Religion & Liberty Online

Putting Columbus in context

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A few years ago the following quote from Christopher Columbus started making the rounds:

For one woman they give a hundred castellanos, as for a farm; and this sort of trading is very common, and there are already a great number of merchants who go in search of girls; there are at this moment some nine or ten on sale; they fetch a good price, let their age be what it will.

Sounds pretty damning. Christopher Columbus did, indeed, write that. However, having taken the time to read it in context today (you can find the letter of Columbus this quote is from here), in this case I think someone owes the man an apology.

The quote looks quite a bit different in context. This is from a letter Columbus wrote to Juana de la Torres. (Note: a good way to tell someone hasn’t actually looked it up is whether it is just cited as a letter he wrote to “a friend.”) Columbus wrote this as part of an extended complaint to de la Torres about the conduct of other settlers than himself.

It would be well to send people from Spain, and only to send such as are well known, that the country may be peopled with honest men. I had agreed with these settlers that they should pay the third of the gold and of the tithes; and this they not only assented to, but were very grateful to their Highnesses. I reproached them when I heard they had afterward refused it; they expected, however, to deal with me on the same terms as with the commander, but I would not consent to it. He meanwhile irritated them against me, saying that I wished to deprive them of that which their Highnesses had given them; and strove to make me appear their enemy, in which he succeeded to the full.

He continues a bit further to say, and here we come to the quote in question:

Now that so much gold is found, these people [the above-mentioned settlers] stop to consider whether they can obtain the greatest quantity of it by theft, or by going to the mines. For one woman they give a hundred castellanos, as for a farm; and this sort of trading is very common, and there are already a great number of merchants who go in search of girls; there are at this moment some nine or ten on sale; they fetch a good price, let their age be what it will.

Thus, in context this is not Columbus pointing out how lucrative the sex trade is, but him pointing out how greedy and reprehensible these settlers are for engaging in it. There is an elementary moral point here that, of course, not all markets are moral.

I’ve also read elsewhere that Columbus had native sex slaves of his own. Whether this is true or not, I do not know, but it does not seem to be the case. Again, in his own words:

In Cariay and the neighboring country there are great enchanters of a very fearful character. They would have given the world to prevent my remaining there an hour. When I arrived they sent me immediately two girls very showily dressed; the eldest could not be more than eleven years of age, and the other seven, and both exhibited so much immodesty that more could not be expected from public women; they carried concealed about them a magic powder; when they came I gave them some articles to dress themselves out with, and directly sent them back to the shore.

Perhaps he just turned these young girls away because of their connection to those he calls “great enchanters,” but still. He not only turned them away but saw to it that they were dressed more modestly before sending them “back to the shore.”

None of this is to say that, therefore, colonialism wasn’t so bad, or even that Columbus didn’t do anything that might detract from the merits of having a Columbus Day.

Indeed, in a letter to Luis de Santangel, he wrote,

In conclusion, and to speak only of what I have performed: this voyage so hastily dispatched will, as their Highnesses may see, enable any desirable quantity of gold to be obtained by a very small assistance afforded me on their part. At present there are within reach: spices and cotton to as great an amount as they can desire; aloe, in a great abundance; and equal store of mastic, a production nowhere else found except in Greece and the island of Scio, where it is sold at such a price as the possessors choose. To these may be added slaves, as numerous as may be wished for. Besides, I have, as I think, discovered rhubarb and cinnamon, and expect countless other things of value will be found by the men whom I left there…. (emphasis added)

Here Columbus lists “slaves, as numerous as may be wished for” in a long litany of commodities, such as “spices and cotton” and “rhubarb and cinnamon.”

So my point isn’t to paint Columbus as a saint, but rather just to give a more accurate portrayal, so long as, each year, his legacy will again be debated and his words quoted by people who haven’t taken the time to read them in context.

If there is someplace in which the worst accusations against him are more clearly evidenced, I’d be interested to know. Until then, I’ll continue wondering why anyone cares so much about Columbus Day in the first place.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.