History

What Columbus Really Thought about Native Americans

Jemar Tisby

In 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially designated “Columbus Day” as a federal holiday. It commemorates the 1492 arrival of Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, in the Americas. The colonial and imperialist elements of Columbus’ voyage, however, have made the holiday perennially controversial.

Columbus and the Europeans who followed him brought diseases that ravaged the existing population, they violently confiscated vast swaths of land, and exploited Native American and African labor to enrich themselves and their European nations. Along with exploitative commerce, plagues of illness, and bloody wars, Columbus and his fellow Europeans also imported their ideas of racial superiority into relationships with Native Americans.

Columbus’ Journal Entries

Columbus kept a journal of his travels and his impressions of the “New World.” An entry from October, 1492, just after his arrival in the Americas, reveals his racist and paternalistic views of Native Americans.

It appeared to me to be a race of people very poor in everything. They go as naked as when their mothers bore them, and so do the women, although I did not see more than one young girl. All I saw were youths, none more than thirty years of age. They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances. Their hair is short and coarse, almost like the hairs of a horse’s tail. They wear the hairs brought down to the eyebrows, except a few locks behind, which they wear long and never cut. They paint themselves black, and they are the color of the Canarians, neither black nor white.

While describing the physical appearance of a group does not necessarily indicate racism, Columbus’ description reveals a superficial understanding of a sophisticated people. He thought that their lack of clothing meant they were poor. Earlier in the entry he remarked at how easily he traded trinkets such as glass beads “and many other things of little value, which gave them great pleasure, and made them so much our friends that it was a marvel to see.” Columbus thought that the Native Americans he encountered were unintelligent and easily amused. These notions led to a sense of paternalism and the idea that the original inhabitants of the land somehow needed Europeans to improve their lives.

Columbus continued…

“They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion”

From the earliest days of European contact in the Americas, race and religion were intertwined. Columbus believed that Native Americans would make good servants because they seemed to grasp new information quickly. Apparently, it did not occur to him that Native Americans could do far more than serve Europeans nor that they might not have any interest in doing so. Furthermore, Columbus insulted Native Americans by presuming that because they did not practice Christianity, they had no religion whatsoever. He ignored the sophisticated cosmology of the people he encountered and assumed they were ignorant of religion altogether.

Finally Columbus wrote…

These people are very simple as regards the u.se of arms, as your Highnesses will .sec [sic] from the seven that I caused to be taken, to bring home and learn our language and return; unless your Highnesses should order them all to be brought to Castile, or to be kept as captives on the same island; for with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them…

As Columbus encountered the original inhabitants of the Americas, he evaluated them primarily based on their usefulness to Europeans. Since they utilized simple weapons, Columbus presumed that they could be easily subdued through violence. He intended to bring seven Native Americans back with him to Italy in order to learn the language of Europeans. Unless, of course, the king would simply rather hold them as captives and so they could be “subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” In other words, Columbus left the door open for his Italian patron to decree that Native Americans be made slaves and forced to work for their European enslavers.

Honoring America’s First Inhabitants

Columbus’ journal entries regarding Native Americans reveal the racism and paternalism that accompanied European contact with the Americas. Many Europeans looked at darker-skinned people as inferior in all kinds of ways—militarily, culturally, and religiously. They arrived in the Americas with the objective of extracting resources to enrich their home countries. They looked at the original inhabitants of the land through this prism as well. Columbus evaluated the people for their potential as laborers and considered them empty vessels to receive the language, culture, and Christianity of nations in Europe.

Thus, Columbus Day remains a source of controversy. Should present-day Americans honor a man who harbored such harmful ideas about other human beings? How much should citizens praise a man whose arrival meant the theft of land from Native American tribes, land that still has not been restored to the original owners? How much do Americans living now owe Native Americans for the atrocities that followed along with Columbus’ arrival in 1492?

