The Meaning of Columbus Day

Mac Chapin

A year ago I was walking through a shopping mall in northern Virginia when I passed by a tobacco shop. A life-sized wooden Indian, clutching a handful of cigars, was guarding the door. Someone had taped a sign to its chest that read: "Happy Columbus Day."

Shortly after, I came upon a statement made by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, on the eve of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. He called the Admiral's landfall "one of the greatest achievements of human endeavor," and added, "I strongly encourage every American to support the Quincentennary, and to discover the significance that this milestone in history has in his or her own life."

But just what "significance" does Columbus Day have, or should it have, in our lives? It celebrates the day, 516 years ago, when three small boats carrying Spanish sailors "discovered" the Western Hemisphere. This Encounter of Two Worlds, as it is often called, was the first step in a process that led, in short order, to the conquest and European subjugation of the native peoples of this newly found continent. It determined the direction the Americas were to take from that point on, and when we contemplate the significance of Columbus Day in our lives we need to take into consideration the whole package, from discovery through conquest to domination.

All of us were taught the history of the Spanish Discovery and Conquest of the Americas early on in school. Many bits and pieces of this history remain firmly lodged in our heads these many years later, yet strangely, for most of us they are scattered images that, if we inspect them carefully, don't fit together to forma very a coherent picture. They are, quite simply, inadequate as explanations. This is in large part because our school lessons were based on historical accounts that were often incomplete and confused, and they were one-sided, often flagrantly so, with a strong pro-European bias.

This was the state of historical interpretation of the Spanish Discovery and Conquest of the Americas up through the 1960s, and it was this way across the hemisphere, from north to south. Since then, some of the drumbeating for European superiority has subsided-we are less likely to be told, for example, that the appearance of the Spaniards in Mexico was "the vanguard of the great European Advance toward the broader knowledge of man and of this planet," or that the Aztecs were "mentally deranged" and in the same league with the Nazis*-but many of the old biases and stereotypes have held on tenaciously and still inhabit the pages of popular as well as scholarly histories for adults and children.

My subject here is the way historians have characterized this pivotal period in our history, and the consequences these characterizations have had on our thinking about the events themselves, the peoples who took part in them, and their successors, including all of us who currently live in this part of the world. I will draw primarily on the historical record from Central Mexico, where the Spaniards took on the powerful Mexica (Aztec) Empire, but the same characterizations, in roughly similar form, hold for the Spanish invasion of the Inca Empire to the south.

Discovery and Conquest

On the evening of October 11, 1492, a fleet of three Spanish ships-the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María-was nearing the end of a five-week voyage across the Atlantic. Their captain, a Genoese navigator named Christopher Columbus, was standing on the deck of the Santa María when what appeared to be a light was spotted in the distance. Land was sighted several hours later, illuminated by the moon, and the following morning Columbus and a handful of his men took a small boat ashore on an island (no one is certain today which one it was) somewhere on the rim of the Caribbean Sea. The natives who came to meet them were peaceful, generous, and accommodating. Columbus wrote in his diary that "...they invite you to share anything that they possess, and show as much love as if their hearts went with it...." He went on to observe " easy it would be to convert these people-and to make them work for us."

Columbus made three more journeys to the New World, and in his wake came an ever-increasing procession of Spanish ships. The Spaniards made their way past the Caribbean islands to the mainland, traveled along the coast of Mexico and Central America, and eventually trekked across the Panamanian isthmus to the Pacific Ocean. Their primary quest was after riches, especially gold. During these journeys they learned of vast stores of wealth inland in the highlands of central Mexico.

Here the narrative is transformed into a story that is, as the historian William H. Prescott noted, "too startling for the probabilities demanded by fiction, and without a parallel in the pages of history." In 1519, Hernán Cortés led "a handful of resolute men," as one historian puts it, into the heart of the formidable and highly militaristic Mexica Empire. Two years later they laid siege to the imperial city of Tenochtitlan and after just under three months of fighting emerged victorious, leaving it in ruins and the majority of its inhabitants dead. Ten years later, Francisco Pizarro marched straight into the jaws of the equally fierce Inca Kingdom in the Andean highlands. He had no more than 168 men under his command, yet in short order he brought the Incas to their knees and gained control of the region.

