Bryan Caplan  

Columbus: The Far Left is Dead Right

PRINT
Has Bentall Explained Madness?... Phelps and the Nobel...
By the time Christopher Columbus appeared in Lisbon in 1477 an Old World slave trade was thriving in the eastern Atlantic between West Africa, the Atlantic islands, and Europe. In his famous letter on his first voyage he informed Ferdinand and Isabella he could, with their help, give them "slaves, as many as they shall order." On his second voyage Columbus loaded five hundred Indian slaves aboard returning caravels. On the last leg of his voyage to Cadiz, "about two hundred of these Indians died," a passenger recorded, appending, "We cast them into the sea." In this manner the discoverer of the New World launched the transatlantic slave trade, at first in Indians and from west to east.

--James Rawley, with Stephen Behrendt, The Transatlantic Slave Trade

The far left's radical critique of Columbus Day rubs a lot of people the wrong way. But the facts are on their side. Columbus was not just a brutal slaver; he was a pioneer of slavery. I flipped through a dozen books on Columbus and slavery in the library today, and none of them disputes this - though the hagiographies generally omit "slavery" from the index.

Can you condemn a man just for being a slaver? Of course. It's almost as bad as you can get. And Columbus didn't even have the lame excuses of a Thomas Jefferson, like "I grew up with it," or "I couldn't afford not to do it."

The lamest excuse of all is that we have to judge Columbus by the standards of his time. For this is nothing but the cultural relativism that defenders of Western civilization so often decry. If some cultures and practices are better than others, then we can fairly hold up a mirror to Columbus and the Spanish conquerors, and find theirs to be among the worst.

But hasn't the European colonization of the New World been an improvement? Even if this were true, it would be no reason to have a special day to honor Columbus and his ilk. If Mengele had cured cancer, should we celebrate Mengele Day? In any case, you've got to ask: Compared to what? The benefits of Western culture would have spread at least as rapidly if the Europeans had arrived in the New World as traders and teachers instead of conquerors and slavers.

Now you could say: Every great man has feet of clay. That depends, as Yoda would say, on what you consider great. There are plenty of people who made great contributions to science, business, philosophy, literature, music, and history without practicing slavery and murder. These are the men and women who might merit a day of remembrance.

Personally, I'd like to honor Lord Acton, the great historian who taught us better than anyone else to dishonor "great men" like Columbus. He's well-known for his eloquent slogan: "Suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong." But I like his longer statement even better:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men...


Comments and Sharing





TRACKBACKS (12 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/576
The author at johnopedia in a related article titled Columbus Day, What is it good for? writes:
    Enough of the parody of the anti-war song, it’s been overused anyway. Bryan Caplan over at Econlog has a post up about Chritopher Columbus and the reality that he was not a nice man.  Columbus was a slaver.  In my book, not many things sink muc... [Tracked on October 9, 2006 1:49 PM]
The author at Eric Stoller's blog in a related article titled Day of Indigenous Resistance writes:
    Columbus Day is a federal holiday that I will no longer celebrate. I used to celebrate Columbus Day. It was sort of a mandatory holiday. I grew up in a small town in Iowa called Columbus Junction. Located near the confluence of the Iowa and Cedar Rive... [Tracked on October 9, 2006 4:04 PM]
The author at Still Angry in a related article titled Happy Columbus Day writes:
    Update: Bryan Caplan says something I substantially agree with: [Tracked on October 9, 2006 4:19 PM]
The author at Mike Linksvayer in a related article titled Columbus the slaver writes:
    In elementary school I won a Columbus Day essay contest sponsored by the Roman Cultural Society of Springfield, Illinois for making the audacious claim (so I was told) that Columbus did not discover America. I have ignored Columbus since then, except a... [Tracked on October 9, 2006 4:52 PM]
COMMENTS (17 to date)
Chris writes:

I think much of the discomfort in acknowledging Columbus as a thug is the feeling that if he was wrong then we should fix it.

Which bring me to my question - if Columbus was as bad as you proclaim (and I think he was) what should we do about it?

KipEsquire writes:

Since Columbus' discovery directly resulted in the Treaty of Tordesillas (the precursor to the Treaty of Saragossa), and since both treaties were endorsed by the respective popes of the time, how about some anti-slavery indignation toward the Roman Catholic Church? Maybe even some calls for reparations from the Vatican?

After all, we wouldn't want to be moral relativists, would we?

Martin Kelly writes:

Professor Caplan,

Your citation of Yoda, an interesting if idiosyncratic character from popular fiction, within a critique of Columbus, without whose efforts you would most likely not exist let alone hold the position you do, seems strange; decadent, almost.

The size of the gap between his time and ours means that whether or not we think Columbus was a good man or a bad man is neither here nor there. He did what he did, and what he did cannot now be undone. Did his actions ultimately do more hurt than harm? For you, certainly not. For some unsustainable Third World cultures, probably.

But even in his day it had been a long time since anyone had received a postcard from the Parthians, the Medes or the Elamites...

How could his 'bad' works be cured? By building a time machine in order to give the Caribs an MMR shot? Have you ever given a thought to how they might react to the sight of an economics professor running towards them and trying to stick a needle in their arm?

Would you levy a 'Columbus tax' on Spaniards?

You forget that Columbus and his ilk were true free marketeers. They were not in the exploration business for purely altruistic reasons - they were in it for the money. There was nothing that those guys couldn't teach today's globalists about offshoring.

If you feel you require absolution for benefiting from Columbus' voyage (though I can't think why you should), then ego te absolvo.

