Columbus a humanitarian? Hardly. But he did play an important role in early human rights laws

In the New World he supposedly discovered in 1492 — if you don’t count the millions who were living here already — Christopher Columbus’ is a reputation in eclipse. The sea captain-navigator whose explorations gave Spain a massive empire has also had laid at his feet the seeds of genocide and destruction, by conquest and disease, of early people and cultures throughout much of Latin America. A number of U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, have renamed his federal holiday Indigenous Peoples Day. The outcry even reached the Tournament of Roses parade, which, in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, invited a Native American congressman to join a descendant of Columbus’ as parade grand marshal.

Had Columbus sailed due west, more people in Virginia or the Carolinas might be speaking Spanish today. But he sailed west, then south, and the people he found there looked very different from what he expected. Paradoxically, 50 years exactly after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, imperial Spain recognized some of the New World’s earliest human rights laws ever. Those laws didn’t stop Native Americans from being exploited, robbed or even killed, but they could not legally be bought and sold as slaves. Caltech history professor and author Nicolas Wey Gomez undertakes a voyage into this odd legacy of the man the Spanish call Cristobal Colon.

When Columbus sailed, what were his preconceptions about the people he would find and whether he even regarded them as people?

There was a long tradition in Mediterranean Europe going back as far as the written record allows: The Greeks had a conception that people in the Mediterranean lived ideal lives, that the Mediterranean itself was an ideal place for life and indeed for the normalcy of life. And they thought of barbarians, and particularly of those barbarians that lived in the colder and hotter latitudes of the world, to be inferior to them. They lived in places where nature was somewhat monstrous, produced all kinds of marvels and monsters, and the blackness of sub-Saharan Africans was considered a sort of monstrosity among humans.

So as Columbus entered this New World, he expected that the farther south he went, the blacker the skin of the people he would find, and that shaped itself in his mind about how to deal with them. Is that right?

This was a common preconception among Europeans, the idea that the farther you went into tropical latitudes, the darker skinned complexion of peoples. And indeed, there was a tradition of thinkers and writers that began to connect blackness itself with servitude, with the condition of slavery.

Columbus expected, presumably, to find black-skinned people and expected to exploit them as black-skinned people were being exploited in Africa?

This is not said explicitly in the documents, but he certainly expressed great surprise to find that the color of the Indians did not tend to darken as he moved farther south into the Caribbean.

And this discovery of lighter-skinned people than he expected occasioned a kind of “Oh, s—” moment, like, what are we going to do with these people?

After the discovery in 1492, as Columbus was returning to Europe — and saw himself victoriously returning to Europe — he wrote a number of letters, versions of which we have today. In the most public of those letters, he promised the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, that he would deliver an infinite number of slaves, and that those slaves would be from among the idolaters; enemies of the Christian faith is probably what he meant by the term “idolaters.”

In Atlantic Africa, the Portuguese had used the excuse that sub-Saharan Africans were enemies of Christ, and they had, in the course of the 15th century, gone to the papacy and asked for permission to continue to conquer and invade these places, and enslave those peoples, which was something that was common in war.

And the Vatican said, sure, go ahead?

They acted as notary publics to crown ventures in Atlantic Africa. These documents are some of the most belligerent documents you can possibly imagine, and essentially offering spiritual indulgences in exchange for the conquering invasion, the subjugation of those territories. It's violent language, and it's very, very explicit.

Columbus has a quandary, but it didn't take him long to decide, “Nope, they're slave material,” no matter what their skin color.

Yes. Things get very complicated as soon as he returns to Europe because the Catholic monarchs went to Alexander VI, a Borgia pope, and asked for him to deliver documents essentially donating the Indies to Castile. And those were contested very soon afterward, because there was already a tradition in Europe among experts in law that questioned the right of the pope to have anything but spiritual dominion over non-Christians. [But] the pope expedited these documents, these donations of the Indians to the Catholic monarchs.

What year are we talking about?

Columbus was returning to the New World in 1493, and he stayed there until 1496.

About the first group of slaves going to market, what happened to them?

Columbus had promised the delivery of slaves from among the idolaters in that very public letter. Columbus conducted raids in Hispaniola; they collected about 1,500 people, and of those 1,500 people, 500 were selected to be brought back to the slave market in Seville, [Spain]; 500 others were distributed among the colonists, and about 500 others were told to scram. You can imagine the terror of people running for their lives, away from these scenes. Those 500 slaves arrived in the market in Seville, and in 1495, something really surprising happened, which was that they were not automatically sold to the people who had pledged to buy them.

The crown issued an order to the bishop of Seville not to bill the buyers of these slaves until the matter had been studied by their theologians, by their lawyers and by men of letters.

It is the first reference we have to an official debate about the legality of enslaving the so-called Indians.

Did this surprise you?

It did and it didn’t. We have known for some time that imperial Spain was the home for one of the first modern debates about the legality of empire and about the legality of enslaving, in this case, Indians.

