“And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles,
who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters;
and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man;
and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren,
who were in the promised land.”
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an opinion piece by David Tucker, a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio, in which Dr. Tucker is willing to go part of the distance in reducing cultural adoration of Christopher Columbus. After acknowledging many of the negative consequences for native peoples of Columbus’s actions — and rehabilitating Columbus by arguing that we only condemn him now because of the European values that he brought to the New World, primarily the notion of Equality (?!) enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — Dr. Tucker states “[t]his Columbus Day we need no triumphalism. Let it be a day instead to ponder the human capability for good and evil and wonder how we might encourage more of the good.”
I don’t think this goes far enough in dealing with Columbus’s legacy — especially for me as a Mormon who has so deeply internalized the Church’s teachings about the importance of the principle of accountability in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But for the past few years, I’ve posted my thoughts about Columbus and Columbus Day on social media and I’ve received substantial push back on my criticism of Columbus, specifically from Mormon friends and family. Again, today, I’m aware that many are claiming that denouncing Columbus is just an example of political correctness run amok.
Still a Hero?
The thought of failing to denounce Columbus again today especially in light of such statements makes me ill at ease. Both the recalcitrant adulation of Columbus and the actual history of his actions necessitates such reminders of his real legacy (and specifically the major disconnect between Columbus’s unfortunately honored reputation and that actual history of blood and horror).
Tying into the broader “conservative” interest in celebrating Columbus, Mormons are known to take that cultural adoration to an atmospheric next level. Basically, Mormons might feel bound to honor Columbus because the above verse in The Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 13:12, *seems* to refer to Columbus and because past Church leaders have historically participated in the traditional Romantic American cultural celebration of the man. But that particular verse does not necessarily require such an outcome, and taking a fresh look can always be helpful.
In my view, Columbus’s actions are too morally objectionable to honor in 2016, despite the overwhelmingly religious words he used, for instance describing himself as God’s messenger to bring the new Gospel as described in the Book of Revelation (a role which we Mormons normally ascribe to Moroni, despite Columbus’s claim that it referred to him). After making landfall in the Western Hemisphere he claimed the Island of Hispaniola for the King and Queen of Spain, despite the fact that it was already inhabited by peoples whose history on the land was entirely unknown by him. We know about the torture and enslavement of many thousands and the ultimate centuries-long genocides begun by him and continued by his imperial successors. Accounting for 1 Nephi 13:12, Hugh Nibley posited that Columbus was led by the Spirit in his navigation. This subtle but important narrowing of the scope of Columbus’s guidance by the Spirit is on point. The ultimate outcome was a scourge to the native inhabitants of two whole continents and many islands. It’s a shameful history and one that did not have to unfold as it did. European imperialism and racism — the belief in the inherent inferiority of non-white peoples — shaped the “discovery” of the New World all the way down to the American genocides of Native Americans in the nineteenth century and their continued mistreatment beyond. Is that really something we should be honoring?
Mormon Cultural Adoration of Columbus
Of course I am aware of the Mormon cultural adoration of Columbus. I genuinely respect the intentions, intellects, and spiritual intuitions of Mormon family and friends who react with alarm at the suggestion that Columbus should not be honored. Some of them have cited Clark Hinckley’s recent Columbus hagiography and his father President Hinckley’s 1992 talk in which he venerates Columbus. Also, a 1992 Ensign article by De Lamar Jensen commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the West Indies argues why Columbus was a great man just as tradition holds, primarily based on Columbus’s self-identification as a pious individual. All three of them derisively ascribe modern scholarly and popular criticism of Columbus to unwarranted political correctness. Jensen recognizes the substantial bulwark of laudatory myth surrounding Columbus’s legacy and concedes “[m]any still resist any attempt to show Columbus as a human being, with vices as well as virtues.” But then Jensen does not acknowledge a single data point in the long list of “vices” (or, to put it more accurately, atrocities); instead, he claims the “debunkers” of Columbus’s legacy are “overenthusiastic, even slanderous, in their attempts to demythologize Columbus” and that “[t]heir approach often serves to bolster a political cause rather than promote a search for truth.” In doing so, such critics merely create an “equally false myth of Columbus as a villain.” Jensen does not seem to perceive the political motivations and uses for the American religious right of the narrative he makes his own about Columbus as a God-sent hero, a use that potentially undermines the robust pluralism of which we as a minority religion are a major beneficiary.
