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Looking back from today’s tumultuous times, 1992 seems a remarkably peaceful and pleasant interlude. No one knew what the future held, but a consensus was emerging about the past. October 1992 marked the quincentennial of the first westward voyage of Christopher Columbus, and many thinkers on the left agreed that the world went downhill from there.
Around that time, I reviewed a book on the subject by environmentalist Kirkpatrick Sale and his title gave the whole game away: The Conquest of Paradise. In no uncertain terms, Sales condemned Columbus, his culture, his continent, and his religion, while holding up the indigenous people he brutalized as “the first ecologists,” who lived an Eden-like existence until the whites came and spoiled it all. Columbus himself, according to Sale, was a restless, unstable loner, driven by greed and a soul-shriveling “religiosity.”
That was hardly fair to either side, but the succeeding decades have done their work, and Columbus Day is now Indigenous People’s Day on many calendars. Statues of the great explorer have been pulled down and stomped on. If trends continue, most Americans will know Columbus only as a city in Ohio.
Before that happens, we should see him through the eyes of Bartolomé de las Casas.
Born in Seville, Spain, de las Casas sailed to Hispaniola at the age of 18 with his father. That was only 10 years after the island’s discovery, and Columbus had established a Spanish outpost with himself as governor. He was a far better seaman than administrator, but at the time de las Casas little cared, as obsessed with getting rich as any other European settler. That meant exploiting the labor of the native Taino people and capturing more slaves from the neighboring islands. The young man was at first blind to the plight of the natives, even after joining the order of Dominican priests in 1512. In time, however, his conscience kicked in, and he joined his brothers in filing complaints to the king of Spain about the injustice. De las Casas became such an ardent and relentless advocate he received the official title of Protector of the Indians.
De las Casas knew Columbus personally and even provided history with its only copy of the explorer’s diary. While critical of Columbus’ mistakes in governing, de las Casas attributed them to ignorance and misjudgment. “Truly,” wrote de las Casas, “I would not dare blame the admiral’s intentions for I knew him well and I knew his intentions were good.”
The indigenous people were not impressed by the governor’s good intentions and could not have foreseen the long-term effects of the worldview he brought with him. What Columbus had, and very likely abused, was a sense of himself as an individual and a free agent. He was a child of Renaissance humanism, which was Christian before it became secular. Widespread Bible distribution, spurred by Gutenberg’s invention, had reintroduced Europeans to the Biblical view of innate human dignity and worth. In The Book That Made Your World, Indian scholar Vishal Mangalwadi describes the reasoning: “Since God is free and not bound by the world of preexisting ideas or matter, and since man is made in God’s image, man must also be free”—the humble as well as the powerful.
Men who are free to create, innovate, and do good are also free to lie, cheat, and deny freedom to others. Freedom unleashed on the New World brought misery to the natives but also convicted de las Casas that these, too, were image-bearers of God with rights and dignity. In time, individual freedom and universal human rights became principles the New World embraced and other places imitated. But we’ve lost sight of where those principles came from and what they mean.
Rather than a black-hearted villain, Columbus was a complex man of moral agency and sincere faith who sometimes forgot what that meant. The screed-writers and statue-pullers of today are just as likely to forget, risking the loss of not just freedom, but morality itself.
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