Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 12, 2003
We watched the old, grainy black and white film with all of its familiar images: the young boy, mesmerized by the sea; pleading his case before Ferdinand and Isabella; the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Mariamaking their way westward across the seas; and then, finally, landfall, the discovery of a great New World; planting the flag; claiming the land for Spain; and then, Columbus, falling to his knees in a prayer of thanks to God.
That was the myth, and it guided our sense of who we were as a people—a race of explorers, discoverers, pioneers. That’s who we were: a direct line of progress, onward and upward forever, stretching from Columbus reaching the New World, to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.
It used to be so easy.
But then, we decided to open our eyes and open our ears. The price of freedom in a new age means trying to see things differently. It means collecting all the data and listening to all the evidence, and trying to come to some more truthful view of reality. Of course, the “real story” about Columbus and those who came after him was never too far beneath the surface. Historians always had “the facts”. I just can’t fathom why it took the rest of us so long to discover them. What, exactly, do these “facts” tell us? What did Columbus wrought among the native peoples of the Western hemisphere? A rather hideous litany, I’m afraid:
It is estimated that there were between 75 million and 80 million inhabitants of what came to be called the Americas in the year 1492, just before Columbus landed. By 1550, the native population stood at just 10 million. In Mexico, the population on the eve of the European conquest stood at 25 million; by 1600, only 1 million people remained. The population of Santo Domingo in 1492 was somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million; by 1530, only 10,000 of the native people were left. In 1492, the population of Cuba stood at 600,000 inhabitants; by 1570, only 270 households remained.
This historical data reveals a holocaust of unimaginable proportions—beyond a doubt, the most widescale genocide in the history of human “civilization”. Were all these people murdered, slaughtered in cold blood by the Spanish conquistadors? No, of course not. Certainly, in the years following 1500, the major causes of the destruction of the native populations of the West Indies were almost certainly disease and famine. The Taino people of Hispaniola, over which Columbus himself governed, practiced subsistence agriculture prior to the coming of the Europeans. By 1496, the Taino’s limited surplus food supplies were depleted, and the native population was surviving largely by eating immature sweet potato and manioc tubers. By 1497, the native people of San Salvador were in the midst of a major famine, and demographers estimate that the population declined at annual rates exceeding 30% right up until 1504. The Spanish conquistadors then introduced all manner of European diseases, most notably smallpox, into a population already weakened severely by malnutrition. The native peoples didn’t have a prayer of fitting off this newest scourge.
But it wasn’t just these “acts of God” (if you really want to call them that) like famine and disease that took their toll. From its very start, European subjugation of the New World was marked by severe and blatant cruelty and abuse. Of his first meeting with the natives, Columbus wrote that they were “a well-formed and handsome people,” and he added: “I want the natives to develop a friendly attitude toward us because I know that they are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Faith more by love than by force…”
But then, in the very next movement of his quill, he went on: “they ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them.” Then, within two days of his landing, Columbus was writing: “With but fifty men, you could subject every person in San Salvador, and make them do what you wished.” So much for operating “more by love than by force”!
The rest of the story emerges clearly enough: total denial of the Indians’ humanity; complete subjugation of the native peoples; torture and terror in the most unspeakable forms for those who resisted. On his second journey to Hispaniola between 1495 and 1496, Columbus himself initiated the wide-scale shipment of Caribs, Arawaks, and other native peoples to be sold in Spain as slaves. Those of the “well-formed and handsome people” who remained in the West Indies became nothing more than slaves in their own land.
Columbus was convinced that there were large caches of gold on the islands, just waiting to be mined. In fact, there was relatively little gold there, but even when this became obvious, it could not dissuade Columbus who just knew that there was gold there—he knew it the in the way that only a completely deluded, half-mad fanatic can “know” something. The Indians were pushed harder and harder to find gold—find gold—find gold! Each adult, men and women alike, was given a hawkshell, ordinarily a small ball tied to the foot of a trained falcon. They were told to fill this hawkshell with gold every three months, and give it to their Spanish masters as tribute. Those who failed to meet this quota would have their fingers or hands cut off, and would often be left simply to bleed to death.
These are the historical facts about Columbus and his reign of terror—a reign founded all by force, and not by love; all for greed, devoid of all humanity and compassion.
“But,” some of the apologists for Columbus still will say in his defense, “these Indian tribes weren’t all sweetness and light either, you know. They had inter-tribal warfare, and practiced human sacrifice, and even cannibalism.” Others have said that we shouldn’t “judge” Columbus, that he was just a man of his time, after all.
Now, of course there were examples of human sacrifice in the pre-Columbian world of the Americas. Let’s even grant that it was fairly common and wide-scale (which is debatable). If we are going to impose 21st century humanitarian sensibilities on Columbus, then I guess we have to impose them on the Mayans and the Aztecs as well.
The difference is, of course, is that we’re not observing “Montezuma Day” tomorrow as a holiday. The difference, of course, is that the antique religious and social practices of the Mayans and Aztecs do not figure prominently in the historical family tree of most (if any) of us. The ideology of Columbus, however—his religious outlook and tradition—is quite another matter. We are the direct heirs of Columbus. We are not the heirs of Montezuma and the ancient Mayans.
Of course, Columbus was just a man of his time. But so, too, was a Dominican friar named Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas lived at the very same time as Columbus; indeed, the two were close personal friends—for a time. It was Las Casas who transcribed the accounts of Columbus’s first voyage. On the second voyage in 1495, Las Casas returned to the New World with Columbus, and here he would spend the remainder of his life, until his death in 1567.
