Christopher Columbus undoubtedly made a huge impact on the world with his "discovery" of the “new world” in the 1490s. Nevertheless, over five-hundred years later, the debate continues over his intents. Did he simply intend to come to this new land in a peaceful manner, to share it with the natives, or did he plan for a complete takeover of the land, with the possible use of force, for Spain? While it is clear that Columbus hoped to gain riches and fame for his explorations of the other half of the world, many view his attitudes towards the natives as rather foggy: unclear to the modern observer. However, by reading the letter written by Columbus himself, dated the 14th of March, his true intents may become clearer. He did not plan to offer them the protection and advanced nature of European society. Although his original intents may have been in the interests of the native peoples, the actions Columbus took betray the true thoughts behind the kind exterior. From his own words, it can be determined that Columbus saw the natives mainly as unimportant, their only use being that of workers for the Europeans.
At first glance, it may seem that Columbus really does have the best interests of the natives at heart. He claims that he “gave to all I approached whatever articles I had about me, such as cloth and many other things, taking nothing of theirs in return” (Kislansky, 303). He also discouraged his men from taking advantage of the naïve natives. These, and many other actions appear to be benefiting the natives, but Columbus seems to be deceiving even himself. He may desire to be the virtuous explorer, bringing civilization to the savages, but upon a closer look at his letter, it is clear that deep in his heart, the lives of the natives were not important.
Columbus’s hidden attitude towards the natives is apparent from the very beginning. He found the islands “thickly peopled” and “took possession without resistance” (Kislansky, 303). There was no attempt to live in harmony with the natives. Instead, Columbus marched in with proclamation and banner and claimed the land for Spain, with no regard to the natives that had lived there for probably hundreds, if not thousands, of years. To take this total conquest idea even further, Columbus’s next mentioned action was to rename the island “called by the Indians Guanahani”, and call it San Salvador (Kislansky, 303). This also demonstrates his unwillingness to preserve the natives as a people. He took places already given names by the people who already lived there, and, with complete disregard, renamed them to suit his purposes and to please the king. Had Columbus had any intention of not taking advantage of the natives, he would have allowed them the basic courtesy of allowing them to keep the names of the islands they lived upon.
Not long after Columbus writes of renaming the islands, he goes on at some length about the trading habits of the natives. He tells about how the Indians were fascinated with the goods he and his crew had brought from Europe, and that they would trade ridiculous sums of gold for minor trinkets. Columbus, ever the Christian conqueror, forbade such unfair trading, often giving items to the natives “that I might induce them to take in interest in seeking out, and collecting, and delivering to us such things as they possessed in abundance, but which we greatly needed” (Kislansky, 304). Columbus viewed the natives as no more than a work force to be kept happy and content, so that he might use them without the need of force.
During his stay in the new world, Columbus also felt the need to seize control of a large city and set up a fortress there (Kislansky, 304). This is yet another example of his disregard for the people already in possession of the land. Furthermore, he “left as many men as he thought necessary, with all sorts of arms” (Kislansky, 304). Columbus saw potentials for revolt against the work he was doing. If he truly had the best interests of the natives in mind, would he really have expected a revolt so soon? He established his fort “so that those who hold the said fortress, can easily keep the whole island in check” (Kislansky, 304). The goal here was obviously to conquer and control, not to offer protection to the natives. The natives had apparently no need for protection, as they had no “proper” weapons, as stated by Columbus in the early portion of his letter: “None of them are possessed of any iron, neither have they weapons…” (Kislansky, 303). If the natives had no weapons, there is a good chance that they never had the need to develop any to protect themselves from outside threats, and if the natives had not had to defend themselves, it stands to reason that they did not need Columbus and his men to defend them now.
Columbus had little to no intention of offering the natives of the land he discovered protection or benefits of European culture. He believed them to be unintelligent and incapable of doing things for themselves. Despite wanting to appear valorous and honorable, his true intentions lay close enough to the surface for the close examiner to clearly see. For all intents a purposes, he viewed them as just another resource he could exploit.
Columbus, Christopher. "Letter from the Fisrt Voyage." Sources of World History: Volume 1. Mark A. Kishlansky (Ed.) Wadsworth Publishing, 1998.
McNeill, William H. A World History. New York: Oxford University Press: 1999.
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