Section of Le Retour de Christophe Colomb (1892)
Public domain in the United States
WARNING: This post contains some graphic descriptions of historical violence which are not appropriate for young children.
I knew that Columbus was a controversial figure, especially regarding his treatment of the native people of South America. So before I taught my son about him, I wanted to learn more about him myself--to get both sides of his story before I attempted to share it with my child. One thing lead to another and I soon found myself knee-deep in research, eventually going back to even some translated original sources. And, through that journey I stumbled on some gross in-accuracies in many popular "myths about Columbus" blog posts and articles. I wanted to help clear up a few of those today, and try to give a more well rounded picture both of Columbus and those who came after him.
Did Columbus Commit Atrocities Against Native Americans?
One of the most inaccurate (and sadly, often quoted) articles I came across about Columbus was the The Huffington post article "Columbus Day? True Legacy: Cruelty and Slavery." Here is a sample from that article where it talks about various atrocities it attributes to Columbus...
One of Columbus’ men, Bartolome De Las Casas, was so mortified by Columbus’ brutal atrocities against the native peoples, that he quit working for Columbus and became a Catholic priest. He described how the Spaniards under Columbus’ command cut off the legs of children who ran from them, to test the sharpness of their blades. According to De Las Casas, the men made bets as to who, with one sweep of his sword, could cut a person in half. He says that Columbus’ men poured people full of boiling soap. In a single day, De Las Casas was an eye witness as the Spanish soldiers dismembered, beheaded, or raped 3000 native people. “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel,” De Las Casas wrote. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”
~ From "Columbus Day? True Legacy: Cruelty and Slavery." by Eric Kasum, published October 11, 2010
Bartolomé de las Casas spent his life speaking out against the atrocities committed against the native peoples of South America by Spanish settlers and conquistadors. But he NEVER worked for Columbus, and only arrived in the new world AFTER Columbus had been stripped of the Governership of Hispaniola (the settlement Columbus had founded in what is now Haiti). It was years after that when las Casas became a priest, and later came to the conviction that what was being done to the native people's was wrong...starting his life's quest to end their oppression.
The atrocities which the Huffington post article mentions were were NOT committed by nor ordered by Columbus, but were committed later by other men. Las Casas describes how under Governor Bobadilla (the man who had previously arrested Columbus and sent him back to Spain) that Spanish colonists would cut "slices off [Indians] to test the sharpness of their blades" (History of the Indies, Book 2, Chapter 1). The massacre where Indian children's legs were cut off as they fled happened under Nicolás de Ovando, the third governor of Hispaniola, not Columbus (History of the Indies, Book 2, Chapter 9). And anything else that las Casas personally witnessed would not have happened under Columbus, but under later governors and conquistadors.
Las Casas did compile a history of Columbus' time in the new world using other's accounts though (including some people he knew personally during his time in the Americas). In it he paints a picture of a man who started with noble aspirations and who initially treated the native people he encountered with some level of respect. On his first journey he forbid his men from stealing or harming any of the tribes they met that were peaceful...but even at this early stage he took captives in order to teach them Spanish and return them. On his 2nd journey, when he discovered that the fort he left had been burnt to the ground and his men killed he resisted the initial calls for vengeance on the local tribe, who claimed it was another tribe who did this (though he did later send men to try to find those responsible and punish them). Regardless, his ideas of the natives of being docile and easy to subject had been changed.
Columbus feared that the monarchs would abandon support for the colonies if he couldn't make them profitable, and this fear spurred exploitation of the natives. He pushed them to mine for gold, even cutting off the hands of some natives who did not bring him what he thought a sufficient amount (though, this was not particularly worse than the punishment he at times implemented on the Spanish colonists). He also pushed the idea of selling them as slaves on the mainland, and sent many to Spain for this purpose against the express wishes of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (who freed and returned all those who survived the trip.) These things, as well as other abuses by the colonists which Columbus seemed unable to prevent, led to native uprisings, which lead to wars and subsequent famines which caused the deaths of tens of thousands of native peoples.
Las Casas writes this about Columbus...
The admiral, it is true, was as blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians. However, if he did not report the harm that certain Spaniards caused them, and if he assigned a tribe of Indians...and a few others to do work for them or find gold, it seems the occasions were very, very rare, and he acted as if forced to it by his own men, on account of past rebellions.
~History of the Indies, by Bartolome de Las Casas (translated by Andree M. Collard) Book 2, Chapter 1
Did Columbus Encourage Sex Trafficking?
Many sites I've visited claimed that Columbus encouraged selling young girls for sex, using this quote....
"A hundred castellanos are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid."
That quote is indeed by Columbus, and if it sends chills down your spine and turns your stomach...well, I'm right there with you. But Columbus was not praising the high price of women sold as slaves nor encouraging the practice...he was criticizing the men who did this. It's easy to see that when you read the quote in context...
I should know how to remedy all this, and the rest of what has been said and has taken place since I have been in the Indies, if my disposition would allow me to seek my own advantage, and if it seemed honorable to me to do so, but the maintenance of justice and the extension of the dominion of Her Highness has hitherto kept me down. Now that so much gold is found, a dispute arises as to which brings more profit, whether to go about robbing or to go to the mines. A hundred castellanos are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand, and for all ages a good price must be paid.
