In my previous article, I discussed the man Christopher Columbus, details of who he was that are often overlooked by his detractors. In this article, I would like to review the chief accusation against him which was his involvement in the slave trade.
According to Howard Zinn and Hans Koning, the two that were the catalyst for the anti-Columbus movement, Christopher Columbus was to the Americas what the serpent was to the garden of Eden. The New York Times described Koning’s image of Columbus as “a deep-eyed, villain, raping, pillaging and enslaving as he ruthlessly rushed to shore.” Zinn, making certain to completely vilify Columbus, said he was “probably short, uneducated, intellectually unsophisticated, poor at navigation, and a thief of others’ ideas.” If we are to accept their version of events, Columbus came looting, raping, and killing into an Eden which was populated by lotus blossom eating pacifists who were as one with each other as they were nature.
According to his critics, not only was Columbus bent on sending slaves back to Spain, he is responsible for bringing slavery to the new world. Unfortunately, this is incorrect on both counts. Sadly, slavery has existed since the beginning of human history in just about every corner of the world. Even the Bible allows for people to be taken as possessions (Leviticus 25:44-46). It was accepted that part of the spoils of war was defeated enemies, including the women and children in any captured city. This was even the doctrine of the Catholic Church at the time. Christians in Europe did it. Muslims in the Middle East did it. And, Native Americas did it. Columbus did not introduce anything new. It is true that many colonists, despite Columbus’s objections as well as the teaching of the church, took slaves that were not captured in battle. Columbus did not.
We should also note that the operative difference between Columbus and the Native Americans was that of technology. The Europeans had superior technology enabling them to dominate the indigenous people. We should not be mistaken, the Americas were no utopia. If the roles had been reversed, if the native people had the superior technology, they would not have thought twice about enslaving Columbus.
Yes, Columbus brought back 26 Native Americans as slaves. However, these were natives taken in battle who he believed were cannibals. He owned no slaves personally. While slavery is deplorable under any circumstances, when viewed in the context of his time he was no villain. He did not see the native Americans as subhuman, beyond any redemption. The slaves that were taken back were to receive Christian instruction to save their souls. While religious instruction today is little compensation for enslavement, this was not the thinking before the Enlightenment.
We must remember that Columbus was sincere in his Christian beliefs. Although those beliefs are very different than modern Christian beliefs. His chief desire was the natives be converted to Christianity. His hope was not that they just are baptized, but they have a true Christian experience; that they actually love Christ. He asked for friars to be sent to the New World so that they can learn to communicate with the natives and teach them the way of God. If Columbus was motivated to enslave the native population, why would he do this? According to the Catholic Church, once converted the natives could not be taken as slaves. While, as I have written above, there were colonists who ignored the church, but Columbus did not. He did not take Christians as slaves.
The intent here is not to whitewash history. Yes, there were atrocities that resulted from the exploration and colonization of the Americas. However, Columbus cannot be held responsible. What was done was either over his objections or when he was not present.
While it may be difficult to understand the motivations of a man that lived 400 years ago, we do have his diaries that reveal his thoughts. In them, we find not a man driven by a lust for wealth and power, but a man who truly lived the Christian beliefs of his time. According to Robert H. Fuson, a translator of his diary; “Columbus expresses nothing but love and admiration for the Indians. His affection for the young chief in Haiti, and vice versa, is one of the most touching stories of love, trust, and understanding between men of different races and cultures to come out of this period in history.”
Columbus was not the wild-eyed villain portrayed by Zinn and Koning. He was a man of faith. If there is anything unique about Columbus, beyond his genius and perseverance, it was his desire to do good for the indigenous people.