But there are indications that this debate was on almost from the moment that Columbus sent the first 500 slaves to the market in Seville. What may be even more surprising is that those slaves were ordered released and returned to Hispaniola. They were not allowed to be sold.

This means that the decision or the advice must have been, it is not clear that we can enslave them. But the question of what the grounds for enslavement were was kind of muddy. These were clearly not infidels. They had not had a chance to reject the word of Christ as people in Africa might have had, who had become Muslims and so they hadn't chosen to oppose Christianity; they didn't know about Christianity in the first place. They were neophytes. They had no idea.

But then, there was the question of the other Indians who were [already] being enslaved right and left: Could they be enslaved?

I suspect that part of the question had been raised by the fact that the Indians had a skin color that did not correspond to that of African slaves being imported into Europe, and that this caused a certain amount of confusion.

It appears that [Queen] Isabel had quite a bit of conscience in respect to this issue. When she died in 1504, in her last will and codicil she ordered Ferdinand and her heirs to respect her wishes in relation to the Indians. She wanted them to be treated as vassals of the crown.

What did that mean, “as vassals”?

It means that they should not suffer any harm to their selves, to their persons, or to their property; that they should be respected, and that they should be treated like any other vassal of the crown.

Like subjects of the crown.

Absolutely, subjects of the crown. After her death, Ferdinand himself appears to have called a junta in order to examine the question of the papal bulls of donation, which are being brought into question, seemingly, by this last will of Isabel’s. We don't know much more about this, except that the crown clearly felt that the donations [of the Indies to Spain] were not only for spiritual dominion, but also for temporal [physical] dominion.

Ironically, the first protest against the treatment that colonists were visiting on the Indians came from missionaries. In 1511, the Dominican friars in the island of Hispaniola organized a round of sermons from the pulpit in which they condemned what was called by one of them the “exquisite cruelties” that had been visited on the Indians, because they were being treated as virtual slaves.

You can imagine how this went down with the crowd at church! The colonists were furious. And they sent back a protest to Ferdinand.

This was a tactical mistake on the part of the colonists, because Ferdinand, being the legalist that he was, called a junta, a council of learned people, including theologians, to ask how these Indians were to be treated.

They came out with the following opinion: They said the Indians have a right to be treated fairly. They have a right to recreation, to periods of rest. They ought to be remunerated for their work. And they ought to be allowed to have time in order to tend to their families and property.

Astonishing to hear seemingly modern concepts come out of what was essentially a feudal monarchical system.

Extremely modern concepts. It is the first indication we have of what was then snowballing as a debate about the occupation of the Indies and about the future of the Indians themselves. Ferdinand was not very happy with this conclusion, and so he basically slashed this junta and gathered his own junta; he managed to get some people who would say exactly what he wanted.

So King Ferdinand had his way, overturning his dead wife's wishes, overturning the conclusions of the first junta. But in 1542, 50 years after Columbus arrived in the New World, there was an edict by Ferdinand’s grandson that accomplished what?

This first official debate spurred a controversy that only grew over the years. One of the most important figures in this early history of modern human rights is a man by the name of Bartolomé de las Casas, who was also a Dominican, and who arrived in the New World at the turn of the 16th century, who eventually became a priest.

And historian.

Bartolomé de las Casas suffered a process of increasing epiphanies that led him to radicalize himself over the course of several decades, and he came to question the legality of the conquest and to question the status that Indians had been accorded in the New World.

He was one of the voices that was raised against Indian slavery in the 1530s, and against the system of land and labor grants that Columbus had installed, known as the encomienda system.

Las Casas had the ear of the crown, of Charles and his advisors —

Charles V, the holy Roman emperor.

And in 1542, the new laws prohibited the enslavement of Indians and the idea that your heirs could inherit Indians and land for ever and ever.

The promulgation of these new laws caused an upheaval in the New World, and eventually the crown kind of goes back on them.

But this was an incredibly important moment in the history of human rights, as far as the inhabitants of the Americas were concerned.

The paradox is that while slavery didn’t destroy them in the New World, greed did its work. Disease did its work. And the people were ravaged. Nonetheless, they had rights on paper, but in practice, look what happened to them.

Absolutely. There is no question about that.

By 1502, the first African slaves were being imported into the Caribbean. Bartolomé de las Casas considered that what was happening in Africa was just as terrible, just as illegal, just as sinful as what was happening in the Indies.

And what about Columbus? His reputation has suffered a great deal in the last half-century.

On the one hand, Columbus was a great navigator. What he did, which was to connect the Old World and the New [World], has consequences all the way to this day. You and I would not be sitting here if it had not been for the Colombian voyages.

Part of his legacy is, of course, the terrible things that happened to Amerindians as a consequence of his voyages and European expansion into the Americas.

So this is a very complex legacy.

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