As another month of October passes into the shadows, it is a good time to pause and reflect on the man who helped Spain build an empire by stumbling into a relatively unknown continent. Christopher Columbus, several years in the past, was held in much higher regard than he is today, especially in light of the Progressive- revisionist historians and their ideological diatribes against the brave sailor. Biased historical information regarding Columbus conjuring up anger and resentment in some Native American peoples, has almost made Columbus into the modern-day poster boy for all the horrors that befell the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Yet, ignoring the whole truth about Columbus is like embracing a lie. ‘Scholarly’ efforts that seem to compensate for the unbalanced approach of previous historians who may have glossed over the dark side of the initial contact between Europeans and indigenous peoples, are more than that. In pursuing ‘truth,’ the Progressive- revisionist historians make Columbus a scapegoat for the initial Spanish conquest and eventual European domination of the Americas. And today due to this effort, many Native Americans today harbor deep resentments from the centuries of enduring the White Man as he entered and then encroached upon the lands of the Western Hemisphere.
If people today could move their minds beyond the current negative narrative regarding Columbus, they would discover an often ignored fact that the Admiral appointed a friar to study and document the Taino customs and religion. Around 1494, which was about a year after the massacre of the 39 Spaniards that Columbus was forced to leave behind at La Navidad, he tasked a young Spanish friar named Ramón Pané to go and live among the native people and observe their way of life and record in writing what he learned of these people. In one sense it can be understood that Columbus had initiated the very first scholarly study of the Taino people.
Fray Ramón Pané actually lived with the Taino native peoples for four years, and in about 1498 he completed and presented to Columbus his Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los indios (“An Account of the antiquities of the Indians”). Sadly, this original manuscript was lost. But, an incomplete Italian translation written in 1571 has survived. Pané’s writings have more recently been reconstructed and re-translated back to Spanish, and edited by the scholar, José Juan Arrom, and subsequently translated to English. Pané’s written “Account of the Indians” is more than likely the first known book of research written in a European language in the newly discovered continent.
Fray Ramón Pané’s original account was reputed to have contained accurate, unbiased descriptions and quite valuable objective observations that were recorded regarding Taino language, music, religion, and the worship of their deities called “zemi.” Pané’s work is where those who are genuinely interested can find the earliest European source of information regarding these people. Taino is translated as “good and noble” and actually represents how Columbus experienced them in 1492. Columbus described them as physically tall, well-proportioned, and with a noble and kind personality.
Columbus wrote in his diary: They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will… they took great delight in pleasing us.. They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal…Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people…They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.
Ironically, that all changed in 1493 when on his second voyage back to Hispaniola, the Admiral discovered that the 39 men that he had been forced to leave behind at “La Navidad” had all been killed. In such a brutal time period, this action could easily have been considered an act of war by many of the 1200 Spaniards who witnessed the ashes of La Navidad and the bodies of the dead Spanish sailors. Would anyone expect the Spanish soldiers that accompanied Columbus back to the islands to have viewed the massacre as an act of friendship? Despite the massacre of the 39 Spaniards, Columbus overcame whatever initial anger he had toward the Taino, and initiated Panés study.
Of course, the European’s perceptions of the Taino completely changed when they were confronted with the destruction of La Navidad. The many soldiers who accompanied Columbus on his second journey back to the Americas likely viewed the massacre as excuse for mistreating and brutalizing the native peoples. Additionally, the nobles among the Spaniards who went with Columbus on his second trip had a different idea of how to deal with the native population. Columbus never did discover who had killed his men, but decided to believe his friend, the local chief, Guacanagari, a cacique who had ultimately granted permission to build the settlement.
Unfortunately, the situation of La Navidad still remains a mystery, but Guacanagari identified the Caribs, the fierce warrior tribe which dominated the islands, as the people who were responsible for killing his sailors and destroying the settlement at La Navidad. But it was Guacanagari’s brother who claimed to Columbus that it was Guacanagari who ordered his men killed. Despite the conflicting versions of the incident, Columbus chose to trust his friend, and chose to initiate the study of father Ramón Pané. As crucial as the initial contact was, it involved a horrible catastrophe that has been summarily dismissed in importance, and practically buried within the sands of time.
Sadly, people today do not see the side of Columbus that sought understanding. The better part of Columbus is lost amidst the stories of his harsh and cruel ways, and certainly he was not a saint; he wanted gold as badly as the others, and when he couldn’t find much, he eventually advocated making as many of the native peoples into slaves as practically possible. But by that time, the very first moments of initiating the friendship with the Native peoples had deteriorated into anger and distrust. By 1498, the purpose of Panés book that had been started four years prior was also lost amidst the greed of the Spanish nobles who sought to rid themselves of an Italian pretender as Governor.
As colonization progressed from the idea stage to actualization of settlement and then domination, Columbus’ authority diminished and the Spanish Crown eliminated him by 1500. As early as 1495, the Spanish crown attempted to get a better handle on their investment by sending a royal commission to report on the colony and to judge Columbus’s governing capabilities. Returning to Spain in 1496, Columbus managed to appease the monarchs, but they took two years before sponsoring a third voyage. In May of 1498, he started back to Hispaniola, but when he got back, the colonists were in outright rebellion and he was accused of “tyranny” over the Indian population.
Ironically, the “tyranny” of Columbus was mild compared to the tyranny of the absolute monarchs. The following year, the Spanish crown arranged a change, and Columbus’ request for a royal commissioner to serve as his aide served their needs. In May of 1499, the king appointed Francisco de Bobadilla as the replacement of Columbus as governor and chief justice of Hispaniola. Bobadilla, a Spanish nobleman and a loyal knight who fought in the wars against the Moors, was given all that the Crown had bestowed upon Columbus, but he received even more authority and power. Bobadilla got to Hispaniola in August of 1500, briefly investigated the charges of incompetent governance against Columbus and his brothers, had them all arrested, and shipped back to Spain in irons.
In the end, the King had restored control back to its proper place: Spanish nobility. The charges brought against Columbus eventually looked minimal compared to the havoc of Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres, the Conquistador who ultimately took over from Bobadilla in 1502. He proved himself quite capable of cruelty and destruction of the indigenous people without any independent consultation from Columbus. In looking at Columbus today, it is clear he was no saint, but neither was he the primary individual responsible for the tragedy that unraveled as the Europeans collided with the Native Americans. The real enemy of the Native Americans was the newly emerging Empire of Spain.
Still, for the Progressive-revisionist historians it is much easier to attach blame to a man whose name is easily remembered rather than muddy the narrative with obscure names and complicate a narrative with facts that are too complex to remember. The real question that needs to be asked regarding the conquest, is whether the Spanish Crown would have ever trusted an Italian with much real power in the effort of taking absolute control over the lives of human beings. In reality, it was primarily the Christian priests and the missionaries who spoke up and stood up to defend the Native Americans. But even the priests could only raise their voices in protest, but they too were controlled by fear of an absolute monarchical rule.
While avoiding such facts about Columbus’ journeys, and while one can embrace lies, common sense would indicate that there is much more to be learned of this critical turning point in history. It cannot be overly simplified or reduced to ideological diatribe as it has been by recent historians. In reality, this incredible period of time is not easily reduced to a simplistic understanding of Columbus, nor of the Taino people, nor a simplistic explanation of the clash of cultures. Living together in this world amidst diversity is still a serious challenge. Discovering how to create understanding and harmony is a noble venture; seeking to conjure up ghosts of Caribs and Conquistadors will not heal the pain of the past. Hatred cannot create healing, but knowing the truth about this time may free people from hatred.