October 9th, 2017

For Columbus Day: statues with footnotes

A little over a month ago, in the heat of the war against statues, New York’s Mayor de Blasio expressed the thought that perhaps an explanatory note might be helpful in dealing with the dreadful conundrum represented by the offending statue of Christopher Columbus:

Facing mounting criticism of his plan to remove some of the city’s monuments — possibly including the Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Circle — Mayor de Blasio went to Plan B on Monday.

For the first time, the mayor said that instead of the heave-ho, contested monuments might get plaques that offer explanations of the historical figures they depict.

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding of what options could be utilized,” the mayor said at an unrelated press conference in Brooklyn. “There’s more than one way to address this. I don’t think anyone should leap to any conclusions. They should see how this commission does its work and what it presents.”

De Blasio predicted that many statues reviewed by a panel he expects to convene within days will be left alone.

Some might gain historical context with an explanatory plaque, while the most divisive monuments would be recommended for removal.

How long would the note on that plaque need to be, I wonder?

The stock of Christopher Columbus has fallen in recent years as a result of the general campaign on the part of the left by figures such as Howard Zinn to emphasize the bad in American history and to elevate native Americans as uniformly good in comparison, as well as specific campaigns to make people more aware of the bad things white people of yore such as Columbus actually did. There was a Marxian slant because Columbus was also considered the man who brought capitalistic greed to this hemisphere.

The Columbus Day battle is also—although most people may not realize this—a struggle between two ethnic identity groups: native Americans and Italians, the latter being the people who spearheaded so much of the recognition of Columbus in this country in the first place. And the Ku Klux Klan had a role, as well.

You can read some of this Columbus Day history in this National Review article in which Jennifer C. Braceras describes the situation [emphasis mine]:

Here, in the United States, the anti-Columbus movement was sparked by white supremacists nearly 100 years ago. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan promoted negative characterizations of Columbus in order to vilify Catholics and immigrants, many of whom celebrated Columbus not only as a source of ethnic and religious pride but also as a symbol of the free and diverse society that resulted from the European presence here. The Klan tried to prevent the erection of monuments to the Great Navigator, burned crosses in opposition to efforts to honor him, and argued that commemorations of his voyage were part of a papal plot. Rather than honor a Catholic explorer from the Mediterranean, Klansmen proposed honoring the Norseman Leif Eriksson as discoverer of the New World and a symbol of white pride.

So it’s not just the left that can play the identity game, or get incensed about statues:

In the 1920s, from coast to coast, members of the Ku Klux Klan opposed Columbus. In Richmond, they tried to stop the erection of a Columbus monument. In Pennsylvania, they burned fiery crosses to threaten those celebrating Columbus. The Klan newspaper, The American Standard, attacked honoring Columbus — on the basis that a holiday for him was some sort of papal plot.

The Klan was no fan of Columbus. He stood athwart their nativist desire for a country pure in its Anglo-Saxon and Protestant origins.

What Americans have forgotten is that white supremacy has historically sought not only the denigration of African-Americans and Jews but also of Catholics — and among them Hispanics — ascribing to the latter all manner of harmful stereotypes as brutal criminals and sexual predators. This narrative is known throughout the Spanish-speaking world and in academic circles as the “Black Legend.”

Historian Philip Wayne Powell wrote of this smear campaign: “The basic premise of the Black Legend is that Spaniards have shown themselves, historically, to be uniquely cruel, bigoted, tyrannical, obscurantist, lazy, fanatical, greedy, and treacherous; that is, that they differ so much from other peoples in these traits that Spaniards and Spanish history must be viewed and understood in terms not ordinarily used in describing and interpreting other peoples.”

It began as a tool of Anglo supremacy over its Iberian foes during the competition for territory on this continent, but as Powell notes, it was “extended to form part of a larger picture of English moral, racial and religious superiority over the Spaniard” — and we might well add, those who sailed for Spain.

In the rush to judge and deface, few remember that it was Spain that forbade slavery of most Native Americans and made them Spanish citizens. Fewer still remember that Columbus seems to have faced arrest by his fellow explorers for punishing — even executing — those who had abused Native Americans. And almost no one recalls that it was not Columbus but the exaggerating zealot Bartolome De Las Casas, who is most often cited in smearing Spanish exploration and with it Columbus, who was the one who proposed African slavery for the New World.

When I first wrote a draft for this post over a month ago, I hadn’t yet seen those articles I just quoted and I was doing my own research on Columbus. My goal was to determine (as best I could) the truth about what Columbus actually had done. I encountered the confusing information these quotes allude to—tales of Columbus’ devotion to slavery and his stand against it, discussions of whether the natives Columbus brought back to Spain were actually slaves or not, talk of the vicious violence of Columbus’ men and the reasons they gave for whatever violence did occur.

I also could not help but note that most of the tales of the awfulness of Columbus and the Spaniards came from one person, the aforementioned Bartolome de las Casas. Reading some excerpts from his work, I felt the buzz of possible propaganda. For example, just about everyone has agreed that a great deal of native American suffering was the result of the diseases that came from the European contact and for which the natives had no natural defenses; this is really not disputed. But de las Casas doesn’t seem to even mention it in passages where it would have been highly appropriate to have done so.