In time, Las Casas rose to the position of bishop of the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. There, he became known as the apostle to the Indies, protector of the Indians, and friend of the poor. In spite of his former friendship with Columbus, Las Casas would not remain silent in the face of the injustice and oppression he saw. He wrote volumes about the terrible crimes he saw committed in the name of Spain and the Christian Church. Largely through his hard work, Spain eventually (far too late) adopted a more humane policy toward the native peoples. Faced with what his own eyes could see, Las Casas made his choice—a far different choice than that made by Columbus.
Nor was Las Casas alone (he in a distinct minority certainly, but he was not alone). There were other voices crying out to Columbus and those who followed him to stop the mayhem, to stop the killing and torture and mass exploitation of innocent people.
In 1510, Anton Montecino, a Dominican friar, preached a sermon at the main church in Santo Domingo. Many of the main empire builders of New Spain were in the congregation that morning, including Diego Colon, the royal governor—Columbus’s own son. The sermon had been written jointly by Montecino and the other members of his Dominican community:
“Your greed for gold is blind,” Father Montecino declared. “Your pride, your lust, your anger, your envy, your sloth, all blind… You are in mortal sin. And you are heading for damnation… For you are destroying an innocent people. They are God’s people, these innocents, whom you have destroyed. By what right do you make them die? Mining gold for you in your mines or working for you in your fields, by what right do you unleash enslaving wars upon them? They lived in peace in this land before you came, in peace in their own homes. They did nothing to harm you, to cause you to slaughter them wholesale.,, Are you not under God’s command to love them as you love yourselves? Are you not out of your souls, out of your minds? Yes. And that will bring you damnation.”
Remember: the “big wigs” of Hispaniola—the Spanish “high command”, as it were-- was right there in the congregation as Montecino spoke these words. He wasn’t speaking in 2003, but in 1510. This is not an excerpt from an article in The Progressive or the UU World, but words preached just a few years after Columbus’s landing. Montecino, too, was a “man of his time”—and he, too, saw the evil which Columbus had wrought—and he, too, chose not to remain silent.
Montecino, and Las Casas, and there were others as well, saw what their leaders were doing. And Columbus saw it, too. He wasn’t just flotsam and jetsam tossed about by great historical currents over which he had no control. To the contrary, Columbus (like all of us) was an active agent in history. He was, in fact, probably less hindered by the heavy hand of the past than any other major character in Western civilization. He had the chance to choose, consciously, the course his journey would take. After coming ashore on an island he named Isabella, Columbus wrote in his journal:
“It is one of the most beautiful islands I have ever seen… You can even smell the flowers as you approach this coast; it is the most fragrant [place] on earth. The song of the little birds might make a man never wish to leave here. The flock of parrots that darken the sun and the large and small birds of so many species are so different from our own that it is a wonder.”
If only Columbus had listened to the birds, and stayed to smell the flowers, and then glimpsed the deeper wonder—the wonderful humanity—of the people around him so different from his own…
But he didn’t. Columbus chose not to. And so, he must be judged by history.
“History is the record written by victors,” Hannah Arendt once wrote. But in our postmodern world, where the speedometers of change are racing toward their maximum velocity, who can say so sure who the ultimate victors will be? Monolithic empires crumble and fall, and we see time and again that there was actually no substance behind a system that once looked for high and mighty. The winds of change scatter once mighty myths into a million fragments. Heroes are now villains—and one regime’s villains become the next generation’s heroes. And sometimes, we get a glimpse that things are not as they seem, and that even our own emperor has no clothes.
It’s not as easy as it used to be, when we just learned the poem, and went along, and flew the flag, and sang “God Bless America”, and nodded our heads and said, “Oh yes, the emperor’s new flight jacket is lovely.”
But life isn’t about things being easy, and neither is history. As individuals, if we’re ever going to have any hope at peace and serenity in this life, we can’t go on living in denial about the pain of our past. We have to try to name to pain, the hurt, the evil. We have to name it—and try to discern how it brought us to where we are—and then move forward, beyond it, in hope, toward a life which can be more healthy and more whole.
As it is for individuals, so it can be in the lives of civilizations and nations. More than 500 years ago, there was that great encounter of two worlds, two ways of life. Tragically, it was barely a matter of days before the gentle encounter became a mass collision on which we’re still paying the premium. The ways of understanding and compassion bowed before the ways of violence and domination—ways that still largely hold sway in this world of ours. “Why are we such a violent society?” people will ask so often. And I say: Look at our beginnings in this New World; look to the source; look to the bloody rock from which we are hewn:
“With but fifty men, you could subject every person on this island, and make them do what you wished.”
Ultimately, of course, less important than judging Columbus is judging ourselves. This is our choice to make, as rational, conscious human beings: to treat other people as things, and make them do as we wish—or to greet them as extensions of our greater selves, reflections of our very beings, and seek to live with them in peace and harmony. We, too, are people on a long voyage to a New World: a journey away from centuries of conquest, genocide, slavery, exploitation, oppression, and racism, toward a time of turning, healing, reconciliation, and redirection.
It is not an easy journey, and it has been a rough voyage sometimes for us as a people. May we take up the shattered fragments of the old myths and weave from them, instead, a new view of reality, a new picture of our history. Columbus made his choice. Now we must make ours.
And if we choose with wisdom and discernment, and live as much as we are able in the truth, perhaps we will discover, at last, that there is a way of peace and justice and love. Perhaps we will discover, at last, that the world really is round: that the world is one great circle, where all face each other as equals, all with something to teach, and all of us having always so much more to learn.