Columbus Day: remembering a pawn in a king’s game

The Spanish Crown was always in charge of Columbus’ expeditions, and made sure that Spain was in charge of the dominion of the New World. Photo: Painting by Eugene Delacroix - public domain

SAN JOSE, October 14, 2013 – Over the last forty or fifty years, numerous groups or organizations have disparaged celebrations of Columbus Day with growing contempt because of the mass genocide attributed to Columbus when he encountered the Native Americans in the Caribbean.


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It seems that the pendulum of political correctness has swung far to the left and away from previous popularity the explorer enjoyed. Certainly, Columbus receives much less respect today than he enjoyed in the dark days of the Great Depression when Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12 to be a federal holiday to honor the Genovese explorer.

Recent American Columbus Day celebrations have been stifled in importance, and have been tainted by the lingering fallout of animosity and bitterness leftover from the tragic clash of cultures between Western European and Native American cultures. More seriously, students in this day, who learn about Christopher Columbus, must themselves negotiate tempestuous waters of contemporary historical scholarship bearing a definite political or ideological perspective regarding his journeys to the Western Hemisphere.

However, while it may be important for people to recognize Columbus for what he truly was (he was no saint), the academically initiated character assassination is not only unwarranted, it detracts from a more fundamental reality.

The current narrative neglects the fundamental reality that Columbus lived in an age in which kings ruled the earth and were all powerful. It provides the groundwork from which a more comprehensive understanding of Columbus can be derived. Especially, Americans should appreciate the perspective of living in a free society and being able to speak freely, assemble peaceably for protests, publish incendiary psuedo-intellectually based materials, and worship the deity of choice – or worship one’s right to believe in no deity whatsoever.


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Yet, Columbus, nor any of his contemporaries living in Spain in 1492, did not enjoy these freedoms. They lived under an absolute monarchy.

The marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella united the kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula and the monarchs managed to combine forces to drive the Moors from their land. This perspective is an essential component in comprehending Columbus and his time. Yet, it is often lost because Americans look back into history through lenses crafted within the Land of the Free.

Americans often lose perspective when we deal with the concept of kings. It is understandable that King George III was viewed as a tyrant by the Founding Fathers because a study of United States history makes this point crystal clear. Yet, understanding the concept of kings as ruthless dictators may seem foreign to Americans today.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella who agreed to back the sailor with whatever means they were willing to muster for his support were ruthless dictators. That being said, how can it be more realistically driven home? One fact that is not often linked to the narrative of Columbus is that these two kindly monarchs were the same two dictators who initiated the Spanish Inquisition. Unfortunately, a serious lack of understanding of where the Spanish Inquisition fits in history may not help a reader grasp how ruthless the monarchs of Spain were in their heyday. Unfortunately, additional homework may be necessary.


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The Spanish Inquisition was generated in 1478 by Ferdinand II, king of Aragon and Isabella I, queen of Castile. The ostensible purpose was to maintain the purity of religious worship in the Catholic church and the fundamental adherence to the traditional Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Interestingly enough, there was already in existence a Medieval Inquisition which had been under Papal control, but King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella wanted to have direct control under the government.

Not surprisingly, after the Reconquista, the recovery of Spain from the Moors, royal decrees issued in 1492 and 1501 ordered Jews  and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave the country (dead or alive was irrelevant).

If Ferdinand and Isabella were willing to severely permit torture and death of their own citizens for the sake of a pure Roman Catholic country, what could they be expected to do to some primitive heathens from the Caribbean? If one can view these two monarchs as more like a Godfather in the Mafia, it may help to more realistically visualize the type of people Columbus was dealing with in the 1400s. Columbus, who was a commoner and Catholic (if he had not been, the sailor would never have been able to make a contract with Spain). Amazingly, he managed to emerge from this environment as an historic figure, but what the monarchs provided and promised, they also would take away. 

For most Americans, who have never lived under a despot, it is hard to fully comprehend the vulnerability of Columbus when he submitted himself to the Spanish crown.  His desire to find a new route to Cathay and obtain status and wealth impelled him to contract his services with any government which would provide the means with which he could pursue his dreams, but his demands were perceived as unreasonable. 

Negotiations initially broke down over money because Columbus demanded a contract guaranteeing him a 10% cut of any wealth he could claim due to his endeavor.  That in itself required courage and only the royal treasurer managed to reverse the monarchs’ rejection of Columbus’s initial proposal. 

Unfortunately, when Columbus surprisingly returned from his journey in 1493 with bold and glittering promises to the monarchs regarding his discovery of gold in the foreign lands, it changed the paradigm. To a recently established nation with depleted treasuries due to battles with the Moors, gold would have provided a powerful incentive to remedy the impoverished Spanish state. 

The ensuing quest for gold followed with many of those who ventured with Columbus harboring their own visions of wealth and substantial personal gain. Sadly, the rush for wealth shifted to real estate when little gold was able to  be extracted from the islands.

Spanish nobles who ventured with Columbus were better connected to the king than the foreign explorer, and many had fought alongside King Ferdinand in ridding Spain of the infidel. Suffice it to state that the people who went with Columbus on his second voyage were not going for some Caribbean vacation; they had been smitten by an insatiable desire for wealth, or even more wealth. However, as colonization progressed from concept to the actual settlement, Columbus was on the receiving end of the increasing dissatisfaction and outright animosity of the colonists. Nobles increasing malice toward Columbus lingered because they felt deceived by his exaggerated accounts of the abundance of gold.

As simple common sense question would be the degree to which the Spanish monarchs were so much more indignant over the failure to obtain as much gold as the Italian had promised. Thus, his relationship with the monarchy became increasingly strained. And, among the colonists, as a desire for gold was replaced with a more realistic approach to obtain land, they had to deal with the essential problem of the king’s decree, designating Columbus as the “governor” of the lands claimed in the name of Spain.

The Spanish nobility and conquistadores must have viewed the mere commoner as a ridiculous anomaly and an imposter in the position of “governor.”

As early as 1495, the Spanish Crown attempted to get a better handle on their investment by sending a royal commission to report on the colony and to judge the governing capabilities of Columbus. However, returning to Spain in 1496, Columbus managed to appease the Royals, but they took their sweet time (two years) before sponsoring his third voyage. Tensions did not die though and after he returned in 1498, Columbus was eventually accused by his detractors and their complaints to the king are essentially the crimes repeated by people today.

By May of 1499, the king appointed Francisco de Bobadilla as the replacement of Columbus as governor and chief justice of Hispaniola. 

Bobadilla, a Spanish nobleman and a loyal knight who fought in the wars against the Moors, was given all that the crown had bestowed upon Columbus, but he received even more authority and power. Bobadilla arrived in Hispaniola in August of 1500, briefly investigated the charges of incompetent governance against Columbus and his brothers, had them all arrested, and had them shipped back to Spain in irons in October. 

The monarchs left them in a Spanish prison until December of 1500 when Columbus was allowed to defend himself. The result of the trial was that the outrageous charges against Columbus be dropped.  

Although criminal charges were dismissed, the outcome permanently removed Columbus as governor, and by 1500, the sailor was out of the loop. The trial seems to be a convenient method for allowing the Spanish Crown a reason to break the original decree designating Columbus as governor.

Students of Columbus and all Americans should know that the King of Spain was always in charge of Columbus’ expeditions, and definitely made sure the Spanish Crown was in charge of the dominion of the Caribbean islands and the lands beyond.


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.

 

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