Compass Counterpoint

12 June 2020

An Open Letter to Christopher Columbus

Dear Christopher Columbus

Since you’ve been in the news, it seems timely to drop you a line. After all, it’s not everyone that gets a US holiday in their honour. You and Martin Luther King. The two of you could hardly be more different.

Your statues and the mainstream history books glorify you as the man who discovered the Americas although, as you must have noticed, there were people there already. There were tragically fewer of them by the time that you departed.

What we must thank you for is your journal that gives insights into your actual actions, and true character. This information somehow never made it to the school books over the ensuing centuries.

Spain’s royals bankrolled your expeditions for lands, gold and spices. They guaranteed you ten percent of the spoils, and governorship of the new territories, didn’t they? Isabella and Ferdinand also promised a generous life pension for the first crew member to sight land. That was poor Rodrigo. Remember him? He never saw his reward because you lied that you had seen the land first, and pocketed the pension.

When the gentle unarmed Arawak people of the Bahamas swam out to welcome your fantastic ship, regaling you and your crew with food and gifts, you reported:
They’re so na├»ve and so free with their possessions that when you ask for something they have, they never say no. They’d make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

It didn’t interest you in the slightest that the Arawaks had village communities, sophisticated agriculture, and wonderful skills in spinning and weaving. No. It was the gold in the tiny ornaments on their ears that told you that there was more where that came from. You took prisoners to show you the way, and sailed for what are now Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Returning to Madrid, you promised the Palace that further backing would bring more spices and gold. And slaves.

Back you went, with an invasion force of seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men, setting up base in Haiti and rampaging the Caribbean. Remember the bonanza year of 1495, when you shipped five hundred Arawak men, women and children? Two hundred died during the voyage. As the stakes got higher, your gold hunt became ever more brutal. In Haiti you ordered everyone over fourteen to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. If they failed, they had their hands severed and were left to bleed to death. Others were hanged or burnt alive. Mass suicides were common. Many women were kidnapped as sex slaves.

We’re sure that you’ll say that people thought differently about such things back then. Well that’s not quite true. Take your former friend Bartolome de las Casas, the priest who risked his life to praise the native culture and unflinchingly damn your invasions. He recorded
acts so foreign to human nature that I tremble as I write.
De las Casas estimated that around three million Arawaks perished between 1495 and 1508. And then you paved the way for later atrocities.

We should point out that we’re not in favour of your statues being removed. To the contrary, we don’t want the history erased. We need instead much more prominent plaques that at last tell the truth about you and your bloody expeditions, and to show future generations the ridiculous esteem that we held you in. We need also to ponder why we revile twentieth century genociders, but honour a fifteenth century genocider with statues and a US public holiday. If only you’d stuck to being a brilliant seafarer and not the sociopathic slave master that you became!

Nevertheless, you were a pious man. Your earliest flagship was named Santa Maria, and in your journals you often wrote scripture. You also wrote this:
Let us, in the name of the Holy Trinity, go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.
Well here’s one to reflect on, Signor Columbus:
What has a man profited if he shall gain the New World, and lose his own soul?

Without love,

The Political Compass