As some states have already done, Columbus Day should be recast as an opportunity to recognize the indigenous inhabitants of the land the became known as America. The culture, language, traditions, and resilience of Native Americans should gain a place of prominence in the nation’s annual commemorations. No one can do anything about the harmful ideas Columbus expressed about Native Americans in 1492, but it is entirely possible to celebrate and honor the nation’s original inhabitants today.

19 thoughts on “What Columbus Really Thought about Native Americans

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  2. Anonymous

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  3. L A M

    I am a Creek Indian. The reality is that there has been conquering all over the globe. The US is no different. Indian tribes fought amongst each other long before the white man came. So no, we are not owed anything. Yes, it is fine to celebrate Columbus Day. To the victor goes the spoils.

  4. your mom bro

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  5. Brittany

    I believe we should keep Columbus Day as a holiday regardless of the opposition. He is an important figure in history for us European Americans decendents of Settlers and European Colonists. It’s not racist to celebrate Columbus Day, it just some people want to continue defending Native Americans and want to be SJWs.

  6. Leslie Davidson

    The Europeans WERE MORE ADVANCED than indigenous people of North America. Period. In near every way. Science, Engineering, ship-building, metallurgy, weaponry, knowledge of physics, astronomy, in architecture, culinary arts, etc etc etc. It is the reason they were able to DOMINATE and conquer the indigenous people. Put simply- they kicked butt. They were the victors.

    Europeans were also more advanced in technology, knowledge, and civilization than any of the people of South America and any of the people of sub-Saharan Africa.

    Europeans thought themselves “superior” to those other peoples as a result of European knowledge, technology, etc being so vastly superior.

    Loosely speaking, Asians, Arabs, and Europeans led the world in advancement. The people of the Americas and the people of sub-Saharan Africa trailed far, far behind and advanced comparatively little. Most were still living a Stone Age, primitive existence up until contact with Asians / Arabs / Europeans.

    By far, most black people in the world never knew civilization until colonialism. Still today, there are blacks who have never known civilization.

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  8. Carol Delaney

    I did years of research for my book, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem. He was a good man, friends with the natives, The son of one chief became his adopted godson and travelled with him. People know very little about Columbus and are blaming him for things he did not think or do. He thought he was traveling to China where he intended to set up a trading post as had Marco Polo. the funds from this were to finance a crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims. This is in his writings and his agreement with Queen Isabella.

  9. Carol Delaney

    I have done years of research about Columbus and people should read my book, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem. He thought he was on the periphery of China and set up a trading post as he heard Marco Polo had done. the profits were to be used to finance a crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims before the end of the world. This is in his writings [and see my book too] . He thought there were not manyyears left. He was friends with the natives, one became his adopted son… etc. He is receiving alot of bad and erroneous press.
    carol delaney

  10. Iggy

    They called Native Americans savages because they bathed. They thought that bathing was a sin and that their beliefs should be forced on others, all while their stinky diseased selves brought death and almost wiped out american natives all by itself. The native american girls who wanted to be warriors and hunters and boys who taught the other women beadwork that was covered worldwide were honored by their tribes but shamed by the white eyes who supposedly are woke but frighteningly too far extreme even by old native american standards. The parents didn’t encourage children to be different they just didn’t discourage anything if they were. I would have wanted to be a hunter warrior but I would have wanted a male hunter warrior for my partner and that would be okay. I wouldn’t want a feminine girly girl partner man or woman and that isn’t prejudiced, that’s just me.

  11. harriet munsey

    when there is talk about ‘social justice’ in my community, blacks for the most part are not hearing it. they refuse to hear the ‘truth’ about the WORD OF THE TRIUNE GOD. now that’s a fact. when i talk to females why they have lots of babies out of wedlock, they get ‘mega’ attitudes. and it is highly encouraged in the black community to ‘just have babies’. they all got different fathers, the parent (single) go to churches that preach and teach the LIES of self esteem, male bashing, feminism, etc. now you tell me where is the TRUTH,i.e. CHRIST taught? the bible has sooooooooooooooo much to say on FALSE TEACHERS AND PREACHERS.