I am told Clark Hinckley refers to the horrors inflicted by Columbus as his “imperfections” and that we should not judge him based on those. Although I agree the Gospel requires us to forgive people and civility moves us to look past their faults, I think we must recognize some point at which “faults” become something bigger than the foibles and “imperfections” that all people share in common. Isn’t there a line somewhere that sets brutal governance based on enslavement, torture, and other atrocities apart from lesser transgressions and “imperfections”? Did Clark Hinckley show any awareness of these actual facts of Columbus’ actions *after* the spiritually aided voyage? (Jensen did not in his 1992 Ensign article — some of these facts, which had been described by the contemporary Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas, were further attested when the report prepared by Columbus’s replacement, Francisco de Bobadilla, who conducted an investigation on behalf of the Spanish Crown, was discovered in 2005 in a Spanish archive. Jensen mentions Columbus was sent back to Spain in chains but doesn’t explain why.) I still haven’t read Clark Hinckley’s book, but from discussions I’ve had about it, it doesn’t seem like he adequately acknowledges or addresses these issues.
It is also true that “abject reverence and unfettered denunciation are not the only points on the spectrum,” as one friend who remains a Columbus devotee has pointed out to me. From my perspective, many LDS family and friends appear to lean toward the abject reverence. Meanwhile, I have certainly been leaning toward unfettered denunciation in the years since my mission, which was the last period of my life in which I shared that laudatory view of Columbus. (Not knowing much about the actual history at the time, I read President Hinckley’s 1992 talk and Brother Jensen’s 1992 Ensign article linked above while serving as a missionary in East Berlin and was, predictably, pumped up by the cultural red meat on offer there in support of Columbus’s legacy against the “slanderous” scholars and critics of secular society.) After my mission, however, I learned the facts and could no longer subscribe to that narrative! My Mormon upbringing ingrained the notion of accountability too deeply for me to let Columbus off the hook for the atrocities, cruelty, and evil that he personally perpetrated. After all, millions of indigenous people tortured and worked to death as slaves in mines is not some mere “imperfection” — it is real, palpable evil.
Because I know of the good will and intelligence of my Mormon friends and family who continue to defend Columbus, I don’t believe they condone Columbus’s atrocities or think that such atrocities are justified or ratified by God somehow. (I pray that is not the case, though I am unfortunately aware that some Mormons do take this view — those who felt the Priesthood restriction was justified as one concrete expression of the broader speculation that castes and different races deserve their inferior lot in mortality based on their lack of valiant action in the preexistence, thus justifying their suffering at the hands of such perpetrators.) Part of their efforts are political. They are seduced by the talking points of the American political right — that concerns about Columbus are a part of a left-wing plot or conspiracy created by a degenerate society seeking to justify sin and therefore casting everything that’s good and right (like Columbus) as bad in a frenzy of incorrect “political correctness.”
But that is only on the surface. I think a more profound stumbling block in really holding Columbus accountable for these things is the verse in 1 Nephi 13:12. But what does that verse really require of us as Mormons?
It seems that honoring the principle of accountability and incorporating our better information about morality (the inherent wrongness of racism, slavery, segregation, and genocide of native peoples — ideas not firmly recognized by society at large in America until the last half century or less) and history (Columbus’s track record as viceroy and governor of Hispaniola and the policies he put in place with the intention of their continued effect) require us to amend our narrative to something more like the following:
* * *
Previous generations set in motion a culture of adoration surrounding Columbus. At the time this developed, the atrocities committed against the indigenous populations of North and South America by Columbus and his successors in the Conquest were not viewed as particularly morally objectionable by those who created the narrative about Columbus that still survives today. Society at that time allowed and relied on African chattel slavery, one of the most morally evil institutions that has existed on the earth, and was actively seeking to wrest lands unjustly and without fair compensation from Native Americans, also as a result of the fundamentally racist ideology that permeated our society at the time that narrative was created when the United States was pushing its borders westward. Later, though slavery was abolished as an incidental outcome of the Civil War, the deeply ingrained racism in America against any non-white peoples, whether African former slaves and their descendants or Native Americans (or others such as immigrant Chinese), continued in full force through the Jim Crow era and on until the Supreme Court forced the end of the morally bankrupt practice of legally mandated and enforced racial segregation. The traditionally accepted narrative about Columbus as a hero, without regard to the abuses that he himself perpetrated after making landfall in the West Indies and becoming governor of Hispaniola, is a product of this time in our history in which the atrocities suffered by the indigenous people were perhaps viewed as unfortunate (by the more enlightened members of society) but nevertheless still part of the beneficial story of Columbus “discovering” the Americas.
Now, however, society recognizes the dignity of all peoples and does not discount the value and rights of indigenous peoples the way previous generations have done. As our societies rejected legally mandated and enforced segregation in the second half of the twentieth century and invited all races and peoples into the equal protection of the law, we have become aware of how flawed our previous narratives about Columbus have been precisely in ignoring or overlooking — or excusing — the atrocities that he personally committed after arrival in the New World, no matter how inspired his navigation to get there might have been.
