Columbus, Space Invaders and our Inner Fears

In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks, removing the last stronghold of Christendom in the East. The news sent shock waves throughout Europe. The Byzantines were no friends of the Papacy; in fact, the Eastern Christian city had been brutally sacked by reckless Norman Christian Crusaders nearly two and half centuries earlier, from which they never recovered. Still, the loss of Constantinople was a staggering blow.

For one, it placed the Sultan Mehmet II and his victorious armies right at Christendom’s doorsteps–and indeed, fears of the “dreaded Turk” would fill the minds of Europeans for generations, as the Ottomans rolled through the Balkans and reached the gates of Vienna. For the devout, here was yet another sign of the impending Apocalypse, that would pit the defenders of Christ against unbelievers. For European sailors and merchants, it meant the valuable flow of Eastern spices, silk and other goods–once controlled in great part through Constantinople–was now blocked by a hostile rival force. For investors in the profitable sugar plantations in the Mediterranean, it meant the drying up of much-needed supplies (from timber and Slavic slaves) to feed the sugar industry, and an increasingly dangerous waterway. A long period of Muslim-Christian détente would give way to religious rivalry, as two emerging fiscal-military states–the Ottomans and the Habsburgs–now battled over spheres of power for the next three centuries.

So what do Muslim conquests, the Apocalypse and trade have to do with Christopher Columbus and our primal fears of alien invaders? Perhaps everything. But if you like, you can skip past the history lesson to come and go right to Alien Columbus.


By the early 15th century, soon-to-be Spain (Aragon and Castille) and Portugal had completed most of the Reconquista, taking back the Iberian peninsula from Muslims who had ruled there since 711AD. They had even pushed further south, taking key North African ports and islands from Muslim hands as well. For the Chrisitan-faithful this was providence, part of the impending Apocalypse that drove the victories of the defenders of Christ. Only, there was one snag. The crusader kingdom of Palestine had fallen to Muslim Mamluks in 1291, and since then western Christians had tried–and failed–to organize expeditions to take it back. In Iberia, new Franciscan military-orders arose, demanding that Jerusalem be re-taken to make way for Christ’s return.

According to legends, there was a Christian King in the East named Prester John–believed to be located in Ethiopia. Actually it was at first India, but western Europeans hardly understood the geography of the East and there was actually a long-standing Christian Ethiopian kingdom–so Ethiopia stuck. Prester John was rumored to have a vast Christian army, waiting to be joined by fellow Christians from the west who would sweep through the Muslim forces and reconquer the Holy Lands. In part for this purpose, in the early 15th century, Portuguese navigators set out, hoping they could find a sea route to reach East Africa, and home of the Ethiopian Prester John. There were of course, more earthly matters. The Portuguese had long dominated the sea-trade from the Mediterranean to western Europe, in alliance with Genoese merchants. Gold however, was siphoned to them in meager amounts through their Italian partners. After capturing a large stash of gold in North Africa, the Portuguese (under Prince Henry the Navigator) set out to find a fabled West African “river of gold” and an equally fabled African sea that would also allow them to link up with Prester John. In this way Henry, a firm believer of the Apocalypse and making wealth, sought to at once cut out the Genoese middlemen, providing Portgual with a direct access to gold, and fulfill his spiritual duty to Christendom by finding Prester John. Turns out there was no river of gold, or sea route in the middle of Africa. But there were West African kingdoms who indeed were ready to trade gold. It was enough to fund several more voyages. And as the Portuguese continued sailing along the African coast, they became determined that if they couldn’t go through the continent, they could find a way around it to reach the East.

The newly joined kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, equally religious and feeling left behind by their Portuguese neighbors, began casting about for some way to catch up. With the fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman presence in the Mediterranean cutting off the valuable wealth-generating trade from the East, this became even more important. Around this time, the son of a Genoese wool weaver, Christopher Columbus, approached the Portuguese court. Columbus was a seasoned mariner, and had studied geography, cartography and nautical sciences. He was also well versed in the Crusades and the Apocalypse, and, like the Portuguese, believed it was all-important to reach the East and take back Jerusalem for Christendom. In fact, he believed God had chosen him directly to do so. And of course, there was nothing wrong with getting in a little trade as well. As any good Ferengi might tell you, never let an Apocalypse get in the way of profit.