And these two civilizations were not only defeated. They disintegrated and disappeared and were never able to reconstitute themselves. They left behind little more than a scattering of temples, pyramids, stone sculptures, and fragmentary histories of their former glory and achievements. And this happened everywhere the Europeans went. Their victories over the New World kingdoms were swift and decisive, and within the space of a few decades they had taken the core areas of the hemisphere from top to bottom. Those native people who managed to survive had become either slaves or fugitives in their own land, and the history of the New World had been altered drastically and irrevocably.

How did this happen?

The traditional narrative of the Conquest weaves together several causal threads. First, the story goes, in Mesoamerica the Mexica thought the Spaniards were gods and were paralyzed with fear and unable to think or act rationally. Montezuma, the Mexica emperor, believed Cortés to be the god Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, who was returning from the east to reclaim his throne, as had been foretold, and he was seized with panic. "He felt his empire melting away like a morning mist," in the words of Prescott.

Another ingredient revolves around the nature of the New World empires: while they appeared to be mighty and substantial, they were in fact very fragile, for they depended on relentless exploitation of their subjects. The Mexica, we are told, enslaved their neighbors, exacted onerous tribute from them, and took them captive for ritual sacrifice. In short, they were brutal tyrants who were hated throughout the region. Cortés quickly picked up on these divisions and skillfully exploited them. He enlisted the Mexica's disaffected neighbors as allies, and the combined Spanish-Indian force overwhelmed the already panic-stricken Mexica. His advisor and interpreter (and mistress) in much of this venture was the Indian maiden Malinali (generally referred to as La Malinche in Mexico, where the word malinchista has come to mean "traitor").

A third element of the traditional story paints the Spaniards as hardened, pragmatic soldiers experienced in the art of warfare, while the Indians viewed warfare as a ritual to be fought according to strict, and greatly limiting, rules of engagement. The Spaniards, in the Indians' eyes, broke all the rules and dove in relentlessly for the kill. Beyond this, the Spaniards greatly outclassed the Indians with their superior military technology: "steel swords versus obsidian-edged clubs; muskets and cannon against arrows and spears; metal helmets and bucklers in contrast to feathered headdresses and shields," according to one historian. And of course they came with horses and savage armored dogs, while their opponents had no animals to assist them. In short, the Indians were completely outclassed militarily.

A final ingredient is the European diseases against which the native peoples had no immunological defenses. But this was a late entry into the historical record and it played no important role in the traditional narrative as it developed initially. Lethal epidemics of Old World diseases were described in contemporary accounts, often in great detail, yet historians had paid them little attention until several scholars dredged them out of obscurity in the 1960s. This revelation, which included claims of a catastrophic demographic collapse among the native peoples, was at first met with skepticism, and although it has now gained general acceptance as a rightful piece of the puzzle, it rests uneasily amid the other features of the Conquest narrative. Many historians have been uncertain about how to handle it.

Evolving History

The historical record of the Conquest begins with the firsthand accounts of the conquistadors themselves. In Mexico, the most prominent of these were Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, whose True History of the Conquest of New Spain is generally considered to be the most accurate record of the armed conflict. These accounts are supplemented by documents produced by a succession of Catholic priests, chroniclers of different stripes, and assorted bureaucrats within the Spanish imperial system during the early sixteenth century.

A large portion of this material was brought together and synthesized in the 1840s by the Boston historian William Hickling Prescott, who wrote the first systematic and comprehensive histories of the Conquest. Prescott published History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843 and History of the Conquest of Peru in 1847. Both books by any measure are remarkable achievements-all the more so because Prescott was legally blind and was never able to set foot in either Mexico or Peru.

He also only had the Spanish side of the story. While the Indians had incipient writing systems involving pictographs in Mesoamerica and knotted strings (quipu) in the Andes, these were rudimentary in comparison to the European alphabets and were effectively obliterated by Spanish priests in the first years after the Conquest. And even if they had possessed more sophisticated writing systems, it's likely that they would have been too confused and distressed to record their thoughts as they were being sucked into the chaotic maelstrom of the Spanish invasion. Some decades later, Catholic priests trained a select group of surviving Mexica to transcribe accounts of their vanished society in Nahuatl, their native language. But these codices contain no first-hand glimpses into the military campaign. Records exist of what the Spaniards thought the Indians were thinking, or wanted their readers to think they were thinking, but these are poor substitutes for hearing directly from the Indians, and the Spanish accounts are frequently self-serving and misleading.

