The following is derived from a chapter in a book I am writing, MythAmerica.
This is part 3 of a series on Oped News on the 'Columbus Discovered America' myth. Part one dealt with the nature of the world and people Columbus intruded on, debunking the Eurocentric myth that Columbus "discovered" a land that was barely populated, undeveloped, and an untamed wilderness despite millions of people already living there for thousands of years.
Part 2 debunked the Columbus-as-hero myth by examining how his genocidal attacks on the indigenous populations of the Caribbean led to the opening of the African slave trade, which is covered here in part 3 and how and why all this has been justified over the centuries.
Part 4 turns attention to the continuation of these genocidal policies in what came to be the the United States and assesses how the European conquest of the Americas can be judged.
Part 3 of the series : A World of Myths Packed Into 'Columbus Discovered America' :
The Genocide That Led To The African Slave Trade
Columbus didn't invent slavery-but he played a key role in its revival as a large scale commercial enterprise at the dawn of the economic system of capitalism. The origins of slavery go back to the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago, which gradually replaced hunting and gathering as the main (but not only) source of obtaining food around the globe. Humans for the first time gained some control over their food supply by creating a surplus through planting crops and domesticating animals. This development also gave incentive to use conquered peoples as slave labor instead of killing them as competitors in the fight for survival : "So enslaving an enemy rather than killing him became a means to harvest a man's labor...a new tool was acquired, the slave..." (Milton Meltzer, Slavery A World History, p 2)
Two basic forms of unfree labor took root : lifetime hereditary chattel slavery, where a person was enslaved for life, as well as their descendants, and indentured servitude, a temporary chattel-hood where a person was the property of another but for a set period of time such as five to seven years-if they lived that long. Both forms are referred to in the Old and New Testaments.
Over thousands of years, slavery came to be replaced by the feudal system of
serfdom---semi-forced labor, where peasants were bound to the land they worked, turning over the bulk of what they produced to the feudal lord while keeping a minimal subsistence portion for their own survival needs--if that. While greatly diminished, slavery itself never disappeared, but was relegated to a peripheral role in the feudal economy.
"The institution of slavery was not a major force by the time the first Portugese caravels sighted the Guinean coastline at the beginning of the 15th century...slave trading remained an incidental part of...economic organization...the arrival of the Portugese on the sub-Saharan African coast would ultimately represent a major new development in the history of the slave trade." (Herbert S. Klein African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean, p10,13)
So slavery began to make a comeback with Portugal developing a slave trade off the west Africa coast in the mid-1400's ( which Columbus had a role in), shipping almost 200,000 kidnapped Africans to Europe and elsewhere by 1500. It is well-established that slavery played a major role in the development of the capitalist economic system:
As Karl Marx put it : "The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment of the aboriginal population in mines, the beginning of the conquest and the looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of 'black skins', signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre... (Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 p 775, International Publishers, 1947 )
But there's very much a dialectical relationship whereupon the emerging capitalism breathed new life into slavery as a labor system. It was not just a one-way street: the European conquest of the Americas created a further development for a slave labor system, but of a new type-large scale commercial slavery.
As Karl Marx's collaborator Frederick Engels succinctly put it in referring to the unforeseen social consequences of capitalist development "When ...Columbus discovered(sic)America, he did not know that by doing so he was giving new life to slavery, which in Europe had long been done away with, and laying the basis for the Negro slave traffic" (Quoted in Michael Roberts Blog, Engels on Nature and Humanity)
As previously covered in part one of this series, when Columbus's voyages opened the door to the European conquest of the Americas, there were tens of millions of people throughout the hemisphere. And as the Europeans --first Spain and Portugal, soon to be joined by England, Holland, and France-- killed off millions through disease, murdering those who resisted, and working people to death, there came the need to replace the labor supply, ultimately through what became known as the African slave trade.
Columbus's policies, followed by the on-going genocidal policies of the Spanish and the other Europeans who followed, created a new need for labor in the Caribbean as the indigenous populations were wiped out, now to be met primarily by importing enslaved workers from Africa and to a lesser extent the importing of indentured European servants and other poor people. This slave trade became integral to the European colonization of the Americas--and the rise of capitalism.
