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Professor Carol Delaney on Columbus.

Updated: Oct 21, 2020


Read Delaney’s Letter to the Board of Selectmen (March 15, 2020)




My name is Carol Delaney, Ph.D., and I am a professor emerita, Stanford University, where I taught cultural anthropology and did research for 18 years.



I am writing to you to respond to a paper prepared by Wellesley College student Kisha James on the topic of Christopher Columbus.  A copy of her paper was shared with me recently, and I understand that you have received copies of her paper as well.  Ms. James’ paper is filled with misrepresentations and outright distortions of historical facts.  I write to you today to correct these, point by point.  


Columbus did not kidnap native people and should not be held responsible for the Atlantic slave trade.”

Ms. James writes that Columbus committed genocide.  That is simply not true. He was friends with the natives.  At first encounter he wrote: “I, in order that they would be friendly to us .... and would be converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force – to some I gave red caps and glass beads which they put on their chests... and became so much our friends it was a marvel” (Diario, p. 65).  The Santa Maria went aground on the first voyage. The chief, Guacanagari, helped store their goods in a cabin on land.  They became good friends. Columbus wrote that “little by little I will progress in understanding and acquaintance, and I will have this tongue taught to persons of my household.” (Diario, p.183).  Soon, he had to leave 22 men behind when he returned to Spain the get another ship.  He took 6 natives with him and said more wanted to do. They were baptized (baptized people could not be enslaved).  Two decided to remain at court, one became Columbus’s godson who accompanied him on his other voyages and was  interpreter, 3 returned though one died on the way. When he landed, he saw that all of the men who had remained were dead.  He never blamed Guacanagari and believed that the men had gone against his orders not to go marauding and raping, but they did and that othergroup came and killed them. It is clear Ms. James has not read  Columbus’s diary. Here is what he wrote of the native people: “they should be treated courteously because the are the best and most gentle people in the world,” (Diario, p. 231), and he continually asked the sovereigns to send priests so they could be baptized and thus be saved and go to heaven when they died.  

When Columbus returned he was accompanied by 17 ships and many men sent by Queen Isabella.  They are the ones who committed atrocities against Columbus’s orders. Often he was off sailing still trying to find the Grand Khan of China where he expected to set up a trading post to obtain gold to finance a crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims before the end of the world. This motive is in all of his writings. While the genocide of the native people may have set the stage for similar notions in the United States it cannot be blamed on Columbus but on those others, especially Roldan, Bobadilla, and Ovando. 

In remorse for what they had done Columbus became a lay Franciscan monk and wore their robes for the rest of his life and was buried in them. Las Casas notes that Columbus was very religious: “He observed the fasts of the church most faithfully, confessed and made communion often, read the canonical offices like a churchman or member of a religious order, hated blasphemy and profane swearing, and was most devoted to Our lady and to the seraphic father St. Francis; seemed very grateful to God for benefits received from the divine hand” (cited in Morison, p. 63). Las Casas had slaves at home and in the New World had two encomiendas worked by slaves.  He did not become a priest until years after Columbus’s death and only then did he change his opinion about natives as slaves but suggested instead that the Europeans should import blacks!  Columbus never had a slave.


Columbus did not kidnap native people and should not be held responsible for the Atlantic slave trade. As noted he took six back after first voyage, see above.   He wrote: “They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe that they would become Christians very easily.” (Diario, p. 69).  When he says “servant” that does not mean slave but rather than they are helpful and docile.  Columbus was not a slave trader.  While it is true that some of the natives were sent back as slaves they had been rounded up by the other men against Columbus’s orders. He continually ordered them to stop but was unable to control them.  And yes, some of them were sent to Spain but he had not ordered their capture and had a very hard time with Roldan, Ovando and Bobadilla, etc.  He did sail with Portuguese in 1481 to the fort they had set up in Ghana to trade their cotton and copper pots for gold. Later it became a conduit for the slave trade but that was years after Columbus’s visit. 

Columbus did not kill millions of people, he never killed even one.  They were killed by the men left in charge and against his orders. The truth about Columbus needs to be brought out and should surely be part of our history. But the material Ms. James presents is not the truth. Everyone should read his Diary.


How can Ms. James say that Columbus was considered barbaric by his contemporaries?  She goes on to quote “They forced their way into native settlements....”  “They” were the awful men not Columbus. He was usually off sailing around the Caribbean looking for the Grand Khan of China. Las Casas did not travel with Columbus.  He arrived at the very end of the time Columbus was there and as noted established his own encomienda.  His discussion about atrocities are obviously about those other men. Columbus was not even there. 


Most people know nothing about Columbus, and this student is spreading information about him that is simply not true.  I can say this because I have spent years reading his works, and the works of those who knew him. Ms. James should read my book: Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (Free Press, 2011) for more information.  It was chosen as one of the best books of the year, by the London Times Literary Review.  

It is also true that we also know very little about the Indigenous Peoples in our midst and should definitely learn more about them.  Both are important in our history.  Both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day should be celebrated but on different days. Indeed I think the Indigenous People should choose a day that is important to them, without replacing Columbus Day.


Columbus never said the natives he knew were cannibals.  It was the natives he was friendly with who called another group cannibals, namely the Caribs. They claimed the Caribs were savages who killed their enemies and then ate their flesh.  Cannibal is a Taino word.

Yes, he always thought the natives he knew were, as he said, “the best and most gentle people in the world…” Following the quote about them bringing “parrots and balls of cotton ... does not end or even include the phrase “With fifty men we could subjugate them all.” Instead, he wrote “I believe that they would become Christians very easily.” (Diario, p 69.) And of course, Christians could not be enslaved which is why he kept requesting priests to be sent.


Lastly,  Zinn’s work on Columbus is totally erroneous and has had a very bad effect.  Please read my book and Columbus’s own Diary.

Sincerely,


Carol Delaney, Ph.D. University of Chicago, 1984

Professor Emerita

Stanford University

[I taught at Harvard before Stanford and Brown after my retirement from Stanford]

References:


The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492-1493, Abstracted by Fray Bartoleme de las Casas, translated and transcribed dy Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr. Norman, OK, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988

Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Samuel Eliot Morison, New York, Heritage Press, 1963

Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, Carol Delaney, Free Press of Simon and Schuster, 2011.


In my book there are many other important references.