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OPINION: Columbus’ crimes are frequently exaggerated

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Opinion writer Zach Richards, a sophomore studying education, argues that Columbus Day should not exist, but people also over-exaggerate Columbus’ crimes.

Please note that these views and opinions do not reflect those of The New Political.

In recent years, it has been a popular trend to condemn Christopher Columbus. People like to point out all the ills resulting from the Columbian Exchange and act as if Columbus was personally responsible for all of them. 

However, it’s important to consider historical figures both in terms of what they actually did and in relation to the standards of the time they lived in.

A lot of what is known about Columbus comes from his personal journal. However, the original journal is lost, and the extant version comes from a copy made by Bartolomé de las Casas in the 1530s. Columbus wrote the journal in a language he was not a native speaker of — medieval Spanish — and the translation from medieval Spanish to modern English creates some room for interpretation.

The most infamous and seemingly damning passage from his journal is one when he seems to talk about taking underaged Native American girls as sex slaves. The quote is given as: “…  And there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to 10 are now in demand; and for all ages, a good price must be paid.”

This quote, out of context, sounds like he was running a 15th-century pedophilic sex ring. However, with broader context he goes on to say: “I take my oath that a number of men have gone to the Indies who do not deserve water in the sight of God and the world.” That quote came from a letter he wrote while in prison, and it in he actually condemns the sex trade the Spanish colonizers practiced, not endorses it.

Another quote from Columbus’ journal mentions that the native people he found would make good servants. The full quote is, “it appears to me, that the people are ingenious and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion.” 

The “good servants” quote either refers to being a Christian servant of God or a servant of the Spanish crown. Being a servant of the Spanish crown in this context does not mean slavery but rather peasantry in the context of the feudal system that existed in Spain at the time. 

By modern standards that’s still not a good thing as peasants didn’t generally have a lot of rights, but coming from a world in which the feudal system was entrenched and normal, it makes sense that Columbus would have proposed incorporating the natives into it.

A third quote some people have presented is sometimes translated as: “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased,” implying that Columbus’ first thought upon seeing the natives was how to subjugate them. This is within the context of a letter to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand reporting on the new discoveries, asking them what he should do with the natives and making the suggestion that it wouldn’t take that much effort to hold the islands.

In that same letter, Columbus even advises against an extensive military occupation, stating “I do not, however, see the necessity of fortifying the place, as the people here are simple in war-like matters.”

There’s no doubt that Columbus was a cruel leader while he was governor of the Indies. However, his cruel treatment was not exclusive to the natives, as shown when he executed some of the Spanish colonists. In fact, the sexual exploitation of native minors was one of the crimes he punished the colonists for.

He certainly was very cruel to the colonists and sometimes had them executed for minor crimes, and he certainly was no friend to the natives. But to go as far as to say he directly committed genocide would be inaccurate. 

His practices fell in line with Spanish and Portuguese trading and enslavement practices that were common at the time. While Columbus’ practices would be condemned today, they were not exceptionally cruel by the standards of the time.

Of course, saying that someone didn’t commit genocide isn’t the best thing you can say about them. Most people haven’t committed genocide. How Columbus treated the natives — even if he didn’t intend to wipe them out — was cruel and brutal. 

That’s why we shouldn’t have a Columbus Day. Even if the Columbian Exchange did drastically change the world, we don’t get days off to celebrate people like Johannes Gutenburg or Constantine. A day off to celebrate Columbus just seems unnecessary and insensitive.

European colonization was a very ugly and cruel process. When there were administrators like Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizzaro and King Leopold II who toppled empires and committed actual ethnic cleansing and genocide, the amount of attention given to Columbus’ crimes seems disproportionate to how bad he actually was.

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