Did Columbus Commit Genocide?

Although the official holiday commemorating the event was celebrated this past Monday, Christopher Columbus in fact landed in the Americas today, October 12th. Each year the usual leftist memes and narratives about evil white people inflicting genocide on peaceful natives are wheeled out, and this year was no exception. Very typical is this article on Salon, for example, where we read:

The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world,” Stannard wrote in his book “American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World.

There is far too much misinformation in the article to refute point-by-point, so let’s just focus on the overall inaccuracy and dishonesty of the genocide narrative, which is nothing but a simplistic and a thinly-veiled political propaganda.

Any competent speaker of the English language knows that, just like the term “suicide”, the term “genocide” describes a particular intentional act by a responsible agent. If an obese person’s eating causes his own death from diabetes, we do not say he committed suicide. Similarly, if a skier inadvertently causes an avalanche that buries a town below, we do not call him a mass murderer. The fact that an agent’s act initiates a causal chain ending in a death is insufficient to make that act an act of killing. (For philosophers: think about Donald Davidson’s climber and jiggling the rope) Of course, none of this hinges on any philosophical doctrine, but much philosophical ink has been spilled in order to elucidate this distinction between causing an event of a certain kind (say, a death) and an act-type, like murder, which everyone grasps before ever signing up for Philosophy 101.

It is beyond question that Columbus’s arrival ultimately led to the widespread death of millions of American Indians. I cannot blame any American Indian for looking at that event as precipitating an unmitigated disaster. But a disaster is one thing; genocide is quite another. Those who use the term “genocide” to describe the disaster are either historically ignorant or dishonest. The reason is simple: the vast majority of American Indians who died because of European contact died of smallpox. One study, Guns, Germs, and Steel, estimated that the Native American population declined by 90% in the 16th century because of the epidemic. But contrary to absurd narratives peddled by some leftists, the pre-Columbian population of the New World could not have been significantly more than about 25 or 30 million people. Estimates of 100 million are unscientific exaggerations meant to magnify the genocide narrative.

It is true that reports by the European explorers in the 1500s tended to describe the New World as teeming with people. This is not simply in Central America but in North America too. Yet, by the time England makes a serious effort to send colonizers, it becomes much more common to describe the land as largely uninhabited.

Now, was the introduction of smallpox an act of genocide? Hardly. The entire world was suffering from outbreaks of smallpox between the 1500s-1600s. Africa, Asia, and Europe all experienced massive depopulations. We have census and tax data (See Parker’s massive 2013 monograph Global Crisis) from all over Europe and China showing that many areas in Europe and Asia were effectively depopulated due to war, disease, and starvation. Some regions of Poland saw a 50% reduction in taxable households. In Tangcheng, 60% of the population died in the 1630s. Wurttemberg declined from 450,000 people in 1618 to 100,000 in 1639. There are also indications that many regions of Africa experienced up to 50% losses of life from outbreaks. The inspiration behind Parker’s book, suggested by the title, is the fact that the 17th century was truly a global crisis. No doubt, the Americas felt the global crisis more than any other region, but they also had less previous exposure to smallpox due to lack of livestock (as argued in Guns, Germs, and Steel).

But if the American Indian deaths, due to disease, resulting from European contact constitutes genocide, would the 40% or 60% reductions in population in European towns and districts represent cultural suicide by Europeans? There might be an interesting point about the European wars that such a metaphor expresses, but no one could seriously think that these outbreaks were an act of intentional self-destruction. So it is no more plausible to call the same outbreaks in the Americas an act of genocide. To attribute these deaths to Europeans and call it a genocide, with no mention of concurrent worldwide epidemics and depopulation is, as I say, either ignorant or dishonest.

One of the more academically worrisome aspects of the genocide narrative is that it condescendingly reduces the history of all Indians, from Iroquois in the Northeastern United States to the Caribs in the West Indies, to the various warring states of Mexico such as the Aztecs, Tarascans, and Tlaxcallans to the simplistic narrative of European contact, where Europeans are the sole active agents with the Natives as passive victims. Anyone who has spent any time reading world history or any history knows that such overly simplistic narratives are almost always false.

