Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
It is only a matter of time before “Columbus Day,” is cancelled in the current political climate. In recent years, it has become increasingly popular and expedient to chastise and castigate the European “discovery” of the “New” World in general, but even more specifically the exploits of Christopher Columbus in particular. I must confess that I myself—in years past—had come to the dogmatic albeit erroneous belief that Christopher Columbus was merely a malevolent fiend who exploited the peaceful people of the New World at the behest of Spanish Monarchy. Unfortunately, this dangerous and culturally subversive belief has become more than common, but is rather the dominant understanding of the Colombian Exchange.
Why does Columbus have to be viewed as hero or villain? It is the mark of a simple-mind to fail to see nuance and instead dogmatically defend one of two artificially constructed “sides.” Christopher Columbus (and many other historical and contemporary figures) was a complex and paradoxical figure and one who requires much study before forming a conclusion. I must confess I am by no means an expert on Columbus. And yet, I have heard the ubiquitous accusations of cruelty, enslavement, and “genocide”—a word that becomes more nebulous and less concrete with every new “development” in the neo-liberal left’s war against language. Nonetheless, the “discoverer” of the New World, deserves historical appreciation for his immense achievement of connecting the Old World to the New. Quite literally, none of the people who detest and virulently attack Columbus 500-years posthumously, would even exist if it were not for Columbus! This is not to say that he is a hero worthy of reverence, but rather that his impact on the world—for better and worse—cannot be overstated.
It seems to me, the human experience is at least in part, a battle between the diametrically opposed forces of Good and Evil. And so, in each of us both of these elements exist and it is our duty to regulate them in order to achieve a well-regulated and (mostly) benevolent moral disposition. This is, as Aristotle conveyed in The Ethics, “the proper function for a human being.” Moreover, in the world at large, sin, wickedness, and chaos are the norm, rather than the exception. Because of the true nature of things, civilizations across the world celebrate super-human figures and works. Further, this is why certain religious orders canonize exceptional individuals into their doxology: to put it simply, greatness in deed and/or character is unique and worthy of recognition.
In response to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau enshrined the “noble savage” into political and philosophical discourse. Hobbes had held that man was totally depraved and therefore in need of a Leviathan to be held in check, lest the passions run wild upon the individual and political commonwealth. Locke, in response to Hobbes, argued that man was neither wholly good nor bad by nature, but rather a “Tabula Rassa,” or blank slate, in which a constant evolution ensued. Rousseau, in response to both Locke and Hobbes, argued that man has a benevolent nature and that it is human society and corrupted institutions like monarchy, feudalism, the Church, etc. that diminish and warp the individual. Hence, Rousseau’s ideal for which he is famous is that of the “noble savage,” which has become increasingly popular in the current anti-theological, neo-Marxist, neo-liberal, and relativistic post-modern climate we live in.
A large part of the problem with how moderns view Columbus is that of the noble savage: for if man in the state of nature is noble, “civilization” is an ignoble and corrupting force. Therefore the modern interpretation of the Colombian Exchange has become something along the lines of: Christopher Columbus and his men (who were marred with notions of the innate goodness of civilization) came to the New World where peaceful and noble “indigenous peoples” lived in the state of nature and destroyed their culture and way of life. Undoubtedly, Columbus and his men unintentionally and irrevocably altered the course of the indigenous people of the Americas and this is tragic to a degree. I do however, take offense with the notion that the people of the New World were somehow inherently nobler than their European counterparts. Suffice it to say that “savage” or “civilized,” people are still people and human society is still made up of imperfect and fallen human beings that are prone to sin and error. There were certainly native cultures like the Taino who were—by all accounts—peaceful, gentle, and kind people living in relative harmony with one another. Columbus himself wrote of the Taino:
Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the things be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them. … I gave them a thousand good, pleasing things which I had bought, in order that they might be fond of us, and furthermore might be made Christians and be inclined to the love and service of their Highnesses and of the whole Castillan nation, and try to help us and to give us of the things which they have in abundance and which are necessary to us.”
And yet, the Carib Indians (for whom the Caribbean is named), were the antithesis of the Taino: the Caribs were brutal, avaricious, vindictive, and cruel. The Taino sought protection from Europeans against the Caribs throughout the early-colonial period, which inadvertently made the Taino susceptible to European diseases and exploitation. Similarly, in other areas of the world like the South Pacific and Amazon, native cultures practiced cannibalism until as recently as the 20th century. While we should extol the simple virtues of bygone native cultures (as Benjamin Franklin did in his glowing essay “Remarks Concerning the ‘Savages’ of North America”), we must similarly assess their defects so that we may be intellectually honest. Regarding Western Civilization, we should undoubtedly do the same. In this way, one is confronted with the startling reality that regardless whether one is of a “civilized” or “savage” culture, one may be either “civilized” or “savage” in action. Is this revelation not the central motif of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the messianic “Kurtz” is in all-actuality the most “savage” villain of all, despite being supposedly “civilized?”