Moreover, Prescott was writing during the infancy of historiography, and his works are best seen as fusions of literature and the first tentative steps toward "scientific" history. In his day, he was often compared to the historical novelists Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, and over the years analysis of his work has been the province of literary critics as much as historians. He noted in his diary that with History of the Conquest of Mexico he was setting out to create "an epic in prose, a romance of chivalry."

He succeeded brilliantly. First, he produced a riveting adventure tale in the best romantic tradition. History of the Conquest of Mexico is an exhilarating read, replete with tense confrontations and negotiations, ambushes, hair's-breadth escapes, daring battle maneuvers, blood-soaked massacres, treacherous duplicity, and ferocious hand-to-hand combat. Prescott used a variety of literary techniques, one being to place Cortés and his men in impossibly perilous situations and then have them miraculously and heroically break free at the last possible moment, ending his chapters with cliffhangers. To make this work, he frequently embellished and even restructured the factual record. It made for electrifying reading, and it is no wonder that his books have become the primary sources for virtually every movie ever filmed about the Conquest.

But Prescott was also crafting amorality drama that showcased the inevitable collapse of a morally depraved and despotic barbarian empire at the hand of a highly civilized and vastly superior European kingdom. In Prescott's eyes, the Mexica were savages of the most degenerate sort: they practiced cannibalism, human sacrifice, sodomy, and various other crimes against nature, and they sadistically preyed on their neighbors. The Conquest was the work of Providence, an idea first put forward by Cortés and the others; it was a triumph of civilization over barbarity and of Christianity over pagan superstition.

And indeed this came to pass amid extreme carnage and the razing of Tenochtitlan. Between 100,000 and 250,000 of the city's inhabitants died in the assault. Prescott informs us that the Mexica were doomed from the very start, and their empire "...fell by the hands of its own subjects, under the direction of European sagacity and science." The Mexica crumbled from within and their fate serves as "...a striking proof, that a government, which does not rest on the sympathies of its subjects, cannot long abide; that human institutions, when not connected with human prosperity and progress, must fall." He acknowledges that the Spaniards have been accused of excessive brutality, and he laments the loss of life. "Yet we cannot regret the fall of an empire," he reflects, "which did so little to promote the happiness of its subjects, or the real interests of humanity."

Prescott personified this struggle in the contrasting figures of Cortés and Montezuma. Cortés is pictured as courageous, steadfast, self-reliant, a brilliant strategist and tactician, a skillful politician, and an unsurpassed leader of men. We see him leading his men fearlessly into the thick of battle, rousing his followers with impassioned speeches, and destroying pagan idols. By contrast, his Mexica counterpart is portrayed as dimwitted, vacillating, cowardly, and effeminate, a pathetic figure who, when he first receives word of the arrival of the White Gods in Mexico (it is in Prescott that Montezuma believes Cortés to be Quetzalcoatl), is racked with "paroxysms of despair. "To be sure, Cortés has his defects-Prescott describes him as avaricious and "lax in his notions of morality"-but on balance he is an exceptional human figure: "a knight errant, in the literal sense of the word."

Prescott's Legacy

Prescott's vision of the Conquest has had incalculable influence on both historians and the general public throughout the world. His books have been popular in Europe, North America, and Latin America since they were published. They can be found in virtually every library of any size in the United States and purchased off the shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble. He is cited as a major influence by later historians, including Hugh Thomas, whose massive Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1993) pays tribute to the man he dubs "the great Bostonian." Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman used Prescott as her primary source for a short description of the Conquest of Mexico in her last book, The March of Folly (1984). Even The Rough Guide to Mexico (2007 edition) cites Prescott for its brief account of the Conquest.

One aspect stressed by the Spanish chroniclers was that the American continent was inhabited by heathen savages, and the Spaniards were involved in a project to civilize it, especially through the imposition of Christianity. This was, they argued, a "just war" and regime change was in order. Later historians picked up this notion and carried it forward, not only in Spain but also in Mexico, although here there was some ambivalence (were the Indians really to be seen as the "true" Mexicans? Or were the Spaniards their root stock?).

