Columbus’ View of Native Americans

In February of 1493, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to the Treasurer of Aragon who supported his adventures. Columbus’ views of the Native Americans he encountered in the Western Hemisphere were made clear in the letter. Some of the natives knew how to sail, and Columbus gave them credit for their skill: “They are most ingenious men, and navigate these seas in a wonderful way.” Aside from this statement, however, Columbus’ descriptions of the natives portrayed them as inferior to Europeans.

Columbus made it clear that it was easy to take land from the Native Americans not only because they had inferior weapons, but because they were fearful. He wrote, “They [the natives] have no iron, nor steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them, because…they appear extraordinarily timid. The only arms they have are sticks of cane…with a sharpened stick at the end, and they are afraid to use these.” Columbus easily made friends with the local rulers and claimed their territories because they had no knowledge of European weapons.

In addition to their ignorance of weapons, Columbus stated that the natives were also clueless about what their possessions were worth. Whenever the sailors traded with the natives, the sailors could get much more in return than they gave to the natives. Columbus claimed to have stopped his men from taking advantage of the Native Americans, but he had his own selfish motives for doing so. He wrote that he “gave a thousand good and pretty things that I had to win their love, and induce them to…love and serve their Highnesses and the whole Castilian nation, and help to get for us things they have in abundance, which are necessary to us.” Although Columbus appeared to be protecting the natives, he only did it because the natives had materials which his men wanted.

Columbus also believed he had the right to make the natives into slaves. He captured some to provide him with knowledge about the land he discovered: “I took by force some of the natives, that we might gain some information of what there was in these parts.” In addition, he also promised the king and queen of Spain that “their Highnesses will see that I can give them…as many slaves as they choose to send for, all heathens.” The inferiority which Columbus perceived in the Native Americans (their timidity and lack of knowledge of Christianity) supposedly gave him the right to make them serve Europeans. Yet Columbus did not see that without the help of the natives to guide him, he and his men would not have learned much about the new territory.

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