“In recent times, Christopher Columbus has become the symbol for everything that went wrong in the New World, so much so that it has become difficult to celebrate the holiday commemorating his discovery of the New World,” Carol Delaney, a visiting scholar of religious studies at Brown University, told CNA.
“I have been dismayed by the lack of knowledge about the man by those who are rushing in judgment against him and changing the day that commemorates his extraordinary achievement.”
“While we may not agree with the scenario that motivated Columbus, it is important to understand him in the context of his time,” she added.
Delaney, who holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago, is author of the 2011 book “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem,” which examines Columbus’ religious motivations for his voyages.
Her book warns against misjudging Columbus’ motivations and accomplishments “from a contemporary perspective rather than from the values and practices of his own time.”
Columbus has been a major figure for Catholics in America, especially Italian-Americans, who saw his pioneering voyage from Europe as a way of validating their presence in a sometimes hostile majority-Protestant country. The Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the world, took his name and voyage as an inspiration. At one point in the nineteenth century there were efforts to push for the voyager’s canonization.
In 1892, the quadricennial of Columbus’ first voyage, Leo XIII authored an encyclical that stressed Columbus’ desire to spread Catholic Christianity. The Pope stressed how Columbus’ Catholic faith motivated his voyage and supported him amid his setbacks.
In recent decades, some critics have stressed the negative aspects of Columbus’ voyage and European colonization of the New World, noting that European colonists’ arrival brought disease, violence and displacement to natives. Columbus Day holidays and parades have drawn protests from some activists.
Some U.S. localities have dropped observances of Columbus Day, while others have added observances intended to recognize those who lived in the Americas before Columbus sailed.
Delaney, however, questioned interpretations that depict Columbus as a gold-hungry marauder who did not care for the natives.
She said Columbus was motivated by the belief that all people must be evangelized to achieve salvation and by the belief that he could ally with the Great Khan of Cathay and secure enough gold to support an effort to retake Jerusalem.
“There was no intention of taking land or enslaving the people of the Khan, ruler of one of the greatest empires at the time,” Delaney said.
On his first return voyage to Spain, Columbus brought several natives who were not enslaved. Rather, they had been baptized and educated.
“One became his ‘adopted son’ and translator on future voyages, two were adopted by the (Spanish) king and queen,” she said.
“He told them they should not go marauding, should not kidnap and rape the women, and should always make exchanges for food and gold,” Delaney explained.
“When he returned with more ships and people he found that all of the men whom he’d left behind had been killed. Unlike the priest who accompanied him, Columbus did not blame the natives, but his own men; clearly, they had disobeyed his orders.”
Delaney acknowledged that Columbus on later voyages enslaved some natives who resisted Christianization. At the same time, he also punished his own men who perpetrated misdeeds against the natives.
The scholar has also questioned uncritical treatments of the Spanish friar Bartolomeo de las Casas, who is sometimes compared favorably to Columbus.
While las Casas is now remembered primarily as a defender of the rights of native Americans, she said this came later in life. The friar also owned slaves, endorsed slavery, and operated plantations. He also helped suppress a native rebellion
Columbus never owned slaves and yet is “reviled and blamed for everything that went wrong in the Indies,” Delaney said in her book.
This article was originally published on CNA Oct. 13, 2014.