In 1992, the Americas celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovery of the New World. During that celebration, a vocal minority argued that Columbus arrival signaled the beginning of a genocide perpetrated upon native peoples by the Europeans. He arrived in the New World, brought diseases, raped and plundered the land, enslaved those he did not kill, and ushered in 500 years of oppression. This view has taken hold in America’s classroom. Unfortunately, it is not entirely accurate. Columbus, and the natives he encountered, were 15th century products that eventually came into conflict as a result of cultural misunderstandings. However, to blame Columbus for alleged genocide is both simplistic and inaccurate.
Initial encounters between Columbus and the Native Peoples were positive and friendly. In fact, problems did not arise until his second trip to the New World. Spanish settlers felt the need to establish centralized control over the new colonies. They had just spent centuries evicting the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula. Centralized control was necessary for security. This desire for security and control led to conflict with some, but not all, the native tribes on Hispaniola. This was especially true after the natives wiped out a Spanish settlement Columbus left behind after his first voyage.
Conflict continued when Columbus rescued a pair of native boys that had been castrated by their brethren. Between the attack on the Spanish settlement and the rescue, Columbus realized the natives were not friendly. As a result, he took prisoners and transported them to Spain. Columbus believed he would profit from this. It was European custom to capture prisoners of war and ransom them off to their families. Royalty was not immune to capture and ransom. Centuries earlier, Richard the Lionhearted became one of the victims. Despite the custom, King Ferdinand sent the prisoners back to Hispaniola since the natives had nothing to pay the ransom with. Critics charged Columbus with slavery and genocide for this action. However, it was keeping with European tradition and was overturned by his sovereign.
It is true that warfare and Spanish policy killed many natives. However, many more died of disease. The spread of disease was a result of native isolation from the Old World. European diseases were introduced into New World populations for the first time. A staggering number of natives died off. The Europeans can not be blamed for the spread of disease. In the late fifteenth century, there was no way for the Spanish to know that diseases they had immunity to would wipe out native peoples. To blame Columbus and the Europeans for the initial spread of disease is intellectually dishonest. They had no idea they were spreading disease. Columbus can not be blamed for the excesses of Spanish governance of the New World, the spread of disease, or the epic depopulation. However, he has become the symbol of the decline of Native cultures and alleged genocide.
In 1492, Columbus rediscovered the New World. Columbus arrival opened the New World to colonization and helped change the course of history. Power shifted away from the Far East and Middle East and toward Europe. European ideals eventually dominated the world. For that, we should celebrate. The alternative could have been Fundamentalist Islam or Chinese absolutism. Additionally, Columbus did not make Spanish policy, did not knowingly spread disease, and acted within the norms of European culture. On top of this, the native peoples willingly engaged in conflicts with the Spanish and often started them. So, to mourn Columbus’ arrival, blame him for centuries of conflict, disease, and death is not only illogical, but historically inaccurate.