IMAGE: Protest against Columbus Day, 1992
Yesterday was Columbus Day. I saw the parade pass by the Museum of Modern Art in downtown Manhattan. People were happy. I am, of course, aware of the controversy that surrounds Columbus Day, and the widespread protests that have taken place since 1992, the 500 anniversary of Columbus’ historic voyage. Many Native American and activist groups have campaigned against the existence of the holiday; I personally didn’t feel too strongly one way or the other.
Now I hesitate to even touch on this subject, since most of the discourse associated with it is so miserable on either side that it tends to swiftly devolve into empty, back-and-forth accusations of racism on the one hand and politically-correct historical revisionism on the other. For those who are critical of the holiday and would like to see it removed, Columbus Day is nothing more than an open celebration of the imperial conquest over native peoples, of the genocidal consequences that followed Columbus’ arrival in the West Indies. Some who have advocated for its removal have even proposed that it be replaced by the observation of an “Indian Resistance Day.” Oppositely, those who remain supportive of the traditional celebration of Columbus Day charge that this is just another hit that’s been taken out on a heroic figure of world history, simply for having been a “dead, white, European male.” They allege that the attacks on Columbus’ personal character are vicious and often exaggerated, and that many of the attempts to diminish the significance of his 1492 voyage (by pointing out supposed contacts with the New World apparently established by earlier explorers) are based on dubious evidence. All in all, the controversy surrounding Columbus Day is incredibly overblown. Still, since it’s become such a popular target of pseudo-leftist critique, it might warrant a brief reinspection.
Not that the stakes of the debate are really all that high, beyond matters of just pure symbolism; rather, what is more significant is the fact that there even is such controversy at all. For those who consider themselves to be part of the Left, the adoption of this critical standpoint with regard to Columbus Day has the appearance of being exceedingly radical, as a challenge to the conventional wisdom of European triumphalist historiography. As one ostensibly Marxist article polemically asserts, “[t]o celebrate Columbus is to celebrate a legacy of genocide, slavery, rape and plunder.” However, the elevation of this supposedly radical critique to the point where it’s become little more than a convenient provocation directed against the Western imperialist metanarrative, is symptomatic of a broader tendency within the contemporary Left.
According to this tendency, the Left largely sees its role as speaking out on behalf of the historically marginalized, in order to save them from being stamped out from a history written by the victors. To some extent, this is based on a vulgar interpretation of Walter Benjamin’s seventh thesis on the concept of history, that “[w]hoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot.” Against this, many feel it is their obligation to “read history against the grain,” as Benjamin prescribes. However, in practice this has often come to mean simply making a number of superficial and even suspect counter-claims, i.e. that several non-European explorers had established contact with the New World before Columbus, that the natives’ religion and social way of life were somehow more peaceful and “in harmony” with nature than that of their European counterparts, etc. The romanticism underlying some of these notions should be obvious.
A great deal of ink has been spilled in recent years concerning the status of Columbus’ so-called “discovery of America.” Beyond the mere question of whether other non-indigenous expeditions “discovered” the continent earlier, many historians and Native American activists take issue with the language of “discovery” itself. The natives living on the islands Columbus visited, as critics have pointed out ad nauseum, were quite unaware of the fact that they were being “discovered.” Commenting on this terminological mess, the linguist, political commentator, and self-proclaimed anarchist Noam Chomsky has unequivocally stated that “[o]ne can discover an uninhabited area, but not one in which people live.” In order to correct this mistake, many historians have chosen instead to refer to the event of Columbus’ arrival in the West Indies as the first major “encounter” between Europeans and Native Americans.
Though at one level this may appear to be (and is) a mere question of semantics, the distinction is not a purely pedantic one. There has undeniably been a chauvinist undercurrent in many of the histories that have been written by Westerners, in which European civilisation is identified as “universal humanity,” whereas non-Westerners are depicted as “barbarians” or “savages.” Since Europe appears as the universal Subject in these narratives, there is a tendency to view it as the only real actor in history. The non-European cultures it comes into contact with are seen as nothing more than a backdrop against which its actions are played out, lacking any prior history of note (hence the tendency to view non-Western cultures as “ahistorical”). They are robbed of any agency of their own, and are written of as if they were just passively waiting to be discovered.
