Does that sound like a racist? Yes and yes
Content Warning: I discuss, with some explicit contemporary quotes, the atrocities of the Spanish colonizers in the New World. Rape, violence
Tad Callister, a man who is not trained in history and has not produced any works of credible professional history, has once again weighed in on the history of the Americas. This is scarcely surprising, as he seems to have decided to be the vanguard of LDS cultural warriors. He recently published an unfortunately myopic piece Meridian Magazine in which he glorified Columbus. His primary foe is a straw-man group called “revisionist historians.” He does not actually provide any specific historians he wishes to counter, which means he is free to assert whatever he likes to disprove the claims of unidentified detractors. Along the way he indulges in cherry-picking evidence while ignoring context, thus becoming complicit in his own complaint of a “partial truth presented as the whole truth is an untruth.”
One of the difficulties with Callister’s approach is that he takes statements from primary and secondary documents at face value and without further context. He begins by emphasizing the efforts of Ferdinand and Isabella to spread the Christian faith. Casual readers might imagine something like friendly LDS missionaries chatting with non-Christians. In reality in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella expelled all Jews from Spain, giving them four months to take their stuff and leave, or convert to Christianity. Those who fled did so impoverished, because their neighbors knew the Jews had to sell cheap or not at all – their exodus had a time limit. Those who converted were soon deemed suspiciously not converted enough and were tortured in order to discover and denounce heretics. The Spanish inquisition is one of the vilest stains on the history of Christianity.
Similarly, Callister emphasizes the godly desire to finance a crusade to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple as Columbus’ primary goal. Again, this suggests to LDS minds the gentle and pleasant Temple ground breaking of the present day. However, the history of Crusades in Europe is closely tied to ethnic cleansing, pogroms, and other forms of anti-Semitic violence. Financing a crusade by definition implies wiping out both the Muslim peoples who inhabited the Holy Land at the time, and the Jews for being Christ-killers. Most historians do not dwell on this favorably for reasons that should be obvious.
Callister claimed “Columbus did send some slaves to Spain but his motive was not nefarious.” He then explains that in fact Columbus was just gathering up cannibals to send them to Spain to be better converted. As he put it “what a noble sentiment!” There is some evidence that suggests some Native peoples engaged in occasional acts of cannibalism as an act of violence against the enemy. But it is deliberately degrading to dismiss entire tribes as cannibals, as if that were a routine way of life and food source for them. Second, as I’ve already mentioned, the Spanish methods of conversion in the 15th and 16th centuries involved torture and the threat of being burned alive if you didn’t convert. Third, enslaving people is inherently nefarious. Turning a person into a thing to be owned is morally disgusting and there is no excusing it. Callister’s dismissive “some slaves” disguises the truth – According to Michael de Cuneo, Columbus ordered 1500 men and women seized – 400 he let go, 500 were sent to Spain and another 600 were enslaved by Spanish men remaining on the island. About 200 of the 500 sent to Spain died on the voyage and were thrown into the Ocean.
Callister’s attempt to justify slavery shows his own racist indifference to the perspective of Indigenous peoples. I guarantee that the Carib and Arawak peoples he enslaved and exported did not find Columbus’ alleged motives in any way comforting. Callister says that Columbus’ motives were “to civilize and save these indigenous natives.” He claims that revisionist historians ignore this evidence of goodness. He is incorrect. Historians see the evidence. They just don’t see cultural imperialism, forcible conversion and brutal enslavement as evidence of goodness.
Callister insists that Columbus engaged in slave trading only because he thought it would help in civilizing them and converting them. This does not make Columbus look any better – “civilizing” people means trying to destroy their native culture, customs and language. I’ve already noted what conversion meant in Spain at the time. He claims “Columbus, who the revisionists accuse as a slave trader, never personally owned a slave.” This detail is irrelevant to the accusation – being a slave trader means you sell people. Being a slave owner means you own people. Columbus not keeping slaves around does not absolve him of his complicity in the system of slavery. At one point in the article Callister writes “does that sound like a racist?” and the answer, for both Callister’s article and for Columbus’ actions is a resounding yes.
