Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Glenn Reynolds calls arguments that Columbus was no hero cliched.
HAPPY COLUMBUS DAY: Many in the West will demonstrate their fierce originality and intellectual independence today by condemning Christopher Columbus using the same shopworn cliches they used last year.
Well, he's right, I guess, but why wouldn't I feel the same way about Columbus as I did last year? Did we find out that Columbus didn't write on the first day of his arrival in the "New World" that the indians would make "good slaves"? Did someone find a letter from him apologizing for the atrocities his men committed?

Instapundit and his fellow history buffs often suggest that it's unreasonable to view the past through the eyes of a modern. He suggest, even, that it's revisionist history to view Columbus' actions as anything less than heroic and that to do any less is to kowtow to the "simplistic anti-occidental prejudice of today."

Reynolds probably can get away with it because he knows most of his readers don't read anything but blogs. If they did, they would find the writings of Bartoleme de Las Casas. While many of Nitpicker's readers probably have heard of Las Casas before, I feel it's important to remind people about him. His short bio goes like this (from Wikipedia), "Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484 – July 17, 1566) was a 16th century Spanish priest, the first ordained in the New World and the first Bishop of Chiapas. As a settler in the New World, he was galvanized by witnessing the brutal torture and genocide of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonialists. He became famous for his advocacy of the rights of Native Americans, whose cultures especially in the Caribbean he describes with care."

So it's not just moderns who were disgusted by the treatment of the indians by Columbus and his men, Glenn. But what, one may ask, was Las Casas disgusted by exactly? Let him tell you.
On the Island Hispaniola was where the Spaniards first landed, as I have said. Here those Christians perpetrated their first ravages and oppressions against the native peoples. This was the first land in the New World to be destroyed and depopulated by the Christians, and here they began their subjection of the women and children, taking them away from the Indians to use them and ill use them, eating the food they provided with their sweat and toil. The Spaniards did not content themselves with what the Indians gave them of their own free will, according to their ability, which was always too little to satisfy enormous appetites, for a Christian eats and consumes in one day an amount of food that would suffice to feed three houses inhabited by ten Indians for one month. And they committed other acts of force and violence and oppression which made the Indians realize that these men had not come from Heaven. And some of the Indians concealed their foods while others concealed their wives and children and still others fled to the mountains to avoid the terrible transactions of the Christians.

And the Christians attacked them with buffets and beatings, until finally they laid hands on the nobles of the villages. Then they behaved with such temerity and shamelessness that the most powerful ruler of the islands had to see his own wife raped by a Christian officer.

From that time onward the Indians began to seek ways to throw the Christians out of their lands. They took up arms, but their weapons were very weak and of little service in offense and still less in defense. (Because of this, the wars of the Indians against each other are little more than games played by children.) And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, "Boil there, you offspring of the devil!" Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby. They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim's neck, saying, "Go now, carry the message," meaning, Take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains. They usually dealt with the chieftains and nobles in the following way: they made a grid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them...
If it's simplistic to think it's wrong to honor those who acted in this manner, then I'll gladly accept that I'm just a simple man.

Happy Columbus Day indeed.

(Instapundit link from Alicublog.)

P.S. Alicublog also links to this editorial in The Washington Times, by Edward Hudgins. An excerpt.
Today it is chic among back-to-nature types to idealize the pre-Columbian natives and question whether what we have today constitutes real progress. This silliness was given philosophical credence by the 18th-century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notion of the "noble savage." No doubt many individual natives were as noble as one could be in savage circumstances, but America before Columbus was no Eden.

Let's put aside the wars between tribes, the outright brutality and the like, and just look at the daily lives of the Indians before Columbus. Life was lived simply, in primitive cycles. Natives inhabited crude hovels and hunted or used subsistence farming to sustain themselves. Yes, they could enjoy family and friends, tell tales of bringing down buffalo, and imagine that the stars in the sky painted pictures of giant bears and other creatures. The ancestors of Europeans did the same.

But true human life, either for an individual or society, is not an endless, stagnant cycle. Rather, it is a growth in knowledge, in power over the environment, and in individual liberty.

