Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

Today is Christopher Columbus Day, an annual celebration of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. For many centuries, Columbus was viewed as a great explorer. More recently, that reputation has come under attack. Was Christopher Columbus a hero? Or was he a villain?

Was Christopher Columbus a Hero?

Christopher Columbus landed somewhere in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. He called the island “San Salvador.” According to his journal, he encountered natives that same day.

“Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.” ~ Christopher Columbus

For the next four hundred years, Columbus was viewed as a brave explorer and credited with the discovery of the New World. Incidentally, that honor has since gone to the Vikings and I wouldn’t be surprised if evidence of even earlier expeditions eventually came to light. Still, Columbus, more than anyone else, brought the Old World and New World together, creating the interconnected world that we know today. But over the last century or so, his reputation has fallen considerably.

Was Christopher Columbus a Villain?

Attack on Columbus were led by an independent scholar named Kirkpatrick Sale. Sale accused Columbus of being an imperialist set on conducting a “conquest of paradise.” In Sale’s view, America’s native peoples were “noble savages” who lived in peace and harmony with the land. Columbus’s arrival screwed all that up and led to generations of suffering and slavery under European conquerors.

Columbus’s defenders didn’t take this lightly. Led by individuals such as Robert Royal from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, these scholars claimed that most of the native deaths originated from the accidental transmission of disease rather than from war. Also, they pointed out that the natives were hardly friendly to the environment nor were they peaceful (a point seemingly bolstered by Columbus’s diary entry above). Finally, they stated that Columbus himself acted in a peaceful, friendly fashion. It was the Spanish government administrators that followed him who were in fact responsible for violence committed against the native peoples.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, how should one feel about Christopher Columbus and his famous discovery of the Americas? Well, it’s clear that his voyages led to the eventual conquest of the Americas and its people. Horrible crimes were committed in the process. None of this is disputed and all of the atrocities deserved to remembered as such.

Still, we here at Guerrilla Explorer find much to admire in Columbus. He couldn’t have foreseen the negative side effects of his journey. The blame for that violence lies squarely with the Spanish government and its administrators.

In regard to that violence, there is a small silver lining, best expressed by historian Tom Woods in his article, Morality and Columbus Day: Another View.

“Reports of Spanish mistreatment of the natives of the New World prompted a severe crisis of conscience among significant sectors of the Spanish population in the sixteenth century, not least among her philosophers and theologians. The issue provoked substantial discussion and debate within the Spanish intellectual community. This fact alone indicates that we are witnessing something historically unusual: nothing in the historical record suggests that Attila the Hun had any moral qualms about his conquests, and the large-scale human sacrifice that was so fundamental to Aztec civilization appears to have elicited no outpouring of self-criticism and philosophical reflection among that native people comparable to what European misbehavior provoked among Catholic theologians in sixteenth-century Spain.” ~ Tom Woods

So, while far too many natives died during the conquest of the Americas, something else quite remarkable took place at the same time. For perhaps the first time in history, a civilization gave itself a hard look and “found it wanting.”

“If we consider the Age of Discovery in the light of sound historical judgment, we must conclude that the Spaniards’ ability to look objectively at these foreign peoples and recognize their common humanity was no small accomplishment, particularly when measured against the parochialism that has so often colored one people’s conception of another.” ~ Tom Woods

While we must never forget the horrors committed by the Spanish invaders, we can take some solace in the fact that these acts were noticed and criticized by Spanish theologians, philosophers, and intellectuals. In many ways, they provided us with the “moral tools” to recognize that these acts were indeed evil and should be condemned.

“The ideals which some Spaniards sought to put into practice as they opened up the New World will never lose their shining brightness as long as men believe that other peoples have a right to live, that just methods may be found for the conduct of relations between peoples, and that essentially all the peoples of the world are men.” ~ Professor Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America

Who Discovered Machu Picchu?

Although constructed around 1450, the spectacular city of Machu Picchu remained unknown to the outside world until it was discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. But did he really discover Machu Picchu? Or did someone else beat him to it?

Hiram Bingham’s Expedition to Machu Picchu

Situated almost 8,000 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu towers over Peru’s Urubamba Valley. Its exact purpose remains unknown although modern researchers believe it was a royal estate for Pachacuti, the ninth Sapa Inca, or king, of the Kingdom of Cusco.

In 1911, historian/treasure hunter Hiram Bingham led the Yale Peruvian Expedition into the Andes. A few days later, on July 24, he “discovered” Machu Picchu thanks to a young local boy named Pablito Alvarez. At the time, other locals resided in the ruins. Bingham is rightly recognized as the explorer that brought world attention to Machu Picchu. But was he the first outsider to lay eyes on the ruins?

Other Claims to Machu Picchu’s “Discovery”?

As soon as Bingham’s discovery went public, other people came forward to dispute his claim. A missionary named Thomas Payne claimed to have found the ruins in 1906 with the help of Stuart McNairn. He even said that he told Bingham about Machu Picchu in the first place. Another early claimant was a German engineer named J.M. von Hassel.

More recently, Peruvian historians have gathered evidence pointing to a German adventurer named Augusto Berns. In the 1860’s, Berns purchased land near Machu Picchu and secured permission from Peru’s government to prospect it for gold and silver. In the process, he supposedly plundered a series of old Incan sites.

The question of who reached the site first is not just an academic one. The stakes are high and future revelations may impact the destination of 40,000 artifacts that currently reside at Yale University.

Who owns Yale’s Machu Picchu Artifacts?

An 1887 prospecting authorization given to Berns indicates that Peru held national sovereignty over the area prior to Bingham’s arrival. They are using this to help lay claim to Yale’s artifacts. Yale’s lawyers counter that if Berns reached the site first, it stands to reason that he removed the most important artifacts. Thus, they don’t feel that the artifacts in their possession are unique or important enough to require their return to Peru. Adding to the drama, property records show that local families owned Machu Picchu before Bingham arrived. Their descendants are seeking compensation for loss of property.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

I’d be surprised if Bingham was the first outsider to ever set eyes upon Machu Picchu. But as far as I can tell, there is no solid evidence to support any of the other claims. New evidence will continue to emerge however, so anything is possible. But regardless, Hiram Bingham will always be remembered as the man who shone public light on the fabulous ruins known as Machu Picchu.

“In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only has it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead, gigantic precipices of many-colored granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids; it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation, and the mysterious witchery of the jungle.” ~ Hiram Bingham, 1922