Despite the partial legitimacy of the objection commonly raised against giving Columbus credit for the “discovery” of America, this should not in any way be thought to detract from the world-historical importance of his voyage. And as far as the European world was concerned, Columbus’ encounter with the indigenous populations of the West Indies did constitute a discovery. Moreover, both the European and Native American societies involved (to the extent that either one can be spoken of as a unitary entity) experienced irreversible transformations as a result of this event. For the many native societies scattered across the Americas, each having its own distinct customs and system of government, the next few centuries would be marked by increased trade relations, shifting alliances with the European powers, catastrophic diseases, frequent wars and dislocation, and almost ubiquitous decline. Whatever atrocities may have been attributed to the natives by the European colonizers (and later American frontiersmen), there can be no doubt that the latter two pursued a cynical, opportunistic, and often genocidal policy of conquest against the former. For the nations of Europe, society was undergoing an almost equally dramatic transformation, if perhaps less apocalyptic. The necessary conditions for the development of capitalism had been laid by primitive accumulation in England. The rise of this new social formation, revolutionizing European society at practically every level, coincided with (and was in part facilitated by) its colonization of the Americas.
On this score, Friedrich Engels went so far as to claim that it was this convergence between the social forces unleashed in Europe by the capitalist mode of production and the new territories into which Western society was able to expand that created, for the first time, the possibility of truly global emancipation. In a lecture delivered November 30th, 1847, Engels spoke in glowing terms of the world-historical significance of Columbus’ “Discovery of America” (his words):
Citizens! When Christopher Columbus discovered America 350 years ago, he certainly did not think that not only would the then existing society in Europe together with its institutions be done away with through his discovery, but that the foundation would be laid for the complete liberation of all nations; and yet, it becomes more and more clear that this is indeed the case. Through the discovery of America a new route by sea to the East Indies was found, whereby the European business traffic of the time was completely transformed; the consequence was that Italian and German commerce were totally ruined and other countries came to the fore; commerce came into the hands of the western countries, and England thus came to the fore of the movement. Before the discovery of America the countries even in Europe were still very much separated from one another and trade was on the whole slight. Only after the new route to the East Indies had been found and an extensive field had been opened in America for exploitation by the Europeans engaged in commerce, did. England begin more and more to concentrate trade and to take possession of it, whereby the other European countries were more and more compelled to join together. From all this, big commerce originated, and the so-called world market was opened. The enormous treasures which the Europeans brought from America, and the gains which trade in general yielded, had as a consequence the ruin of the old aristocracy, and so the bourgeoisie came into being. The discovery of America was connected with the advent of machinery, and with that the struggle became necessary which we are conducting today, the struggle of the propertyless against the property owners.
Of course, the words of Engels, Marx, and other figures within the Marxist tradition should not be taken as Gospel truth. None of these thinkers were infallible; all of them were prone to errors and misrecognitions at times. So even for orthodox Marxists, Engels’ authority is by no means unquestionable when it comes to the appraisal of Columbus or of the emancipatory possibilities opened up by Europe’s colonization of North and South America. Certainly, not everything was known at that time about Columbus’ allegedly unethical behavior toward the natives, or of the massive decimation of indigenous tribal societies (which was then still ongoing).
Nevertheless, it is surprising to read Engels’ generally favorable description of the event followed by the Marxist theoretician Franz J.T. Lee’s raving diatribe against both Columbus’ personal character and the continuing celebration of Columbus Day throughout North and South America. A South African expatriate and outspoken supporter of Hugo Chàvez’s Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, Lee studied under the legendary Western Marxist intellectuals Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, and Jürgen Habermas in Frankfurt between 1962 and 1970. (Although he proudly reports his tutelage under these figures at times, at other times he distances himself from their influence in favor of a more orthodox Marxism, claiming that “the critical theory showed its limitations in only being able to point to the negative aspects of current society, without being capable of defining the new society in a ‘positive,’ that is, affirmative way”). In his article Lee presents a quite different picture of Columbus’ role in history from that offered by Engels:
[W]hat are slave labor [slave labor among the indigenous peoples in the Americas actually predated the Europeans’ arrival on the scene by millennia], wage slavery [“wage slavery” had not yet even become a dominant social relationship in Columbus’ day], and exploited labor forces all about? Are they really things to celebrate?
Precisely these are the things that Columbus brought to America.
