Monday, October 12, 2020

The Church embraces Columbus

We saw in a recent post how the Scholastic theologian Bartolomé de Las Casas vigorously defended the rights and dignity of the American Indians against the cruelty of Spanish conquistadors.  Las Casas in no way minimized the extent of this cruelty.  On the contrary, he is commonly accused of exaggeration and overzealousness.  So what did Las Casas think of Columbus?  Did he condemn him as an initiator of oppression?

Quite the opposite.  As Anthony Pagden tells us in his introduction to Las Casas’s A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies:

Las Casas's understanding of the historical and eschatological significance of the discovery and conquest of America contrasted an early vision of peaceful settlement with the rapacious horrors of the conquests which followed.  Columbus, whose diary he preserved and edited, had, in Las Casas's view, been chosen by God for his learning and virtue to bring the Gospel to the New World.  It was for this, he wrote, ‘that he was called Christopher, that is to say Christum ferens, which means carrier or bearer of Christ’.  It was the Spanish settlers… who had transformed a trading and evangelizing mission… into genocidal colonization. (p. xv)

Like Las Casas, some contemporary historians have rejected any suggestion that the attitudes and actions of later settlers can justly be attributed to Columbus himself.  He does not fit the caricature painted by the mobs of ignorant bigots pulling down his statues.

On the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, Pope Leo XIII wrote:

For [Columbus’s] exploit is in itself the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man; and he who achieved it, for the greatness of his mind and heart, can be compared to but few in the history of humanity.  By his toil another world emerged from the unsearched bosom of the ocean: … greatest of all, by the acquisition of those blessings of which Jesus Christ is the author, they have been recalled from destruction to eternal life…

We consider that this immortal achievement should be recalled by Us with memorial words.  For Columbus is ours… it is indubitable that the Catholic faith was the strongest motive for the inception and prosecution of the design; so that for this reason also the whole human race owes not a little to the Church…

We say not that he was unmoved by perfectly honourable aspirations after knowledge, and deserving well of human society; nor did he despise glory, which is a most engrossing ideal to great souls; nor did he altogether scorn a hope of advantages to himself; but to him far before all these human considerations was the consideration of his ancient faith... This view and aim is known to have possessed his mind above all; namely, to open a way for the Gospel over new lands and seas…

It is fitting that we should confess and celebrate in an especial manner the will and designs of the Eternal Wisdom, under whose guidance the discoverer of the New World placed himself with a devotion so touching.

In order, therefore, that the commemoration of Columbus may be worthily observed, religion must give her assistance to the secular ceremonies.  And as at the time of the first news of the discovery public thanksgiving was offered by the command of the Sovereign Pontiff to Almighty God, so now we have resolved to act in like manner in celebrating the anniversary of this auspicious event.  (Leo XIII, Quarto Abeunte Saeculo 1-3, 7-8)

On the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, Pope St. John Paul II expressed similar sentiments:

On October 12, exactly five centuries ago, Admiral Christopher Columbus, with his three ships, arrived in these lands and planted the cross of Christ,” John Paul said.  “That is the beginning of the sowing of the precious seed of faith.  And how can we not give thanks for that?  [The Europeans] announced the love of God our savior to people whose sacrifices to their gods included human sacrifice.”  The Roman Catholic Church was at the forefront of efforts to curb the abuses that followed, he said. (“Pope Lauds Church’s 1492 Role,” The Washington Post, October 13, 1992)

Notice what the views of Las Casas, Leo XIII, and John Paul II have in common – the conviction that the Catholic faith is true.  And if it is true, then the benefits of Columbus’s bringing of Christianity to the New World outweigh everything else, for they concern the eternal salvation of souls.  Left-wingers are often willing to overlook the racism of thinkers like Margaret Sanger and Karl Marx, because they believe that the ideas they are best known for are good and important.  In fact those ideas are vile, but it is certainly reasonable to insist that a person ought to be evaluated in terms of his whole life and thought, and not merely his worst aspects.  How much more so in the case of Columbus, a sincere Catholic who, though not a perfect man, was not personally guilty of the wrongs falsely attributed to him? 