The Portuguese, while sharing Columbus’s religious fervor, didn’t care for his calculations. His radical plan claimed he could reach the East (India to be exact) not by sailing around Africa, but westward across the Atlantic. For the Portuguese, who had experience in sailing, Columbus’s math was off–the world was a big place; it would take much longer to sail across the Atlantic. After several years of attempts, Columbus gave up on the Portuguese and approached the Castille-Aragon court. It took a long period of convincing, but finally they agreed. And, as the diddy goes, with three ships and promises to make his benefactors richer in both the heavenly and mortal worlds, “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue….”

“Just War”

After about a month, Columbus made landfall on several islands, one of which he would name Hispanolia–modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Believing his gamble had proven correct, he was certain he had reached India and upon greeting the inhabitants began to inquire where he could find the Khan. Of course, Columbus was nowhere near India, or the court of the Yuan (Mongol) China Kublai Khan described by Marco Polo some two centuries earlier. His calculations had been off, much as the Portuguese claimed. What neither he, nor they, of course knew was that two great landmasses–later termed North and South America–and a set of accompanying islands, sat in the Atlantic between Europe and Asia. The varied people he met on the island were not “Indians,” but a people called Tainos–one of the many indigenous groups, who numbered in the millions, who called this hemisphere home.

Unfortunately for the Tainos, Columbus and his crew had come from societies locked in long centuries of religious wars, where one’s Christianity (and the right kind of Christianity), in great part determined one’s worth. In fact, since the Papacy of George VII in the 11th century, European Christians had operated on the doctrine of a “just war,” which considered it lawful, even dutiful, to carry out wars of conquest upon non-Christians, whose possessions and lands could be seized (i.e., the Crusades), and their bodies enslaved. These were not moral contradictions; they were for many, settled dogma. And it didn’t take Columbus long to take measure of his surroundings and act in accordance, as a 1493 letter to his Aragon-Castille benefactors reveals:

The people of this island . . . all go naked, men and women, as their mothers bore them…. They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they fitted to use them… They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion . . . their highnesses can see that I will give them as much gold as they may need, if their highness will render me very slight assistance; moreover, I will give them spices and cotton . . . and aloe; . . . and slaves, as many as they shall order to be shipped and who will be from the idolaters

And just like that, the fate of the indigenous people of the Americas was decided. Columbus, acting on centuries of European precedent, had set forth the justification by which their lands, resources and bodies had all been claimed, quite justly he believed, for Christian Spain.

Destruction of the Indies

Though the court of Aragon-Castille was disappointed in Columbus’s meager returns–a bit of gold and several enslaved Tainos–they nevertheless financed more voyages. These were of a larger scale, with many more men, and orders to convert and place the new lands under Spanish control. Upon his return, Columbus went about building forts throughout Hispanolia, as the Taino watched warily. When his men began abusing the locals and raping women, the Taino–deciding these house guests had over-stayed their welcome–rose up in rebellion. A furious Columbus sought out the disaffected Taino and (with other Taino allies) defeated and enslaved them. While his benefactors in Spain wanted vassals as paying subjects, Columbus insisted upon a vision of slavery for the indigenous population, and proposed plans for ships laden with goods (cattle and more) to be shipped from Spain and sent back with indigenous slaves in their hulls. “The conveyors could be paid cannibal slaves,” he surmised, “fierce but well-made fellows of good understanding . . . we believe, the best slaves that ever were.”

Plans to ship the indigenous population to Europe in an early trans-Atlantic slave trade didn’t pan out. There was no large-scale market for slave labor back in Spain. And those who were sent, often didn’t survive the voyage. In 1495, some two-hundred died before they even arrived in Spain; their bodies were cast into the sea. But on the islands, they provided a ready labor supply–for the mining of gold and silver, which Columbus and his men quickly noticed adorned their bodies in small amounts. The Tainos soon found themselves in forced labor camps, panning for precious metals eagerly desired by the Spanish. Columbus maintained a strict discipline regime, setting up a tribute system that required every Taino over the age of 14 to fill a small bell full of gold, or, if there was little gold, 25 pounds of spun cotton. Disobedience or inability to meet the quota was dealt with harshly–either through amputation of hands, or the cutting off of noses or ears.