For those who have studied capitalism and imperialism in the Americas, it is no secret at all that the source of metropolitan wealth, of power and of so-called progress is simply exploited physical and/or intellectual human labor-force. It is also amply known that it is labor-force, and not labor in itself, which is the generator of capital, wealth, power and giga-Profits…but at the same time, also of the production of arms of mass destruction, of most horrible and abominable misery and poverty.
At times, of course, the condemnation of Columbus has been known to degenerate into petty iconoclasm — taking on an almost tabloid character, where brave reporters uncover “shocking truths” about his thoughts and attitudes gleaned from his personal diary or other reports (actually, all deriving from a single source, written much later, by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas). Indeed, Columbus’ critics have accused him of the crimes of “grand theft, genocide, and racism,” and hold him responsible for “initiating the destruction of a culture” as well as “rape, torture, and maiming of indigenous people and instigator of the Big Lie,” as shown in the poster above. First of all, their accusation that Columbus inaugurated “the destruction of a culture” treats the Native Americans as all belonging to a single culture, rather than what they were — a number of quite distinct cultures, many of which were hostile toward one another. Second, some of these charges are absolutely groundless. There has never been any evidence to suggest that Columbus or his men were personally responsible for any incidents of rape, torture, or genocide. Even if some of Columbus’ men did kill some islanders, this is hardly equivalent to “genocide,” unless the term is to lose all meaning. Far more disastrous, as has been widely reported, was the effect of smallpox on the native populations. Smallpox, which had already ravaged Europe, was even more deadly when it was spread amongst highly concentrated communities of indigenous peoples in America, where there was no immunity to the disease. However, Columbus and his men can hardly be blamed for intentionally infecting the native inhabitants they came across; after all, the Europeans of Columbus’ day were just as ignorant as to the true causes of disease as were the natives.
Some would claim that the person of Columbus symbolically represents the genocidal acts that were later perpetrated against Native American societies, but there was obviously no way for Columbus to know what horrors would result from the European powers’ later colonial project. Likewise, one could only make Lee’s argument regarding Columbus’ supposed introduction of “wage-slavery” to the Americas at a similarly symbolic level. At the time of Columbus’ death in 1505, the form of wage-labor described by Marx had not yet come into existence as a general societal practice. To literally suggest that Columbus imported wage-labor to America would be absurd.
To be sure, not all of charges leveled against Columbus are completely unfounded. Though he often spoke highly of the natives’ intelligence, ingenuity, and physical beauty, Columbus was certainly not immune to the racist attitudes he shared with many of his European contemporaries. This does not excuse this attitude, but it does help explain it. During his second voyage to the Americas, Columbus pressed a number of natives into forced labor in gold mines on the islands, eventually leading to their great resentment of the Spanish explorers. Also, it is perfectly true that Columbus enslaved a few hundred Taino natives and brought them back with him to Spain. Slave trading of non-Christian populations was a longstanding institution in Spain during this time. After Queen Isabella officially forbade the enslavement of native populations in the New World, though, Columbus returned on a subsequent journey to the West Indies with a host of slaves acquired from Africa instead. As Marx remarked in Capital, “[t]he discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”
Incidentally, however, Columbus cannot be said to have originated the practice of slavery in the territories of North and South America. Long before Columbus landed on American soil, many indigenous tribes across both continents had institutionalized slave labor. Granted, their practices were not quite as brutal as the chattel slavery inflicted upon the Africans brought by the Europeans to the New World. Nevertheless, slavery was not a European novelty. In fact, one of the motives that has been cited for Bartolomé de las Casas’ horrific (and almost assuredly hyperbolic) account of the cruelties committed by the Spanish toward the West Indians has been that de las Casas favored the utilization of African slave labor over native slave labor. His 1542 text On the Destruction of the Indies was instrumental in having the enslavement of native populations formally outlawed, resulting, of course, in the increased trafficking of African slave populations to the Americas.
Though Columbus had brought some African slaves with him on his third voyage, he had no way of knowing that the information he relayed about the new continents would revive the practice of slavery on such a drastic scale. As Engels remarked in his 1883 work The Dialectics of Nature, “[w]hen the Arabs learned to distill alcohol, it never entered their heads that by so doing they were creating one of the chief weapons for the annihilation of the original inhabitants of the still undiscovered American continent. And when afterwards Columbus discovered America, he did not know that by doing so he was giving new life to slavery, which in Europe had long ago been done away with, and laying the basis for the Negro slave traffic.”
