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Christopher Columbus: The Facts vs.

the Myth
O. Altalib

The year 1492 is presented as a great year for America, for it is the year in which
Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic. According to many American writers,
Columbus is a hero. He "discovered America," he "opened up the New World," and he is
"one of the greatest men in history." This, however, is more myth than reality. According
to the facts, Columbus brought misery and atrocity to the Native Americans; and used the
knowledge of Muslim scholars to try and destroy the trade of Muslim merchants.

According to Paul Lunde (Aramco magazine, May/June 1992), Columbus and his
brother Bartholomew made and sold maps for a living. Columbus was a medieval
man and his mind was filled with marvels. It was only after his return from his first
voyage that he began to search in scholarly works for justifications for the theories
he held. Columbus was good at dead-reckoning and finding his way in uncharted
waters. He was hopeless, however, with the compass and the astrolabe. The Muslims
brought these instruments to Spain, but Columbus did not know how to use them.

Columbus' original purpose was to find a sea route to the Spice Islands (Indonesia)
and China. He wanted to trade European goods for valuable spices directly with the
suppliers, rather than through middlemen. Why? Because for centuries these
middlemen had been Muslim merchants.

The Catholic monarchs who sponsored Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella, lived in
Seville in a formerly Muslim palace - the Alcazares Reales. They did not believe that
it was possible to reach China by crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus had to
convince them that the circumference of the earth was small enough for such a
voyage to occur and be feasible. He came up with a measurement of 18,756 miles
(the true circumference of the earth is 24,861 miles). Since he was seeking royal
support far his venture, he needed an authority of more weight than either Marco
Polo or Toscanelli (a geographer from Florence) to underpin this crucial number. Both
these Europeans could be dismissed as fantasists. However, it was not easy to
dismiss the great authority of the time: Alfraganus. "Alfraganus" is the Latin version
of the name al-Farghani (which refers to Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Farghani).
Alfraganus was recognized as one of the greatest astronomers and mathematicians
in the world. Columbus thus used Alfraganus calculations to support his claims.

When Columbus reached the Americas, he thought that Cuba was not an island, but
rather a part of Asia, he sent his Arabic interpreter, Luis de Torres into the interior of
Cuba with a letter from the king of Spain to the "Great Khan." The Great Khan is
what Columbus used to refer to the Muslim rulers of India. Luis' diplomatic mission
failed, of course, because the "Great Khan" was nowhere to be found (India was
ruled by Muslim rulers since tenth century. India and Turkey were the two great
Muslim powers of the time with great influence and control on a large part of Asia.

The Spaniards and Europeans were already at war with Turkey, therefore the next
best option was to use India to their advantage). This failure had no effect, however,
on Columbus obsession with proving that Cuba was part of Asia. He actually farced
his crews to sign a statement that said they believed Cube to be mainland Asia, with
a horrible punishment for anyone who breaks it. That is why Cuba does not appear
an Columbus' map. The oath asserted that "he had no doubt that this was the
mainland and not an island, and that before many leagues, in navigating along the
said coast, would be found a country of civilized people with some knowledge of the
world...A fine of ten thousand maravedis [Spanish currency] is imposed on anyone
who subsequently says the contrary of what he now said, and on each occasion at
whatever time this occunred; a punishment also of having the tongue off." (Oath
sworn regarding Cuba, 1494)

The myth of Columbus in America claims that Columbus was the person who brought
civilization to the natives. The facts are quite the opposite. One of the greatest evils
done to the natives of the Americas is the name they are called by. Even though the
original inhabitants of the Americas continue to be called Indians, they are not
related at all to the actual Indians (the inhabitants of India). It was Columbus'
ignorance, and his belief that he had actually "found" India, which led him to call the
natives Indians. These people are correctly referred to as Native Americans, even
though the term America itself is a European-imposed name. An excellent source
that is highly recommended for anyone who would like to know about the
colonization of Central America by the Spaniards is a book called "The Conquest of
America" by Tzvetan Todorov (1984). The references to Columbus' diary below are
taken from this book.

According to Todorov, the purpose of Columbus' journey is, "...to set off on a
crusade to liberate Jerusalem. It happens that the notion is preposterous in his era;
and since he is penniless as well, no one is willing to listen to him. How can a man
without resources, who wishes to found a crusade realize his dream in the fifteenth
century? All he need do is discover America in order to obtain his funds. Or rather,
merely sail to China by the 'direct' Western route since Marco Polo and other
medieval writers have confirmed the fact that gold is 'born' there in abundance."

During his first voyage (Dec. 26, 1492) Columbus writes that he hopes to find gold,
"and that in so great quantity that the Sovereigns within three years would
undertake and prepare to go and conquer the Holy Places." Furthermore he writes: "I
declared to Your Highness that all the gain of this my enterprise should be spent in
the conquest of Jerusalem; and Your Highness smiled and said that it pleased you
and that even without this you had that strong desire."

