Considerations about Columbus and the Conquistadors

This blog posting was written not long after protests and violent clashes erupted over a statue of Christopher Columbus in the summer of 2020 in the “city of brotherly love.”  The status of the monument is in currently flux, due to a court ruling that placed a temporary “stay” on its removal from Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia.  A lawyer who represents a group of local residents who want the statue to remain called this decision “not just a victory for the Columbus Statue, [but] a victory for civilized society.” Statements of this kind raise issues about memorials of this sort, which – like many confederate statues across America – enshrine and celebrate highly contentious figures from history.  Taking such debates as a cue, in this blogpost I want you to think about the assigned readings from the “age of exploration” by viewing them from two divergent perspectives, as outlined below. 

1)  First, you might consider what, exactly, the “truth” is concerning Columbus’s journey, and the account of that journey.  Or, you could ask similar questions of “truth” about the texts written by/about the conquistador Hernan Cortes, Bartolome de las Casas, and the work known as the ‘Florentine Codex.’  What are some of the main obstacles to really knowing the “truth” on the issues and details presented in these texts?  If it is, perhaps, “inevitable” that the writing of history takes sides, what are the ramifications for our understanding of these texts from the “age of exploration” – and, more broadly, for our comprehension of power as articulated in the various historical works we have studied so far in Unit One? 

2)  Next class, we will be considering the subject of the Enlightenment, a concept that Immanuel Kant famously explained by saying that “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” (or, perhaps, “immaturity”). Kant criticized “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another” and encouraged his fellows to think critically and question accepted “truths” and structures of power.  In what ways, then, are the authors of the texts assigned for class today “enlightened” – or not?  To borrow from the lawyer’s statement above, how are these accounts presentations of “civilized” society – or not?  Alternately, you can again think broadly here, and highlight a truly “enlightened” idea that we have covered so far in class.  What made this notion so revolutionary in its own day and age?  As a member of “civilized” society in the twenty-first century, how do you respond to such “enlightened” thinking? 

16 thoughts on “Considerations about Columbus and the Conquistadors

  1. The truth behind all of these writings have been questioned and also scrutinized for many years. While reading all of these accounts of the newly found land it almost sounds like a utopia with how they are described. They describe all of the beautiful flowers, animals and water systems. They are very biased toward their new found territory because they want to continue to travel there. Their reports were given to the King and Queen of England along with gifts that they brought from their land. The royalty were the financial supporters of the voyage and without their support there would be no more explorations. With this being said the sailors were eager to make the new land as glamorous and extravagant as possible. This is not only because they wanted to be employed but also because there was great self benefit in the new world. As we learned from the text, the Indians, as they referred to them as, were not as intelligent as the sailors, so they would trade worthless junk like glass to the Indians for supplies much more valuable. These voyagers also enjoyed their time in the new world because they were treated like kings or “People from heaven”. The native people in these lands looked at them as people of heaven and were quick to give them food, beverage and also gifts.
    ` The writers of these texts in my mind were very far from being enlightened. I believe this because they wrote these passages and accounts of the new land solely from their own self interest. Without these texts it was highly unlikely that the king and queen would support these voyages. Being enlightened is to push away your immaturities and show the truth, which is very different from what these early voyagers did. As discussed earlier in the prompt Columbus’s statue is a symbol for civilized society. Even though this may be true for the civilization of America and American society this is vastly untrue for many other groups of society. When Columbus found this new world there were many civilizations, people and societies already here. Not only did he immediately take control and advantage of these people but he and his crew also beat, robbed and murdered many of the native people. As it is true that Columbus and many other explorers paved the way for American civilization, but it is also equally true that they paved over the native people and societies that were already here.

