Columbus and the colonial legacy
issue 226 - December 1991
Columbus & the colonial legacy
'In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.' Wayne Ellwood explores the myth of discovery
and looks at the famous mariner's impact on the land and people of the Americas.
On a fine summer's day the twin spires of the Martyr's Shrine are clearly etched against a cobalt blue sky. The solid stone church, hewn from cold granite, has a commanding view of the rich farmland to the south and, just barely visible to the north, the shining silver lip of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron - one of the largest of North America's Great Lakes.
Lake Huron is named after the indigenous people that used to inhabit this region of southern Ontario. Early French fur traders gave them the name Huron, though they called themselves the Wendat.
A century after Christopher Columbus sailed into the Caribbean, the Wendat were still a thriving nation of 30,000 people, largely untouched by the expanding legions of white Europeans probing the continent for wealth. They grew corn, beans and squash in the fertile alluvial soil, and lived in bark-covered longhouses in small tribal communities. Their lives were tuned to the cyclical rhythm of the seasons; as with most native people the physical and the spiritual world were one.
Today the Wendat are gone, though archaeologists continue to poke and prod the woods and fields of Huronia for remnants of their culture. Yet you can still catch a glimpse of their lives by wandering across the highway from the church to see 'Ste Marie Among the Hurons' - an astonishingly detailed, historical reconstruction of an early Christian mission run by French Jesuits. Fresh-faced college students in period costume re-enact life on the mission; men and women from a nearby Ojibway reserve take the part of the Huron.
The Ste Marie mission thrived for barely ten years, from 1640 to 1650, an outpost of Christianity in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, nearly 4,000 miles from Paris. At its peak 60 Europeans lived there including 23 priests - known to the Wendat as the 'black robes'. By the time the Jesuits left, the Huron people had virtually disappeared.
What happened? Trading rivalries, stirred up by British and Dutch traders to the south, set in motion a deadly assault on Huron villages by other Indian groups, members of the Iroquois League. In March, 1649 a thousand Mohawk and Seneca warriors attacked the Huron. Two Jesuit priests were killed and eventually a shrine above the old mission of Ste Marie was built. Nearly 10,000 Huron, along with a handful of priests, took refuge on an island in Georgian Bay - known today as Christian Island. By spring, starvation, disease and cold had reduced their numbers to fewer than 300 people.1
The Huron tragedy is one small footnote in the history of the Americas that has unfolded over the last 500 years. Unfortunately, the ingredients are all too familiar: commerce, Christianity, racism, disease and death. The Jesuits at Ste Marie, like their Spanish predecessors farther south, were men of their time. Both were steeped in the twisted religiosity and arrogance of the mediaeval Church. And both believed in the 'doctrine of discovery' which was to undergird the centuries of imperial expansion which followed. Europeans saw themselves at the apex of civilization; whatever European nation first 'discovered' another land had the right to colonize it, regardless of the people who lived there.
Hungry for gold
Within months of Columbus' first landfall in the 'new world' Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal edict stating: 'The Catholic faith and Christian religion, especially in our times shall be exalted, broadened and spread in every part of the world, salvation shall be sought for all souls, barbarian nations shall be subdued and led back to the faith.'
For the gold-hungry Spaniards this divine command quickly became a rationale for centuries of barbaric treatment of native Americans. Columbus himself set the stage on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the site of his first settlement. By his second voyage, in 1495, he was desperate for gold to repay the Spanish bankers who were financing him. Columbus refused to believe there was almost no gold on the island; instead he forced the island's Taino inhabitants to bring him a 'hawk's bell' full of gold dust every three months. The natives were made to wear a copper disc around their necks to prove they'd paid their tribute. Those caught without a disc had their arms hacked off, or were murdered outright.2
The conquistadors who followed Columbus were driven by the same frenzied greed. When Hemando Cortés met the Aztec ambassadors of the great lord Moctezuma in 1519 he was dazzled by the gold jewellery that adorned their bodies. 'Send me some of it,' the Spaniard ordered, 'because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.' - an apt description of the spiritual vacuum at the centre of the European soul.3 Several months later, when the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had been captured, nearly a quarter of a million Aztec warriors lay dead.