Following their independence from Spain in the 1820s, Mexican scholars began searching for positive, heroic images of the pre-Hispanic peoples to burnish their national identity, but they could find little of value beyond some artwork and astronomy. The school textbooks they  eventually produced ended up highlighting cannibalism and human sacrifice, and native society in general (not just the Mexica) was depicted as cruel, twisted, and generally abominable. In the late nineteenth century, the educator and historian Justo Sierra, minister of education under President Porfirio Díaz, effused: "Ah! Mother Spain, your great shadow is present in all of our history; to you we owe civilization...." And in Breve Historia de México (1937),Mexican historian/philosopher José Vasconcelos wrote that "Spain destroyed nothing, for nothing worth preserving existed when she arrived in these territories, unless one sees as sacred all of those weeds of the soul that are the cannibalism of the Caribes [Indians of the Caribbean], the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, the brutalizing despotism of the Incas."

Similar arguments flowed from the pens of North American historians such as Hubert Herring and Henry Bamford Parkes, both writing in the 1960s.

A closely associated, if somewhat less strident, assertion is that with the Conquest the Spaniards simply decapitated the indigenous leadership of the two empires and took its place, leaving the body (the masses) more or less intact. In Central Mexico, writes John Edwin Fagg in Latin America: A General History (1963),"...those who accepted Cortés in place of Montezuma paid tribute and permitted Christian missionary activities and lived very much as before. "He adds, "If anything, the new regime was more agreeable than the Aztec despotism." This concept, which I remember clearly from my school days, has had considerable staying power and is still a strong feature in history books. "Within these Indian kingdoms and communities," writes Edwin Williamson in The Penguin History of Latin America (1992),"traditional life went on much as before, and, having accepted their new masters, it made sense also to accept their religion." "The top of the pyramid had been lopped off," writes Marshall Eaken in The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures (2007), "and the Spanish replaced the Aztecs as the rulers of the Mexicans."

The Diseases

As already noted, until the 1960s historians made no more than passing mention of disease epidemics in their accounts of the Conquest. Prescott injects but one brief description of a "...terrible epidemic, the small-pox, which was now sweeping over the land like fire over the prairies, smiting down prince and peasant, and adding another to the long train of woes that followed the march of the white men." This occurs as the Spaniards are heading for the final assault on the Mexica capital, and it sounds like a major development, one that would have a profound impact on the entire Spanish enterprise.

Yet Prescott suddenly drops it, leaving it behind like a tiny, inconsequential island in the middle of his onrushing narrative of military and diplomatic adventures. When the Spaniards enter Tenochtitlan and come upon buildings whose floors are "...covered with prostate forms of the miserable inmates, some in the agonies of death, others festering with corruption; men, women, and children, inhaling the poisonous atmosphere...," Prescott sees the cause of this "appalling spectacle" as starvation and dysentery, not smallpox. Later historians similarly mentioned epidemic outbreaks, especially of smallpox, but assigned them little importance.

It is generally accepted today that 50-80 million people were living in the Americas in 1492, and that shortly after this time they suffered a precipitous demographic collapse. The collapse radiated throughout the hemisphere, hitting hardest in the tropical lowlands and areas of dense settlement. Few regions escaped its reach, including remote corners where Europeans had never set foot. A number of scholars estimate that 90-95 percent of the native population died during the first century after contact. Others are more restrained, but all agree that the death toll was immense-the most catastrophic population disaster in human history.

What caused this massive die-off?

When the Spaniards laid anchor in the Caribbean they brought with them a cargo of virulent and utterly foreign pathogens: smallpox, measles, chicken pox, typhus, typhoid, influenza, whooping cough, bubonic plague, malaria, yellow fever, and others. The peoples of the Americas had been isolated from Eurasia for more than 20,000 years, had had no exposure to these diseases, and were without immunological defenses against them. Diseases that were generally mild in the Old World, such as smallpox and measles, became lethal in the New World ecosystem. Soon after they came ashore they morphed into what epidemiologists call "virgin soil epidemics" and began to make the rounds, with disastrous effect. Community death tolls of 50-70 percent in a single pass were common.