    yes there is prejudice and racism in this country. yhat’s what it was built on (along with grand larceny, murder, lies, etc.) and yes we are allowed to use the ‘law avenues’ that we can use to right a wrong. be we (the black community) need to clean up our mess. and i mean getting to know the TRUE GOD&SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST. not jakes, olsteen, meyers, stanley, price, white, hinn, and the locals in the community that refuse to preach the TRUE GOD&SAVIOR OF THE BIBLE. and this goes for white folks too.
    in closing, i’ll say this…… people think that JESUS CHRIST is a joke. lies are taught about HIM horribly. and there are (many) that believe those lies. you better get into the WORD. if a person (truly) wants to (know) the TRIUNE GOD, they will reach out to HIM and ask HIM for HIS guidance and wisdom. JESUS will not be ‘played’. if you die without HIM,you will end up in Hell. there will be no turning back.

  12. JC

    “How much do Americans living now owe Native Americans for the atrocities that followed along with Columbus’ arrival in 1492?”

    I don’t know…. How about we allow them to build and own casinos and make a lot of money from people gambling? In some states (mine included), the local tribes have (often exclusive) rights to own casinos and they do quite well for themselves (at the expense of the local population who loses their proverbial shirts at the casino). “We” took “their” land and now “they” can get wealthy off of “us” (often working lower class) by taking their money via casino gambling.

    Via Wikipedia – “As of 2011, there were 460 gambling operations run by 240 tribes,[1] with a total annual revenue of $27 billion”

  13. Paul M Kelly

    Thief as you call it of there lands, who did they take it from before?

  14. Thomas W.

    Or he’s speaking specifically to the misuse of social justice in regards to non-Christian forms of socialism, not biblical justice which has social applications. Not recognizing how some, esp non Christians are using the term much less their objectives keeps people talking past each other or worse becoming judgmental of others who wish to define the distinctions.

  15. Daniel Hoffman

    https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/Medieval%20Ind.%20Project%20SOURCE%20FINAL.pdf

    He wanted to finance another Crusade to take back Jerusalem.

  16. Jonathan Entner

    Historical note for the historian: while Columbus was Genoese, he was working for Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of Spain. A question I have is where his mindset came from, what lay behind these ideas that seem very prevalent in the Europe of his time?

  17. Ben P

    Amen! I love your positivity. When it comes to MacArthur I think it’s a shame that he separates certain issues as being social and not also Biblical. I think to see issues of Social Justice as Biblical Issues allows for and propagates a stronger Christology. I wonder if MacArthur falls short in his preaching of Christ without incorporating these real, important, biblical issues. I do know for sure that he isn’t preaching Christ to the fullest without this application.

    But at the end of the day, we rest on the knowledge that we have God and God has us.

  18. Thomas W.

    https://babylonbee.com/news/revolutionary-thinker-suggests-columbus-bad

    Old news.

    How’s Nigeria these days and what can we be doing for something that’s far more worth our time?

  19. harriet munsey

    i can believe that a lot of this is true of ‘Columbus’. he also spread (syphilis). and yes i truly believe that the truth’s about columbus should be taught in schools. but it will never be. this ‘holiday’ is a joke. but it does get some people a day off. so what do the ‘true’ christians do about this? we tell the ‘truth’ about columbus and move on. i go to a reformed church. me and 1 other person are the only blacks in that church. i’m female and the other person is a young man. i’m old. and i ‘do’ like john macarthur. i like him a lot. and i know how he feels about the (history) of this country. he is a ‘staunch’ conservative. i know that too. and i don’t agree with him on (social issues). but there is the (main) thing i agree with him. and it is he loves CHRIST, and he preaches CHRIST. i am a proud member of GTY ministries. i can do support the GTY ministry. why do i? because i was ‘truly’ blessed by the GOD&SAVIOR of the Bible through his ministry. his preaching and teaching of the CHRIST OF BIBLE is true. i read and study my bible. and yes i do have the macarthur study bible. but most of all, i (know) that i can AND DO got to my ABBA FATHER, for guidance about everything. and i know macarthur is a human being.

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