By 1619, European slavers had brought a million Africans to the Caribbean and Latin America. In total, over hundreds of years, 54,000 voyages shipped at least twelve million kidnapped Africans to the all the Americas. It is estimated that as least two to three million never survived the trip. (.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1narr1.html)
"Indeed, the number of Africans forcibly imported into the New World actually exceeded the number of whites who would come to the Americas before the 1830s. Between 1492 and 1820, approximately ten to fifteen million Africans were forcibly brought to the New World, while only about two million Europeans had migrated." (Digital History ID 3569)
According to Bartolame deLas Casas, Columbus derived most of his income from slavery, shipping thousands of kidnaped Taino to Spain. And like father like son, Columbus' son became the first African slave trader in 1505.
How is it possible that this utter savagery and barbarism towards the indigenous populations can be so unnoticed, ignored, written out of history in our school books, movies and popular culture ?
But it has not been completely ignored.
On the 500 year anniversary of Columbus's 1492 first landing, Christopher Hitchens wrote a full-throated gleeful celebration of Columbus in the October 19th 1992 edition of the Nation magazine:
" Deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto with or without the participation of those who wished they had never been born. 1492 was a very good year. I can never quite decide whether the anti-Columbus movement is merely risible or faintly sinister...because it is an ignorant celebration of stasis and backwardness... Those who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery...are hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the western expansion of the U.S. only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railroad...it does happen to be the way history is made...the impact of a more developed society upon a culture...can spread aspects of modernity and enlightenment that outlive and transcend the conqueror... deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto with or without the participation of those who wished they had never been born"
But American Holocaust author David Stannard in the same issue of The Nation rejects Hitchens' embrace of genocide as an acceptable engine of human progress :
"One needn't romanticize the pre-Columbine world...ritual torture and human sacrifice were common practices in the Old World at the very same time that they characterized Aztec and Inca society...the European habit of killing heretics and witches by the thousands was clearly human sacrifice to the Christian god, yet no one has proposed that genocide against Europeans at the time would have had some "benefits...to be factored into the historical equation".
Author and activist Ward Churchill :
"Whatever the process unleashed by his "discovery" of the "New World," it is said, the discoverer himself cannot be blamed. Whatever his defects and offenses, they are surpassed by the luster of his achievements; however "tragic" or "unfortunate" certain dimensions of his legacy may be, they are more than offset by the benefits even for the victims of the resulting blossoming of a "superior civilization" in the Americas. Essentially the same arguments might be advanced with regard to Adolf Hitler: Hitler caused the Volkswagen to be created, after all, and the autobahn. His leadership of Germany led to jet propulsion, significant advances in rocket telemetry, laid the foundation for genetic engineering. Why not celebrate his bona fide accomplishments on behalf of humanity rather than "dwelling" so persistently on the genocidal by-products of his policies?
(Indians are Us, Common Courage Press, 1994)
And as previously noted in part 2, Columbus's great admirer, scholar Samuel Eliot Morison in his Columbus, Mariner doesn't flinch from calling what Columbus did a "complete genocide" but then sums up his view of Columbus: "He had his faults and his defects...But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities-his seamanship."
Howard Zinn in his classic A People's History of the United States :
"One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts... Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide...But he... goes on to other things more important to him. To state the facts...and bury them in a mass of other information is to say ..yes, mass murder took place, but it's not that important-it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world."
How then, shall we "Balance the many achievements of European civilization in the New World after 1492 against the terrible destruction of native peoples that accompanied it is in the end less a historical question than a moral one", as Mr. History puts it ?
The Accusation of "Presentism" in Judging Columbus
"You are all in a state of mortal sin...on account of the cruelty and tyranny you use on this innocent people. Tell me, with what right and with what justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible serfdom ?...Be assured...you cannot be saved".
The Dominican priest Antonio de Montesinos in 1511 speaking to an audience on Hispanola, with Columbus's son, the governor and other Europeans present. (Quoted in Fernando Pico, History of Puerto Rico, 42).
Among historians the accusation of "presentism" is made when historical actors and events in past times are judged by current standards. For instance it is important to understand that slavery was in fact a much taken for granted state of affairs that was fairly universal throughout the entire world for thousands of years, albeit with significant variations in the degree of unfreedom for those so enslaved from society to society. But does that mean the record of Columbus's atrocities should be shrugged off as Morison did? Does that mean that the Jews were not justified in escaping from slavery in Egypt in the Exodus myth ? What shall be said of Spartacus's slave revolt that almost toppled the Roman empire ? The resistance of kidnapped Africans to their enslavement over the hundreds of years of the slave trade ?