  2. 1. When it comes to Columbus’s journey the truth can become muddled depending on who would be the one to tell the story, especially for the fact that the journey included multiple accounts of uncaring acts and inconsiderate issues. Columbus sailed to the ‘New World’ only to force upon his rule and take over native lands as his own. Depending on perspective, one would say it was justified, or that it was cruel and selfish. One of the many obstacles we face today regarding the truth of the journey, is the view in which the Admiral faced personally, we may never honestly know of the situation, many would write for their experiences in a way to justify themselves. Similarly Hernan Cortes described his adventures. He wrote of his difficulties with the Tenochtitlan, justifying his reason for continuing the war against them, even after they asked him to leave to stop the war, these acts just contribute to his pride and self-willed goals.
    Power played a big role in both journeys. Columbus was so focused on his role of an Admiral and Governor, he lost sight of others. His blind road to fame and success allowed him to force power over others. Consequences were not included in his outcome, especially not for taking over native land and plundering them from their homes. Cortes wanted to be seen as a respectable man and honest leader, when in reality he already set his true intentions stating he needed to take down the leader, Moctezuma, for he had too much potential power. These actions remind me of the Hobbes theory, that all men are at war and always are searching of ways to achieve power over another.
    2. These authors do not represent nor carry any enlightened characteristics. To be enlightened, entails maturity and a sense of understanding of others feelings and behaviors. Both authors expressed an opposite reaction, not only being selfish but hurting and slaughtering against others in unspeakable ways. Additionally this underlines the multiple reasons as to why such a society deems as “uncivilized”. An enlightened society would be focused on the new ways of enjoyment and ways of living, not war.

  3. 1) The world has created its own idea of what really happened on the voyage of Columbus.They invaded the home of the Natives and took credit for it as their own, they abused their power and their knowledge to hurt and kill and take advantage of innocent families. Not only this, but they convinced themselves and others that human sacrifice was what God had wanted them to do. They were ruled by “God” who was okay with murdering. Many confuse their own personal beliefs with the way of living by using “God” as the ultimate guide of power. To attempt to justify moral wrongdoings and being conniving to those who only want to help, is the ultimate abuse of power. The writings of Columbus are swayed in a way that it comes off almost normal, the terrible treatment given to the Natives. Even Cortes, constnalty jusited the war and murder during his voyage. He was asked to leave and refused so they continued in war. Columbus similiary, abused his power as a way to manipulate and overtake and eventually murder the Natives.
    Power and religion played more of a role in Cortes’s journey. He justified the sacrifice of human beings and violent acts as devotion to God. Even the Aztecs believed the Spanish were these ancestral gods that they owed everything to. Along with this it was constant violence and brutality that he chose to embark on his journey.
    2) To be enlightened is to be set free from your ideals of immaturity and based on thse voyagers, they are from that. Both chose to lead with evil and abuse of power. Murder and cruelty is not civil, there could have been FAIR and equal comprises made for a more suffice way of living, minted of murder.

  4. Aidan Shandley
    1. It is not abnormal to hear about people having different perspectives on Columbus’ journey. Some of his actions were questionable to some people or inhumane. He sailed to America to claim the land for his, although there were already natives on the land. People claim that what he did was justifiable, others say cruel and that he should not have gotten credit for his actions. Hernan Cortes describes his journey in the text and explains what Columbus went through. He goes into detail about the war with the Tenochtitlan and how Columbus was fighting not only against them but with his own pride as well as to why he kept the war going. Power played the ultimate goal in his journey. He was in power by being the Admiral and Governor, and wanted more power by taking over the new land. For him, there were no consequences he could have faced as a leader and that goes to show how he acted. Whereas Cortes wanted to take over the leader Moctezuma, but at the same time wanted to be respected as a leader. This goes to show that when one has power, they will continue to do whatever means necessary to keep their power, or get more.

    2. To be enlightened one must be able to understand both sides of something, whereas both of these writers are picking a side. Both did not take into consideration any accounts of how the opposition felt, and were only acting in their own interests. Both led with violence and cruelty and there could have been other ways to settle disputes in which they encountered on the voyages.

  5. 1.) Over time, the truth behind an event can become so blurry that no one can tell what is true and what is not. Columbus and the age of the exploration is a prime example. Columbus recounted his first voyage through a letter, in which he told his story from his own perspective. Since this a primary source, it can be looked at as being true. Although, Columbus may have very well fabricated some details and left out others in order to sound more appealing to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. In Cortez’s second letter, he very explicitly states his brutal actions against the natives. Columbus and Cortez both are acting in what they think are in the best interest of their mother country. In order to understand the texts, one needs to understand the main goal of these conquistadors were to satisfy and enhance the state of the country from which they came. Since they believed that Spain was the best country in the world, perhaps Cortez and Columbus felt the need to exert power over people which they saw less than them.
    2) If you look at the author’s texts, it is very clear that they were not “enlightened” by Immanuel Kant’s definition. Nor Cortez or Columbus took the other side’s perspective into consideration when accounting for their journeys. They acted solely out of self-interest and the interest of Spain. Enlightened thinking is the best way to truly understand a situation. As an American in the 21st century, I see that enlightened thinking is often not used in politics. The ability to push away your own blind faith in something paves the way to being able to understand and contribute to something better.

