As soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island which I found, I took some of the natives by force, in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts. And so it was that they soon understood us, and we them, either by speech or by signs, and they have been very serviceable. At present, those I bring with me are still of the opinion that I come from Heaven, for all the intercourse which they have had with me. They were the first to announce this wherever I went, and the others went running from house to house, and to the neighbouring towns, with loud cries of, “Come! Come! See the men from Heaven!” So all came, men and women alike, when their minds were set at rest concerning us, not one, small or great, remaining behind, and they all brought something to eat and drink, which they gave with extraordinary affection. – Christopher Columbus
On the second Monday in every October, the United States of America celebrates the first voyage of the Spanish Explorer Christopher Columbus to the Americas. This anniversary has been unofficially celebrated since 1792, but was made an official American federal holiday in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Any American who went through the public school system is quite familiar with the basic, white washed story of Columbus’s glorious “discovery” of the Americas, his mistaking the Natives for “Indians,” his three glorious ships, and the praise that Americans all over both continents have culturally given Columbus in honor of his expedition.
Our patriotism as “Americans” would seem to require that we view the European discovery of the “New World” in only the most positive light. It is certainly undeniable that Columbus’s voyage, as well as those of other European explorers both before and after his time, have had a profound impact on the anthropology, history, and culture of the American continent today…but a recent push for clarity, ethics, transparency, and historical accuracy has brought the darker side of Columbus’s exploits to the surface of our cultural conversations.
The fact is, Columbus was no hero. He was an ambitious, self-interested, and ethically compromised individual with shady morals, and a thirst for power. He made no secret of how he viewed the Native Americans, and certainly no secret about how he planned to treat them. In his log, he wrote of the “Indians:”
They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…. They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
In his book “History is a Weapon,” Howard Zinn wrote of Columbus’s interactions with the Native Americans:
The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone….” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”
Religious sentiment surrounding Columbus’s voyage and the founding of the United States in general is still abundant in our cultural rhetoric today. Many Protestant Christian Denominations speak of the events surrounding the founding of the United States with great religious sentiment, as if the United States of America were founded by the Lord Himself.
One such example of such unabashed religious American Exceptionalism can be found in the doctrines and rhetoric of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (you know, the Mormons). Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, believed strongly that the United States of America was founded specifically for the purpose of providing a platform for God to “restore the Gospel of Jesus Christ” to the Earth.
In the Mormon scriptural volume entitled the “Doctrine and Covenants,” Smith writes of the founding of the United States. Chapter 101 is full of sentiments such as the following:
And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.
Yes, Joseph Smith believed that the Native Americans were slaughtered to “redeem the United States.” This sentiment sounds harsh, even for those most unabashed Christian patriot, until you realize that Smith embraced the (completely inaccurate) idea that the Native Americans were a remnant of a group of Hebrews who had traveled to the Americas around 600 BC, and later fallen away from God.
The founding scripture of Mormonism, the Book of Mormon, actually purports to prophesy of the impending slaughter of the Native Americans by a Gentile (white) man who was “wrought upon by the spirit of the Lord.” In the following passage, the character “Nephi” whose brothers Laman and Lemuel fall away from God and become, the “Lamanites” (whom Smith thought were the ancestors of the Native Americans) speaks of a vision he has for the future of the “Lamanites:”
10. And it came to pass that I looked and beheld many waters; and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren.
11. And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren.
12. And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.
13. And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.
14. And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.
15. And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.
This passage has been almost universally understood by Mormon leaders to be a reference to the destruction of the “Lamanites” (Native Americans) by the “Gentiles” (Europeans), and the “man among the Gentiles” referenced in the passage has been understood to be Christopher Columbus.
In an article published in the October 1992 issue of the Mormon magazine “Ensign,” author De Lamar Jensen confirms his reverence for Columbus, and offers an apologetic on his behalf. He says:
What, then, do we know of the real Columbus? What were his motives in pursuing his world-changing enterprise? Perhaps the greatest motivating feature of his life was his faith. His writings and the records kept by his contemporaries indicate that Columbus had unshakable faith that he was an instrument in God’s hands.
Many speeches have been given praising Columbus by both Mormon leaders, and other religious and political leaders. It is trivially easy to find these quotes on the internet, so I will not post them here.
The point is that our reverence for Christopher Columbus, who is directly responsible for one of the largest genocides in human history is a giant failure of modern day American Exceptionalist attitudes. The idea that what the early settlers did to Native Americans is not only a failure of empathy and ethics….but often simply a failure of facts. In Joseph Smith and Mormonism’s case, it stems from a giant misrepresentation of history, from equating the Native Americans with an evil group of people that never even existed. In other cases, it’s just a giant example of unchecked patriotism and blind nationalism.
As modern Americans, we can never make up for the unbelievable evil inflicted on the Native Americans by our European progenitors. The least we can do is stop celebrating a mass murderer every October, and start celebrating his victims.
- The Four Voyages: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters and Dispatches with Connecting Narratives by Christopher Columbus (translated by J.M. Cohen)
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (ReVisioning American History) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Image Credits: Everett Historical (Shutterstock.com)