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October 22, 2010


Stephen Menn

I don't get it. Why shouldn't Columbus be responsible for what he did as governor of Hispaniola? (You seem to trivialize what he did--what he *said* about the people he met isn't the main problem.) And why not say that what he did there (and similar things on the other islands) helped give a model for what Cortes did in Mexico--even if they were both also influenced by things the Spanish had done earlier in the Canaries or during the Reconquista?

Homo sapiens may have helped drive homo erectus to extinction by out-competing them for food or pushing them off of their hunting and food-gathering territories or the like, but it seems very unlikely that they worked them to death on plantations and in mines. The case seems different.

Justin Smith

I'm willing to hold Columbus personally responsible for his own moral failures. But to the extent that we are considering him in connection with the subsequent colonization of the New World, his moral character doesn't really tell us anything interesting. It is not *because* Columbus mistreated New World natives that the Trail of Tears and the reservation system became possible several centuries later. If it hadn't been Columbus, it would have been someone else, and that person probably would have made use of slave labor, again not because New World natives were perceived as inferior and thus worthy of enslavement, but because slavery, relying mostly on the importation of Eastern Europeans and Caucasians, was already a key part of the European economy before the encounter with the Native Americans.

Homo sapiens might have simply displaced h. erectus with no violence, but in other cases of ancient displacement there was certainly violence and enslavement on a massive scale, including the Indo-Europeanization of Europe and the Austronesianization of maritime Southeast Asia. I think what enables us to approach these processes lucidly and scientifically, in contrast with the case of America, is just temporal distance (I reflected on this a while ago here http://www.jehsmith.com/1/2010/09/a-double-standard-in-judgments-about-the-past.html ). But my sense is that an important part of what I'm calling historical literacy would include the ability to approach historical events in the recent past with the same sort of lucidity.

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