Thirty years later the Catholic priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas, wrote his famous Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies, in which he graphically described the depredations of the Spanish fortune seekers. The Spaniards hurled themselves on the Indians 'like wolves after days of starvation', he wrote. 'For 40 years they have done nothing but torture, murder, harass, afflict torment and destroy them with extraordinary, incredible,. innovative and previously unheard of cruelty ... Some natives they hung on gibbets, and it was their reverential custom to gather at a time sufficient victims to hang 13 in a row, and thus piously to commemorate Christ and the 12 Apostles.'
Las Casas estimated that 50 million Indians perished in Latin America and the Caribbean within 50 years of Columbus' landing. Scholars now reckon that 90 per cent of the indigenous population of the Americas was wiped out in a century and a half - the greatest demographic collapse in the history of the planet and the proportional equivalent of nearly half a billion people today.
Much of that death and destruction was caused by illness. The people of the Americas had little resistance to old-world diseases like influenza, measles and small-pox. These imported pathogens cut a swath across the land, decimating whole Indian nations, often before the Europeans reached them. The Annals of the Cakchiquels, written during the Spanish invasion by one of the largest Maya groups in Guatemala, capture the terror of the times:
'Great was the stench of the dead After our fathers and grandfathers succumbed, half of the people fled to the fields. The dogs and the vultures devoured the bodies. The mortality was terrible. Your grandfathers died, and with them died the son of the king and his brothers and kinsmen ... oh, my sons! We were born to die!'4
Las Casas argued passionately that the Indians had souls like the Spaniards and should be treated with respect. But to no avail. The ideology of racial superiority was already firmly in place. Native people were damned outside the Christian faith, a point which was emphasized in the infamous requiriemento of the Spanish Crown. The Indians were given a choice: accept the Christian god willingly or face the consequences. The conquistador, Gonzalo de Alvarado, sent an abridged version to the Maya leader Kaibil Balam before attacking:
'Let it be known that our coming is beneficial ... because we bring tidings of the true God and Christian Religion sent by the Pope - the Vicar of Jesus Christ, God and Man - and the Emperor King of Spain, so that you may become Christians peacefully of your own free will; but should you refuse the peace we offer, then the death and destruction that follow will be entirely of your own account.'5
Having demonized native people as a 'dark force' living outside the norms of civilization it was a simple step to apply the same label to black Africans. Columbus himself was a great advocate of slavery, and crammed 500 Taino people into a ship on his second voyage home. Later he proposed in a letter to the Spanish Queen Isabella: 'The savage and cannibalistic Caribs should be exchanged as slaves against livestock to be provided by merchants in Spain.'
Slaves were soon captured from the West coast of Africa to replace the fast-dying native Americans: 4,000 were sold in Cuba and Hispaniola in 1517. The trade quickly took off as the demand for cheap agricultural labour increased in the new colonies of Brazil and Jamaica. Hundreds of boats crossed the Atlantic, disgorging their human cargoes in the ports of Kingston, Havana and later, Charleston, in North Carolina. The history of the slave trade is now well documented. And though the numbers can't convey the cruelty and suffering, they bear repeating - just as the horror of the Nazi Holocaust should be studied anew by every generation.
Ideology of racism
The Atlantic slave trade lasted nearly 400 years during which time 15 million Africans were shipped to the Americas. Conditions during the crossing were so horrific that between a half and a third of the African captives died on route. Of the rest, most died within a decade of their arrival in the strange new land. By the time slavery was officially abolished in the late 1800s, one in four Africans was a slave.
Black Africans and indigenous Americans were yoked together as subhuman savages who could join the expanding Christian world - or be swept aside. The French priest, Father Dutertre, neatly summed up the dominant view of slavery in the 17th century: 'Their servitude,' he wrote, 'is the principle of their happiness and their disgrace is the cause of their salvation.'6
Thus the ideology of racism was legitimized by the teachings of the Church. Both blacks and native people could be abused and exploited in the pursuit of wealth without moral qualm.
In their self-righteous desire to control the natives and subdue the vast wilderness, the Spanish - and later the French and English - attempted to rebuild Europe in the Americas. Aztec and Mayan temples were destroyed and their stones used to build the churches and cathedrals of the conquerors. It was inevitable that the destruction of Indian nations soon turned to the destruction of the natural environment. But what was it about this boundless, 'new land' and the 'pagan practises' of native Americans that caused Europeans to react with agitation and revulsion?
