Was Columbus evil?

I learned in school that Columbus was a great man and treated the natives kindly (although not with equality) and yadda yadda. Lately I’ve been hearing that he was a big son of a bitch.

Which is true? If he was cruel to the native populations he met and his own crews, I never learned it.

According to Howard Zinn, he was one of the dirtiest dogs that ever walked the face of the Earth. Of course, that is according to Howard Zinn.

As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

It is true that Columbus wasn’t the saint that most textbooks and history classes make him out to be. It’s also doubtful that he was the evil monster who was out to wipe out the indigenous population that he encountered.

There is a book that I’m currently reading called *Lies My Teacher Taught Me*, by James Loewen. Loewen makes the argument that modern textbooks and classes are more about hagiography and demonization (depending on worldview) and less about scholarship and accuracy. Throw in a healthy dose of political pressure to teach “citizenship” and patriotism, and you’ve got a modern high-school history course.

I’m assuming that you are a HS student. If so, I suggest a good college-level history course.


Short answer: on his second voyage Columbus led a colonization fleet, and yes they treated the natives horrendously. The Spanish “conquistador” system was in place from the start.

Was Columbus evil? I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the Spanairds’ many victims. But you could say that Columbus was a product of his times. Europe was still coming out of medeival feudalism which held that if someone was weak enough to conquer, you not only could but ought to conquer them. FWIW, I doubt the Ming chinese or the Ottoman empire would have been much kinder.


MsRobyn…do you think that book would be interesting to a non-American?

It sounds wonderful but I don’t know if I’d find it easy to follow (my american history is pretty good though).


I’d like to note that Howard Zinn’s book is A People’s History of the United States. In it, he deliberately looks at history from “the other side”. What looks like a great event to one side usually doesn’t to the other.

You can’t blame Zinn for Columbus – he more than adequately cites his statements. You could argue that Columbus was a creature of his times, and that he was under intense pressure to make his investor’s investment pay off. But no amount of cultural relativism excuses, in my mind, his cutting off the hands of the natives for not producing the gold he wanted. Especially after the kindnesses they showed him. These things come from his own records.

So, yeah, he was an impressive mariner and leader , and knew how to get things done. But it lead him on to atrocities, even, I think, by the standards of the age.

Would you say that he was stupid for not recognizing (or was he just too stubborn to admit?) that he had discovered a new land, and not arrived in India? (Also, I guess that I should ask for clarification if “the Indies” referred specifically to India, or more generally to Asia.) Would the average explorer of his day have known how big around the earth was, and how far he had gone?

I don’t know if the average explorer would have, but it certainly was known. The substance of Columbus’ argument with the professors at Salamanca was precisely upon the issues of the size of the Earth. Columbus suggested that the earth might be pear-shaped, or shaped like a breast (his comparison), because he thought it would be smaller than a sphere. The professors opined that it was much larger than Columbus assumed, about the size we know it to be. They were right, of course. What no one foresaw was that there would be an entire continent between Europe and Asia.

I can forgive Columbus for not realizing where he was – the reports he had of the Great Khan weren’t exactly specific, and he didn’t know exactly what people and things were supposed to look like. Plus he was strongly predisposed to interpret things as if he had landed in Asia.

Very much so. There are instances in his letters where he omits an island, or ‘moves’ it so he can maintain fidelity with his sources - that he was in India, that he had found the promised land (there were several theories - just as the shape of the world was debated.)

Well…what do you mean by ‘conquistador’ system? Maybe I’m nitpicking, but there were many systems, and people had different opinions as to how the colonies should be run (see Cortes, las Casas, and Cabeza de Vaca for some fascinating examples). Columbus was looking to prove himself (and by extension the Crown) correct; he was not a conquistador in the way that Cortes was. The discovery of gold and other valuables and the presence of a pagan people that needed to be converted were the principal revelations of Columbus’ initial journey - the colonial machine created and adapted itself from there.
It’s truly fascinating to read his letters - the language that he uses (to ‘take possession’, ‘to deem’) and that he can’t (there were so many things that were sometimes deliberately mistranslated because of a lack in vocabulary on both sides). FWIW, Columbus comes off as far more earnest than say, Cortes - his second letter is just chilling.
As far as academic books, Stephen Greenblatt has written edited two great books - Marvellous Possessions and New World Encounters. I know the A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies (may not be correct English translation) by Bartolome de las Casas, and Shipwrecks (Naufragios) by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca have been translated into English, along with the letters of the major conquistadors…I would wholly recommend them to anyone interested in American history - I’m a graduate student in Spanish and it both amazed and saddened me how much I didn’t know about the history of America until I reached this level of specialization.

By the standards of Columbus’ time, what he did was not “atrocities”. Torture and maiming other beings was pretty normal.