But one need not believe in the salvation of souls in order to see the point.  For the irony is that it is in the name of values that the liberal, secular West inherited from Christianity that Columbus’s critics condemn him – values the critics wouldn’t have in the first place were it not for the Christianization of the Americas that Columbus initiated.  If they were to undo what Columbus did, they would undo themselves.

Addendum: Since it's a holiday, some celebratory music might be appropriate.  So give a listen to the old swing tune "Christopher Columbus," whether the classic Fletcher Henderson version, the Duke Ellington remake, or Dinah Washington's vocals.


  1. thanks a lot ed, just today everyone in my class was condemming Columbus as a genocide and rapist, it is just sad how ignorant people can be. Your post came right on time. Good job professor

    1. There is so much hatred for Christopher Columbus, it's unreal.

    2. That's because, to a lot of people, he isn't a person so much as an Emmanuel Goldstein type "figurehead for all of the injustices of colonialism put together", even though he himself was guilty of basically none of those. It also doesn't help that they've been taught to regard those injustices as uniquely evil, the worst things ever done in the sordid history of mankind. To a lot of the left wing, Columbus is regarded something like how Christians regard Satan.

  2. I much prefer the assessment of Columbus and his toxic essentially psychotic Wetiko legacy described in the book by Jack Forbes Columbus and Other Cannibals.

    Check out other references on the Wetiko psychosis too especially the work of Paul Levy

    1. Upon a quick Google search, it seems that Jack Forbes was one of the intellectual founders of anarcho-primitivism, while Paul Levy seems to be a New Age Guru. Sorry, but I don't personally see the appeal of either.

  3. I had to delete a bunch of comments that had nothing to do with the subject of this post. Keep it on topic, please.

    1. Many,Dr. Feser, don't know how to read.

      Hey guys! There is a book on reading called "How to read a book" by Mortimer Adler. Give it a read.

  4. History is always a mixed bag. The woke only see what they want to see and conveniently overlook any contrary evidence. Many evils have been done in the name of colonization, but much good has happened as well: when "indigenous people" get sick, do they go to a tribal medicine man, or a modern hospital given to us by those supposedly evil racists and their scientific method?

    1. Wow. Nice to downplay genocide.

      No good came out of colonialism. It was based on exploitation, rape, pillage, slavery, and genocide. It only benefited white people. You think Indigenous people think:

      "Wow, sure those colonizers enslaved us, nearly wiped out our culture, language, raped our women, stole our land, made us second class citizens, sexually and physically abused our children while separating us from them, mutilated our bodies but they gave us modern hospitals from their scientific method (as if white people were the only ones who did science which isn't true at all BTW and Indigenous medicine which I'm sure you haven't even research at all besides stereotypes isn't all useless and outdated and can offer unique perspectives in how we socially treat those with illness and in terms of mental and community support, so thanks for relying on stereotypes that paint Indigenous people as uneducated savages when they were anything but, and also for promoting the whole saviour myth. Not to mention how colonizers introduced diseases which wiped out Indigenous people in the first place) so it's okay."

      I guess you would say during the rise of Nazi Germany, well the Holocaust was bad but it revived Germany's economy and united the nation so it was a mixed bad.

    2. Wow, nice way to mis-use the term "genocide". Europeans came over carrying germs that they had immunities to, and so landing in the Americas - even if they had meant to do nothing but engage in commerce and then go home - would have been an act of "genocide". Even though neither the Europeans nor the Native Americans had any notion of germ theory at the time, it was still "genocide".

      It is so ridiculous and idiotic a ploy that it is difficult to even read the rest of the argument to see if it has any merit.

