Letter: Columbus column 'shoddy and circumstantial'

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In “Columbus did more than sail the ocean blue,” columnist Julie McDonald-Smith’s history is shoddy and circumstantial.

She does get some things right: Columbus sailed in the same year that the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella forced Jews to either convert, die, or leave Spain. And Columbus’s voyages opened the door for Spanish Jews to flee to the Americas. But McDonald-Smith connects these dots in ways that most historians do not: Columbus was no liberator of Jews.

With a Ph.D. in Early Modern European History, I can assure the author that her speculations are not shared by the vast majority of historians today. Let’s start with the obvious: Columbus was no secret Jew. Italian Jews didn’t name their children Cristoforo (Christ-bearer). And Columbus’ private writings are filled with Christian imagery and ideas.

Columbus immediately set about giving Christian names to places that already had indigenous ones. Two days after his arrival, Columbus already envisioned enslaving the indigenous people, and within weeks began doing so. To do so, he used torture. His writings created the still-pervasive image of indigenous peoples as savages and “cannibals” (he invented the word).

Columbus did not solely cause the devastation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas – the greatest demographic catastrophe in human history. But if we are to celebrate Columbus for his heroic voyages, the least we can do is honor the indigenous people trampled by those triumphs.

David Kuchta