For Columbus Day

In The American Spectator, Armando Simón defends Christopher Columbus, claiming that he was not as bad as his current reputation holds. This does not excuse what Spanish colonialism became, of course, and the idea that “the founder was good, it’s just that the people who came after him messed things up” is a trope (i.e. the founder more than likely shares some of the blame). Still, Simón raises some good points:

There is not one single historical source in existence that substantiates any of the “crimes.” Not one. None!

Consult, not secondary sources written centuries later by individuals with a political agenda, but primary (i.e., contemporary) sources in the original Spanish: Los Cuatro Viajes del Almirante y su Testamento, and, Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias, both by Bartolomé de las Casas. De las Casas, as every schoolchild in the Caribbean and Spain knows, was The Apostle of the Indians, an indefatigable defender of the Indians who fulminated endlessly against the Spanish crimes on the indigenous people. More importantly, he chronicled the atrocities against the Indians, fearlessly naming the criminals. Not once does he mention Columbus as an evildoer. On the contrary, he documented the exact opposite, that Columbus repeatedly defended the Indians against Spanish depredations.

The third primary source is the biography of the explorer written by his son, Fernando. Should the reader cynically discount his son’s biography as whitewashed because his son somehow saw that 500 years later his father’s statues were going to be vandalized in a new country called the United States and he had to salvage his reputation, think instead that, considering the zeitgeist, Fernando could have easily portrayed his father as a great conqueror of satanic, evil savages who practiced cannibalism (after all, look at all the hagiographies written on Napoleon, who turned Europe into a charnel house). Significantly, Fernando also portrayed the natives in a benevolent light — and this was long before the syrupy “noble savage” mythos that we have been force-fed to this day. He was being faithful to facts.

Lastly, there is the Capitulations, the documents between the Spanish monarchy and the Admiral.

If Columbus had, indeed, committed the countless crimes that some people with their ignorance of history have attributed to him, if he was, indeed the monster that he has been portrayed, on a par with Attila the Hun, Josef Stalin, Genghis Khan, Pol Pot, I for one would be among those condemning him. But the historical facts are clear: the atrocities that have been heaped on him are nowhere to be found, except in the minds of his detractors. They are just not there.

Much more at the link – read the whole thing

New Blog by Anne Good

Dr. Anne Good, former chair of the history program at Reinhardt, is now assistant curator of the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. The Bell is home to some 40,000 rare books, maps, and manuscripts that focus on the history and impact of trade and cultural exchange in the Early Modern Period. Due to pandemic, she is working remotely for now – but has started a blog entitled Contours of the Premodern World that focuses on items in the Bell’s collection. Check it out – and also the JFB’s Facebook page, which she also regularly updates.

Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635) was a French navigator, cartographer, and explorer, who is commonly designated “The Father of New France” for his role in founding that particular colony in 1608. He died and was buried in Quebec City – but the exact location of his grave is currently unknown, and has become a holy grail of sorts for archaeologists. A recent article in the Globe and Mail (hat tip: Robert Black) rejoices in the discovery of a seventeenth-century palisade at Quebec, but laments that Champlain’s grave is still unfound. From the article:

Records suggest Champlain died on Christmas Day in 1635, and his remains were moved to a chapel that was later burned to the ground. A Jesuit text from 1642 refers to a priest who was buried alongside the founder and another friend, but there is no record of where that burial took place.

“It is likely the remains were moved, but nobody knows when or where,” Mr. Lavoie said.

Serious efforts to find the tomb began in the mid-1800s. Scientists began “digging left and right” to find Champlain, he said, but without success. More recently, an archaeologist who shared the name of former Quebec premier Rene Levesque led a series of digs in the 1980s and 1990s that proved equally fruitless.

Mr. Lavoie believes the location of the original “Champlain chapel” to which his remains were moved has been found in the old city. Mr. Lavoie believes there’s a good chance Champlain could be lying somewhere beneath Quebec City’s basilica, either on his own or in a common grave.

But the search for the founder’s remains are at a standstill, and even if found, they would not be easy to identify. Champlain fathered no children and left no descendants, which eliminates the possibility of DNA matching. To confirm the identity, researchers would have to match up remains with what little that is known about Champlain physically — for example traces of the arrow wounds he suffered during a 1613 conflict with the Iroquois.

Robert comments:

Champlain was a Protestant, was he not? And the prevailing theory for many decades has been that he and other Protestants were buried apart from later cemeteries (and therefore, not under the Basilica). If anything his remains have for a very long time thought to be buried under the Anglican cathedral, either the car park or the outbuildings.

I did not know this. Wikipedia claims that:

He belonged to either a Protestant family, or a tolerant Roman Catholic one, since [Champlain’s birthplace of] Brouage was most of the time a Catholic city in a Protestant region, and his Old Testament first name (Samuel) was not usually given to Catholic children.

A note elaborates:

According to many modern historians… Champlain could have been born a Protestant. Professor [Alain] Laberge [of Laval University] suggested that Champlain’s Protestantism would have been downplayed or omitted from educational materials in Quebec by the Roman Catholic Church, which controlled Quebec‘s education system until 1962.

I discover that the Champlain monument in Orillia, Ontario, which I remember seeing as a kid, has been removed for restoration – perhaps indefinitely, given concerns expressed “over the monument’s representations of Indigenous peoples raised by members of the public and by Indigenous communities.”

The End of the Aztecs

From The Independent (hat tip: Tim Furnish):

Mystery over death of 15 million Aztecs may be solved after nearly 500 years, study suggests

DNA analysis of skeletons reveals traces of disease

Judith Vonberg 

Scientists believe they may have discovered the cause of an epidemic that struck Mexico’s Aztec population in 1545, killing up to 15 million people.

In a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, they describe how DNA extracted from the teeth of 29 skeletons buried in a cemetery in southern Mexico revealed previously unidentified traces of the salmonella enterica bacterium.

The bacterium is known to cause enteric fever, of which typhoid is an example. According to the study, the symptoms tally with those mentioned in records from the time, which describe victims developing red spots on the skin, vomiting, and bleeding from various body orifices.

The epidemic was one of several to hit the indigenous population soon after the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century.

“When the Europeans arrived in Mexico, they brought with them lots of different diseases,” Ashild Vagene, co-author of the study, told The Independent. “There were dozens of epidemics across the New World and Mexico was particularly hard hit.”

“What we’re talking about is the devastating decimation of indigenous populations by previously unknown diseases,” Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield, told The Independent.

“Mortality rates were maybe 80 or 90 per cent by 1600,” she said. “Imagine nine out of every 10 people dying – it’s almost unimaginable.”

The cause of the 1545-1550 epidemic has been debated for more than a century. Measles, pneumonic plague and influenza have all been suggested as possibilities, but historians have never reached a consensus.

More at the link.