The depopulating of the Caribbean islands was well under way by the end of the first decade of the sixteenth century, and the Indians there were virtually extinct by mid century. An array of different illnesses was most certainly involved. Smallpox, the most murderous of the lot, reached the Yucatán Peninsula by 1518 and the Mexica capital in 1519, just before Cortés's final assault, and the Inca Empire by 1526, fully five years before Pizarro and his 168 men showed up. The rulers of both kingdoms died and were replaced; lesser political and military leaders were also stricken, along with a sizeable portion of the general fighting force, and in the Andes civil war had broken out between the followers of the two remaining sons of the royal family. Both regions were in a state of turmoil, and the ground was well prepared for the Spanish invasion.

And the epidemics did not stop with the Conquest. They continued to rage unfettered, passing through in waves, sometimes arriving in tandem. Before communities were able to recover from one attack, they were pummeled again, and again. Between 1520 and 1600, at least 14 distinct major epidemics of various illnesses were recorded in central Mexico, and no fewer than 17 passed through the Andes. Add to these all of the unreported "minor" epidemics and assorted Old World scourges making the rounds, and we can begin to understand the unrelenting ferocity of the microbial onslaught.

When they struck, the epidemics immobilized entire communities and regions. With the majority of the people infected and many dying or dead, there was no one to care for the sick. Children and the elderly were utterly defenseless. Traditional social mechanisms broke down, work in the fields came to a halt, and crops were left unharvested; trade networks and food distribution systems were cut. "And then came famine, not because of want of bread, but of meal, for the women do nothing but grind maize between two stones and bake it. The women, then, fell sick of the smallpox, bread failed, and many died of hunger." And, of course, "there were not enough living people to dig graves for the dead, so that death itself assumed the role of gravedigger." "Great was the stench of the dead," recorded the Cakchiquel Mayas. "After our fathers and grandfathers succumbed, half of the people fled to the fields. The dogs and vultures devoured the bodies. The mortality was terrible."

An Uneasy Fit

The evidence we now have for epidemics and the demographic collapse of the first century after contact is substantial. Much of the new information has been mined from the chronicles of Catholic priests-Bartolomé de las Casas, Bernardino de Sahagún,Motolinía, and others-and the reports of bureaucrats and Spanish landholders complaining about the disappearance of their labor force. The conquistadors, by contrast, barely mention epidemics (Cortés, for example, has just two brief mentions of smallpox, in his third letter to Carlos V) and this may at least partially explain their absence in the works of later historians, for history has traditionally been seen as a chronology of armed conflict and political intrigue, not the actions of microbes. Some historians have suggested that the conquistadors, with their attention quite understandably focused elsewhere, simply failed to pick up on the implications of the epidemics.

The result of the new information is that virtually every history dealing with the European Conquest and domination of the New World's peoples now includes something about the epidemics and the population decline. Even children's histories and elementary school texts contain short discussions of these matters. Yet there is considerable variance regarding the role given disease in the drama that unfolded, and figuring out how to deal with this has proved difficult.

At one end we have William McNeill and Alfred Crosby, along with a small but well armed band of scholars, who argue that the epidemics, especially those of smallpox, played a major if not decisive part in the Spanish Conquest. Absent the epidemics, neither Cortés nor Pizarro would have prevailed-and it is likely, Crosby suggests, that Cortés would have ended his days spread-eagled on the sacrificial altar of Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica Sun God. There would have been no catastrophic population disaster, and if the Spaniards had succeeded in colonizing the New World, it would have been similar to European colonization in Asia and Africa, with the eventual withdrawal of the colonizers.

Hugh Thomas positions himself at the other extreme, calling the claims of Crosby and McNeill "extravagant." For him, the Spanish achieved victory over the Mexica because of their military and diplomatic superiority, aided by allies recruited from among disgruntled neighbors of the Mexica. He estimates roughly 100,000Mexica killed in the final battle for the city, with perhaps 100 Spanish soldiers dead. He concludes, "The difference between the numbers of conquistadors And Mexica dead may be held to indicate the superior fighting skill of the former." He makes no mention of smallpox, which was raging through the city at the time, and while his 800-page book contains several descriptions of epidemics, they are slim and walled off from the main narrative. A similar approach is evident in the works of a number of other prominent scholars who deal with the Conquest; they mention the epidemics but assign them little importance in their narratives, which are dominated by battleground heroics and the political skills of the Spaniards.