Another account from Michael de Cuneo highlights this: “I captured a very beautiful woman, whom the Lord Admiral [Columbus] gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked — as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought she had been brought up in a school for whores.” Columbus gave his crewman the woman, knowing full well what his crewman intended to do with his slave. Dismissing Columbus’ complicity in enslavement as a well-intentioned attempt to invite conversion is unbelievably myopic. If the reason they were sent to Spain was better conversion, how does one explain keeping so many slaves in Hispaniola? Or giving slaves to men as sexual outlets, if the Godly goal is to teach chastity?
Callister asks “why is that these trusted original sources – the personal diary of Columbus and the impartial testimonies of contemporary historians are so frequently in opposition to the conclusions of these revisionist historians?” The answer is of course that historians are trained to read sources critically searching for biases and inconsistencies. Columbus’ journals are an important source, but that doesn’t mean everything he says in them is true. He was conscious of others reading them at some point, and he was conscious of how he presented himself. It was in his interest to frame the entire expedition as an act of Godliness, not greed. That doesn’t mean he was actually a disinterested servant of God. Contemporary historians who were present in the Americas also had an interest in making the natives look bad and to minimize the offenses of Spaniards. That doesn’t mean the native people were all vicious cannibals and the Spaniards were violent only when attacked first. And indeed, though the Spanish authors had good reason to make their countrymen look good, in fact many accounts attest with disgust to unbelievable atrocities. Implying that the Spanish only counterattacked against violent natives is disingenuous and is not supported by the majority of the evidence.
Callister asserts that “Columbus brought the natives a much better way of life.” He argues that the people he encountered already practiced forms of slavery or sexual abuse, and tribes were violent towards each other. Columbus, he claims brought Christianity. “As a result cannibalism has been eradicated, slavery abolished, human sacrifices done away, major diseases minimized, women treated with greater respect, life expectancies extended, poverty reduced, and education made available to most. That is the true legacy of Columbus.” This is an astonishing statement to make. Firstly, cannibalism was never a keystone central practice of the peoples of the Americas. Callister’s frequent references to it in this article serve to try to emphasize the horrifying savagery of native peoples, but it isn’t based in much fact and works only to demean Indigenous peoples. Likewise human sacrifice was not widely practiced among native peoples.
But let’s look at some other claims. Now slavery has been abolished. The Spaniards quickly realized that enslaving natives was impractical, because they kept dying of disease or running away. So they started importing enslaved people from Africa, beginning the horrific legacy of slavery that still mars our society today. The Union winning the Civil War has nothing to do with Columbus. The existence of chattel slavery in the first place is closely tied to Columbus. Now major diseases are minimized, no particular thanks to Christianity. But Columbus and friends brought smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, malaria and cholera to which Native Americans had no immunity. Of the estimated 250,000 Natives in Hispaniola, Columbus’ first stop in 1492, infectious diseases had killed 236,000 indigenous people by 1517 – nearly 95% of their population. Between 1492 and 1600 about 90% of the population of the Americas – some 55 million people, died because of violence and these new pathogens. Contrast this to the Black Death, which killed about 30% of Europeans. Saying that Columbus brought better health with him as part of his legacy is blindingly ignorant.
One might say that Columbus did not personally infect every one of those people, which is of course true. But if we are going to attribute sweeping later effects like providing education as Columbus’ legacy, then we should also look honestly at the other side of the legacy. The enslavement of millions of natives and Africans are a key part of his legacy. The death by violence and disease from the very beginning of Columbian contact is part of his legacy. The violence of conversion and the sexual exploitation that came both with the missions and the colonizers are part of that legacy.
Whether Columbus personally engaged in every one of the atrocities committed by the colonizers is perhaps not the important question. Columbus symbolizes the entire colonial project and the genocide of Natives. We can and should study Columbus, and take into account what good motives or choices he may have had. But as with statues of Robert E. Lee, or Thomas Jefferson, or any other problematic figure, you can study and be interested in a historical figure without giving him a dedicated holiday or monument that the descendants of his victims must observe. Choosing to abandon observing Columbus day does not mean we stop teaching about Columbus or looking at what intentions of his may have been good. But his legacy is traumatic enough to enough people that making a national holiday to celebrate him is a bad idea.
 Michael de Cuneo, who participated in Columbus’ second expedition to the Americas, quoted in Laurence Bergreen Columbus: the Four Voyages. P. 196-197
 Ibid. 143