Let us begin with Mesoamerica. Most people know that the Aztecs were conquered by Cortez. But how many people know that the Aztecs were an aggressive empire that was at war with other Mesoamerican states? The story of Aztec expansion and the resistance of states like the Tlaxcallans and Totonacs could have been written by Thucydides. Cortez only conquered the far superior Aztec numbers because Tlaxcala and the Totonacs considered the Spanish useful allies to curb the great threat of the Aztecs coming from Tenochtitlan. It is not my point here to defend the enserfment of the defeated Aztecs, but it should be noted that Tlaxacala had a very different experience. They were never conquered but accepted Spanish sovereignty while retaining considerable local power. Their self-government as four adjoining polities within the Spanish empire continued through the transition from New Spain to Mexico in the 19th century (see Gibson’s Tlaxacala in the Sixteenth Century).

Although not allies like the Tlaxacallans, the Tarascans also accepted Spanish sovereignty and likewise were exempt from the brutal suppression that the Spaniard inflicted upon the Mesoamerican states they defeated in war. The diverse histories of the Aztecs, Tarascans, and Tlaxacallans make the imposition of a single narrative in Mesoamerica inaccurate or misleading. And certainly the treatment of the latter two cannot be understood as a genocide. They were treated the same way conquering powers in Europe treated new additions to their empire. It may be profoundly immoral, but the term “genocide” does not help us to understand what happened.

There is much more to be said here. Spain does not represent all colonial powers. English and French models were quite different in their approach to the Americas. The French got along famously with the Indians they encountered. The British treated the Indians as sovereign polities and negotiated and made trade agreements and alliances with them. The British actually angered American colonials by attempting to enforce a treaty with Indian tribes stipulating that no British settlements past the crest of the Appalachians would be made. And contrary to the simplistic “White Man versus Red Man” theme inherent to the genocide narrative, Indian tribes found themselves in conflict with one another before and during the French and Indian War. The roots of the intra-Indian conflicts were pre-European, and continued after strategic alliances with the European powers. The fact is that everyone was killing everyone—a fact gruesomely, though accurately, depicted in the movie The Revenant.

There just is no responsible way to interpret the hundreds of negotiations, treaties, and alliances that took place between Iroquois, Algonquin, French, and British leaders as a European genocide; an act perpetrated by Europeans to wipe out the natives. It is undeniably true that the ultimate sequence of events led to the destruction of indigenous polities. But reducing those complex events to the silly genocide narrative is ignorant or dishonest. History is far, far more complicated.


From out west comes the philosopher Ragnar, a keen student of the western political and moral tradition and eager champion of Christian thought. He finds the canons of western civilization to be rich and fruitful resources for moral reflection that have withstood the test of time. With a solid footing in reason and a firm grasp of human nature, their wisdom plants the standard for future political inquiry and critique. Versatile and adaptable, we are far from exhausting this inheritance. When not doing philosophy, Ragnar enjoys feats of strength and contests of skill.

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  1. Great post! Michael Polignano makes the excellent point that if, on “Indigenous Peoples Day”, whites are supposed to reflect on the cruelty and immorality of their ancestors, Indians should do the same. I wonder how many of them really believe the noble savage story that our elites peddle to us. They must have some inkling of the incredible brutality and engrained sadism of (very many) tribal cultures. It sure is weird to be lectured on “human rights” and the sins of our ancestors by descendants of cannibals, slavers and people for whom protracted torture of non-combatants (including children) was a generally accepted entertainment.

  2. Good post, Ragnar.

    I knew that the Aztecs were essentially the Soviets of Mesoamerica, but I never heard of the treatment of the other indigenous city states like Tlacala, Tzintzuntzan and peoples like the Totonacs. Interesting stuff.

  3. If I have your reasoning right, the basic argument you are advocating is as follows. Genocide must be an intentional act by a responsible agent. The vast majority of the millions of Native Americans killed by people of European descent were unintentionally killed by disease. Thus, the acts of those of European descent which resulted in the deaths of millions of Native Americans can not reasonably be construed as a genocide.

    Assuming I have understood your argument, let me raise a worry about it. I am no historian so I won’t quibble with the truth of the second premise. I will take issue with the validity of the argument itself. The fact that millions of Native Americans died from disease should not discount the fact that tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands died deliberately at the hands of colonial and European governments. The U.S. Census Bureau claims that the Indian Wars from 1789 – 1846 resulted in at least 30,000 deaths, probably closer to 50,000. Add in deliberate killings of Native Americans before 1789 and by other European and colonial powers and surely the deliberate deaths number greater than 100,000 and likely exceed a quarter of a million. These were, unquestionably, deaths due to intentional killing.