Make no mistake: Christopher Columbus was no saint in character; Columbus acted, on many occasions, harshly and with impunity towards his crew and the people he encountered in the Indies. He was by all accounts a brilliant sailor, but a terribly incompetent colonial governor who was quick to enact harsh and Draconian punishment upon his subjects. It is in fact true that Columbus was forcefully removed from his position of viceroy of Hispaniola and was returned home to Spain in chains—a symbol for the humbling of Columbus before his monarchs, who believed he had taken too much power for himself. Author Gloria Deak said of Columbus in 1991:
It would be foolish to conjure up Columbus as a dashing, brilliant seaman or even as a bold and enlightened explorer. He certainly was a great sailor, and his successful crossing of the Ocean Sea was an unparalleled feat of navigation. Yet very little comes through from the scant information we have on Columbus the man, or from his own writings, to suggest that he was the swashbuckling, decisive, and gallant Renaissance figure often portrayed in schoolbooks.
He was, rather, contained, inflexible, and high-minded. He was also capable of ruthlessness and extreme cruelty. That he was imaginative and intrepid there can be no doubt. And although he proved a weak and fumbling administrator, we do gain the sense of a magnetic personality: he was able to wed a woman who was by far his social superior, and he won the compassionate support of Queen Isabella for an enterprise that was decidedly risky. Like all those held up to heroic stature, he had that admirable mix of courage, single-mindedness, and zeal that saw him through overwhelming obstacles.
But if there was a single key to his character, it was his intense religiosity. Columbus had a fundamental belief in the Bible and a sense of destiny that was clearly messianic. When he invoked mystical cosmology, the Bible, ancient legends, and empirical fact to authenticate his ideas, he gave no more weight to science than to prophecy. “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John … and he showed me the spot where to find it,” he wrote, after having taken his little fleet across a forbidding sea on that first epochal voyage. Such a statement helps us understand the Genoese explorer as a figure in transition from the medieval world, with its roots in the real and the unreal, to that of the boldly questioning Renaissance.
In all, Columbus made four journeys to the New World, yet only the first two were filled with fanfare and hubbub. Without knowing so, Columbus actually “discovered” mainland America but falsely believed that he was on the precipice of Eden. As admiral, Columbus had to contend with spoiled rations, doldrum conditions, a hurricane on one voyage, and even mutiny. As governor, Columbus tried unsuccessfully to keep his fellow Spaniards from running amok upon the native Taino, with a heavy hand through demonstrations of power such as public executions. After one journey, Columbus returned to Spain with 500 enslaved Taino people to which Queen Isabella was repulsed and Columbus was reprimanded. This is no small footnote, but throughout history, slavery and conquest are the rule, where as compassion and goodwill towards those of other “tribes” is the exceptional.
For all of his accomplishments, the European discoverer of the New World died in relative obscurity in 1506 and the continent that he discovered (but didn’t know) came to bear the name of another bombastic and pompous explorer: Amerigo Vespucci. Columbus’s legacy, like that of most men, is that of genius tainted by sin. Off on the other side of the world with limited oversight and God-like power, I think it is fair to say that avarice and the lust for power got the best of Columbus the man. And yet, we are judging the actions of Columbus 500-years hence with modern standards of morality which have since evolved (for better in some ways and worse in others). We also have limited source materials by which to judge and cannot even begin to grasp the immense difficulty of the circumstances that Columbus and his men found themselves. Perhaps the difference between us and someone like Columbus is that we do not find ourselves in such peculiar circumstances where it is so easy to run amok and exploit the resources of a new land and people out of the eye of the world. In such a case, I am certain that most modern mockers —who are, in large part, divorced of the moral buttress of genuine religious conviction and structures—would have fared even worse than Columbus. And so, I propose that we suspend judgment on Columbus the man, as we ourselves are just as prone to the insidious lust for power and material wealth as Columbus and his men were. In the same vein, we should appreciate the unique accomplishments of Columbus and his crews and assert that acknowledgement and appreciation is not akin to exaltation and celebration.