The Toxic Legacy of Christopher Columbus
By William A. Cook
When beliefs morph into truth, regardless of the realities of time and place, the non-initiated become fodder for those with the zeal and power to enforce their will. Thus the great discoverer of the Americas “fantasized that he had located— or had come close to—the site of the paradise into which Jehovah had placed Adam and Eve” ( Ned Hopkins, CTA Action, 1992). The “Christ-bearer,” baptized in his unquestioned faith, utilized his birth name to justify his actions, reasoning that God gave license to him as His servant. Perhaps, as we bear down on the anniversary of Columbus’ achievements, we might consider how it has been possible for a Medieval world of unbridled superstition, intolerance, and religious myopia to envelop the advanced civilizations of western culture at the beginning of the 21st century.
The irony of this review that watches Columbus sail from the ports of Spain as the Spanish Crown expelled or slaughtered the Jews and Muslims in 1492, empowered by their Christian faith, resides in the realty that the west and the Muslim world of the 21st century clings still to the superstitions that gave rise ultimately to the greatest holocaust the world has ever known, as David Stannard notes in his work, The American Holocaust. If Columbus precipitated an invasion of the western powers into the “new” hemisphere, what Hopkins claims “…resulted in the largest exchange of people, animals, and plants that the planet has ever seen…,” it also resulted in the near extermination of an entire race and multiple cultures. The justification for this invasion found expression in the authority of the Roman Catholic faith to bring salvation to the “savages” and civilization to the primitives who lagged behind the advances of European cultures.
What mindset allows such darkness to blind what the eyes can see? Before Columbus an estimated 10-18 million people lived and loved in what we now call the United States. The Hopi and Zuni cultures thrived in the south west for an estimated 4000 years before the Spanish arrived. In the east the Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Muskogee peoples existed as far back as 10,000 years. The Iroquois formed a confederacy with five other tribes in the late 15th century that lasted long enough that Benjamin Franklin could visit its assembly and learn from it. These “savages” had a constitution and a code to guide behavior that included a prohibition of blood revenge, a social compact communitarian in nature, communal land, and hunters that provided for the community not for themselves. “There were no mendicants or paupers among them” (French Jesuit 1657) and “… the Chiefs are generally the poorest among them … obliged to give to others” (Dutch missionary). It might be said that these “savages” were taught “to think for them selves but to act for others.” What a novel thought for the “civilized” beasts that invaded this continent from Europe.
Whether we observe the Spaniards in central and south America or the Puritans in New England, we find a Eurocentric racist mindset cobbled with an imperialistic belief in their own superiority given vitality by their religious tenets that they are the chosen of God, redeemed – and hence destined for everlasting life in the presence of God Almighty. Indeed the western mind has been bathed in such moral epistemology since medieval times and sustained by historians and politicians who defend colonialism by conquest as a God given duty. “The colonialist … reaches the point of no longer being able to imagine a time occurring without him. His irruption into the history of the colonized people is deified, transformed into absolute necessity,” as Frantz Fanon puts it.
All that is needed to sustain such a mindset is obliteration of the peoples being subjugated, to transform them from people to “savages” or barbarians, primitives without souls, without culture or intelligence, irrelevant “cockroaches” to be discarded, driven from the land, or killed. Thus do we witness the civilized European inflict their beliefs on the natives through acceptance of the “requerimiento” that ordered them to accept the truth of Christianity and allegiance to the Spanish Crown or suffer torture or death. Or in the case of the Puritans as they moved against the Pequot people, face extermination as Godless minions of Satan.
Then, strangely enough, as Edward Said remarked, the “Settler group adorns itself with the mantle of the victim: the European homeland of the colonists—or the metropolitan European power that politically controls the settlement area—is portrayed as the oppressor, while the European settlers depict themselves as valiant seekers of justice and freedom, struggling to gain their deserved independence on the land that they “discovered” or that is theirs by holy right.” (as quoted by Stannard).
Perhaps Columbus and the Puritans might be excused for their actions since they were raised in a world that knew the truth of God’s word from the dominant religious and political forces of their times. As a consequence they found license to slaughter at will in the name of their God. “[The Spaniards] took babies from their mother’s breasts, grabbing them by the feet and smashing their heads against rocks … They built a long gibbet, low enough for the toes to touch the ground and prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen [natives] at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the twelve Apostles. … Then, straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive” (Bartolome de Las Casas). Such is the power of myth in the medieval mind. What one believes justifies all. So Columbus and the Conquistadors mercilessly plundered and ravaged a people and their land.
Such dependence on myth to establish belief that drives the actions of a state to destroy another is surely the product of by gone times, times where superstition, prejudice, racism festered like some infection embedded in the heart and mind, the toxic atmosphere that propelled Columbus and the Puritans. Today, in our advanced DNA omniscience, in a world driven by globalization, prodded by ideologies of democracy, equality, liberty and the realization that we humans can bring these virtues to the entire world, surely such myths no longer exist.