Perhaps many pre-Columbian natives were content with their lot in a simple, animal-like existence. But what of young Indian children who wondered why family members sickened and died and if there were ways unknown to the shamans to relieve their pain or cure them; if there were ways to build shelters that would resist bitter winters, stifling summers and the storms that raged in both seasons; whether there were ways to guarantee food would always be abundant and starvation no longer a drought away; why plants grow and what those lights in the sky really were; and whether they could ever actually fly like birds and observe mountains from the height of eagles? Where were the opportunities for these natives?
Pure idiocy.

If he wanted to actually know things instead of just write things, Hudgins could read 1491, the new book by Charles C. Mann (who, as far as I can tell, is no lefty). He wrote this about the indians in a 2002 article in the Atlantic Monthly:
Back home in the Americas, Indian agriculture long sustained some of the world's largest cities. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán dazzled Hernán Cortés in 1519; it was bigger than Paris, Europe's greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like hayseeds at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. They had never before seen a city with botanical gardens, for the excellent reason that none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren't ankle-deep in sewage! The conquistadors had never heard of such a thing.) Central America was not the only locus of prosperity. Thousands of miles north, John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, visited Massachusetts in 1614, before it was emptied by disease, and declared that the land was "so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people ... [that] I would rather live here than any where."

Smith was promoting colonization, and so had reason to exaggerate. But he also knew the hunger, sickness, and oppression of European life. France—"by any standards a privileged country," according to its great historian, Fernand Braudel—experienced seven nationwide famines in the fifteenth century and thirteen in the sixteenth. Disease was hunger's constant companion. During epidemics in London the dead were heaped onto carts "like common dung" (the simile is Daniel Defoe's) and trundled through the streets. The infant death rate in London orphanages, according to one contemporary source, was 88 percent. Governments were harsh, the rule of law arbitrary. The gibbets poking up in the background of so many old paintings were, Braudel observed, "merely a realistic detail."

The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson's history of Indian America, puts the comparison bluntly: "the western hemisphere was larger, richer, and more populous than Europe." Much of it was freer, too. Europeans, accustomed to the serfdom that thrived from Naples to the Baltic Sea, were puzzled and alarmed by the democratic spirit and respect for human rights in many Indian societies, especially those in North America. In theory, the sachems of New England Indian groups were absolute monarchs. In practice, the colonial leader Roger Williams wrote, "they will not conclude of ought ... unto which the people are averse."

Pre-1492 America wasn't a disease-free paradise, Dobyns says, although in his "exuberance as a writer," he told me recently, he once made that claim. Indians had ailments of their own, notably parasites, tuberculosis, and anemia. The daily grind was wearing; life-spans in America were only as long as or a little longer than those in Europe, if the evidence of indigenous graveyards is to be believed. Nor was it a political utopia—the Inca, for instance, invented refinements to totalitarian rule that would have intrigued Stalin. Inveterate practitioners of what the historian Francis Jennings described as "state terrorism practiced horrifically on a huge scale," the Inca ruled so cruelly that one can speculate that their surviving subjects might actually have been better off under Spanish rule.

I asked seven anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians if they would rather have been a typical Indian or a typical European in 1491. None was delighted by the question, because it required judging the past by the standards of today—a fallacy disparaged as "presentism" by social scientists. But every one chose to be an Indian. Some early colonists gave the same answer. Horrifying the leaders of Jamestown and Plymouth, scores of English ran off to live with the Indians. My ancestor shared their desire, which is what led to the trumped-up murder charges against him—or that's what my grandfather told me, anyway.

As for the Indians, evidence suggests that they often viewed Europeans with disdain. The Hurons, a chagrined missionary reported, thought the French possessed "little intelligence in comparison to themselves." Europeans, Indians said, were physically weak, sexually untrustworthy, atrociously ugly, and just plain dirty. (Spaniards, who seldom if ever bathed, were amazed by the Aztec desire for personal cleanliness.) A Jesuit reported that the "Savages" were disgusted by handkerchiefs: "They say, we place what is unclean in a fine white piece of linen, and put it away in our pockets as something very precious, while they throw it upon the ground." The Micmac scoffed at the notion of French superiority. If Christian civilization was so wonderful, why were its inhabitants leaving?


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