I assert that the violence of the calumny of turbulent persons has injured me more than my services have profited me; which is a bad example for the present and for the future. I take my oath that a number of men have gone to the Indies who did not deserve water in the sight of God and of the world; and now they are returning thither, and leave is granted them.
~Letter from Columbus to Doña Juana de Torres, 1500
In another letter, Columbus wrote...
Our people here are such that there is neither good man nor bad who hasn't two or three Indians to serve him and dogs to hunt for him and, though it perhaps were better not to mention it, women so pretty that one must wonder at it. With the last of these practices I am extremely discontented, for it seems to me a disservice to God, but I can do nothing about it...[nor] other wicked practices that are not good for Christians. For these reasons it would be a great advantage to have some devout friars here, rather to reform the faith in us Christians than to give it to the Indians."
~From another letter by Columbus, included in the biography Columbus by Felipe Fernández-Aermesto, pg 133-134
What's clear from these passages is that the native women were being sexually exploited, that Columbus didn't approve of the practice, but felt unable to stop it. Regardless, he isn't innocent in their abuse, for where women are enslaved, sexual exploitation nearly always follows.
Furthermore, he bears fault for who he chose to bring to the New World. He wanted the King and Queen to send men and women to help establish trading colonies there...but knowing that the monarchs were concerned about the financial burdens of supporting these colonies, he suggested that in stead of recruiting men and women who would have to be paid a wage, that the King grant pardons to criminals in exchange for a few years service in Hispaniola. So, Columbus was directly responsible for the recruit of many of the "turbulent persons" who accompanied his 2nd voyage.
Though not all of the men involved in the abuse were pardoned criminals. A chilling account of rape and sexual slavery is found in a letter by Columbus' childhood friend, Michele da Cuneo ...
"...I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked—as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. But—to cut a long story short—I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought that she had been brought up in a school for whores."
~Quote found via Wikipedia, cited from Cohen, J.M. (1969). The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus. NY: Penguin. p. 139.
While it is certain that Columbus' practices in governing the colonies had dire consequences for the native populations, he was far better than those who came after him. While Columbus failed to restrain his men from abuses, Bobadillo allowed a free-for all. This is how las Casas describes life for the native peoples under Bobadillo...
[Bobadillo] assigned Indian tribes to them, making them very happy. You should have seen those hoodlums, exiles from Castile for homicide with crimes yet to be accounted for, served by native kings and their vassals doing the meanest chores! These chiefs had daughers, wives, and other close relations whom the Spaniards took for concubines either with their own consent or by force. Thus, those 300 hidalgos lived for several years in a continuous state of sin, not counting those other sins they committed daily by oppressing and tyrannizing Indians....The comendador [Bobadillo] didn't give a straw for all this: at least he took no measures to remedy or avoid the situation."
~History of the Indies, by Bartolome de Las Casas (translated by Andree M. Collard)
It was in this context that under Bobadillo murder and abuse for sport took place...cutting off slices of Indians and beheading young boys for fun. Later, under future leaders, even worse atrocities came....not just slaughter but torture (men burned alive, boiled, eaten by dogs, and babies dashed against rocks). It is no wonder that Native American groups do not see Columbus day as something to be celebrated, but a day to mourn...for his discovery was the beginning of a very dark time in their history.
How Do We Teach This History?
So, how do we teach this brutal history...to children? This is something I've struggled with myself. In some sense, we simply can't. When I first tackled this issue my son was 6. There was no way I was going to expose my son to descriptions of rape and torture.
But Columbus was an important figure who affected history in profound ways...so I couldn't just ignore his story (though maybe it would have been wiser to put it off for a while). I didn't want to build up Columbus as a hero, but neither did I want to set him up as a villain, as the truth seemed to lie somewhere in between.
I thought even at 6 my child could handle and, to some extent, understand, the concept of slavery. So, I found and read him a short children's book on Columbus that did at least spent some time talking about that. After we read the book my son looked up with questioning eyes...
"So, Columbus was a hero?"
"No, not exactly." I replied, pointing him back to that page on how Columbus took slaves.
His brow knotted, and after a moment he looked up at me again.
"So, he was a bad guy?"
And there it was. I always thought that it was teachers who taught children to see the world in terms of heroes and villains. But here I had gone out to specifically do the opposite, and my child still saw it that way. I had tried to show him shades of gray, but he wanted black and white. Maybe that is just the way it is when we are young (though some seem to never grow past this).
My children are older now, and soon I plan to try again. Because, shades of gray are important. The ability to see both the good and the bad in an individual is necessary for so many reasons...not least of these because it's important for us to also see that in ourselves. If we look through history and only see heroes and villains it colors our view of the people who are making history now. Kids need to know that sometimes even people who seem like "good guys" can cause harm (and even people who seem to be "bad guys" sometimes do good things, or even can have good motives for doing things which end up causing harm).
In Columbus we see someone who put success above compassion. It wasn't, as some would try to characterize it, that he was only motivated by greed. When you read his whole story, and his own words, you get a sense that he cared as much, if not more, about his legacy than his wealth, and also that he was sincere in his desire to do right by God. While his view of the world was colored by his time, it's also clear that he knew that at least some of what happened to the "Indians" was wrong. But he was unwilling to sacrifice his dream for their good. That is something we all can learn from.