How explain then America’s proclivity to torture under our most Christian of Presidents? Did he not send his forces to Iraq at God’s behest to bring the infidels the “gift” of God’s freedom and liberty in the manner of King Ferdinand of Spain who enlisted his servant Columbus to bring “souls to God” on his behalf? Didn’t our president’s advisor, Dick Cheney, justify “extraordinary interrogation techniques” to bring the recalcitrant to the truth, or die? How like the “requerimiento” that offered the Native life or death in the name of God Almighty.
What differentiates the slaughter of the natives by bloody massacres that wiped out whole tribes, as the Conquistadores swept across the south west or the Puritan massacre of the Pequots, in the fiery hell they designed for those God helped them destroy, from the razing of Fallujah by the American forces as they leveled the city to the ground and in the process scorched and seared the residents in the unforgiving fire of white phosphorus? What has changed since Medieval times? What progress is discernible but the technology of death? The racist mindset clamped on the brain by arrogance of belief in white superiority remains firmly in place justifying what the soul knows in its silence to be merciless slaughter that needs no God to trumpet its evil.
How similar the incantations of the righteous “settlers” arriving from a foreign land to lay claim to the homes of an indigenous people, people bought and brought to Israel by American dollars, defying law and logic in the process, condemning those who have lived on the land for centuries as invaders or usurpers of their God given rights as proclaimed in an ancient book of dubious authenticity but useful for purposes of theft. How strange that civilized people throughout the world witness this ludicrous behavior as rational, finding confrontation of truth and international law uncomfortable and so allow the robbery to continue.
Not even the barbaric behavior of these demented souls that find favor with their G-d when they club to death an old shepherd or mob children in the streets on the way to school or burn Palestinian homes or throw the residents of an apartment into the streets and take their home for themselves or, as soldiers in the IDF, glorify their G-d by killing defenseless and innocent women and children in Gaza, can nudge the indifferent people of the world to scream to the heavens that some sick stupidity is loose in this ancient land that is senselessly claimed to be the holiest piece of real estate on the planet.
Benny Morris, the most prolific of Israeli historians, in an interview in Ha’aretz contends that the annihilation of the Native Americans was unavoidable. “The great American democracy could not have been achieved without the extermination of the Indians. There are cases in which the general and final good justifies difficult and cruel deeds that are carried out in the course of history.” Dr. Adi Ophir, in commenting on this interview notes: “Morris seems to know what the general and final good is: the good of the Americans, of course. He knows that this good justifies partial evil. In other words, under specific circumstances, Morris believes that it is possible to justify genocide. In the case of the Indians, it is the existence of the American nation. In the case of the Palestinians, it is the existence of the Jewish state.” (“Genocide Hides Behind Expulsion,” Adi Ophir, 1-16-2004). How convenient an argument to give credibility to the genocide in Palestine, especially since the declaration of the American state occurred 289 years after the arrival of Columbus. But logic does not play a role here; superstition does.
Consider the logic of the new Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, as he castigated the world leaders at the UN two weeks ago for allowing a holocaust denier to address their assembly. “Shame on you,” he yelled, lifting his covenant with the God of Abraham high above the podium to prove that the land of Palestine belongs by historical right to the Jews, “Shame on you” for not accepting the fact that G-d gave this land to the Jews, as though their belief in what is now known to be fiction must be used to justify the decimation of the Palestinians. “If as archeology suggests, the sagas of the patriarchs and the Exodus were legends, compiled in later periods, and if there is no convincing evidence of a unified invasion of Canaan under Joshua, what are we to make of the Israelites’ claims for ancient nationhood?” (The Bible Unearthed, Finkelstein and Silberman, 98).How ironic that the “real” descendents of the people of ancient Judea are the people of Palestine who centuries ago converted to the Christian or Muslim faiths, not the Ashkenazi European Jews like Netanyahu who have no Semitic blood connection to the land but only an acceptance by conversion to the Jewish faith (Shlomo Sand, When and How the Jewish People Was Invented). What a convenient way to justify theft of another’s home and land.
How can we pretend that the United States and its “only friend” in the mid-east have the right to impose their beliefs on other states? Have these modern day colonists not, as Fanon said, deified their own being and justified their actions as the will of their imagined God as though no other God exists or no belief in a different divinity can be conceived? How can we pretend that flechette bombs, depleted uranium weapons, dimes, white phosphorus, bunker buster bombs, cluster bombs and all the machinery of modern war designed to decimate thousands of people, to inflict heretofore unseen wounds on mind and body, can in any rational way be justified as civilized or humane? Perhaps, like Columbus and his Conquistadores, we should forgo the luxury of technological prowess and return to the shield and sword so the full carnage we inflict might be visible to all of us as the screams of the baby and the mother sink deep into our hearts and the blood splatters over our face and we must face what we have wrought.
- William A. Cook is a professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California and author of Tracking Deception: Bush’s Mideast Policy.