  6. 1.) Christopher Columbus was credited with discovering the Americas. However, the truth upon discovering the Americas is still under debate. For example, when Columbus found the islands, he described them as being the entrance to the Garden of Eden, and described the natives as Indians, and how they welcomed them with open arms. Even though some tribes did welcome Columbus, most tribes in the Americas at that time were very hostile, and were not happy when Columbus claimed their land for Spain. Another example was Cortes, who invaded the Aztec Empire. He invaded them, even after the Aztecs refused to let him in, and the only justifiable way was to wage war against the Indians. In both these examples, Columbus and Cortes saw this as a way to covert more people to God, but never thinking to themselves how the natives feel about foreigners taking their land.

    2.) In their view, to be enlightened is to be European and Christian. In today’s world, to be enlightened is to be able to understand one’s feelings and emotions. Based on the texts, even though they were enlightened and believed they were doing the right thing, in reality, they were not, and ended up committing severe crimes.

  7. The many speculated “truths” of Christopher Columbus’ journey undoubtedly vary depending on one’s perspective of the age of exploration and conquistadors in general. The perspective of figures like Columbus and Cortes take a utopian point of view, one similar to the narrative we were taught in elementary school. We’re initially taught that Columbus sailed over on a journey to find a new world, made peace with Natives, and set the foundation for settlers for centuries to come. Even when compared with primary sources, this doesn’t seem too far off. The obviously questionable morals of conquistadors and figures during the age of exploration are likely to blame for this, because that is their truth. Obviously in recent history, though, the actions of Columbus and others are condemned, regardless of past perspectives because objectively, we are fully aware of the moral implications that coincide with conquering land. It is vital that we see through the biases in history. Very few primary sources lack partiality and understanding historical works should include studying these truths on an objective and moral basis, as well. We tend to idealize acts of power without considering their social and political effects. By immortalizing figures like Columbus through statues and commending their journeys in our textbooks, we glorify their malicious actions, too– the murders, rapes, and all.

    True enlightenment is establishing a personal understanding, disregarding prior influence from others and releasing oneself from close-mindedness; by this definition, the authors of the assigned texts are the farthest thing from enlightenment. The most revolutionary political and social movements stem from enlightenment and breaking the rules. What are the heights of societal enlightenment throughout history? The discovery of mathematical or philosophical theories? The civil rights movement and integration? Regardless of what event you may think of when it comes to enlightenment, the common factor is breaking the norm and current values held by society. What are history’s most shameful moments that lacked enlightenment? Nazi rule in Europe? Slavery in the United States? When society holds a mob mentality, we cannot achieve enlightenment. Perhaps people in the future will look back on the United States’ current political divisiveness in shame. The heights of civilization throughout history all reflect the resistance of a single power and thought.

  8. The “truth” in Columbus’ journey to the New World solely revolved around the Christian/Catholic faith. Much like we have explored in previous texts, Christianity is really the driving factor in everything done by the countries in Europe at that time. Likewise, Columbus uses his faith as rationale for plundering, murdering and enslaving indian tribes. According to the church, anything can be deemed rational as long as it is in the name of God. This does a lot to the perspective and understanding of what really happened vs. what the Spaniards account for what happend. The repercussions of this is we cannot get a full grasp of the truth behind the history since we only have a one sided story. This is huge because we do not get the perspective of the natives; what it was like to have “gods” come to their beaches and destroy everything they worked generations for. It is clear that a society’s God and Religion plays a huge role in power structures in such populaces, both native and European.
    Based off of the brief description of enlightenment, it seems that it is similar to meditation practices, the idea that one has to detach from everything that binds them to this Earth. In these practices, knowing your truth plays a big role. An enlightened society, to me, is one that practices humility and selflessness towards its people and foreigners. The texts surrounding Spanish invasions only prove that they were far from civilized and were far from just for slaughtering the countless number of people in the name of God, not to mention the gruesome scene they left behind in their plundering. The idea that anything that is God’s country is their country because they are disciples of God is a power structure that is apparent here and through the other texts we have read in the Crusade’s.

