If this startles you, it is because the reality of what happened that fateful day and in the years that followed has been obscured by historical propaganda.
The version prevalent in the English-speaking world is that cruel, lazy and papist Spaniards landed in the Caribbean driven by a lust for gold, a crazed desire for spilling blood and enslavement of natives and an unquenchable urge to rape their women. The republics were doomed to fail given their rampant “miscegenation” and collapse into neofeudal sloth. Britain and later the United States were duty bound, the story went, to exploit these people for the good of the continent, bringing democracy and free trade.
This overlooks several uncomfortable facts.
Information about Spanish wrongdoing during the early colonization is not a new discovery by liberal left-wing U.S. academics, or even by American Indian activists. The facts come from the written advocacy on behalf of natives by Spanish Catholic priests, including the first one ordained in the New World, going back 500 years.
Little is said by the outraged garment-rending followers of anti-Columbus fashion about British atrocities against American Indians, Irish, Indians from India, Africans and so on. This includes the first recorded use of germ warfare, when British commanding generals ordered, sanctioned, paid for and conducted the use of smallpox against Native Americans during the French and Indian War. Where were the Protestant clerics demanding that such practices be put to an end?
This is to say nothing of the introduction of the kidnapping of Africans into slavery in the New World, a wholly British and Portuguese business. Today, every single former British colony, including the United States, has an ethnic or racial fissure at the core of its society. Ever wonder why?
Of course, there is a Spanish-speaking-world version of historical propaganda about the colonization of America, with other distortions.
According to the traditional Spanish and Ibero-American story, valiant and devout Spanish military men and missionaries brought civilization and Christianity to savage Indians, installing societies in which all were respected according to their ordained station. Notably, these societies included an intermingling of Spanish, American natives and Africans that today offers a rich palette of skin hues in that part of the world. The venture was disrupted by British pirates’ attack on Spanish shipping and their agents’ promotion of discontent among the local elite.
In a relatively new and revisionist rendering since the 1970s—which adopts some of what traditionally was called the British “black legend” about the Spanish colonies—the Ibero-American story adds that the former colonies of Spain and Portugal became neofeudal estates thanks to a deliberate British campaign to develop a neocolonial regime of subservient banana republics. Once the British Empire faded, the United States stepped in as colonial master.
Supposedly enlightened U.S. Americans are coming to the game a little late—as are the Ibero-American children and grandchildren of more recent immigrants who had little to do with colonization. It’s easy to see wrongdoing in past generations of unrelated foreigners.
The much harder task is to reevaluate history with fresh eyes that take into account what people born before our time could not have known or understood.
For example, the term “genocide” was coined in 1944 by Polish-born U.S. jurist Raphael Lemkin in his work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It means to kill a tribe, from the Greek genos (race, kind). Columbus would not have known what anyone bringing up such a charge even meant.
All conquest in history, even in 21st century Syria and Ukraine, has involved some vile and repulsive violence against the civilian population, often enough chosen as victims simply because of their kind.
Columbus was not leading a scientific expedition out for a picnic. He was leading an expedition to get access to Asian goods that could be sold in Europe. He had investors to repay, because contrary to legend the Catholic monarchs did not finance the venture, but rather a consortium headed by two conversos like Columbus: Luis de Santangel, Spain’s chancellor of the royal household, and Gabriel Sanchez, treasurer of Aragon.
In researching this post, I found a fanciful explanation that adds another viewpoint, published in an October 14, 2013, Times of Israel blog by Simcha Jacobovici, a Canadian-Israeli filmmaker and journalist.
Jacobovici points out that Columbus left the port of Palos on August 3, 1492, which to him is the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av, “the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the day that both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.” It was also the deadline for Jews in Spain to convert or leave.
Alongside Columbus’ ships was a veritable flotilla carrying Jews. Indeed, at least four Jews were on Columbus’ crew, in addition to Luis de Torres: Marco, the surgeon; Maestre Bernal, the physician; Alonso de la Calle, a bursar; and Rodrigo de Sanchez of Segovia, who was related to the Aragon treasurer.
Then Jacobovici drops his bomb:
Why would Columbus take a Hebrew speaker with him on a voyage to the New World? Because, according to Simon Wiesenthal in his book Sails of Hope, Columbus wasn’t looking for India. Rather, his secret mission was to find the lost tribes of Israel.Whether this is true is irrelevant. There is some evidence that the delay in the Canary Islands, apart from having to do with the Great Navigator’s affair with a widow whose house in Las Palmas still stands (I visited it), was related to negotiations involving Jews and the Spanish authorities.
Whatever Columbus was looking for, he accidentally chanced on something else.
There was no established protocol on what to do when you find lands you didn’t even know existed, inhabited by peoples with warfare technology vastly inferior to your own. The precedent, from the most ancient history, offered one clear example: conquer them.