    3. I read it, it has no merit as far as I can see. It's pretty fantastical.

    4. "No good came out of colonialism"

      Yes, it did. The opportunity of treating such people with Western medicine (which, yes, was far more advanced and is way more useful); defenses of certain basic human rights which were regularly violated by different colonized peoples; their exposure to higher philosophy, mathematics, science, more advanced technology, etc.

      Now, colonialism wasn't the way to go, and you may argue that the goods don't outweigh or justify the evils. But to say it brought no goods whatsoever is a lie. We need subtlety.

    5. You are aware that colonizers raped, killed, tortured, mutilated, enslaved, and made colonized people second class citizens and sought to eradicate languages, ways of lives, and made colonized people feel inferior simply because of who they were. It was a system based on racism, and domination. Defending it is akin to defending the trans-atlantic slave trade, or Nazi Germany.

      Colonizers did not defend the human rights of those they colonized. Look at Leopold of Belgium who did this:

      Also as if indigenous and colonized people didn't have their own forms of philosophy, math, etc (thanks for subtly implying the alleged lack of civilization/"savagery" among colonized people) . Tell me have you seriously studied the culture of pre-colonized people and their philosophies etc? Or the history of colonialism?

    6. AKG
      "No good came out of colonialism."
      Really? I kind of like living in the USA.

      I notice that not many folks of any color wish to go live in their ancestral lands.

      I also notice that Native Americans, with their often vast and semi-autonomous lands virtually always prefer to live in modern houses and drive modern cars and use modern appliances, as opposed to living in huts or tents or igloos, walking (horses are strictly European so not acceptable), living a hunter gatherer lifestyle.

      If being a hunter gatherer disconnected from modernity and connected to nature is so wonderful why don't any Native Americans, who have the land and resources to do so, live that way?

    7. What about 'colonialism' is supposed to be being compared to Nazi rule and Nazi plans for their Eastern occupied territories? The colonial era lasted about 480 years and covered pretty much all of the world in one way or another so it's worth asking. Comparing this period and this territorial extent to Nazi Germany does not sound serious, in many cases it would be defamation or a reversal of the truth, pure polemic or psy-ops stuff.

  5. The liberal interpretation of Spanish settlement portrays it as some kind of bloody conquest lasting three hundred years. The truth is that the conquest of the American kingdoms was the work of private expeditions lasting a few years, and ignores the "second conquest" by priests and royal functionaries, which created the Christian civilisation of the Americas. No doubt three hundred years of peace and prosperity is less newsworthy, but there it is. The crown was well aware of the circumstances involved in the conquests and an ordinance was enacted in the 1570s forbidding further conquests.

    1. The liberal interpretation of Spanish settlement portrays it as some kind of bloody conquest lasting three hundred years.

      I think, Miguel, that the liberal portrayal is of a bloody conquest followed by centuries of oppressive slavery that involved, significantly, ongoing atrocities, even if not on a coordinated continent-wide scale like the conquest. The exact degree to which the actual facts match the notion of "slavery" proper (and not, say, feudal relationships) may be debated and may have varied over time and location, but that there were atrocities, and conditions aligning quite well with "slavery" in SOME cases, would be much easier to establish.

    2. I had in mind the usual summary of Spanish presence in the Americas: brutal conquest,immediately followed by "liberation".
      It would be far-fetched to describe the condition of the Indians as slavery, or even feudalism. The encomienda and repartimiento systems may have seemed like the old corvee, but were a continuation of the indigenous mita of the Incas and other practices elsewhere. This government requirement of a certain number of labourers per community within given periods of time still left indigenous peoples on their own lands and self-governing.

      In the Americas and the Philippines, the indigenous population was settled in reducciones, model towns which established a new sacred geography and helped to break links to the pagan past. They encouraged the growth of local self-government and corporate economic activity. This was Catholic "social engineering", and very successful. The eight million indians (the population remaining after the diseases and social disorganisation of the conquest period) became fully fledged members of the new civilisation. What happened to those West Africans transported to the colonies of other empires bears no relation to this.