  9. The issue with understanding the absolute truth about history is the fact that history is written by the victors, and those that were defeated have little to no say as to what the truth truly is. When the majority of history is written by Europeans we mainly get a European perspective of the opinions, problems, and beliefs that Europeans had and who they considered foreigners had. This can be problematic when it comes to fully understand the dynamics of imperialism and colonialism that occurred around the world, by Europeans. I suppose they considered enlightened because they believed that enlightenment was a surge of belief in individualism and self-improvement, to be able to think without another man telling you what to think or what to do. These accounts of barbarity would not be considered “civilized” in the present day, but in their time were those that could conquer would, they considered their society to be civilized because they had better technologies and stronger weapons. Those notions were so revolutionary in those days because all the time before the period of enlightenment they never had such strides in technology or thought that a nab can be so individualistic. As a person living in the twenty-first century, I do not believe that what the colonizers did was justified whatsoever and I believe that it was hypocritical for them to believe that they were truly “civilized” when they would conquer and enslave other peoples.

  10. 1. When writing about an experience in life, people tend to tell other people their experiences through their point of view. There could be different stories about the same journey since there would be different points of view. With this idea in mind, it is right to say that authors, when it comes to a personal experience, tend to write the story to explain their side and their intensions regardless of the others. It makes difficult to know who is the one telling the truth, however, it is important to understand the writers feelings and reasons. Columbus traveled to the “New World” to conquer new lands. Depending of who is telling the story, the intentions and reasons could be different.
    2. The authors do not show any characteristics of enlightenment since being enlighten means having the maturity and understanding to care about other people and their behaviors. In the texts, the authors do not show any sign of enlightenment since they are selfish and do not care about others.

  11. The “truth surrounding Columbus’ journey varies frequently depending on who you ask. Many people give him total credit for discovering the americas, while others give full credit to earlier vikings. Many different factors regarding his journey are disputed, such as the origin of the name “Indians.” Most believe it arose from Columbus’ belief that he was in India, and not this new world. While fewer people say that during Columbus’ point in time India was only known as “Hindustan” and the name “Indian” came from Columbus using his poor Spanish to call the natives “Una gente in Dios,” meaning “a people of God,” later being shortened to “Indians.” This perspective also brings back the importance of religion to these people during the age of exploration. Many of the journeys these explores took were in the name of their god and country, whether for evangelism or conquest. A large portion of explorers of that time attempted to justify their horrific actions, claiming it was for the betterment of their god and country.
    To be enlightened, you have to have a full understanding of a subject from each perspective. These explorers were not like that at all. They simply knew their perspective and didn’t question its importance in comparison to the other views. They had no care for some of the natives in their respective “discoveries” and an enlightened person would understand the value every life holds.

  12. 1. Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who comes with scandal and problems. Theres two sides of the coin to observe when it comes to him: one side claims him as a successful explorer with an important legacy while on the other hand he is also seen as a forceful explorer who did horrible things in order to gain what he wanted. This leaves a confusing space in history and which side to believe in. As a child, we’re brought up to see the good side of Columbus and the importance of his life which could be harmful. Textbooks in general tend to do this by misleading students to focus on one thing and not the other sides that may be to the situation. Now, more recently, historians are beginning to uncover significant pieces of evidence painting Columbus in the true light that he should be seen in. The truth is, when it comes to American history, we tend to paint ourselves and our historical figures as heroic and we sweep their dirty laundry under the rug in order to keep the theme of nationalism strong. While this may be the case, there’s always going to be one person who is willing to break down the truth and dig deeper which is true for this scenario as well. When it comes to actual accounts of history, there’s some harm in them as well. For example, with Herman Cortes or Bartolome de las Casas, they are human just like you and me which means they have their own opinions and biases which could interfere with the truth going into these documents. Maybe Cortes had an agenda against Columbus so he’ll paint him out as a bad guy in his writings to destroy his reputation. On the other hand, maybe Bartolome was best buddies with Columbus so he’ll gladly write positive things about him to depict him as the hero he may see him as. In writings such as these, it is hard to avoid the biases that might come into play during the creation of the writing. The truth is for us to uncover if its true that history always picks a side. We must defend what we believe and what we see as factual depending on the facts and leaving aside the opinions.
    2.To be enlightened you must be able to see all sides of the situation free of your own opinions or biases. While people like this might be hard to find, it isn’t too hard to practice as a common person. Writers must take into account all sides of the coin based on the factual evidence first free of opinion, then maybe draw conclusions based on their own findings but the important part is the first half. However, these “leaders” chose to concur with brute force and an evilness that scared many even today. They are not enlightened considering they were only going upon their own die hard beliefs and never took the time to consider what their actions may cause.

