On Christopher Columbus was awful (but this other guy was not)

According the The Oatmeal “this guy” was Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Spanish missionary perhaps best known for denouncing the Spanish treatment of American Indians and his call for the end of the Indian slave trade. Las Casas is also known for advocating the use of African slave labor to replace the lost work of the Indians. Like all historical figures, las Casas is a problematic character. Recognizing this fact means acknowledging that the conquest and subsequent colonization of the Western Hemisphere were not a series of acts committed by bad people; they were, and are, indicative of a worldview of empire, ownership, and globalization that led to the destruction of many ways of life. It’s quite hard to find a figure who wasn’t somehow complicit.

Rather than focusing on Christopher Columbus or las Casas, to fully critique the institution of Columbus Day we must step out of the dominant paradigm that history is the story of a series of individuals (usually white men, some of whom are problematic, some less so). The histories of the Americas are long and deep and rich and complex. They did not start and end at the time of the conquest.

At Latin America Visualized, we have chosen to tell those histories with objects, partly to encourage a broader scope that cannot easily be narrativized. Of course, we must remember that indigenous peoples continue to populate the Western Hemisphere. Many people still speak Mayan languages in Mexico and Guatemala. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, traces his ancestry to the Aymara and has pressed for the indigenous language of Quechua to be mandatory in education. Indigenous Americans continue to create stories and histories. But what of those that began well before the much-heralded arrival of Christopher Columbus in the 15th century? Certain objects allow for some insight.

For example, the Stone of Tizoc portrays the ways in which Aztec emperors often rewrote their own rules in an effort to demonstrate might and power in a warrior culture. The tomb of Pakal indicates the importance of the association of Maya rulers with the maize god and the world tree. The Moche Revolt of the Objects theme highlights a moment when order turns to chaos, a theme we see continued in a great deal of Andean belief systems and visual culture. Inkan quipus provide us with the knowledge that there are many ways to keep records, even if we don’t necessarily understand them. And colonial-period objects, such as casta paintings, demonstrate the construction of race and identity in the Spanish empire and force us to recognize the complexities of life for indigenous, mestizo, and Creole residents. These are just a few of the many objects that can speak to us, if we listen.

While the cultural move away from the glorification of Columbus is important, we cannot and should not replace him with a continued partriarchal viewpoint that history is told by the winners. We tell our own histories, and we must take the time to learn, and tell, the ones we know less well. We encourage you to share those stories, images, and objects in the comments.

9 thoughts on “On Christopher Columbus was awful (but this other guy was not)

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  2. You wrote: “Las Casas is also known for advocating the use of African slave labor to replace the lost work of the Indians.”

    The Oatmeal says: “Initially, Bartolomé de las Casas advocated the use of African slaves instead of native labor. In the first few years after he renounced his land and title, his initial cause was to end the suffering of the natives, rather than seeking an end to the institution of slavery itself, and so this became his deplorable rationale for the endorsement of African slavery. Bartolomé de las Casas eventually retracted those views, however, and came to see all forms of slavery as being equally wrong. In The History of the Indies published in 1527, he wrote the following:

    I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery…
    and I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God.”

    • And the Oatmeal author isn’t wrong. I’d also note that I wrote this post (with full knowledge of las Casas’s later regrets, which I don’t believe excuse him from his role in the slave trade) before he added this footnote largely in response to concerns about the cartoon. It doesn’t change my perspective.
      This is also why I didn’t want to focus on one slightly (arguably) more nuanced figure. Whose name we know — and, by extension, what we call our holidays — matters. As I stated in the post, replacing one European man complicit in the conquest of the Western Hemisphere with another doesn’t get us very far. It’s clearly up to us to re-center history and bring the stories that have been marginalized to light, which is why I’ve asked readers to participate in that project by adding stories, works of art, objects, or anything else meaningful in the comments.

  3. I see it more as a glorification of connection–the hemispheres finally were interacting, albeit not very well for a while.

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