Columbus and the Europeans did not bring slavery, racism, inequality, exploitation, imperialism, or torture to the New World. They all already existed here. The peoples of the New World were human beings, like the people in the Old World, with the very same all-too-human traits we associate with human nature.
What Europeans did bring was Christianity, the only religion that took seriously the notion that all human beings have been made in the image and likeness of God – however much Christians in the New World may have failed to live up to that truth.
Fr. Las Casas and several theologians convinced the Spanish monarchs that it was immoral to enslave or mistreatment indigenous peoples and encouraged them to pass laws – usually ineffective – against the practice. They even helped persuade Pope Paul III to write in a 1537 encyclical that Indians “may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen it shall be null and of no effect.”
Later, it was Christians – mostly British Methodists – who stopped the slave trade and agitated for abolition.
Modern people heirs to that tradition usually fail to realize that the very principles that they use to criticize the misbehavior of European colonists stem from Biblical notions developed mostly in Europe. But there were evil practices to be dealt with among native populations as well. For example, there was human sacrifice in the Caribbean – and even cannibalism – when Columbus arrived there.
When Spaniards reached the mainland, they were horrified at the vast numbers of human beings who had their hearts cut out and their bodies thrown down the steps of the temples in Tenochtitlan — the core of today’s Mexico City. That city appeared to the earliest Spanish explorers, some of whom had sailed to the most opulent Mediterranean cities, as far richer in buildings, population, foodstuffs, and various cultural achievements than any city in Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.
Yet despite all that, like the Toltec, Olmec, Incan, and other large empires, it was also built by conquest over neighboring peoples and dependent on human sacrifice to gods whose theology required human blood to maintain the equilibrium of the world.
The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes has remarked on the epochal shift in native cultures in his country owing to Christian influence:
One can only imagine the astonishment of the hundreds and thousands of Indians who asked for baptism as they came to realize that they were being asked to adore a god who sacrificed himself for men instead of asking men to sacrifice themselves to gods, as the Aztec religion demanded.
Europeans committed many sins and outrages against native peoples, towards enslaved Africans, and towards one another in the centuries that have followed. But that does not mean that “Western Civ has got to go.” What kind of person dismisses a whole civilization? Only someone who can take civilization, Western in origin, for granted, and who is in crisis because he or she doesn’t realize how rare is a civilization that admits of self-criticism.
Rather, it’s now our task not to commit cultural suicide out of alienation and a misplaced perfectionism, but to live up to the promises of the West’s central beliefs. That process began on these shores in 1492 and has had many great and unprecedented successes amidst the failures. Not least, hope for a future of expanding freedom and justice, an American future that has astonished the world and holds out even greater things to come.
Robert Royal is the founder and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, an online publication that appears daily and is translated into five foreign languages. His latest book is . Columbus and the Crisis of the West