  13. 1) Columbus’s expedition and “discovery” of America has become a subject of much debate in recent years. He uses his letters to paint a picture of a land that is peaceful and welcoming, and that the natives were happy to have him and his party arrive on their land. He talks about how they were willing to give up possessions of large value for trifles and that the natives thought that they had come from Heaven. However there is a much darker side to this story. Many tribes were at constant war with each other, and it is highly unlikely that they willingly allowed Columbus to claim their land for Spain. He depicts them as naive and peaceful groups however this is extremely unlikely. I don’t think any group of people would ever willingly allow themselves to be conquered, and have their ways of life drastically changed. While there may be some truth to what Columbus writes about, it is likely that this is an exaggeration meant to deceive his royal financial backers into believing his journey was a complete and easy success. However due to a lack of an account on the natives part, the horrors that Columbus committed are omitted which is what led to his high praise. Hernan Cortes appears to be more truthful in his accounts of his expedition, however there is likely much exaggeration in these as well. Cortes disobeyed the orders he was given in order to pursue his own goals with the Aztecs, however he attempts to justify his actions. Cortes claims that much of his violence came from his attempts to convert the Aztecs to Christianity and their unwillingness is what led to their downfall. He also uses Qualpopoca’s false welcome and execution of two Spaniards to justify his seizure of Tenochitlán, assuming the possibility of a betrayal from Moctezuma as well. While both Columbus and Cortes may have some truth to their accounts, the complete truth is always lost in every account, even when it comes from a primary source. The only ones who truly know what happened, are the ones who were there to witness it.

    2) Enlightenment requires a person to be able to understand something from both sides, and a maturity that allows them to be open-minded. Neither Columbus nor Cortes fall under Kant’s definition as they both acted for self benefit without consideration of the other party’s wishes. Columbus claims he was welcomed by the natives and they were content with being under Spanish control, however he never appears to try and understand if this is what they actually want, which they certainly did not. Cortes is the same way, Moctezuma states that the Aztec empire belonged to Spain, however he had no reason to say this and Spain had no right to rule it. It is highly unlikely that this is how Moctezuma felt and Cortes likely changed the narrative to fit and justify his conquest.

  14. 1. Finding the real “truth” in these texts can be somewhat challenging. Many people have different perspectives and viewpoints on how Columbus’ journey went and the truths behind it. Columbus’ journey to the Americas was to take peoples land and it was brutal in the way that it was done. They took advantage of the power that they had over the natives and brought upon a lot of damage to their communities and murdered many innocent people. Many people also have a different viewpoint and say that Columbus’ actions were justifiable. In Hernan Cortez text, he also explains his journey similarly to Columbus journey. Cortez talks about the war he went into with the Aztecs, and how he also made many cruel actions against the native people. Religion was also a key motivation for Columbus and the Conquistadors quests for power, as it was a big reason as to why the explorers were going on these voyages in the first place.
    2. The authors of these texts are not enlightened at all. In Immanuel Kant’s meaning of enlightenment, it is to understand someone else’s feelings and perspective. None of the voyagers took into perspective of what someone else’s understandings might be, and were blinded by their own selfish ideals. Many things could have been done in a much more peaceful way, but instead Columbus and Cortez decided to use violence.

  15. I believe that it is the inevitable issue in historical writings that many of the others have a biased opinion on events that take place. This prevents future audiences from having a true look at the events that unfolded, preventing them from making accurate descriptions of the accounts. Just from looking at one sole account and basing that as your judgement for power would skew the classes assumptions made about the definition of power. However, by reading multiple accounts on what power is, creates a more thorough understanding of power as we study.
    I believe that being civilized is a concept that is subjective. I think that the accounts we have studied so far are sufficiently civilized, but it is debatable whether or not they are completely civilized with their social ideas in our modern day ideas of being civilized. I think the enlightened thinking is the blueprint to our modern day society and creates for more of an expansion of enlightened thinking today.

  16. 1. Finding the real truth in these kinds of stories and text can be a challenge. People usually tell spires from their point of view and how they experienced the situation. This makes it difficult to know what the real truth about things would be. If someone is writing or telling a story about their experience they are not gonna tell it from how someone else saw it they are gonna tell it how they experienced it. For granted there are many different views that people have on how Columbuses journey went. So looking at one story of how this happened and no other is going to have the power to make you bleive that what you read is the truth. But if you read multiple stories on what happened then your stuck thinking what the real truth may be. He traveled to a new world to explore but what his real reasons are could differ depending who your asking.

    2. Being enlightened is really understanding both sides of something. With this examples the authors are choosing sides when it comes to what they are talking about. Neither of these authors show an understanding of both sides or care about others so there is no enlightenment.

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