Columbus died in 1506, but the legacy he’d left on the islands was complete. And in time, it took on a life of its own. By 1513 the Spanish monarch enlisted jurists to draft the Requerimiento, which declared through divine right the justifications of the Spanish to seize indigenous lands, and convert the “natives” to Christianity or slavery:

…we ask … that you acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world, and the high priest called Pope, and in his name the King and Queen Doña Juana our lords, in his place, as superiors and lords and kings of these islands….If you do so, you will do well . . . and we . . . shall receive you in all love and charity, and shall leave you, your wives, and your children, and your lands, free without servitude . . . .But, if you do not . . . and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can . . . and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault . . . .

All of this rapidly took its toll on the local population. Most devastating, after being separated from the “Old World” for over 15,000 years, they lacked immunities to numerous diseases brought from Europe. The death rate was so high, for some Spanish it seemed as if the indigenous population was “evaporating” before their eyes. Some priests, startled at the decimation of the populace they were seeking to convert, began to voice dissent. The most vocal of these was a Dominican Friar, Bartolomé de Las Casas, who in 1542 printed his famed Destruction of the Indies, recounting the brutalities inflicted upon the indigenous people now reduced to slaves. Describing his fellow Spaniards as “ravening wild beasts,” he charged them with “killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples,” estimating that in 50 years a population of some 3 million on Hispanolia had been reduced to a mere 200:

. . . the Christians [Spaniards], with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!” Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby. They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.

Las Casas’s accounts would disturb even the Inquisition backers back in Spain, and eventually would lead to calls for restrictions on Spanish excesses. But much of this was with a wink and a nod, and too little too late. Even before Las Casa’s account, the mainland empires of the Aztecs and later the Incas had fallen to the Spanish–sending back vast sums of gold and silver to fill the coffers of the increasingly powerful Spanish-Habsburg fiscal-military state, then locked in a staunch rivalry with the Ottomans. Many indigenous people were placed under restrictive impositions like the encomienda, which basically became a way to divide up their labor–as Spanish colonists were parceled out certain numbers of “Indians” to work their newly colonized lands.

A Crisis of Labor

Within less than a century, the decimation of the indigenous population through (most notably) disease alongside warfare, greatly reduced a much-needed labor supply for the Spanish. Numbers are always hard to verify, but taking the low-end figure of a population of 30 million in 1500, it had been reduced to a mere 8 million by 1650. On some islands, the indigenous population vanished altogether. Those who did not die, fled–going to other islands or disappearing into the jungles to escape the Spanish slavers. And of course, many fought back. The Caribs especially, with a much more militaristic society, held off and defeated Spanish war bands–who began to roam the Caribbean basin seeking slaves. Taino leaders like Hatuey and Anacaona (a woman chief) openly revolted against the Spanish, and led short-lived guerrilla wars before being executed–Hatuey burned at the stake, Anacaona hanged. And with the conversion of many of the remaining indigenous people to Christianity, many could now assert (to varying degrees) their right to not be enslaved under the doctrine of “just law.” This loss in a ready labor supply became problematic for the Spanish, especially with the introduction of a new product that was increasingly becoming quite lucrative–sugar.

Sugar had been introduced to western Europeans through the Crusades and contact with the Muslim world, who themselves had received it through India and China. It filtered to the Mediterranean, where Italian-city states grew cane, harvested and sent out sugar to much of the European world–who craved it. All of this became jeopardized in 1453, with the fall of Constantinople. Not only were the Mediterranean seas now dangerous for Christian sailors, but the vital Black Sea slave ports–which had carried on the long-standing slave trade in Slavs and other Eastern Europeans–were now blocked. So too was the trade in timber, vital to fueling the massive boilers that reduced cane juice to molasses. Genoese and Venetian financiers, finding their lucrative Mediterranean sugar plantations both in dangerous territory, without a ready labor supply or the needed products to make them profitable, made alliances with the Spanish and Portuguese to move this sugar complex to the Atlantic.