With this new awareness, we are able to acknowledge that the arrival of Europeans was an unmitigated disaster for the many nations of indigenous peoples inhabiting North, Central, and South America, and many islands, and in the annihilation of their cultures instigated by the Europeans they suffered unimaginable cruelty and dismantling of family and social life, and endured torture and enslavement. It is true that some of the Europeans, most notably in the English colonies that ultimately became the United States, established free governments that created conditions in which the Restoration of the Gospel would later be possible. But our gratitude for the Gospel does not and should not diminish our condemnation of the brutality and atrocities committed in the Conquest, including the unspeakably horrible things that Columbus himself did and led as viceroy in Hispaniola. The political system that was eventually established in the United States by the Constitution, which allowed the Restoration to happen, also made an immensely valuable political contribution to societies around the world as an example of constitutional government. And thanks to the constitutional freedoms enjoyed by white people in America, the United States made immensely valuable contributions to the advancement of all fields of human endeavor as time progressed. Eventually, the lofty ideals of the American founding were also extended, at least in theory, to non-white people in the United States, thus beginning to balance out centuries-long inequity before the law based on race. This process continues today, and our more realistic view of Columbus, which is based on the sad historical facts of his actions after he made landfall in the West Indies, is part of that necessary process.
Nevertheless, although we can now accept and acknowledge that Columbus ultimately committed some truly awful crimes as the Viceroy of Hispaniola, including enslaving the indigenous population and annihilating their culture, sanctioning torture, mutilation, and forcing “conversion” to Christianity by the sword or torture, we still believe that his initial dream of discovering a western passage to China in the service of the crown and his unfailing and admirable determination while on the perilous and at times hopeless-seeming sea voyage were influenced and inspired by the Spirit, as Nephi learned in a vision in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 13:12).
* * *
If, for example, I am influenced by the Spirit to do something good but then shortly thereafter commit genocide, I would rightly be condemned for the genocide despite the earlier inspiration. It is not clear why Columbus’s legacy should be held to a different standard of accountability.
Happy Indigenous Peoples Day!
 David Tucker, “Straight Talk About Christopher Columbus,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 9, 2016 (http://www.wsj.com/articles/straight-talk-about-christopher-columbus-1476050242).
 Giles Tremlett, “Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean,” The Guardian, August 7, 2006 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/aug/07/books.spain):
As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people’s ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery. . . .
The evidence has been found in a previously lost report drawn up at the time for the Spanish monarchs as they became worried by growing rumours of Columbus’ barbarity and avarice. The document was written by a member of an order of religious knights, the Order of Calatrava, who had been asked to investigate the allegations against Columbus by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who ruled Spain together at the time. . . .
Bobadilla collected the testimonies of 23 people who had seen or heard about the treatment meted out by Columbus and his brothers. ‘Even those who loved him had to admit the atrocities that had taken place,’ Ms Varela said. . . . ‘Columbus did not solve problems, he created them.’
 Spanish historian and contemporary of Columbus, the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, wrote that between 1498 and 1508, three million people died from “war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it” (History of the Indies (New York: Harper & Row, ed. and trans. 1971). (Summarizing here from Wikipedia for ease of reference: http://tinyurl.com/zzm54kc.) The number killed was likely closer to 300,000. But de las Casas also recorded that Columbus’s men terrorized the natives everywhere they went, torturing, raping, and pillaging as they tried to force them to reveal the fantastic stores of gold the Europeans believed would be found in the Indies. De las Casas also reported that Columbus organized his men into small forces each with a number of dogs and they would range across the land killing the natives wantonly, including using unarmed natives as objects for sword practice as they tried to cut them in half or decapitate them with one stroke (David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 70).
Columbus initiated the slave trade using natives, purportedly personally sending more slaves back to Spain than any other individual. Although de las Casas renounced this treatment of the natives and argued to the Spanish Court that the indigenous peoples were fully human, he advocated using African slaves instead, showing his own incredible blind spot. Perhaps most barbarically, and similar to the atrocities committed by King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo in the late nineteenth century, Columbus implemented a policy that all natives over the age of thirteen had to collect a certain amount of gold every three months and if they failed to do this, their hands would be cut off and they would be left to bleed out or survive as cripples, as fate would have it. Revolt after such harsh treatment was punished by hanging or burning to death. This caused mass suicides and infanticides among the natives. Finally, Columbus seems to have allowed the colonizers to engage in sexual slavery using the natives, including young girls.
So, basically a text-book example of reigning with blood and horror on the earth. (The next time someone tells you the world is far worse now than ever before, think about living in Hispaniola in 1498.)