Christopher Columbus has long been celebrated as a hero, a brave adventurer, many cartoon exists showing him and his men who bear gifts to the indigenous peoples of the lands he “discovered”. Children’s books tell stories of friendship and growth. All the pictures show smiles and vibrancy. As society becomes more culturally sensitive it delves deeper into its own sanitized history and begins to make reparations. Now for many Columbus is a figure who inspires disdain and even anger, especially for indigenous peoples living in modern day Latin America who have found themselves whitewashed out of our history books.
It is not difficult to perceive Columbus as a malicious villain when we read from his very own journal the disregard he had for the people he encountered and his motivation to continue on to greater civilization and treasure. His tone is dismissive and callous. It is easy to read Columbus as a tyrant driven by greed. However to do so is not representative of his life or intentions, regardless of the result.
Columbus did not set out to pillage, steal or injure. His mission was never an invasion, there was no war to be fought. He was seeking new trade routes, opportunity for his country, gratitude from the monarchy and perhaps even adventure. He was not only aware of his genuine whereabouts in the “indies”. He never could have understood the repercussions of his presence in new lands. Even if he changed the lives of “Indians” it was understood that the European way of life was that ordained by God. Columbus was also driven by an unquenchable religious fervor.
Religion drives colonization, without the threat of thousands of souls wallowing in damnation there is much less motivation to revolutionize the lives and societies of strangers. In the case of the heathen any action can be deemed acceptable no matter how extreme. All through history examples of such extreme cases can be seen from imprisonment, to cultural genocide of indigenous communities worldwide to violent executions by hanging and burning. Such cruelty have been undertaken not simply as barbaric tortures but under the assumption that there is no limit to what can be done on the path of salvation. Columbus would have labored under the same delusion, a delusion that today we know more generally as the white Jesus complex.
Columbus was under no circumstances a hero. He brought illness and destruction of entire civilizations with him. His accomplishment while interesting aren’t always the most palatable to celebrate, however he can equally not be generalized as a ruthless conqueror.
I began by watching the video entitled “The meeting of two world Aztec edition” because often I find the story of Latin American is told only from the point at which Spaniards arrived. I appreciated the portrayal of the discoveries of Columbus through an indigenous lens. The review on the interactions of Columbus and Montezuma II stressed the drastically different moral, cultural and practical beliefs held by each party. When studying colonization it is paramount to remember how deeply the conquistadors misunderstood the land and people they were overtaking. Perhaps more importantly the video points out how disinterested colonizers were in understanding. They considered themselves entitled to any of the gifts given, they took generosity on the part of the indigenous people to be worship. Anything that was not given could be readily taken. This included people who quickly became a commodity.
It is worth taking time to consider the complexity of Latin American indigenous society when taking into account those who came to “civilize” it. The Aztec empire was a pinnacle of cleanliness and technology, the aqueducts in the city being a single example. Remembering the sophistication of ancient Latin American guards from the perception of indigenous Latin American society as a rudimentary settlement punctuated by occasional violence. This perception however untrue is how colonizers understood new territory and how the colonial world has continued to understand Latin America. The countries and cultures described as Latin American are frequently stereotyped as violent, misogynistic and otherwise problematic societies. In the United States in particular all those who leave Latin American countries are often seen as having “escaped” into a better life. Colonialism has deep and lasting consequences.
The second video I watched entitled the “Meeting of Two Worlds III” I saw as a sequel to the video I’ve just previously discussed. It points out from the beginning that Columbus was out to find and take gold and spices. In his writings Columbus does not spare thought for those he might come across. It was assumed that anything found was for the taking by divine and royal right. One of the most poignant symbols of domination comes in the form of renaming islands. Decisive actions such as this one were part of the reworking of a vibrant, thriving territory in order to fit the assumed design of a God who to the Indigenous people did not exist. Columbus was able to declare possession of the Islands as the natives watched on, which speaks to the person hood or lack thereof which he attributed to these peoples. Colonizers described Indigenous people as simple and pleasing, as you might an animal. They could not conceive that a people so below their own stature and intelligence could lay any claim to their land. It cannot be forgotten that the conquistador mindset was always geared towards superiority and control.