Parents often took their children to watch executions in which the condemned sometimes had their entrails ripped out of them, and then were chopped into pieces. The crowd cheered every move. You could also watch people being burned alive. Lesser criminals might have their hands chopped off, their tongues cut out, or nails driven through their ears. Events like these were considered fun for the whole family. You could buy snacks, souvineer pamphlets, and sometimes, pieces of the rope used to hang the victim, or if you were really lucky, you might get to dip your handkerchief in the victim’s blood.

Bear-baiting was a popular sport in which a live bear was torn apart by a pack of dogs. People of the time thought it was hilarious.

You also must understand that to Columbus, the natives were less than human. They were just heathen savages. God had granted the Spaniards victory over them, thus the Spaniards could do whatever they wished to these “things”. They were not Christian, so the Spaniards felt perfectly comfortable with torturing and killing them. It had a lot to do with the current idea of Christian “dominion” over the rest of the earth.

By modern day standards, Columbus’ conduct, and that of many of the early explorers is sickening, but it barely raised an eyebrow in those times. When told of the slaughter in Cuba of 7,000 children in three months, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the Bishop of Burgos responded, “And how does that affect me?”

We cannot judge Columbus by modern standards, and if we judge him by the standards of his own day, we must admit that he wasn’t all that unusual in his cruelty. Certainly, there were others as cruel, and many that were worse.

From my perspective? Evil bastard. No doubt about it.

From his own? Good servant of his crown and his God, I think.

From his contempraries? Probably closer to his perspective than to mine.

What that means to anyone else is really a question of personal morality. I’m a moral relativist myself, but I have a comfortable level of confidence in calling him an evil bastard. It really doesn’t matter to me whether he would agree with the assessment, though a working time machine might make me reconsider that statement.

I’m perfectly aware of the differences, and tried to stress that in my post. Nonetheless, things were not as monolithic as you make out. We have reports from Catholic priests on those same islands from a few years later condemning the downright genocidal actions taken, especially in light of how open and generous the natives had been.

Even if Columbus thought the natives were soulless and inhuman, he should have been more circumspect, considering that he hoped these people were his conduit to the Great Khan. Self-interest alone should’ve kept him better behaved than he was, one would think. In any event, his actions go far beyond the kidnapping that often occurred at European-American meetings. Columbus essentially enslaved the Caribs in quest for gold and trade goods, and mutilated others to extort goods from them. These weren’t actions taken from afar – he as right there to oversee them. It’s hard for me to work up sympathy for him.

You have it almost precisely reversed. We cannot possibly judge him by the standards of his own day (assuming such a mythical unanimity of opinion ever existed). The only standards that we can ever apply to judgment are our own. If we choose to incorporate into that judgment our own understanding of what factors Columbus himself, or his contemporaries, might have considered pertinent to the evaluation, then we are certainly free to do so. However, it remains our standard that we are using to pass judgment.

The only human alternative to that is to not pass judgment at all.

Slight hijack, but events like the one you have described here were occuring in the U.S. during modern times. In 1916 there was a public lynching in Waco, Texas. Jesse Washington was kidnapped by a mob after a “guilty” verdict and dragged by chain through town. The mob threw a rope over a tree and covered him with coal oil, and lowered him into the fire but not before members of the mob were allowed to cut off his fingers, toes, and penis. Even though there were literally hundreds of people that witnessed this event, nobody was ever prosecuted. While you wouldn’t say these public lynchings were frequent, there were significant numbers of them. People gathered up, celebrated, and took fingers, teeth, etc for souvenirs. Frequently, they ran excursion trains from neighboring towns to get folks to the event.

Obviously, some people, a rather large group of people, did not find this kind of event to be sickening… even in modern times. :frowning:

Probably not. It’s aimed squarely at how American history is taught in American school systems, and is thus more about education than it is about history per se. However, if you’re interested in the American method of education, it’d probably be worth a look.


Sure. The priest’s name was Bartoleme de las Casas and he wrote *Bravissima relacion de la destrucion de las Indias [Short Account of the Destruction of the Indes] * in which he detailed the horrors which he had seen. But temper this with the knowledge that de las Casas strongly encouraged African slavery to replace Native workers.

Remember too, that during the Holocaust, there were people who stood up in outrage against what was happening to their Jewish friends and neighbors. The Holocaust still happened, though, because cruelty to Jews was more commonplace than tolerance.

Should we assume that because there are tales of those who protested the evils of the Holocaust that such atrocities were not the “norm” at the time?

Why should he assume that the Khan would care? Kings often thought of the peasants as being unimportant, and disposable. You see this sort of attitude in many time periods and in nations all over the world.