It arrived first on the Canary islands near Spain and North Africa, where local Berber populations soon found themselves enslaved to produce sugar. With the threat of the Ottomans removed, the crop flourished. And as Portuguese explorers began to sail around West Africa, they established plantations on numerous islands–with the approval of nearby African polities, who (unlike the indigenous populations of the Americas) were susceptible neither to disease or steel, and whose centralized states could field large armies to challenge Europeans. As the sugar plantations moved down the African coast, the labor to work them began to resemble the people from the nearby mainland–who Europeans gained through with varied African states. By 1500 the sugar produced here skyrocketed, shooting past anything formerly produced in the Mediterranean, and providing such a surplus it was now being sold to the Muslim world.

Columbus, who had been married to the daughter of a wealthy sugar plantation owner in the Atlantic, noticed almost immediately the possibility of sugar cane planting in places like Hispanolia. He would never get a chance to test his theory, but his son would–sending colonists to begin sugar plantations on the Spanish isle of Jamaica by 1509. This first attempt didn’t last long, but in the decades to follow sugar production in the accommodating climate of the Caribbean eventually grew. The first supply of labor would be the indigenous populations. But as they increasingly diminished from disease and warfare, a new supply was sought out–one that had proven useful on the other side of the Atlantic.

The switch from indigenous to African labor wasn’t instantaneous. In fact, at first it was disliked. Some feared coastal West and Central Africans, long accustomed to European weaponry and the use of steel, would prove a more rebellious workforce. Others bemoaned the Africans were likely Muslims, and would bring the rival religion among the indigenous population. But others saw benefits. Atlantic Africans had been skilled in sugar production; they would be a trained labor force. They had little knowledge of this new geography, making escape less likely. And a system for procuring them through trade with African states was already established. No less than Las Casas, arguing (wrongly) that indigenous people were weaker, thus explaining their decimation, suggested the use of African slaves–who he saw (again, wrongly) as naturally stronger. It was something he would come to regret, as the trade in African slaves grew exponentially with the rise of sugar production; he would spend the latter third of his life, making one of the earliest calls for the end of the African slave trade.

However, the die had been cast. What had begun as part of a Muslim-Christian state rivalry, the need to seek out new trade routes, Apocalyptic religious fervor and plain greed, had created entirely new societies–ushering in the decimation of the indigenous people of the Americas, colonialism, African slavery, racism and the other more unsavory defining elements of the modern age.

Alien Columbus

In science fiction, this meme has been more than common–it’s become a staple. The alien invasion scenario, in which, like Columbus, some extra-terrestrial force arrives and conquers the Earth in a wave of “genocide” and colonialism, fills our primal sci-fi scenarios. H.G. Wells remains one of the progenitors of this genre. His work War of the Worlds in 1898, which told of a devastating Martian invasion, was likely based more so on the new age of colonialism and imperialism that had ushered in the late 19th century–from India to the “scramble” for Africa.

But this new colonialism had been given birth by the one Columbus set forth three hundred years past. In fact, it could be argued that the ascendancy of Western Europe was directly tied to those events that began in 1492–generating wealth that would grow whole Empires and fund revolutionary inventions, like the steam engine. The fears in the West, of being conquered and enslaved (or wiped out) by some space-borne imperialist who rationalizes their colonial aspirations with the same cold calculations of Columbus, fills science-fiction. From those unnamed city-destroying aliens in Independence Day who only want us to “die,” to the cannibal Kanamits (it’s a cookbook!) to even the enslaving Borg, nothing terrifies us so much as, in Well’s words, those possible “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” who might gaze at our world “with envious eyes,” while “slowly and surely” plotting our conquest.

