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1492: The Seven Deadly Sins Tumble out of Europe†

By Steven J. Keillor

AT DAWN ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12, 1492, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS landed at an island that the indigenous Taino called Guanahani. With the captains of the NiŮa and Pinta, he "went ashore in the armed launch," displayed King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's flags, with the cross prominent, and took "possession of the said island for the king and for the queen his lords."

Some Taino witnessed this ceremony, but they likely saw no reason why this stranger should take possession. Nor did they understand his actions in the next weeks: planting crosses as symbols of conquest, naming places and natural features, eyeing the Taino as potential slaves, looking for gold and reconnoitering for good sites for forts.


DURING THE RECENT QUINCENTENNIAL, COLUMBUS'S ACTS, though understood, have been condemned. In The Conquest of Paradise Kirkpatrick Sale ridiculed him as a bumbling navigator, a deceptive captain, an incompetent gold-obsessed explorer who misidentified flora and fauna, "a man rather lost in a world that he cannot come to know." Everything about his "discovery" is controversial. How can we say that Europeans "discovered" a land which was quite familiar to its inhabitants? How can we call it a "New" World when its civilizations were quite old or its peoples "Indians" when they lived far from India? How can we celebrate what resulted in the deaths of millions of "Indians"? How can we call Columbus a hero?

This controversy dismays many Americans, who view it as an unwelcome manifestation of "political correctness" spoiling the old-fashioned American history they fondly remember from their school days.3 Yet these are legitimate questions. By trying to answer them apart from politicizing polemics, we Americans can learn much about ourselves and our past.

On some points we can agree. Others can be left to specialists to debate. We need not cross swords over the term discovery. Let's think of it as a first encounter between peoples or, as Mexican historian Silvio Zavala argues, "a multiplicity of encounters between peoples and cultures." If encounter sounds too peaceful, think of it as a head-on collision. We need not argue over calling this a "New" World. It was merely a different one, quite unlike Europe and Asia. (For convenience, we will consider Africa's contribution in the next chapter.) We need not fight over guessing the Americas' pre-1492 population, a task likened to "extract[ing] Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers."4 That is not vital for our broad-brush discussion.

We must, however, attend seriously to arguments that the Americas' indigenous cultures were somehow superior to European culture in ways that discredit the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. The Columbian encounter is said to have proven that all cultures and religions are equally valid--with European Christianity perhaps least valid in light of 1990s concerns about the environment, the status of women, human equality, peace and social justice.

Many scholars and popularizers make this argument. From an environmentalist's perspective, Sale criticizes "the Hebraic Yahweh" for "using [nature's] elements to wreak vengeance on His flock" and for remaining aloof from nature. He perceives a "long history of Christian antagonism to nature." Calling Christianity "the core of European thought and culture," David E. Stannard considers this "theocratic culture" to have been "obsessed with things sensual and sexual" and committed to holy war. He holds Christianity responsible for "the horrors that were inflicted by Europeans and white Americans on the Indians of the Americas." Their violent path was "paved in the earliest days of Christendom."5

Writers of college textbooks are more circumspect. In The American People historian Gary Nash argues that Europeans, who "came bearing the crosses of their religion, were a volatile and dangerous people." He links their crosses to their volatility: "European settlers . . . saw a holy necessity to convert--or destroy--these [Indians who were] enemies of their God." Indigenous societies were environmentally sensitive, communal, egalitarian, committed to "the sharing of power between male and female" and "less structured in their religious views." All the contrasts work to Europeans' disadvantage, but Christianity is not identified as the main disadvantaging factor. James Kirby Martin, in America and Its People praises "group-oriented" natives and faults Europeans for "cultural superiority," but he does not attribute these to the absence and presence of Christianity in the two groups.6

In the classroom, professors can make explicit what is only implicit in the texts--and many undoubtedly do. The Columbian encounter becomes their object lesson in cultural relativism to start the year's work in American history. Here is the creation myth of American cultural relativism: the foolish Europeans who thought theirs were the only crops, animals and gods discover a completely new set, as valid and useful as theirs--even more so. Yet looking at the evidence we find that, far from being a proof text for cultural relativism, the Columbian encounter powerfully argues for the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. But we cannot see that without looking at the evidence. The historian "proves" an argument by crafting a credible explanation of past events, not by crafting a syllogism or conducting an experiment or solving an equation.

The first step is to take the anti-Christian revisionist argument at its strongest point, not its weakest. Sale and Stannard do romanticize indigenous peoples: Stannard, for example, devotes only two paragraphs to Aztec human sacrifice. Historian William Cronon notes that Sale's "Indians are so perfectly in tune with nature, such paragons of ecological wisdom, that they glide right out of history and back into noble savagery."7 Yet, like snipers, critics often take aim when the revisionist steps out a little too far. Sniping (that is, answering only the weaknesses in opponents' arguments) is too much a part of our current cultural debates. Confronting opponents' strengths will prove more helpful.

Let us confront the fact that polytheistic, animal- and star-worshiping indigenous peoples were generally less violent, more generous, more egalitarian, less aggressive and more in tune with nature than Christian Europeans. Then we will gain new insights into European society on the eve of colonization. Then we will see--as we go along--that this paradox confirms rather than disproves God's revelation in Christ and in Scripture.

Critics of Christianity, such as Sale, Stannard and Martin, err in equating European culture and the Christian faith. From their secular perspective, they see the Hebrews constructing creation myths about their tribal god Yahweh and Christianity as a cultural artifact formed by Europeans. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Old (or Hebrew) Testament is one long argument between Yahweh and his often-rebellious people. European history also reveals an argument between the triune God and rebellious Europeans. They desired the benefits of the faith they professed but avoided the rigorous demands accompanying the knowledge of God. When Columbus brought European history to the Western Hemisphere, he brought this argument with him. That accounts for much of the resulting conquest, slavery, war, exploitation and misery. Yet tragedies caused by rebellion against Christianity and its God cannot logically be blamed on that faith or that God.

Before examining Europe and the Columbian encounter, we must backpedal and look at the pre-Columbian world of the Americas. Can we summarize the diverse characteristics of its many indigenous peoples and cultures?


THERE IS MUCH TRUTH IN THE ROMANTICIZERS' PORTRAYAL, despite differences from place to place and changes over time. Pre-Columbian societies were not homogeneous or static. Rich fishing societies along the Pacific coast of Canada, communal agricultural Pueblo villages on the upper Rio Grande, migratory buffalo-hunting Plains tribes, settled Mississippi Valley corn-growers, small scattered groups of hunters and gatherers north of the St. Lawrence, urbanized Aztec imperialists--these varied greatly one from the other. Also, one group might at times change the other. Some time before A.D. 1000, Mayan-speaking traders spread a Caddo cult to the Mississippian culture in the lower river valley and altere