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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Columbus surely expected to bring back some of the gold that was supposed to be so plentiful. The spice trade was one of the most lucrative in Europe, and he expected to bring back spices. But what did he propose to do about the people in possession of these treasures?

When he set out, he carried with him a commission from the king and queen of Spain, empowering him "to discover and acquire certain islands and mainland in the ocean sea" and to be "Admiral and Viceroy and Governor therein." If the king and Columbus expected to assume dominion over any of the Indies or other lands en route, they must have had some ideas, not only about the Indies but also about themselves, to warrant the expectation. What had they to offer that would make their dominion welcome? Or if they proposed to impose their rule by force, how could they justify such a step, let alone carry it out? The answer is that they had two things: they had Christianity and they had civilization.

Christianity has meant many things to many men, and its role in the European conquest and occupation of America was varied. But in 1492 to Columbus there was probably nothing very complicated about it. He would have reduced it to a matter of corrupt human beings, destined for eternal damnation, redeemed by a merciful savior. Christ saved those who believed in him, and it was the duty of Christians to spread his gospel and thus rescue the heathens from the fate that would otherwise await them.

Although Christianity was in itself a sufficient justification for dominion, Columbus would also carry civilization to the Indies; and this, too, was a gift that he and his contemporaries considered adequate recompense for anything they might take. When people talked about civilization—or civility, as they usually called it—they seldom specified precisely what they meant. Civility was closely associated with Christianity, but the two were not identical. Whereas Christianity was always accompanied by civility, the Greeks and Romans had had civility without Christianity. One way to define civility was by its opposite, barbarism. Originally the word "barbarian" had simply meant "foreigner"—to a Greek someone who was not Greek, to a Roman someone who was not Roman. By the 15th or 16th century, it meant someone not only foreign but with manners and customs of which civil persons disapproved. North Africa became known as Barbary, a 16th-century geographer explained, "because the people be barbarous, not onely in language, but in manners and customs." Parts of the Indies, from Marco Polo's description, had to be civil, but other parts were obviously barbarous: for example, the lands where people went naked. Whatever civility meant, it meant clothes.

But there was a little more to it than that, and there still is. Civil people distinguished themselves by the pains they took to order their lives. They organized their society to produce the elaborate food, clothing, buildings and other equipment characteristic of their manner of living. They had strong governments to protect property, to protect good persons from evil ones, to protect the manners and customs that differentiated civil people from barbarians. The superior clothing, housing, food and protection that attached to civilization made it seem to the European a gift worth giving to the ill-clothed, ill-housed and ungoverned barbarians of the world.

Slavery was an ancient instrument of civilization, and in the 15th century it had been revived as a way to deal with barbarians who refused to accept Christianity and the rule of civilized government. Through slavery they could be made to abandon their bad habits, put on clothes and reward their instructors with a lifetime of work. Throughout the 15th century, as the Portuguese explored the coast of Africa, large numbers of well-clothed sea captains brought civilization to naked savages by carrying them off to the slave markets of Seville and Lisbon.

Since Columbus had lived in Lisbon and sailed in Portuguese vessels to the Gold Coast of Africa, he was not unfamiliar with barbarians. He had seen for himself that the Torrid Zone could support human life, and he had observed how pleased barbarians were with trinkets on which civilized Europeans set small value, such as the little bells that falconers placed on hawks. Before setting off on his voyage, he laid in a store of hawk's bells. If the barbarous people he expected to find in the Indies should think civilization and Christianity an insufficient reward for submission to Spain, perhaps hawk's bells would help.

Columbus sailed from Palos de la Frontera on Friday, August 3, 1492, reached the Canary Islands six days later and stayed there for a month to finish outfitting his ships. He left on September 6, and five weeks later, in about the place he expected, he found the Indies. What else could it be but the Indies? There on the shore were the naked people. With hawk's bells and beads he made their acquaintance and found some of them wearing gold nose plugs. It all added up. He had found the Indies. And not only that. He had found a land over which he would have no difficulty in establishing Spanish dominion, for the people showed him an immediate veneration. He had been there only two days, coasting along the shores of the islands, when he was able to hear the natives crying in loud voices, "Come and see the men who have come from heaven; bring them food and drink." If Columbus thought he was able to translate the language in two days' time, it is not surprising that what he heard in it was what he wanted to hear or that what he saw was what he wanted to see—namely, the Indies, filled with people eager to submit to their new admiral and viceroy.


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