Tag Archives: Christopher Columbus

Columbus (part 2)

One of my friends, a man I have known and respected for many years, cited the fact that Columbus took slaves as though that invalidated all his achievements, made them fruit of the poison tree.  This all played out in Facebook comments, so some of you may have missed it.  Here’s the rest of the story.

When Columbus returned to the Caribbean Basin on his second voyage, he found that one of his island settlements had been attacked and destroyed.  Columbus had a royal commission from the King and Queen of Spain, placing him in charge of all settlements, trade, etc., in the New World, on their behalf.  At the end of the fifteenth century, there was no United Nations, no Organization of American States, no International Court of Criminal Justice or World Court.  That is to say, Columbus actually was the authority and he alone had the responsibility to protect his settlers.  Or to avenge them.
The destroyed settlement was on an island, and Columbus determined what native tribe had attacked.  At that point he had a choice, three choices, actually.  One, he could let the attack go unchallenged and thereby make all future Spanish settlements vulnerable to further aggression.  Two, he could destroy the tribe that had destroyed his settlement.  Three, he could put that tribe to forced labor for a period of years as punishment for destroying his settlement.  Columbus did not use this attack from the natives, against his settlement, as an excuse to enslave or attack all the natives.  He set the one guilty tribe to forced labor, there by showing that any who attacked his settlements would be punished.

Given that he was the authority and there was no international organization he could appeal to for redress or sanctions, I would say he made the humane choice.

These opinions are my own and are not endorsed by my employers, the National Guard, the DoD or the college form which I graduated.

In brief: Defending Columbus and Praising Pasteur

It has become very popular in recent years to vilify Christopher Columbus.  First, he lost his status as the discoverer of the Americas when historians proved that Viking Leif Ericsson reached Canada hundreds of years before Columbus reached the Bahamas, Hispaniola and Cuba.  Then historians also determined that theories of a spherical Earth had existed since the second century CE.  Finally, Columbus has been impugned as the first practitioner of germ warfare.  Revisionist historians have transformed the Italian mariner who proved the world was round and sailed three tiny ships with a combined crew of a few dozen from Spain to the Caribbean into the man who deliberately orchestrated a campaign of genocide by disease against the Native Americans.

Columbus set sail for India from Spain in August of 1492.   King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille agreed to finance his expedition shortly after their armies finished driving the Muslims out of Spain, completing the reconquest the Iberian Peninsula for Catholicism.  Columbus sailed on the Santa Maria accompanied by the Nina and Pinta.  When he and his crew arrived in what are now the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, they found the natives prepared to trade.  When the natives grew sick Columbus’ crew and colonists gave them blankets to keep warm.

The meme that goes around now suggests that Columbus deliberately infected the natives with small pox and other European diseases by trading blankets and other infected items that passed the contagion.  He could not have known that his crew and colonists were passing the diseases in the blankets.

Louis Pasteur formulated the germ theory of disease in the mid 1800s.  Pasteur’s ideas didn’t gain acceptance immediately.  Though now even elementary students learn to wash their hands before eating to rid them of tiny germs that could cause illness.  Over three centuries before Pasteur, in the time of Columbus, even physicians would not have conceived of tiny organisms causing disease, to say nothing of mariners, explorers and colonists.

Just as Columbus’ voyage changed the popular conception of a flat earth, forever confirming the ancient hypothesis that the earth was spherical, so Pasteur changed the popular understanding of disease and micro-organisms.  Columbus opened up the Americas to exploration, colonization and the spread of European culture.  Pasteur and his team of scientists developed vaccines for anthrax and rabies and spread the process of killing germs in beverages that bears his name.

Yes, Columbus put some natives to forced labor on his second voyage. No, he wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas.  But he didn’t deliberately spread contagion among the natives.  Columbus and his colonists couldn’t have known about germs because Pasteur wouldn’t prove that bacteria caused disease until Columbus had been dead for over three hundred years.