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The Success Of Columbus, The Failure Of Christianity

by Patrick Inniss

Christian evangelism has long promoted assaults upon other cultures and the exploitation of non-Western people. In more recent years, an enlightened attitude has risen to prominence, appreciating the value of non-Christian and less technically advanced cultures.

However, reflecting earlier attitudes, many Christians continue to proclaim the moral superiority of Christianity and European culture. Consistent with that position, they view the European destruction of native American cultures as a positive event.

A fine example of this sentiment was put forth in the October 7, 1991 issue of Christianity Today, which featured two articles strongly defending the role of Columbus. These articles build their cases on ancient arguments and rationalizations which do not withstand the test of modern scholarship.

Kay Bingham, author of "Christopher Columbus: His Life and Discovery in the Light of His Prophecies," points to cannibalism on the part of the Carib people as an example of barbarity eliminated by the coming of Europeans. However, Brigham fails to mention that the allegations of cannibalism have been contested, and that such reports were almost always based on accounts of tribes unfriendly toward the supposed cannibals.

The unskeptical Spaniards were all too willing to believe these tales, especially when they could be used as an excuse to terrorize native populations.

Religious overtones pervaded many aspects of the relations between Indians and Spaniards, leading superstition to bolster ignorance. Even the Indian word "caniba" was thought to be somehow related to the biblical names Cain and Cham, the latter a variant of Ham, Noah's cursed son.

In fact, it was not uncommon for indigenous people to perceive the Europeans as cannibals. In terms of cruelty, early Spaniards matched the mythical cannibals. The friendly people of the Caribbean islands were the first to experience this, being defenseless against Spanish weapons wielded with equal cruelty against children and women. The seemingly limitless thirst for blood of the Spanish was described in Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolom de las Casas, a Dominican friar who witnessed much of the carnage:

"... suddenly one of the Spaniards drew his sword, saying that he saw the Devil before him. Then a hundred Spaniards all drew their swords and began to cut them down like sheep, killing and disemboweling men and women, children and old people, all of whom had been calmly sitting and watching the Spaniards and their horses in amazement; and in a few moments not a single one of them was alive."

Spaniards such as las Casas eventually rejected the argument that they were saving the Indians from their own brutality. Even the spectacle of the Aztec human sacrifices seemed mild in comparison to the horrors of the conquistadors. The Bahamas, where Columbus first landed, was soon stripped of its beautiful, peaceful inhabitants. Las Casas wrote that a ship could find its way to Hispaniola, the site of Spanish gold mines, merely by following a trail of dead Indians thrown from the slave ships.

Las Casas was an admiring biographer of Columbus, but seemed to ignore the fact that Columbus bore great responsibility for the enslavement of Indians.

Columbus initiated the trade in slaves in a sense, by kidnapping several Indians and presenting them to Queen Isabella. In a letter to Isabella in 1494, Columbus advocated the taking of slaves from among the Indians as a means of payment for their Christianization, although it was obvious that, even if the native population desired such missionary work, they had other means by which their debts could be paid. If the Spaniards truly meant to spread Christianity among the Americans solely for the benefit of the new converts, it is strange that they would expect such high fees. Ironically, las Casas' compassion for the plight of native Americans contributed significantly to the establishment of the African slave trade. This innovation, which proved essential to the development of colonial economies after the exhaustion of the Indian population, could not have flourished without the full endorsement of the various churches.

As early as 1442, Pope Eugenio IV had granted church approval to Prince Henry of Portugal to begin capturing slaves among the "Moors" of Africa. This was subsequently followed by numerous papal bulls (has there ever been a more appropriate term?) fully formalizing the slave trade as a legitimate enterprise in the Catholic world. Religion provided many avenues by which the greedy and murderous could escape critical moral evaluation of their actions. Las Casas, following the Vatican's lead, advocated the use of African slaves instead of Indians. Ostensibly motivated by concern for the Indians, the substitution of Africans was also a boon for commercial interests. Although the Indians largely escaped slavery, the increased development spurred by the use of Africans would soon harm the Indian population almost as much. The effects on the Africans of this ghastly Christian policy were a staggering death toll and a legacy of state-sanctioned brutality which lasts to this day, as exemplified by the Rodney King beating. But the churches in Britain, Spain, Portugal and Italy were materially enriched by this trade in human lives. The preference for Africans as slaves may have been furthered by a perception that the Indians were typically nonreligious and highly receptive to conversion. Columbus remarked about the natives he encountered on his first voyage, "They have no religion, and I believe that they would very readily become Christians."

Columbus's motivation went well beyond the desire for material wealth which drove many of his greedy countrymen. He was also greedy for the spiritual glory which he saw as the reward for placing, by whatever means necessary, the yoke of Christianity upon the necks of whatever peoples he might encounter. Some of the explorers to follow certainly made Columbus look good by comparison. But comparison with the most notorious Christian conquerors cannot absolve Columbus of a large portion of the blame for the assault on Indian cultures. Columbus seemed to share with his notorious successors the goal of destroying those cultures, though perhaps not directly through military action, but by Christianizing them. Nevertheless, Columbus's account of his exploration includes references to the possibilities of military conquest. Having seen firsthand the virtual annihilation of Jewish and Arabic culture in Iberia, it is hard to believe that he would not have understood the effect that the imposition of Christianity would have.

