of this hemisphere, whether they fell from the sky, emerged from the earth, sailed by boats along the Japanese current, or trudged over the Bering Land bridge from Asia.

Please acknowledge the great indigenous civilizations, such as the Anasazi (yes, a controversial label to some) ancestors of the modern Pueblo peoples in the Southwest, or the Mississippian mound-builder culture centered at Cahokia (near present-day St. Louis), that formed, rose and dispersed long before 1492. As Dartmouth historian Colin Calloway notes, “ what Columbus ‘discovered’ was not a ‘new world’ but another old world, rich in diverse peoples, histories, communities and cultures.” (First Peoples, 4th edition, p. 14)

I’ll make three final points about Columbus. First, while he was daring and courageous, he had a medieval worldview that did not know the Western Hemisphere existed, because it’s not mentioned in the Bible. Despite making four voyages, apparently even on his deathbed he remained convinced that he had landed in the “Indies.”

Second, I recommend highly the late Edmund Morgan’s Oct. 2009 article in the online Smithsonian Magazine about Columbus. He concluded: ”why is the first chapter of American history an atrocity story? Bartolomé de Las Casas (author of the aforementioned “Black Legend”) had a simple answer, greed.” In answering this provocative question, Morgan warns against any hasty modern or presentist judgments: “that the Indians were destroyed by Spanish greed is true. But greed is simply one of the uglier names we give to the driving force of modern civilization. The story moves us, offends us, but perhaps the more so because we have to recognize ourselves not in the [indigenous] Arawaks but in Columbus and his followers.”

Third and final, the “revenge of the Native peoples of America” on Europeans was not just tobacco, but syphilis. The first recorded epidemic began in Europe in 1493 after the sailors on Columbus’ first voyage (and the three subsequent ones) returned.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Morgan warns against any hasty modern or presentist judgments: “that the Indians were destroyed by Spanish greed is true. But greed is simply one of the uglier names we give to the driving force of modern civilization. The story moves us, offends us, but perhaps the more so because we have to recognize ourselves not in the [indigenous] Arawaks but in Columbus and his followers.”

PC presentism of its own: What they forget is that the Natives of the Americas were just as savage towards each other when need and opportunity arose--indeed the Aztecs had invaded the Mexico City area just a few centuries before the Spanish did, bringing with them their own reign of terror, not to mention human sacrifice.

The universal lesson is that man has a heat of darkness. Indeed, as bad as "modern" civilization was and is, it was the reason and Christianity of men such as de Vitoria and de las Casas who saw Spain's crimes for what they were.

As for Western Civilization claiming to "discover" stuff, it's a fact, in that other civilizations weren't as mobile and/or curious. It was the West who visited all the other continents--not vice versa--and the West that was able to forge the first maps of all the world. Quite an accomplishment.

If "discover" is an objectionable word, let's pick another that describes bringing the measure of every corner of the earth to the store of human knowledge.

Brad Hart said...

This isn't Facebook, but...

"Brad Hart likes Tom Van Dyke's comment" [insert a thumb up].

jimmiraybob said...

My last to you was of the 18th. of Nov. since which I have received yours of Sep. 21. and Oct. 8. with the pamphlet on the Mohiccon language, for which receive my thanks. I endeavor to collect all the vocabularies I can of the American Indians, as of those of Asia, persuaded that if they ever had a common parentage it will appear in their language.(1)

In the 18th century linguists were starting to make some inroads to tracking down global human migrations - as Jefferson's quote shows.

Where the 18th century was looking at language 21st century modern science is working with DNA, locating the origin of Native American populations in regions near Siberia and China some 15,000-20,000 years ago. One such study places the origin in Russia’s mountainous Altai Republic borders China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan(2).

[See how I brought this back to the founding? :)]

1) Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, January 12, 1789. @


Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.