Was Columbus An Imperialist? Essay, Research Paper
Was Columbus an Imperialist?
On October 12, 1492, Admiral Colon landed on a tropical Caribbean island. Finding this island was purely accidental. Colon had originally set out to find a shorter route to China and instead discovered the New World. If the purpose of Colon’s voyage was not seeking out to dominate another country (definition of imperialism) but to find a shorter route to China, then how could he be considered an imperialist? While he didn’t set out as an imperialist, some of his actions could be considered imperialistic.
One of the main reasons that Kirkpatrick Sale believes that Colon was an imperialist is because “Colon went on to assign no fewer than sixty-two other names on the geography of the islands…. with a blithe assurance suggesting that in his (and Europe’s) perception the act of name-giving was in some sense a talisman of a conquest, a rite that changed raw neutral stretches of far-off earth into extensions of Europe.”. In my opinion, what Colon did was just part of human nature. If I was an explorer in his times and I thought I had discovered a new world, I would have been naming everything in sight upon first stepping on land. Robert Royal doesn’t speak of Colon’s naming spree in his rebuttal, but he does open with a quote from Columbus. “Let us hear what their comments are now-those who are so ready with accusations and quick to find fault, saying from their safe berths there in Spain, “Why didn’t you do this or that when you were over there.” I’d like to see their sort on this adventure…”. I think that Colon did the best he could with the knowledge and leadership skills he had. I would be curious to see what Sale would have done had he been in Colon’s position.
Another major reason Sale gives for calling Columbus an imperialist is that Columbus said “And your Highnesses will command a city and fortress to be built in these parts, and these lands converted”. Sale didn’t see a reason for Columbus to want to build a fortress. Columbus hadn’t become friendly with all the Indian tribes, he may have thought that somewhere in the New World there was a threat to his small settlement. Building a city and a fortress doesn’t make him an imperialist.
Columbus did use poor judgement in some respects, but that alone doesn’t make him an imperialist. “If we wish to task Columbus for all the asymmetries that ensued, we should credit him as well for this initial attempt, later repeated by many Spanish governors and theologians, to find some just route through the thicket of massive cultural difference.” To me this quote means that while Columbus mishandled some matters in his dealings with the Indians, he also attempted to bridge the “cultural differences” between the Spanish and the natives. In his journal, Columbus said, “Your Highnesses may believe that in all the world there can be no better people or gentler people… for neither better people nor land can there be… All the people show the most singular loving behavior and they speak pleasantly.”. In fact, Columbus became very close to King Guacanagari; they enjoyed each other’s company and even exchanged gifts. Guacanagari was so fond of Columbus that he asked that he and his brother be allowed to accompany Columbus back to Castile. When it came time to leave, Columbus gave his men this order: “…avoid as you would death annoying or tormenting the Indians, bearing in mind how much you owe these people”. I think this shows that Columbus had nothing but respect and gratitude for the Indians. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto said, “Columbus and his successors were guilty only of applying the best standards of their time”. Robert Royal makes a good point when he says “if we think we should condemn Aztec human sacrifice as wrong-not simply a different cultural form, but wrong-then we must admit there are universal principles that also allow us to criticize improper European use of force, enslavement, and exploitation.” But society doesn’t condemn Aztec human sacrifice as wrong-we see it for what it is-a cultural difference, therefore, European use of force, enslavement and exploitation could also be seen as a cultural difference, not simply as imperialism.
Robert Royal discusses things Columbus did that people question as imperialistic:
“He immediately kidnapped some Tainos during his first voyage for questioning and use as interpreters. In that act he showed not only his contempt for Indian life but his belief that Spanish language, culture, and religion were superior and rightly to be imposed on native peoples.” “Though Columbus did kidnap some Indians, two interpreters among them, he set one of them free immediately upon returning to Hispaniola during the second voyage. He hoped that the Indian set at liberty would tell others of Spain’s wonders and of Columbus’s good intentions. This was na?ve, crude, and manipulative on his part, but shows some perspicacity and good will.” I think that in doing this, Columbus wanted to show the Indians how good life in Spain was and hoped that they would change their lifestyle. Wanting the Indians to live as he did does not make him an imperialist.
Royal also says, “ we should remember that Columbus was placed in unprecedented circumstances and should not be judged in the same way as we would a modern trained anthropologist.”. Columbus did not expect to find a New World on his journey. He had never been in this type of situation before, being the leader of a colony in an unfamiliar place was new to him. I think Columbus did the best job that he was capable of.
By definition Columbus was not an imperialist. He did not seek out to control a weaker country. He didn’t even know the country existed. He came upon it by chance. Some of his actions were less than admirable, but that only makes us question his skills as a leader. I believe that he could have been a better leader. He failed to live peacefully among the Indians as he may have intended to do upon arriving in this world. But he did succeed in discovering the world in which we now call home.