Christopher Columbus: A product of his time or guilty of genocide?
A statue of the explorer has been removed from the center of Los Angeles for being a “stain on history,” but Spanish and American historians are at odds over the claim
Christopher Columbus may have discovered the New World, but he is now persona non grata in the city of Los Angeles.
Insisting that the Genovese explorer’s activities in the Americas amount to a stain on history, LA Council member Mitch O’Farrell, a descendant of the Native American Wyandotte nation, secured the removal of his statue from the city center’s Grand Park on November 10 to cheers and celebratory drumming from the local indigenous community, many of whom had fought alongside O’Farrell during his campaign.
The statue, which was a gift from an Italian association based in southern California in 1973, was trucked off to be left in storage.The question, however, remains: was Christopher Columbus a product of his time or was he, as O’Farrell and the indigenous community maintain, the man who ushered in some of the worst massacres the world has ever known?
Columbus undertook four voyages across the Atlantic under the patronage of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs between 1492 and 1502, seeking to establish a western route to the East Indies and profit from the spice trade. When he came ashore in the Bahamas, he believed he had reached his destination, which is why the indigenous population became known as Indians.
His discovery paved the way for centuries of colonization, and though colonization is, by its very nature, violent and repressive, a majority of historians consulted for this story do not believe Christopher Columbus should be accused of genocide.
He started a period of mass murder by the European conquerors British historian Roger Crowley
According to Carlos Martínez Shaw, professor of modern history at the National University of Distance Learning (UNED) and a member of the Spanish Royal Academy of History, “Columbus has avoided criticism and protest on account of his navigational feats and because he colonized new territory which led to globalization. However, there is a dark side to all this because he was driven by his desire to find gold and spices. When the explorers came across tribes, they would at times destroy them, or at least their culture, and there were many conflicts as the [indigenous] people rightfully defended themselves against the intruders.”
Martínez Shaw adds, however, that it is hard to talk in terms of genocide because there was no actual plan to wipe out indigenous populations, among other things because the local tribes were seen as an essential labor source.
Meanwhile Steve Hackel, a history professor at the University of California, supports the claims of the indigenous Americans but believes that taking down the statue has generated controversy because of the lack of debate and the almost furtive manner in which it was carried out.
Hackel believes that Columbus was a very controversial figure. “He did not intend genocide nor did he practice it,” he says. “But he can be condemned for enslaving hundreds of Indians. He can’t, however, be held responsible for the actions of those who came after him.”
According to the Colombian publisher and writer Mario Jursich, it is well documented that Columbus was not at the helm of any genocidal project. “The people who committed atrocities against the indigenous Americans came after him – the colonizers,” he says.
Nothing is gained by hiding uncomfortable aspects of the past by removing them from public view
Colombian writer Mario Jursich
Borja de Riquer, professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, considers it an exaggeration to accuse Columbus of ethnic cleansing. “He was a voyager rather than a manager,” he says. “These stories are always violent. It shouldn’t be termed so much a discovery as a conquest and the subjugation of a people by a foreign power.”
According to Professor Santiago Muñoz Machado, a member of the Spanish Royal Academy who won the Spanish National History Prize last week for his book We Speak The Same Language, which charts Spain’s expansion during colonization, “there is nothing to feel sorry about, nor is there any reason to condemn him. The removal of monuments in memory of Columbus is a cultural aggression.”
Taking the opposite view is British historian Roger Crowley, author of Empires of the Sea and Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire. He believes that when Columbus set foot on American soil on October 12, 1492, he ushered in an era of bloodshed. “He started a period of mass murder by the European conquerors,” he says. “And that makes him the founding father of genocide in the New World.” Crowley does, however, recognize that there was no conscious intent to wipe out the indigenous population.
Antonio Espino López, a historian from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and author of The Conquest of America: a critical look, is of a similar opinion. “We can’t speak in terms of a calculated genocide,” he says. “But we can speak in terms of the start of massive bloodbaths on the American continent.”
José Luis de Rojas, professor of American Anthropology at Madrid’s Complutense University and an expert in the conquest of Mexico, says that Columbus’ actions can be explained by his lifestyle. “He was there for a very short time,” he says. “He spent half of his life on ships.” De Rojas adds that the figures are exaggerated. “Epidemics like smallpox killed more people than the Spanish did,” he says.