A clue lies in the ancient earth-based spirituality that native Americans practised and which Europeans looked at with both fear and longing. For Indian people the natural world was inseparable from the spiritual world. Time was circular, like the great Aztec calendar, and myth was as palpable as the rocks or the trees. All nature was a cathedral.
The American historian Frederick Turner argues convincingly that Indian spirituality was feared precisely because it was so appealing to European Christians whose own myths of meaning had been gutted by the Church:
'In the same way that civilized men (sic) had cleared the earth, pruned back the forests, planted villages, towns and cities, so had Christianity stripped its world of magic and mystery, and of the possibility of spiritual renewal through itself. In cutting down the sacred trees in the mystic groves, in building its sanctuaries on the rubble of the chthonic shrines, and in branding all vestiges of ancient mythic practises [as] vain, impious and superstitious, the Church had effectively removed divinity from its world... its people [became] alienated sojourners in a spiritually barren world where the only outlet for the urge to life was the restless drive onward ...'3
The natural world became a satanic place of dark menace for the Europeans, an environment to be tamed and remade in the service of human progress. The natives on the other hand were lost to 'the ooze of night and nature from which Christian history had redeemed itself.' The only option, Turner says, was to take possession without becoming possessed: to take secure hold on the lands beyond and yet hold them at a rigidly maintained spiritual distance.'
This the colonizing Europeans did with a vengeance. From Columbus to the present day the natural wealth of the Americas has been plundered, wildlife exterminated and the land, water and air poisoned. In the United States alone more than 140 major animal and bird species have become extinct since 1492.7 And still the essential environmental message of Indian people remains to be heard:
'Without [the land and animals] our spirits will die. Non-natives sometimes think we are being romantic when we talk about these things. This is not about romance. This is reality and survival,' says Norma Kassi from the Gwitch'in Nation in the Canadian Yukon.8
Today the single-minded greed of the conquistadors has been replaced by the bloodless 'bottom line' of corporate accountants. Multinational corporations have become the modern-day pirates, working hand-in-hand with the nation states that now occupy the lands of the Kayapo and the Apaché.
Whether it is timber on the land of the Gitksan-Wetsuwetan in British Columbia, or oil on the land of the Huarani in Ecuador, the rights of native Americans are still being trampled. Today, not a single country in the Americas recognizes native people as distinct nations with the right to self-government.
Nor has the other main legacy of the Columbus venture been dismantled. The ideology of racism continues to scar social relations and harmony in the Americas, from Chile to Canada. Afro-Americans and other people of colour are amongst the very poorest, with sky-high unemployment, decrepit housing, inadequate health care and crippling rates of alcoholism and disease. In the US, home of the 'New World Order', 43 per cent of all black children are born into poverty and the only stable jobs for young black men are in the army. Yet across the Americas these same people are being called upon to celebrate the anniversary of Columbus.
* * *
October 12, 1992 marks the 500th anniversary of what author Kirkpatrick Sale calls the beginning of 'the European conquest of the world'. By the time next year has passed most of us will know more than we cared, or wanted to know, about Christopher Columbus, the middle-aged Italian sailor whose haphazard voyage across the Atlantic set in motion the colonial era.
But there are other lessons about which we will have a great deal to learn. The legacy of Christopher Columbus is still with us - the process of colonization and dispossession is still underway. But the hidden history of two continents is only slowly emerging. And the real 'discovery' of the Americas has yet to take place.
1 'The Jesuits and the Fur Trade' by Bruce Trigger, from Sweet Promises ed. JR Miller (University of Toronto Press, 1991).
2 Columbus: His Enterprise, Exploding the Myth, Hans Koning (Monthly Review Press/LAB, 1991).
3 Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness, Frederick Turner (Rutgers University Press, 1983).
4 Central America: A Nation Divided, RL Woodward (Oxford University Press, 1985).
5 George W Lovell, cited in Time Among the Maya, Ronald Wright (Penguin Books, 1990).
6 'The Voice of the Victims', by Laennec Hurbon, Concilium, 1492-1992.
7 The conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale (Knopf, 1990).
8 'On the Land Forever', speech to the First Interamerican Congress of Indigenous Peoples on Management and Conservation of Natural Resources, Panama City, 1989.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.