“When I read his own writings and the documents of those who knew him, he seemed to be very much on the side of the Indians,” Delaney said, noting that Columbus adopted the son of a Native American leader he had befriended.
Christopher Columbus has been in the news in recent months, as a Wisconsin high school named for Columbus faced pressure to change its name, a Massachusetts city faced pressure to remove a statute of the explorer, and statues of Columber were temporarily removed in July from Chicago parks.
The EWTN network will air this week a documentary that aims to respond to critics of the explorer.
Some critics of Columbus note the writings of Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish Dominican friar born in 1484 who became the first Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico and advocated for indigenous Americans. He wrote strong polemics against Spanish abuses.
Bishop De las Casas depicted the Spaniards as “acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before.” De las Casas claimed that the native population of Hispaniola was reduced to 200 people from 3 million.
He said the Spanish killed “such an infinite number of souls” due to lust for gold caused by “their insatiable greed and ambition.” He charged that the Spanish attacked towns and did not spare children, the elderly or pregnant women. He said they stabbed and dismembered them “as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house” and made bets on how efficiently they could kill.
Delaney, however, emphasized that the acts of other colonists need to be distinguished from those of Columbus.
Bishop De las Casas’ own view on Columbus is more complex, she said. Other scholars have noted that Las Casas admired Columbus and said he and Spain had a providential role in “opening the doors of the Ocean Sea.” The bishop thought Columbus was treated unjustly by the Spanish monarchs after he was accused of mismanagement.
De las Casas himself is not above criticism. He owned indigenous people as slaves before changing his mind on their mistreatment. At one point he suggested to the Pope that black Africans be enslaved as an alternative to enslaving Native Americans.
In 2017, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternity founded in 1882, which takes its name from the explorer who brought Christianity to the New World, noted that “scholars have long shown that de las Casas was prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, and the bill does not take into account recent scholarship on de las Casas or Columbus.”
“The legacy and accomplishments of Christopher Columbus deserve to be celebrated. He was a man ahead of his time and a fearless explorer and brilliant navigator whose daring discovery changed the course of history,” the group continued. “Columbus has frequently been falsely blamed for the actions of those who came after him and is the victim of horrific slanders concerning his conduct.”
Columbus Day, observed Oct. 11 as a federal holiday, has been a point of controversy among Columbus critics in recent years, and some states and cities have declared the day Indigenous Peoples' Day.
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Columbus Day drew particular controversy in Colorado on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Organizers of Denver’s 1992 Columbus Day parade canceled it at the last minute due to threats from radical activists with the American Indian Movement.
Columbus has been a major figure for Catholics in America, especially Italian-Americans, who saw his pioneering voyage from Europe as a way of validating their presence in a sometimes hostile majority-Protestant country. The Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the world, took his name, his voyage and his faith as an inspiration.
At one point in the nineteenth century there were even proposals to push for the voyager’s canonization.
In 1892, the quadricennial of Columbus’ first voyage, Leo XIII authored an encyclical that reflected on Columbus’ desire to spread Catholic Christianity. The pope stressed how Columbus’ Catholic faith motivated his voyage and supported him amid his setbacks.
Delaney acknowledged that some Native Americans were sent to Spain as slaves or conscripted into hard labor at the time Columbus had responsibility for the region, but she attributed this mistreatment to his substitutes acting in his absence.
She thinks Columbus Day should be continued, even if the indigenous peoples of America also deserve recognition.