History in the dock
The real question is whether we should apply modern criteria when judging the past. Carmen Sanz Ayán, professor of modern history at Madrid’s Complutense University and a member of the History Academy, says that it is not surprising that we are now revising our opinion of Columbus. “It is something that has been in the air for some time in American universities,” she says. “But it is curious that it is coming from the descendants of communities that were nearly wiped out by other civilizations.”
According to Sanz, “authority is being awarded to those who want to take what happened in the past out of context and make unambiguous interpretations. This is something that goes against science and, as historians, we can’t allow it.”
Sanz believes that to do so is to risk inviting the construction of a national identity from an ethno-cultural point of view. “And we all know what that led to in Europe,” she says.
Epidemics like smallpox killed more people than the Spanish did
José Luis de Rojas, professor at Madrid’s Complutense University
Espino López, on the other hand, believes that imperialism in general should be re-examined: “It’s not just a question of the Spanish monarchy during the 16th century. They [Europeans] have all been equally bad and have tried to justify themselves with the argument that the [indigenous] people benefited from their actions. But that type of argument no longer stands up to scrutiny,” he says.
But Pablo Emilio Pérez-Mallaína, professor of American history at the University of Seville, says that you can’t judge what happened in the 15th century by 21st century standards. “All civilizations have been both conquerors and conquered,” he says. “The Aztecs enslaved their enemies, sacrificed them and ate their hearts.”
Borja de Riquer agrees that few figures from history would emerge guiltless if they were judged by our criteria.
Martínez Shaw adds that history allows for different interpretations of the facts and he believes that, in the case of Columbus, it is the big picture that counts. “I prefer to leave it well enough alone because these are significant matters,” he says. “I do however understand there are those who don’t want to.”
According to De Rojas, “We have to acknowledge the past so that we don’t repeat it, as is happening in central Africa. The only thing we can do is to accept it, even if we are not responsible for it.”
In the ongoing debate over which countries committed the worst atrocities, De Riquer maintains that the conquest of America was not much different from what the British, the Dutch and the Italians were doing.
“The colonialist is never good,” says Consuelo Varela, doctor of American history and a researcher at the CSIC School of Hispanic-American Studies. “But if we compare what the Spanish did in Latin America with what the English did in the US and the Portuguese in Brazil…” She leaves the phrase hanging. “Spain founded the University of Peru in the 16th century while the English founded Harvard in 1636 and in Brazil there was nothing until the start of the 20th century, when it was already independent.”
His statue is representative of someone helped initiate the greatest genocide ever recorded in human history
LA Council member Mitch O’Farrell
Pérez-Mallaína claims that the Spanish colonialists were not the worst offenders because they were closely linked to Catholicism which gave them a bad conscience about what they were doing – something the English didn’t have.
While Roger Crowley recognizes that all colonization involves violence, pillage and oppression, he maintains that Belgian rule in the Congo was worse than British rule in India.
Going back to the posthumous fate of Christopher Columbus, Professor De Rojas says that the statue was taken down because of what it represented rather than what Columbus actually did.
Perhaps so, but Jursich still maintains: “Nothing is gained by hiding uncomfortable aspects of the past by removing them from public view.”
English version by Heather Galloway.
With information from Jacinto Antón, Francesco Manetto, Margot Molina, Pablo Ximénez de Sandoval, Pablo Ferri and Peio H. Riaño.
From Columbus Day to the Day of the Indigenous Peoples
The people who established Columbus Day at the end of the 19th century in a number of American cities were politicians with Italian origins, according to Consuelo Varela, a historian who has written more than 30 books linked to the discovery of the New World.
Indigenous movements have spent years fighting for the abolition of Columbus Day, which has been celebrated on the second Monday of October since 1937.
In LA last year, these groups, led by Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, managed to ban the celebration and establish the Day for Indigenous, Aboriginal and Native Peoples in its place while blocking a suggestion by Councilmember Joe Buscaino to simply change the date so that both days could be celebrated.
“It’s a natural next step of eliminating the false narrative that Columbus was a benign discoverer who helped make this country what it is,” O’Farrell told LA Magazine. “His statue and his image are really representative of someone who committed atrocities and helped initiate the greatest genocide ever recorded in human history.”
The removal of the statue follows the replacement of Christopher Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, which the Los Angeles City/ County Native American Indian Commission (LANAIC) was also instrumental in bringing about. “This effort is one step [closer] toward a much broader agenda about lifting up the true history of the place we now call Los Angeles and pushing back against the erasure of the Indigenous peoples,” LANAIC vice-chair Chrissie Castro said of the development.