Now, one might consider it reasonable to assume that an army stricken by a disease that kills half its soldiers and sickens most of the rest would be seriously impaired in its ability to fight. One might also reasonably assume that wholesale death among the native peoples, where they were dying "in heaps, like bedbugs," as the Franciscan priest Motolinía put it, while the Spaniards remained healthy, would have some impact on the course of events. Might not the decision of the Tlascalans and their neighbors to join forces with the bearded white men whose language was unintelligible to them have been influenced by the hope that such an alliance would provide them with some measure of protection against the unseen and thoroughly mysterious plagues?

We know that the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe, which left a death toll roughly one-third as devastating as the epidemics of the New World and had a much shorter duration, filled the residents with paralyzing feelings of despair, anxiety, and flat-out terror. "The apparition of Antichrist was announced many times and in many places," writes Philip Ziegler. "Floods, famines, fire from heaven were perpetually around the corner. The Turks and Saracens planned a descent on Italy; the English on France; the Scots on England." The major difference, of course, was that while it was only the Europeans' imaginations that were running riot, the Americans actually were being invaded. Would not all of this-the phantom, deadly diseases; the breakdown in traditional social order; famine; and armed conflict by "a handful of resolute men" armed with steel swords and mounted on four-legged beasts-have had a profound influence on the collective psyche of the native Americans?

The impact of the epidemics was of course huge, but how might one go about explaining what it was? We have no solid evidence to argue a case one way or another. The Indians left us no testimony; none of the Spaniards was systematically monitoring this particular angle at the time; and in any event, neither the Indians nor the Spaniards understood where the diseases had come from or how they were transmitted. Yet beyond these considerations, historians have traditionally ignored the effects of epidemics, largely because they feel uncomfortable with them. The epidemics are as vaporous as mist; they work quietly behind the scenes and out of sight, and pinning down and describing their impact is essentially impossible. How, for example, would events have unfolded if no diseases had made their appearance? We can't begin to answer this question without diving headlong into pure speculation.

In short, the role played by epidemics defies rigorous analysis. Discussions of disease and its impact are now obligatory, but they are generally framed as little more than add-ons that exist as capsules, insulated from the body of the narrative, which for most historians remains largely as Prescott created it. Thomas's Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico is essentially an update, with additional sources, of the work of Prescott, and the epidemics have no particular part to play in it. There have been no more than a few partial, and not entirely successful, attempts to integrate this new dimension into history books in organic fashion, and many historians simply ignore it.

Yet just because the ravages of deadly epidemics and the dramatic population disaster elude historical analysis doesn't mean that they didn't take place and had no effect, or minimal-and unstated-effect. It also doesn't negate the fact that what happened was a human tragedy of monumental proportions. Disease, of course, didn't account for the entire death toll, at least directly, but it made all that followed possible and even inevitable. The epidemics swept across the American landscape like shock troops, and in their wake came starvation, the destruction of traditional institutions, and a profound sense of demoralization and spiritual confusion.  They most certainly influenced the way the different Indian groups dealt with the foreigners, how they weighed the advantages and disadvantages of becoming allies of the Spaniards. Wouldn't the groups that joined the Spaniards have been more concerned for their own survival in a world suddenly turned treacherously lethal than in mounting a full-scale attack on the Mexica, however resentful they may have been?

There is another problem with any project to reconfigure the story of the Conquest. The traditional, epidemic-free narrative served us very well for generations. We all grew up with it, we learned it in school, and most people in academia and in the general public feel entirely comfortable with it the way it stands. It "explains" the Discovery and Conquest of the New World in a manner that is coherent, elegant, and thoroughly satisfying, and it is exciting to boot-a true "epic in prose," as Prescott put it. Can anyone imagine how the story would play in school texts, or on the silver screen for that matter, if the derring-do and heroism of the battlefield, with Cortés and his armored followers hacking their way through armies of bronzed warriors with plumed headdresses and obsidian tipped war clubs, were to be replaced by communities overflowing with dead and dying men, women, and children covered with suppurating sores and gasping for air?


Yet we must concern ourselves with historical interpretations of the Conquest. The events themselves are beyond our reach, but the way we view them is not, and it is here that we are confronted with a long tradition of vilification of the native peoples of the Americas.