In college, I had a friend who shook his head every time an alien invasion movie hit the screens. His cynical take was, “white people like making movies like this because deep down they’re afraid somebody is going to do to them, what they did to others.” I used to laugh at this line of thought, but have begun to think perhaps there’s a point. Physicist Stephen Hawkins has made much the same analysis, warning against attempts at making alien contact by invoking none other than the famous Genoese explorer:

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. . . We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

But that is the crux of it isn’t it? We project on these yet unforeseen aliens of our imaginations our own jaded histories. The notion of alien invasions frighten us, because it’s happened. We’ve seen it in our history. We live with its legacies, even when we try to deny them, to rationalize them or even dismiss them. What happened doesn’t go away. Perhaps then what we really fear is that beyond the stars, who ever is out there is just like us after all–or as a caged Roddy McDowall put in that classic Twilight Zone, “people are alike all over.”

In our fears, and bits of guilt reversal, we’ve even created stories where we–the humans–are the invasive Columbus of the future, of some new indigenous population. This is probably best seen in James Cameron’s Avatar, only we manage to put in a noble heroic “white-savior figure” to curb our guilt; too bad the Tainos didn’t have one. It was interesting to hear people cheer on the innocent “noble-savage” blue-skinned Afro-Indigenous Na’vi, as if given a time machine, they would actually return as some turn-coat Conquistador or Pilgrim and help the indigenous population repel the greedy European invaders. I wondered how many were honestly prepared to deal with the “butterfly effects” of such actions.

In a 2009 Smithsonian article, historian Edmund S. Morgan says, not so fast. He asserts that the “innocence” we tend to attribute to the long gone indigenous populations (rightly or wrongly), doesn’t align with our history or the values which our society has long defined itself by:

…even as the Europeans admired the Indians’ simplicity, they were troubled by it, troubled and offended. Innocence never fails to offend, never fails to invite attack, and the Indians seemed the most innocent people anyone had ever seen. Without the help of Christianity or of civilization, they had attained virtues that Europeans liked to think of as the proper outcome of Christianity and civilization. The fury with which the Spaniards assaulted the Arawaks even after they had enslaved them must surely have been in part a blind impulse to crush an innocence that seemed to deny the Europeans’ cherished assumption of their own civilized, Christian superiority over naked, heathen barbarians. . . . Before we become too outraged at the behavior of Columbus and his followers, before we identify ourselves too easily with the lovable Arawaks, we have to ask whether we could really get along without greed and everything that goes with it.

But of course, “first contact” doesn’t have to be that way…does it? In Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe, thankfully the Vulcans aren’t stopping by to conquer and enslave us to logic. Steven Barnes’s alternative history Lion’s Blood, takes a moderate approach–where African Muslim contact with the Americas results in expansion, but Native Americans hold on to vast swaths of land; a flourishing Aztec Empire seems to hold most of Mexico and beyond; while a relatively nobody named Christopher Columbus drowns without notice in a bathhouse. Stephen Baxter’s short “The Unblinking Eye” flips the entire notion of exploration on its head, where a technologically advanced Inca Empire crosses the Atlantic by steam-powered ship to make first contact with a landlocked, superstitious Europe.

Perhaps we in the west revisit these issues surrounding Columbus so much in science-fiction because we’re still wrestling with the inherent contradictions of our modernity. So much of what we marvel and brag of as human achievement, can be tied back in great part to these “dark” moments. Be as patriotic as one wants–from the furthest reaches of Canada to the Falkland Islands, but there’s no erasing the disturbing and violent history that brought this into being. As Edmund Morgan writes, the “story moves us, offends us, but perhaps the more so because we have to recognize ourselves not in the Arawaks but in Columbus and his followers.”

Many deflect–pointing out human beings always conquer. How can we today be held to any responsibility for what happened in the past? But deep down, I think we all know. It has to strike us at some moment, that awful truth that we try to sweep away. It’s almost as if Columbus day exists because if we didn’t celebrate this figure and his legacy as a triumph, we would be forced to acknowledge the abyss. And there’s no real way to atone for it is there? No amount of apologies or reparations could possibly erase this moral debt. So instead, maybe that’s why we create imaginative stories, of alien conquistadores, descending from the skies, toppling our built-up “civilizations” and erasing us from existence.

Who knows, maybe half a millenia later, our new alien overlords will construct monuments and holidays to their own noble explorers, and create stories of even more fearsome galactic beings than themselves, as a way to deal with their own guilt and inner fears.

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