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.