I refer to quotes such as this:

Among reasons for this criticism [of Columbus] is the treatment and disappearance of the native Taino people of Hispaniola, where Columbus began a rudimentary tribute system for gold and cotton. The people disappeared rapidly after contact with the Spanish because of overwork and the first pandemic of European diseases, which struck Hispaniola after 1519. De las Casas records that when he first came to Hispaniola in 1508, “there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….”

‘War slavery, and the mines”—shouldn’t “disease” or “pestilence” be in there somewhere, too? And it also occurred to me that de las Casas, as a one-time supporter of slavery in the Americas, may have been writing to try to frantically expiate his own feelings of guilt. So I independently came to the conclusion that de las Casas might have been the Howard Zinn of his day, only with a different philosophy and different motives. And, since de las Casas appears to be practically the only chronicler of what happened between the Spaniards (plus the Italian Columbus) and the natives—except the Spanish themselves—I found it impossible to tell who was telling the truth and who either lying or exaggerating.

For each side, a certain amount of self-interest seems to have been involved. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in-between? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time.

So I’m still trying to imagine what would be written on that plaque of de Blasio’s (New York still has a large population with Italian ancestry, and that would include de Blasio on his mother’s side only).

One of the “contexts” I’d like to see—if in fact context is ever provided—is the fact that at the time all of this happened, slavery was common all over the world, to different degrees and with different details. Columbus’ opening up of the New World to the Old enabled slavery to traverse oceans, which was a great evil. But even many of the indigenous people in the Americas whom Columbus had “discovered” (although apparently not the specific cultures he personally encountered there) had the practice of enslaving people they captured in war.

Note also this observation on the Arawaks, made by Columbus, writing in his journal on October 12, 1492 (the first Columbus Day, as it were) [emphasis mine]:

Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”

When trying to determine the truth of what actually happened between Columbus and the natives, one thing is certain: it ended up with a lot of death and destruction for the natives, and many of the early Spanish didn’t exactly flourish in the New World themselves although they did significantly better. Also from Wiki [emphasis mine]:

The native Taino people of the island were systematically enslaved via the encomienda system implemented by Columbus, which resembled a feudal system in Medieval Europe. Disease played a significant role in the destruction of the natives. Indirect evidence suggests that some serious illness may have arrived with the 1500 colonists who accompanied Columbus’s second expedition in 1493. And by the end of 1494, disease and famine had claimed two-thirds of the Spanish settlers. When the first pandemic finally struck in 1519 it wiped out much of the remaining native population.

Now for a little more about the “Black Legend“:

A testimony of the time accuses Columbus of brutality against the natives and forced labor. Las Casas, son of the merchant Pedro de las Casas who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, described Columbus’s treatment of the natives in his History of the Indies. The writings of Las Casas are seen by some historians as exaggerated and biased. Their anti-Spanish sentiment was used by writers of Spain’s rivals as a convenient basis for the Black Legend historiography. They were already used in Flemish anti-Spanish propaganda during the Eighty Years’ War. Today the degree to which Las Casas’s descriptions of Spanish colonization represent a reasonable or wildly exaggerated picture is still debated among some scholars. For example, historian Lewis Hanke considers Las Casas to have exaggerated the atrocities in his accounts and thereby contributed to the Black Legend propaganda. Historian Benjamin Keen on the other hand found them likely to be more or less accurate. In Charles Gibson’s 1964 monograph The Aztecs under Spanish Rule, the first comprehensive study of the documentary sources of relations between Indians and Spaniards in New Spain (colonial Mexico), he concludes that the Black Legend builds upon the record of deliberate sadism. It flourishes in an atmosphere of indignation which removes the issue from the category of objective understanding. It is insufficient in its understanding of institutions of colonial history.”

This historical ill-treatment of Amerindians, common in many European colonies in the Americas, was used as propaganda in works of competing European powers to create slander and animosity against the Spanish Empire. The work of Las Casas was first cited in English with the 1583 publication The Spanish Colonie, or Brief Chronicle of the Actes and Gestes of the Spaniards in the West Indies, at a time when England was preparing for war against Spain in the Netherlands. The biased use of such works, including the distortion or exaggeration of their contents, is part of the anti-Spanish historical propaganda or Black Legend.

From the perspective of history and the colonization of the Americas, all European powers that colonized the Americas, such as England, Portugal, the Netherlands and others, were guilty of the ill-treatment of indigenous peoples.

One of my favorite phrases in the above quote is “removes the issue from the category of objective understanding.” This issue has certainly been “removed”—at least for now—from the categogy of my objective understanding, except that I am firmly convinced that each side was motivated greatly by the need to create effective propaganda in what I think can be rightly called a case of competing “narratives.”