Some of the other attempts to diminish the importance of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas are far more suspect. As the poster illustrated above suggests, Columbus was the “instigator” of the “Big Lie.” Just what is this “Big Lie,” exactly? In his sensationalist article “Columbus’ Discovery of America…the Greatest Millennia Hoax of All Time?”, Franz J.T. Lee explains it as follows:
As taught worldwide to the innocent school children, for us, the “discoveries” of Columbus (that the earth was round and that a “New World” existed outside Europe) are still rated by us as the greatest hoaxes of all times. The ancient Greek scientists and the Middle Age Norsemen, who traded with Iceland, Nova Scotia and Greenland, respectively, knew very much about “America” already. This Big Lie about Columbus, as a political and psychological strategy, over the centuries, became a racist ideological dogma, a formal logical “absolute truth,” to celebrate global European “race” superiority. This is the alienating essence of all the busts and statues of Columbus across the globe and of the “Day of the Race”!
Even if this were so, it can hardly be claimed that Columbus himself “instigated” this lie. It is impossible to deny that certain events and the accomplishments of major figures through history have been magnified to serve the interest of national and occasionally even racial pride. The centuries-long debate over whether Columbus was of Spanish or Italian origin bears witness to this fact. However, Lee takes this so far that in another piece, “Columbus Arrived Late: Pre-Columbian African Presence in the Americas,” he attempts to undermine this European “hoax” by making an equally nationalistic bid in favor of his own continent of origin, Africa. He makes a series of emphatic claims:
While the Europeans practically were still living on trees, centuries before Columbus ever was born, or had stepped into any ship…on expeditions, on board of huge fleets…African sailors, scientists, and philosophers have gone to America, have inter-changed and ex-changed experiences, ideas and cultures, have traded and lived among the indigenous peoples there; as such they have influenced the American indigenous modus vivendi in one way or the other, or vice versa. And yet, across modern history there is no people on earth who was (and still is) more exploited, dominated, discriminated humiliated and massacred like the African people.
It has been reliably demonstrated that Scandinavian vessels under the command of Leif Ericson arrived in North America through Greenland several centuries before Columbus. The reality of this voyage, while its historic importance is negligible when compared with Columbus’, has been well-established by both documentary and archaeological evidence. There have been other attempts in the past to claim that non-European travelers visited the Americas prior to Columbus. Not all of them seem to have been guided by the ulterior motive of dispelling a “myth” of European historiography, either. Gavin Menzies’ 2002 book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, asserts that Chinese explorers arrived more than 70 years before Columbus. The claim is not all that outrageous — Chinese society at that time possessed sufficient nautical technologies that they could have potentially built a fleet that reached America. The main evidence on which Menzies based his assertion, however, has come under severe scrutiny. A map, purported to be of an early fifteenth-century origin, was revealed to be a forgery after a number of national Chinese scholars and Western sinologists noticed that it contained several anachronistic references. Even before this time, most scholars East and West had already dismissed its veracity.
Lee’s claim, that African Muslim explorers reached the New World centuries before Columbus (and perhaps before Ericson) is not even based on half as reliable evidence as Menzies’ claim about the Chinese, which was itself proven to be false. The legend of early Arab and African sailors arriving in the Americas and setting up commercial and religious ties there is a rumor that has been widely circulated on the internet, and it is easy to visit a number of sites making statements that are similar to Lee’s. This rumor is based on several vague references, which make no specific geographical references and include no real descriptions of the natives the Arabs and Africans supposedly encountered. No archaeological evidence has been found that would support that this took place, a fact that would be shocking considering that they were said to have traded extensively with the natives. Nor have any maps surfaced in Northern or Western Africa that would substantiate these claims. It is unlikely, moreover, that the Arabs and Africans (or any society at this point in history) could build ships strong enough to survive the long journey across the Atlantic. Some might try to claim that the evidence that would support such a claim has been systematically kept out by entrenched Eurocentric scholarship, but with the prevalence of post-colonial studies within the academy it is unlikely that convincing evidence would be altogether ignored. In short, there is no convincing historical basis for Lee’s argument.
This should not be seen as a slight to the achievements of Arab and African civilization, however. Only a fool would deny their contributions to the field of mathematics, their preservation and continuation of the Greek philosophical traditions of Plato and Aristotle (which might otherwise have been lost), and generally tolerant imperial rule. It cannot be disputed that for several centuries the Arabs enjoyed intellectual, commercial, and military superiority to the kingdoms of Europe, but there is still no ground for the assertion that they arrived in the Americas before Columbus.