This insensitivity bred of blind faith is echoed in the commentary of modern Christian apologists. In another Christianity Today article, David Neff defends Columbus's motives for the deadly exploitation of America, claiming that, "Columbus was motivated by a love for God and a desire to finance the rescue of the Holy Land from infidel hands." The plundering of gold and the institution of slavery certainly provided sufficient funds to launch yet more religious wars, had not the parties involved become so deeply mired in defending and expanding their American holdings. Assigning purely religious motives to Columbus's exploration, Neff fittingly relates the genocide of Native American peoples to the Israelite conquest of Canaan, complete with the slaughter of innocent children and even animals. This analogy is nothing new, having been made by Martin Fernandez de Encisco, a lawyer, historian and soldier who, as a less successful associate of Balboa and Pizarro, fancied himself a latter day Joshua who would bring down Indian Jerichos. Even 16th century apologists were forced to abandon the justification Neff resurrects, since it ignores the existence of a New Testament and the redemption that the events of that book supposedly signify for Canaanites, Native Americans and everyone else.

Neff goes on to claim that European contact was good for the Indian culture, for the absurd reason that "without the horse, imported from Europe, indigenous American art and religion would have never had time off from survival activities to dream and develop."

No doubt many who read this article were persuaded to believe that Native American culture enjoyed an unprecedented renaissance due to the beneficent offices of humanitarians like Pizarro and Cortez. The fact is that within a few generations of Columbus, Amerindians had experienced a "demographic crash" which left the total population at only 10% of the pre-Columbian level.

Examining the effects of European contact on native cultures, any student would be hard pressed to find positive benefits. The introduction of horses had little influence in Central and South America, where many native cultures were seriously disrupted before this new resource could become a resource of any significance. The use of horses had its most dramatic impact in North America. However, to imply that this led to the development of art and religion, much less a zenith in these areas, is to ignore history. Large scale agricultural communities had already developed, and in some cases declined, in many parts of the hemisphere well before the arrival of the Europeans and their horses.

Christians hoped to discover fabled Christian kingdoms like that of "Ethiopian" Prester John.

The creation of urban settlements and classes of merchants, priests and craftsmen was much more important to art and religion than the influence of the horse. To claim that horses opened the door for religious and artistic development is little more than a lame attempt by Christian apologists to find any redeeming value in the genocide that their religious beliefs promoted.

Christian evangelicals are correct in identifying Columbus as one of their own. Columbus's quest was largely guided by religious themes, and he relied upon all sorts of religious notions in his world view. Columbus died still believing that he had in fact sailed to Asia, but also contending that the site of Paradise was somewhere in this new (to him) land.

The Christians had also hoped to discover fabled Christian kingdoms of the Orient, most notably that of the "Ethiopian," Prester John. As an "Ethiopian," Prester John was a noble Black person of an ancient Judeo-Christian lineage, possibly even the leader of a lost tribe, in stark contrast to the evil Blacks, the "Moors." Prester John would, out of Christian duty, unite with European Christians in an alliance to drive Muslims (including fellow Blacks) from the face of the earth.

To evangelical Christians, Columbus still appears to be an unrivaled success for his work in bringing Christianity to an entire hemisphere. Even his name, Christopher or Christobol, means "bearer of Christ," a meaning relished by the devout explorer. There is speculation that the term he used to describe the natives, "indios," reflected not only his belief that he had reached Asia, but also an assessment of their wholesome lifestyle, "in Dios" being the Spanish for "in God." Despite this, the technique used to evangelize the natives was driven as much by military concern as theological principle. Spreading the Christian faith was, more often than not, secondary to the hunt for treasure, especially gold. In fact, religion constituted part of an overall program of Indian oppression.

Suppose Columbus had been a humanist rather than a Christian. A humanistic Columbus would obviously not have sailed the oceans looking for new places to plant the seed of his religion. Ignoring for a moment the fact that his godlessness might have made him the unfortunate center of attention at a Spanish auto de fe, this hypothetical Columbus would not have been driven to impose a new religion on the native people he encountered. He would not have devalued the lives of non-Christians. He would not have felt free to shanghai Indians and ship them back to Spain in the futile attempt to produce native missionaries.

Moral relativists (near the top of the Christian enemies list) might make an argument that it is unfair to evaluate the actions of the past by the standards of today. But we may certainly judge the attitudes of today in respect to the events of history. Would not a Columbus with the values and sensibilities of present-day Christians fare much better? Not necessarily. The praise given Columbus by certain segments of the Christian community belies any claim that Christian thinking has experienced a complete revolution in the ensuing 500 years. When widely read journals such as Christianity Today publish apologetics relying upon the same theology as that espoused in the 16th century, can Christians really convince us that they have changed their stripes?

Even today, aren't there still Christians repeating the errors of Columbus, seeking out the few remaining isolated bands of Native Americans, bringing them not only Christianity, but also disease and social disruption? It isn't humanists who have done this. Conservative Christian religious leaders, obsessed with moral absolutes and objections to "moral relativism," should be the first to recognize that they have, throughout history, made what we now must view as horribly flawed moral evaluations.

Christians should be the last to celebrate Columbus's voyage. In fact, they should mourn it. Navigators could perhaps mark Columbus's accomplishments as a sailor. Botanists and agriculturists might celebrate the importation of many new plants to Europe. But as the guiding moral framework for contact between Europe and the Americas, Christianity was an utter failure, resulting in the death of millions and the destruction of numerous cultures. Christian celebrations of Columbus rely on the same prejudices and disinformation that were used at the time Indian cultures were originally looted. It is long past due for Christians to recognize the truth, and admit the moral failure of their dogma. We should observe Columbus's voyage with the same solemnity we mark the anniversary of the beginning of a war.

The role of Christianity in the destruction of Amerindian cultures and peoples reveals the real power of religion. As a tool of exploitation and oppression, it was, and continues to be, an unqualified success. As a moral guide, however, Christianity failed miserably.

Patrick Inniss is the former President of the Rationalist Society of St. Louis. He now resides in Seattle. The above article is part one of an article from the October 1992 issue of the Rationalist Society newsletter, Secular Subjects.

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This page was last updated 02/13/2004

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