James Loewen puts it well in his Teaching What Really Happened :
"Presentism has often been invoked inappropriately about moral issues...Some people charge that criticizing Columbus for enslaving American Indians is presentist, because people did not consider slavery wrong in 1493...it implies a thorough-going moral relativism. In 1493 many people opposed Columbus's plan to enslave Arawaks...Most were Arawaks to be sure. To leave them out of the moral calculus...condemns us to write white history, not history. (p112)
Even King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella instructed Columbus prior to his second voyage to respect the Indians and "To make their conversion to the Christian faith his first order of business...the monarchs also firmly decreed that they were not to be molested or coerced in any way and the Admiral shall take measures to treat the Indians very well and affectionate" (Edward T. Stone, Columbus and Genocide, American Heritage)
And then there's the fact that Columbus was actually arrested in 1500 due to complaints by Spanish colonists due to his brutal and tyrannical rule, not only against the indigenous but also rebel Spanish colonists who were executed at the gallows. A royal commissioner dispatched to Hispaniola arrested Columbus and brought him back to Spain in chains. Although Columbus was stripped of his governorship, King Ferdinand not only granted the explorer his freedom but subsidized a fourth voyage.
And among the Spanish colonizers on the islands, it was not only de Las Casas who at the time rejected the atrocities committed against the indigenous, as attested to when the Dominican priest Antonio de Montesinos told those present they would all burn in hell for what they did !
"Anyone today who argues that we should not judge Columbus-and those to follow him-by our modern moral standards plainly overlooks Las Casas and his contemporaries who knew the future Admiral of the Ocean Sea just as they knew slavery was evil" (William Least Heat-Moon, Columbus in the Americas, p 70)
So much for the argument that it's unfair and a-historical to criticize Columbus by 'modern' standards when his contemporaries and peers, as well as his royal benefactors (at least in words), opposed his barbaric cruelties and slave taking.
"Columbus is a very controversial figure. Questions surround him. Is he a hero ? a murderer? Is what he did just a 'deplorable, but necessary price to pay for progress' as Howard Zinn states ?"(A student in my class answering an essay assignment on "Judging Columbus")
So how should Columbus be judged ? What does it mean to be a hero ? Simple bravery and courage do not make one a hero. Columbus was both--but doesn't being heroic depend on what those actions are in service to ? There were Nazi soldiers who were brave and courageous in service to Hitler. Were they heroes ? Firefighters are heroic when they rush into a burning building to save lives. The Taino and all the other indigenous who did rise up against all odds to fight back against the Spanish were heroic, as were the occupiers at Wounded Knee, Standing Rock as well as so many others. By what standards should Columbus be considered a hero ?
It is important to understand that the destruction that was wrought was not the work of just one man. Columbus was certainly guilty of crimes against humanity, but he was not the only guilty party. What about the Spanish royals, who financed all this, despite their early rhetoric opposing Columbus's slave-taking ? Columbus's men, who actually carried out some of the most horrific atrocities against the indigenous, certainly of the same order as the Nazi barbarians or ISIS today ? The Catholic church, which despite the denunciations by some of its priests, sanctioned all this ? How should each be judged ?
All these questions are the basis for a role-play lesson aimed at middle and high school students in Rethinking Columbus, a highly useful compilation of articles and lesson plans by teachers reevaluating the Columbus myth and examining issues of indigenous rights, encouraging students to think critically about the official story.
In this lesson Columbus, his men, the Spanish king and Queen, and the system of empire are all put on trial with charges brought with documented evidence often using C's own words, of murder, torture, rape, sex slave trading, and theft. Students serve as judges, jury, defendant and prosecutor, and decide the degrees of guilt of each.
So there are three levels by which to judge Columbus-one, what he himself actually did, second, the accomplices, and third, the historical and social forces unleashed by his voyage. Columbus was a slaver, a sex trafficker, murderer and torturer--but there is no doubt that his voyages changed and shaped the world we live in today. So the broader question is how to evaluate the world that was wrought-and could it have been different ?
Part 4 to follow turns attention to the continuation of the genocidal policies in what came to be the the United States, and more.
To be continued.
(Article changed on May 1, 2020 at 01:51)