So we ask a simple question today whether Christopher Columbus deserves this treatment. Have we been wrong all these centuries in honoring Columbus? Does the current rejection of Columbus represent kind of awakening to the fact that he was in fact, a criminal, a slaver, maybe, as some have called him, the rapist of a new land and a vulnerable people?
To help us answer those questions and bring the real Christopher Columbus into focus, we’re very pleased to welcome cultural anthropologist Carol Delaney. Dr. Delaney is a renowned scholar and author whose 2011 book Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem was chosen as one of the best books of 2011 by the Times Literary Supplement. Dr. Carol Delaney, thank you very much for being with us.
One of the problems is that the people who demonize Christopher Columbus never bother to see him as a man; they insist on seeing him as an avatar of Colonialism, as the singular nexus from which sprang all the abuses of the native peoples of the western hemisphere at the hands of Europeans and their descendants. So they tell simplified accounts of how Columbus murdered and ravaged the Caribbean, acting as though he personally sanctioned every atrocity his men committed and interpreting everything he wrote in the worst possible context.
When Columbus says something that in context probably means “these natives would make good Christians”, anti-Columbus critics read it as “these natives would make good slaves”. When he mentions bringing natives back to Spain, they assume said natives were coerced into coming on the voyage with him.
It’s the same treatment Thomas Edison got for awhile on the internet (though he got it to a lesser extant); modern people try to turn Edison into an avatar of turn-of-the-century capitalism and willfully ignore his genuine achievements so they can elevate a narcissistic eugenicist from Serbia as their hero.
The problem, ultimately, is people trying to make the past conform to their modern understanding. Such an effort is wrongheaded because the past does not care about the present. If we want to understand the past honestly, we must do so on it’s terms.
Columbus had great ideals and acted with courage. He brought baptism and salvation to many. He was punished by civil authority for his sins, and he became a Franciscan, in an act of penance.
His crimes of slavery were “following what the world does” - that’s what so many do today, without realizing the sin. We cannot excuse slavery, but it takes a long time for a society to reform itself.
Columbus was a very great man. His critics could only wish to become as great a hero of exploration and Christian culture as he was.
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