Why Columbus Day is worth celebrating

Here is Columbus, shortly after sighting the “new” world, inhabited by over 50 million natives. He was only there to bring them civilization and live in Christian companionship, as we see in his own letters on the first meeting:

They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Columbus demonstrated Christian charity and European civility from the first:

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.

The Spanish would soon be coming in droves to offer more civilization and Christian charity, and to help the natives carry some of their gold. As an early example of multiculturalism, here is what the Spanish read to the natives, in Spanish of course, hoping that they would be able to understand some of it by picking out cognates in their own language:

On the part of the King, Don Fernando, and of Doña Juana, his daughter, Queen of Castile and León, subduers of the barbarous nations, we their servants notify and make known to you, as best we can, that the Lord our God, living and eternal, created the heaven and the earth […] Wherefore, as best we can, we ask and require you that you consider what we have said to you, and that you take the time that shall be necessary to understand and deliberate upon it, and that you acknowledge the Church as the ruler and superior of the whole world […]

But, if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us. And that we have said this to you and made this Requisition, we request the notary here present to give us his testimony in writing, and we ask the rest who are present that they should be witnesses of this Requisition.”

De Las Casas reports how generously the natives offered to help the Spaniards on their quest to find gold:

… mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside….

The natives really profited from being “discovered” by the Europeans, which is why we should celebrate this great event in human history, as we see below (De Las Casas):

Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides … they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation…. in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . .. and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile … was depopulated. … My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write. …

As the British began to colonize the area, they had a certain relationship to the Indians though, who were their friends and who taught them to plant corn, as we see in this passage from William Bradford’s account of the encounter:

Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.

An excellent summary of the American natives’ encounter with the first Europeans and the consequences of the civilizing process can be found in historian Howard Zinn’s account from A People’s History of the United States. De Las Casas’s contemporary account was published in 1552.

Here are some civilizing images from contemporary Theodor De Bry:

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