Beginning with the Spanish chroniclers, historians have variously described the Mexica and the Inca, and by extension Indians in general, as defective. They are viewed as weak, irrational, ruled inordinately by superstition, incapable of thinking for themselves, degenerate, unreliable, untrustworthy, passive, and fatalistic. Prescott's characterization of Montezuma as a simple-minded coward has been recycled time and again and has been firmly lodged in our heads as symbolic of all Indians. Cannibalism and human sacrifice are consistently brought forth as proof of Indian savagery, and both the Mexica and the Inca are portrayed as bloodthirsty and tyrannical, traits that brought about their downfall. The Indians were outclassed on the battlefield, outmaneuvered diplomatically, and lured from their pagan ways with the more enlightened Christian religion, as evidenced by the mass baptisms that harvested upward of 10,000 new souls in a matter of hours (Motolinía estimated that he had performed over 400,000 baptisms over the years). Finally, the Indians proved to be "inefficient" as laborers-"so weak that they can only be employed in tasks requiring little endurance"-and had to be replaced with Negroes, "a race robust for labor." In other words, they didn't even make good slaves.

Yet the native peoples had evolved an impressive variety of languages and cultures and levels of development, with two powerful and highly sophisticated empires standing atop a landscape dotted with towns and villages of all sizes and configurations. When the Spaniards first descended into the Valley of Mexico in 1519 they were awestruck. They had never witnessed anything even remotely similar. "And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water," wrote Bernal Díaz," and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco],we were astounded.... Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream." By comparison, Madrid at that time had fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

All of this intricate diversity began to unravel with the arrival of three Spanish ships, and events soon grew into a tragedy too great, and too horrific, to be grasped by the human imagination. The native peoples today have been reduced to ethnic minorities mired in chronic poverty. Most of them have taken refuge in or been pushed into remote regions, out of sight, where they lack the most basic social services. They are without political clout and are now being newly overrun by multinational oil and mining companies, soybean farmers, cattle ranchers, and loggers. It is, in effect, the Second Conquest.

But there is some hope this time around. Indian organizations have sprung up to confront the outside threats and they have begun to assert themselves in national politics in key areas of Latin America. The age of extreme vulnerability to disease has passed and, with the exception of a few of the more isolated tribes, epidemics are no longer a factor. Their increasing involvement in politics has had considerable impact in several countries, to the point where non-indigenous elites have sounded the alarm. The recent election of Evo Morales, an Aymara, to the presidency of Bolivia is one sign of a resurgence of indigenous self-confidence and determination.

Certainly, huge economic, political, and economic obstacles still stand in their way. Although Indian peoples are making progress, the going is rough and they must still contend with the powerful prejudices and scurrilous stereotypes of Indians that have accumulated on Latin America's collective consciousness like barnacles on the underbelly of an old ship. These prejudices are ever-present in daily life, manifesting themselves in expressions such as "Don't behave like an Indian!" when someone behaves stupidly or obnoxiously. They are also laced throughout the seemingly innocuous history books our children read in school. Just cast a glance around and you will see them, everywhere.

Visualizing Columbus Day

The traditional image of Columbus's discovery of the New World shows the Admiral stepping onto land with a flag in one hand and a sword in the other. He is surrounded by his fellow sailors, some of whom are carrying guns and swords. A friar strides next to Columbus holding a cross on high. The three Spanish caravels are behind them, bobbing in the sun-drenched Caribbean. Observing this triumphal scene are several diminutive, semi-naked Indians hiding in the bushes off to the side.

I would like to suggest an alternative image, one that better represents what really occurred when the two halves of the world came together on the morning of October 12, 1492:

Four horsemen spur their steeds off the Spanish ships and make their way up the beach to high ground. The first horseman is Pestilence, and he is the most formidable of the lot. His companions are Famine, War, and Death. They pause briefly to survey the landscape stretching out before them, then set off in the direction of the nearest community. The natives come out, tentatively at first, to greet them. They are healthy and well formed, and they invite the strangers to share their food and whatever else they might desire.

And that was the beginning of their long and terrifying journey through the heartland of the New World...

Mac Chapin is an anthropologist who has worked with indigenous peoples in Latin America for over four decades. He is the co-founder and director of the Center for the Support of Native Lands, a non-profit organization based in Arlington, Virginia.