Lee’s glamorization of the cultures of non-European peoples against the racist, exploitative, and generally pernicious character of European civilization is not limited to the Arabs and Africans. Quite the contrary, it is extended to the indigenous peoples of America as well. This has of course been done before, usually carrying romantic conceptions of the “noble savage along with it.” Even in the more “realistic” historical accounts provided by pro-Native American activists, this tendency often reappears. Native culture is exalted as less alienated from nature than European culture, and they are generally seen more peaceful, egalitarian, and just, as well as less manipulative. Even Lee, the orthodox Marxist, is not free from such romantic and nativist sentimentalities:
Excluding all our authentic, sacred, indigenous beliefs and values, all of them are fantastic inventions of ruling class, megalomaniac, kleptocratic man, that were forcefully implanted into the very soil and soul of the Americas, to serve European colonial and imperialist interests.
The phantoms of religion that Marx so chastised in Christianity and other, more “primitive” religions, evidently do not appear to the enchanted world of the native, surrounded as it is by the “authentic” values of indigenous culture. Not only is this a racist conception — it’s genuinely anti-modern. As Marx stated in “The British Rule in India,”
Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of…despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.
For many who adhere to this regressive glamorization of non-Western societies, the heinous acts the natives were reported to have carried out, described by colonists and frontiersmen, are chalked up to racist projections owing to a pre-conceived notion of native “savagery.” And while it is likely that many of the crimes the Native Americans were said to have committed were exaggerated or even sometimes invented, it would be naïve to think that all the descriptions left in Western accounts are sheer fiction. Human sacrifice was an institutionalized practice for a number of native tribes and civilizations, especially in Central and South America, perhaps most famously in the case of the Aztecs, known for their brutality. Documentary evidence, recorded by both European and non-Europeans alike, attest to this. A great deal of archaeological data also confirms this. European and American violence against the Indians was a great deal more organized, ruthless, and generally dehumanizing, but the violence the native tribes directed against the settlers and against each other is scarcely less real. Also, though the popular imagination has long believed that the Native Americans lived in greater harmony with nature and closeness to the earth, many tribes were guilty of environmental destruction and even local ecological catastrophes, leading to the collapse of their civilizations. The European exploitation of nature was significantly more systematic and rationalized, but this was more a result of the development of capitalism than it was any pre-existing European cultural values.
Returning to the figure of Columbus, it might be wondered why it this is an issue worth examining at such length. It would be insane to try and argue that Native American groups don’t have legitimate grievances against the European powers, or their successors in autonomous nations that have since declared their independence from their mother countries by cutting colonial ties. Insofar as Columbus can be seen as symbolically representing the innumerable crimes the natives later suffered at the hands of the Europeans, it is insensitive to cling unconditionally to the celebration of his arrival in the Americas. After all, he clearly possessed racist attitudes, enslaved members of the native population he encountered, and was in general a failure as an administrator, no matter how famed he was for his navigation skills. The informal celebration of Columbus’ person was begun, moreover, as part of a cynical ploy by the Republican party to gain the Italian vote in New York in the 1860s. Since then, the public veneration of Columbus by the Italian immigrant population has of course elevated the explorer to almost the level of a Saint, and the parade that runs through New York has Frank Sinatra impersonators crooning behind rows of Italian flags. Although the holiday is popular in both North and South America, it is in the end a rather frivolous affair, and I would not be too sad to see it go.
Yet regardless of whether Columbus Day continues to be celebrated or not, one must still acknowledge the world-historical significance of the event. While it might have spelled doom for the many native societies that inhabited the Americas prior to the European invasion, colonization nevertheless created the groundwork through which social and political emancipation became possible. It involved, along the way, many inexcusable acts of brutality perpetrated by Europeans against Native Americans that were not necessary to the development of capitalism in the New World. But through the rapid economic and technological development that took place under globalizing capitalism, the conditions necessary for the global realization of freedom and equality have been brought into existence. And while the promise of a more perfect future by no means justifies the needless cruelties of a barbaric European past, the focus on a character like Columbus are misplaced. That this would even be a major concern for the Left does not speak well for its priorities.
In any case, to end on a personal note: some Jews refuse to listen to Wagner and Sibelius because of their association with Nazism; I, however, choose to still listen to them. I would think it ridiculous for someone to demand that I should stop.