      Slaves running away from the British colonies in the 17th. and 18th centuries were allowed to found the town and fortress of Santa Teresa in Florida as free men, the only conditions being the embrace of the Faith and loyalty to the king. They formed units within the Spanish forces to drive away attacks by the English army and colonists from Georgia. The defects of the Spanish system were outweighed by its progressive laws,(not always observed) and the results obtained.

  6. Tony,

    Can a people that were not aware of genes be accused of genocide? Hitler well knew and was intrested in eliminating "bad genes."

    As well they would have had no idea about how deadly the germs would be.

    1. Yes. The Rwandan genocide was not about genetics. Also the genocide the Iroquois committed against other tribes.

    2. What do "genes" have to do with the "genocide"? The latter comes from the Greek, "genos", which is race. My point was that Columbus did not come over saying "we're going to eradicate that whole group over there". Even if he had intended to enslave the Indians (which he didn't), enslavement does not fall under the term "genocide".

    3. What do "genes" have to do with the "genocide"? The latter comes from the Greek, "genos", which is race. My point was that Columbus did not come over saying "we're going to eradicate that whole group over there". Even if he had intended to enslave the Indians (which he didn't), enslavement does not fall under the term "genocide".

  7. Miguel Cervantes,

    Intresting that does make sense since we are talking muskets and cannons vs spears. Like the Iraq war did even one Abrams get destroyed?

    They are more intrested in a narrative it seems.

  8. Any book recommendations on Columbus?

  9. "Christopher Columbus, Mariner" by Samuel Eliot Morison. He's written a bunch about Columbus. But this book is a condensation of his other works.

  10. I'm sorry, Ed, but it's time to let go of Columbus. Amerigo Vespucci would make a much better hero.

    From The Guardian ("Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean," 7 August 2006):


    As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery.

    "Columbus' government was characterised by a form of tyranny," Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian who has seen the document, told journalists.

    One man caught stealing corn had his nose and ears cut off, was placed in shackles and was then auctioned off as a slave. A woman who dared to suggest that Columbus was of lowly birth was punished by his brother Bartolomé, who had also travelled to the Caribbean. She was stripped naked and paraded around the colony on the back of a mule.

    "Bartolomé ordered that her tongue be cut out," said Ms Varela. "Christopher congratulated him for defending the family."


    From The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, N.Y., 2016) by Andrés Reséndez:

    "Left to his own devices, the great discoverer would have turned the Caribbean into another Guinea...

    As Columbus kept insisting on his plans of enslavement and his men continued to ship Indian slaves in one guise or another, [Queen] Isabella became exasperated. All along she had been extremely supportive of the Admiral. But by 1499, when she learned of the arrival of yet more slaves, she famously exploded: 'Who is this Columbus who dares to give out my vassals as slaves?' Isabella and Ferdinand freed many Indians and, astonishingly, mandated that many of them be returned to the New World." (pp. 25, 26, 28)

    Finally, Historian James W. Loewen asserts that "Columbus not only sent the first slaves across the Atlantic, he probably sent more slaves—about five thousand—than any other individual." (Lies My Teacher Told Me. The New Press. pp. 57–58.)

    You write that the benefits of Columbus’s bringing of Christianity to the New World outweigh everything else, for they concern the eternal salvation of souls." But Columbus was keener on enslaving Indians than catechizing them, and even by the standards of his day, he was avaricious. Americans deserve a better hero.

    1. The veracity of the grave allegations brought against Columbus by Francisco de Bobadilla are disputed by some historians as exaggerated or even partly fictitious, for Bobadilla was angling for Columbus' job -- and then when he got it Bobadilla went on to do the same kinds of things that his investigation report accuses Columbus of doing. Due to Bobadilla's report Columbus and his brother were arrested and imprisoned, but the king and queen heard their appeal and restored their wealth. They did not restore Columbus as governor, though, but instead agreed to fund his last voyage.