I’m not asking you to sympathize with him. Go ahead, despise him, if you will. I certainly do.

I just can’t say to you, though, that the world would be a better place, or the story of Spanish-Native American relations would have ended differently if Columbus’ ships had sunk. I can’t tell you that because another man, just as bad, if not worse, would have stepped into his shoes. The European mentality of the day dictated such behavior towards “heathens.” I can’t expect Columbus to have behaved accordingly to 21st century standards-- to respect human rights and treat the people with dignity and decency-- when the very concept would have been utterly foriegn to him.

For every de las Casas, you had many of this guy, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, one of the chroniclers, who said this:

Hell, that mindset lasted here in the US until almost the 1890s. We slaughtered them until there was just about no one left. If you’re going to condemn Columbus, you must also condemn Phillip Sheridan and his ilk, too. You’ve got to understand that the concept of human rights for all is a very new one in comparison to the human timeline.

Sorry, that’s an oversimplification of las Casas’ position. He did not encourage it, and its implementation was highly problematic and painful for him. In addition, las Casas is not the only Spanish (peninsular) writer who questioned the colonial machine - he just happens to be its best-seller (along with Cabeza de Vaca).

In reference to Oviedo, again, you’re oversimplifying. According to the science of the time, such statements applied not just to purely indigenous people but to the mestizos and criollos, as well. From Cortes on, the West (and the rulers in America) often used science to prove the innate inferiority of Americans (a person that inhabits the New World). Juan y Ulloa, Velasco, de Fonte, all posited that America, due to its inferior flora and fauna, and climate, had a corrupting influence on all. The ‘scientists’ of the Enlightenment continued to use the science of their day to support cultural dominance and the need for control. Even Thomas Jefferson, while simultaneously reacting against Buffon’s treatise about the inferiority of America, said that blacks were stupid, smelled bad, incapable of true deliberate artistic creation, and that the men were sexually attracted to orangutans. In other words, Oviedo falls into a much greater trend of European ‘scientific’ judgment used to justify the continued dominance of the colonial system.

There were abuses. The “conquistadores” were spanish soldiers who were out of work when the “reconquista” finished. Soldiers aren’t the nicest guys.-
In this boards there is always an strong condemning attitude against the colonization and discovery of Spanish America. I find that attitude both naive and simplistic.
The early conquest was rough, the main reason for that is that the crown had little or no saying in the policies adopted by its “Adelantados”, later the crown began to act. The abuses were stopped.
You have to remember that one of the objective was the redemption of indian souls. Today that is an slogan but in medieval spain it was an article of faith.
In short the early conquistadores were tough guys that acted mostly on their own, once the crown began it’s itervention there were no more Corteses or Pizarros.-


Loewen is guilty of (at best) some very sloppy work. In connection with another thread, I had occasion to critique some of the passages in his follow-up book, Lies Across America. I questioned several of his assertions in that book, and when I checked his footnotes the sources cited often didn’t support his statements, and occasionally contradicted them.

Moreover, Loewen is fond of the half-truth, giving his readers only the facts that support his position, and omitting inconvenient facts which would undercut his arguments.

Mighty hypocritical for a guy who presumes to bring us the “truth” about America’s history.

Again, this criticism is based on my examination of his subsequent book. I haven’t subjected Lies My Teacher Told Me to the same sort of scrutiny, but I have my suspicions about what such scrutiny would reveal.

So while it’s certainly useful to question the version of history we’ve been taught in school, I would caution people to apply the same level of skepticism to Loewen’s version.

I’ve read *Lies My Teacher Taught Me * and I felt it was thought provoking, but not useful as a text book. It is however an interesting read and its true that many US History classes are boring and patriotic. Some teachers don’t want to rock the boat and teach “unpatriotic” or contrary history that is not in the text book.
I almost chose the career of high school history teacher because I was fortunately to have a number of excellent high school history teachers that spent time reading biographies and other alternate materials and that didn’t spend the entire class period reading the insipid text books aloud. The most interesting was a US government official in Europe during the Cold War and he taught European history. He predicted the fall of Communism 2 years before the Berlin wall came down and he predicted the breaking apart of the USSR. He taught history as a story and would take a singular man like Peter the Great of Russia and relate how he felt towards other rulers in Europe and his family members. He used this to explain events and give history a human element which makes it more like the story that it is instead is a chronological list of events.
My wife teaches 4th grade social studies and she teaches explorers and early pre -1800 US History. She has made a point to tell the students that the text is one point of view, and that there are many other ways to look at history and how it happened. She tries to get some discussion (granted they are young kids) about historical events. I think as she gets older it means more to her to make sure students really think about history and try to get different viewpoints, as she is 1/8 Blackfoot Indian and there is little information left available in her family about that part of her heritage.