For good, you should always remember, is a point of view...

Carter writes:

Columbus risked life and fortune to sail across uncharted waters and discover The New World. The achievement of greatness through daring and adventurousness is intolerable to the mediocrities who malign him, as it reminds them they are parasitic worms.

As for having an "Acton Day", such a proposal would surely be met with the objection that Acton was an outspoken supporter of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Chuckles writes:

This is why I read Libertarian blogs. Undistilled, sparkling, fresh, common sense. Bravo! Dr Caplan.

crasch writes:

Hmmm...suppose at some future point in history, we come to regard the eating of sentient animals with the same revulsion we now regard slavery. How should history judge judge us? Should all of the good works of Bryan Caplan be dismissed because he enjoyed a burger now and then?

To me, it does not need to be either/or. We should both honor the leaders of the past for their achievements while at the same time condemning them for their crimes.

Bill writes:

Not to defend slavery, but slavery was practiced world-wide. The American natives practiced it before and after the arrival of Columbus.

Also, it is likely that upwards of 90% of the American natives would have died as a result of peaceful contact with the Old World. Disease doesn't care if it travels with trade or with war.

Nonetheless, Columbus Day is a stupid holiday.

Dezakin writes:

"How could his 'bad' works be cured?"

By not celebrating a murdering slaver with a national holiday.

"Columbus risked life and fortune to sail across uncharted waters and discover The New World. The achievement of greatness through daring and adventurousness is intolerable to the mediocrities who malign him, as it reminds them they are parasitic worms."

The same could be said of most of the self made evil men of history. That Columbus was very successful doesn't make him less evil. Lets all hear it for Stalin Day.

jaim klein writes:

In the 15th century, Western superiority was not a given. The outcome of Columbus voyage could well be the building of a huge Aztec temple on the site of the Sevilla Catedral and the instauration of daily human sacrifices. Columbus operated his miniature boats with jailbirds and he arrived only because he was a sanguinary bastard. The Spanish crown recalled him as soon as could and sent the best corrupt functionaries that were available then in Spain.

RogerM writes:

Crasch has the right take on Columbus. The native of North America all practiced slavery, as well as the entire Muslim world as late as the 1960's. It's arrogant to condemn generations of ancestors for something we decided was immoral only recently.

As a member of the Choctaw Nation, located in Oklahoma, and the third largest sovereign Native American nation in the US, I recognize the crimes Europeans committed against the natives, but I'm glad we were conquered by Northern Europeans, instead of the Spanish and Portuguese as was Latin America.

Speaking of crimes against natives, Chris was a Sunday School teacher compared to the "great" President Andrew Jackson. He defied the Supreme Court and shipped thousands of Cherokee from Georgia to Oklahoma in the winter, causing thousands of deaths. The Cherokee commemorate it as the "Trail of Tears". He kicked the Choctaw out of Alabama and Mississippi, but we suffered much less.

RogerM writes:

BTW, we natives gave the Europeans tobacco. Are we also guilty of genocide, considering the millions who have died from lung cancer?

dearieme writes:

But if you took "hagiographies" out of most histories of the USA, precious little would remain. The sainthood of Founding Fathers would be somewhat reduced in numbers, I'd guess. The usual accounts of JFK would have to be revised. And FDR too, surely? "Happily, the fascistic inclinations of this rather characteristic 1930s figure were somewhat constrained by people, Congress and Supreme Court."

Robert Speirs writes:

So if the conquistadors were "pioneers" of slavery - funny, I thought it had been around a while before them - why are the descendants of the conquistadors rewarded with special affirmative action programs in the United States on the basis of being "Hispanic"? They should go to the back of the line if decisions are going to be made on genetic grounds and on the basis of correcting historical wrongs, always a dubious and futile enterprise.

TDaulnay writes:

How can we make up for Columbus' and the Spanish conquistadors' misdeeds? For one thing, we can support the indigenous Amerindian politicians in Latin America, when they try to gain political power from the Hispanic upper classes in their countries.

People like Evo Morales (an Aymara) and Chavez are leftist in large part because we Liberal Democracies have supported the Hispanic overlords rather than the poor Amerindians. Especially in Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala, the descendents of the indigenous Americans are an underclass, kept from opportunity, education, and political power, and treated little better than dirt. How different Latin American politics would be if the U.S and other Western democracies supported the ideals of democracy and freedom of opportunity in those nations! Instead, we support oligarchic dictators who will do the bidding of our corporations.

Michael writes:

Martin Kelly writes:"Did his actions ultimately do more hurt than harm? For you, certainly not. For some unsustainable Third World cultures, probably."

Some unsustainable Third world cultures? The native Americans had been sustaining themselves just fine for thousands of years.

If you want to see an example of an unsustainable culture, you don't have to look further than our own (USA). Using natural resources at an unsustainable rate, while causing climate change and making water unfit to drink and air unfit to breathe.

I am not saying the native Americans were perfect, but unsustainability is not one of their culture's faults.

Dezakin writes:
But if you took "hagiographies" out of most histories of the USA, precious little would remain. The sainthood of Founding Fathers would be somewhat reduced in numbers, I'd guess. The usual accounts of JFK would have to be revised. And FDR too, surely? "Happily, the fascistic inclinations of this rather characteristic 1930s figure were somewhat constrained by people, Congress and Supreme Court."

How could this be a bad thing? History needs less undeserving heros.

TGGP writes:

TDaulnay, be more cynical.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top