Or, as Allan Bloom once put it:

You know, we’ve all read history. Everybody, you know, world history, and weren’t all past ages maaaad? There were slaves, there were kings—I don’t think there’s a single student who reads the history of England and doesn’t say that that was crazy. You know “that’s wonderful, you gotta know history, and be open to things and so on,” but they’re not open to those things because they know that that was crazy. I mean, the latest transformation of history is as a history of the enslavement of women, which means to say that it was all crazy—up till now.

Our historical knowledge is really a history which praises, ends up praising, ourselves—how much wiser [voice drips with sarcasm] we are, how we have seen through the errors of the past…Hegel already knew this danger of history, of the historical human being, when he said that every German gymnasium professor teaches that Alexander the Great conquered the world because he had a pathological love of power. And the proof that the teacher does not have a pathological love of power is that he has not conquered the world. [laughter] We have set up standards of normalcy while speaking of cultural relativism, but there is no question that we think we understand what cultures are, and what kind of mistakes they make.

Happy Columbus Day!

15 Responses to “For Columbus Day: statues with footnotes”

  1. NoBorg Says:

    A huge issue almost always ignored in these discussions… The biggest problem that Native Americans faced when Europeans arrived was the fact that, because they had been separated from the Eurasian population by thousands of years, their immune system had almost no defense against the diseases they were suddenly exposed to. This probably accounts for more than 90% of the losses of the native population. The wave of pestilence swept across the Americas a generation or two ahead of the Europeans themselves, which explains why they found many areas already pretty much depopulated.

    I doubt it’s a coincidence that this is usually briefly skipped over if it gets mentioned at all. It’s hard to feel morally superior to people who exposed the natives to disease completely inadvertently without the slightest understanding of what was happening. It’s much more fun to pretend that the Europeans wiped out a population of tens of millions via purposeful genocide, then we can say they were really eeeevil (not like US!).

  2. Dave Says:

    What is the point of believing in justice when you don’t believe there is a higher power governing the universe? No liberals seem to be protesting the highest food chain beasts like tigers or sharks preying on weak and helpless little animals in the wild.

  3. Paul in Boston Says:

    The natives were a violent and dangerous bunch, constantly at war with each other. The tribes of the Northeast would use captives for entertainment by slowly torturing them, then burning, and eating them. A hand thrown in thru the door of your lodge was an invitation to the feast.

    As late as the Revolutionary War, and after nearly 150 years of trying to convert them to Christanity, the colonials were offered a human stew during a winter march to try to conquer Quebec.

  4. Paul in Boston Says:

    “a human stew by their Indian allies”

  5. physicsguy Says:

    Today is now known officially as Indigenous Peoples Day at the college I work at. I took it as recommendation that I should head over to the local “Indigenous Peoples” casino to celebrate. My colleagues didn’t seem to think that was funny 🙂

  6. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    America’s culture must be attacked upon every front until it collapses and a new socialist utopia can be erected upon its ashes.

  7. Ymar Sakar Says:

    America’s culture must be attacked until people repent, as in the days of Jeremiah.

    Only by destroying the culture, can people begin to disobey the World and the System.

  8. DNW Says:

    What became of the Erie tribe? Who did it to them?

    Who were Tlaxcalans? Who was doing what to them before Cortes arrived? Who helped stop it? What became of their upper classes?


  9. Sam L. Says:

    The KKK was a tool for the Democrats at the time.

  10. DNW Says:


    Some of you may not have seen these back in the stacks of your own college …

    The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents


  11. DNW Says:

    I noticed that if you clicked Canada and Sources, and then tried to follow the first link on that page to The Jesuit Relations you merely got a college web page.

    This link should get you there.

    Primary source material … or nearly as it is not in the original folios collection or even manuscript


  12. GRA Says:

    Though petty on my part, after the ban of Chief Illiniwek (University of Illinois’ unofficial symbol – not mascot) and the further elimination of all things Native American related in sports if not being subjected to banning, I cannot take Native Americans anger with any seriousness. Call me a racist, but I believe that since their culture has almost zero accomplishments that they’ve grown bored and delved into vengeance as a way to keep their minds busy.

    Love live Chief Illiniwek, Chief Wahoo, the Blackhawks and the Washington Redskins.

  13. GRA Says:

    *Long live

  14. Yankee Says:

    We should honor Columbus, warts and all, because the real history is far more interesting than the oppression narrative pushed by these post-modern types. His voyage was an extraordinary achievement, bringing into contact the Old World and the New World, and nothing was the same after that.

    Columbus has been used for many place names, and “Columbia” for the country as a whole, in both a poetic sense and as a national personification, dating back as far as the 17th century. Another Italian, John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) explored the North American coast in 1497, for the English. And while it is politically correct to refer to the Indians as Native Americans, the word “America” itself comes from the Italian cartographer Amerigo Vespucci.

    In a sense, to oppose Columbus Day is to oppose the idea of America itself. What would these grievance-mongers rather have? From their thinking, it seems they would prefer an untouched land without a country.

    We should all be thankful that it was the English who colonized and settled North America, as the free and prosperous nation we have today comes directly from their culture and institutions.

  15. AesopFan Says:

    first they came for Robert E Lee…


    (yes, that’s how “removal” is spelled in the link)

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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