Columbus’ Confusion About the New World

The European discovery of America opened possibilities for those with eyes to see. But Columbus was not one of them

Christopher Columbus carried ideas that boded ill for Indies natives. (The Gallery Collection / Corbis)
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That the Indians were destroyed by Spanish greed is true. But greed is simply one of the uglier names we give to the driving force of modern civilization. We usually prefer less pejorative names for it. Call it the profit motive, or free enterprise, or the work ethic, or the American way, or, as the Spanish did, civility. Before we become too outraged at the behavior of Columbus and his followers, before we identify ourselves too easily with the lovable Arawaks, we have to ask whether we could really get along without greed and everything that goes with it. Yes, a few of us, a few eccentrics, might manage to live for a time like the Arawaks. But the modern world could not have put up with the Arawaks any more than the Spanish could. The story moves us, offends us, but perhaps the more so because we have to recognize ourselves not in the Arawaks but in Columbus and his followers.

The Spanish reaction to the Arawaks was Western civilization's reaction to the barbarian: the Arawaks answered the Europeans' description of men, just as Balboa's tiger answered the description of a tiger, and being men they had to be made to live as men were supposed to live. But the Arawaks' view of man was something different. They died not merely from cruelty, torture, murder and disease, but also, in the last analysis, because they could not be persuaded to fit the European conception of what they ought to be.

Edmund S. Morgan is a Sterling Professor emeritus at Yale University.


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