Even though Columbus was supposedly on a "Christian" mission, his behavior toward
the people he met was nothing to be admired. Columbus perceived the native
Americans as inferior beings, and he refers to them in degrading terms in his
writings. The first characteristic of the native Americans to strike Columbus is the
absence of clothes, and that is the first thing he says about them in his diary (on
Nov. 10, 1492): "Presently they saw naked people." His remarks about the natives
are frequently limited to the physical aspects of the people, rather than their culture,
intelligence, or civilization. "They are of the color of the Canary Islanders, neither
black nor white." (Oct. 11, 1492) "And the women have pretty bodies." (Dec. 21,
1492)

Columbus sees the natives as people without law "These people are very gentle and
fearful, naked as I have already said, without weapons and without laws" (Nov. 4,
1492) Also, according to Columbus, they "have no religion nor are they idolaters"
(Nov. 27, 1492) Yet, surprisingly, he reverses himself in another passage: "They, are
credulous; they know that there is a God in the heavens, and remain convinced that
is where we have come from." (Nov. 12, 1492)

Columbus did have some "positive" descriptions of the people, but he contradicts
himself once he has more contact with the natives. Early on he writes: "They are the
best people in the world and the most peaceable" (Dec. 16, 1492) "I do not believe
that in all the world there are better men any more than there are better lands"
(Dec. 25, 1492) yet later on, he sees himself "surrounded by a million savages filled
with cruelty and inimical to us." (Lettera Rarissima, July 7, 1503)

Columbus belittled the natives for their willingness to exchange, and is surprised at
how "stupid" they were: "Even bits of broken cask-hoops they took in exchange for
whatever they had, like beasts!" (Letter to Santangel, 1493) Columbus does not
seem to grasp the fact that the value of things is relative. Gold is not necessarily
more precious than glass in all times and all places; rather it is more precious than
glass in the European system of exchange.

Columbus also degrades the natives' concept of property, noting that all share what
they own he notes in one passage that a person could go into their house and take
what they want, and the owners wouldn't mind yet after characterizing the natives
as generous, he reverses himself and characterizes them as thieves. Rather than
recognizing that the natives share everything, he is outraged when they mistakenly
think they can share Columbus' property. Not only is he outraged, he imposes upon
them the most atrocious of punishments (which were common in Christian Spain):
"As on that voyage I made to Cibao, when it happened that some Indian stole
something or other, if you discover that some among them steal: you must punish
them by cutting off nose and ears, for those are the parts of the body which cannot
be concealed" (April 9, 1494).

Columbus' arrogance and misconceptions of the natives' courage and cowardice also
appear. He boasts: "they have no weapons, and are so fearful that one of our men
suffices to chase away a hundred of them even in jest." (Nov. 10, 1492) The pursuit
of the natives by dogs, another of Columbus' "discoveries," rests on a similar
observation: "For, against the Indians, one dog is equal of ten men." Despite this,
the Europeans carried guns with them and were in continuous fear of being
massacred by the natives. They never dared to fight the natives in hand-to-hand
combat, and became used to shooting first and asking questions later.

Rather than bringing peace, freedom and knowledge to the natives, Columbus
brought slavery, war and destruction. This is clear even in Columbus' own attitudes.
In one passage he states: "They would make good and industrious servants" (Oct.
11, 1492) And in another: "They are fit to be ruled." (Dec. 16, 1492) Columbus
wanted ships from Europe to bring over cattle, and on the way back they would be
filled with slaves: "The conveyors could be paid in cannibal slaves, Fierce but well-
made fellows of good understanding, which men wrested from their inhumanity, will
be, we believe, the best slaves that ever were." (Jan. 30, 1494) Amazingly,
Columbus is claiming to bring humanity to these people, and at the same time he
makes them into slaves!

While Columbus claimed he was bringing Christianity to the natives, he also had a
sinister purpose for dealing with them "From here one might send, in the name of
the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold, as well as a quantity of Brazil
[timber]. If the information I have is correct it appears that we could sell four
thousand slaves, who might be worth twenty million and more." (1498) It is ironic
that a "great discoverer" on a "civilizing mission" would be boasting about how many
slaves he is able to send back to Spain!

Needless to say, the slaves faced the most horrible conditions under the Spaniards.
This is what happened during the second expedition (according to Michele de Cuneo,
a nobleman of Savona): "When our caravels...were to leave Spain, we gathered in
our settlement one thousand six hundred male and female persons of thee Indians,
and of these we embarked in our caravels on Feb. 17, 1495, five hundred fifty souls
among the healthiest males and females. Far those who remained we let it be known
in the vicinity that anyone who wanted to take some of them could do so, to the
amount desired; which was done. And when each man was thus provided with
slaves, there still remained about four hundred to who permission was granted to go
where they wished. Among them wee many women with children still at suck. Since
they were afraid that we might return to capture them once again and in order to
escape us the better, they left their children anywhere on the ground and began to
flee like desperate creatures and some fled so far that they found themselves at
seven or eight days distance from our community at Isabella, beyond the mountain
and across enormous river; consequently they will henceforth be captured only with
great difficulty...But when we reached the waters off Spain, around two hundred of
these Indians died. I believe because of the unaccustomed air which is colder than
theirs. We cast them into the sea...We disembarked all the slaves, half of whom
were sick."

We should not discount Christopher Columbus' daring voyages and many


accomplishments. At the same time, however, we should be truthful about what he
actually did and what he really stood far. Columbus was a colonizer, a bigot, and a
thief on the grandest scale. he forcefully took the local inhabitant's land, he treated
the natives as if they were animals, and he enslaved the natives for his and other's
profit. Columbus stood for the medieval values of Europe: Expansion, conquest,
nationalism, and the forceful conversion to Christianity, As responsible citizens we
must demand that the truth be told in our children's schools, and that we recognize
Christopher Columbus for who he really was.