    When you couple these deliberate acts with a series of U.S. policies that were aimed not at killing Native Americans but at destroying their culture, (by, for example, forbidding the use of Native languages and enforcing private land ownership on cultures that were based on the idea that the land was common property) you have the three individually necessary, and jointly sufficient, conditions to constitute genocide: 1) deliberate activities, 2) aimed at eliminating a race, ethnic group, or culture, 3) that results in large numbers of deaths. So, even if you are right that the millions of other deaths can’t reasonably be described as genocide, there was a genocide of Native Americans by European and colonial powers.

    Now, once we can accept the reasoning laid out in the previous paragraph, it becomes much more reasonable to classify many of the other deaths of Native Americans as part of this genocide. Consider, by analogy, the archetypical genocide of the twentieth century – the Holocaust. Historians now recognize that many, perhaps most, of the deaths of Jews, as well as the many other targeted groups, at the hands of Nazi’s and their collaborators were not “intentional” killings in the sense you require. That is, these deaths resulted from disease and injury during forced labor. It wasn’t until the Final Solution was officially ordered on July 31, 1941 that all the requisites for genocide, based on your characterization of genocide, were demonstrably present as part of the Holocaust. Current figures put the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust at about 6 million while 2.7 million were killed as part of the Final Solution.

    Surely it is not intellectually irresponsible to claim that the 3.3 million Jews that died by other means, many of them through disease contracted in ghettos and concentration – so called “work” – camps, were part of the Holocaust. This isn’t intellectually irresponsible because these deaths were part of a set of activities, many of them unintentional in the sense you require, that culminated in actions that clearly constituted genocide. Why then is it intellectually irresponsible, as you claim, to characterize the deaths of millions of Native Americans due to disease, often contracted during forced labor, as genocide when those deaths were also part of a set of activities that culminated in actions that clearly constituted genocide?

    Just be clear, you didn’t claim that it was more reasonable to consider only the many tens of thousands of deliberate deaths, but not those deaths caused by unintentional acts, as part of the genocide of Native Americans by those of European descent. You claimed there is “no responsible way” to interpret the activities of Europeans as a genocide of Native Americans. So what is irresponsible about the reasoning above? If that is irresponsible, do you think considering as part of the Holocaust the deaths of 3.3 million Jews that occurred prior the enacting of the Final Solution intellectually irresponsible as well? If not, how are these positions consistent?

    • You write,

      “The U.S. Census Bureau claims that the Indian Wars from 1789 – 1846 resulted in at least 30,000 deaths, probably closer to 50,000. Add in deliberate killings of Native Americans before 1789 and by other European and colonial powers and surely the deliberate deaths number greater than 100,000 and likely exceed a quarter of a million. These were, unquestionably, deaths due to intentional killing.”

      Intentional killing in war is not even mildly like killing with the intent to liquidate an entire group, the latter of which is necessary for the deaths you mentioned to count as being part of a genocide.

      “you have the three individually necessary, and jointly sufficient, conditions to constitute genocide: 1) deliberate activities, 2) aimed at eliminating a race, ethnic group, or culture, 3) that results in large numbers of deaths.”

      These aren’t jointly sufficient conditions to constitute genocide. Here’s a counterexample: The US invades Canada and, as a result, 50,000 Canadians, the vast majority of whom soldiers, were deliberately killed during the war. The US government then passes laws to eliminate Canadian culture and replace it with American culture. All of your conditions are met in this case, yet this is *obviously* not a genocide.

      Your Holocaust comparison is similarly problematic. It’s false that ‘it wasn’t until the Final Solution was officially ordered on July 31, 1941 that all the requisites for genocide…were demonstrably present.’ First, the Final Solution as we know it (mass extermination) was not officially ordered on 31 July 1941. All that happened on that date was Goring’s order to *plan* a final solution of the Jewish question. The plan–genocide–was not officially formalised until the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942. Second, the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians by the Einsatzgruppen had already been going on for months on the Eastern Front, long before Wannsee and Treblinka, Bełżec, and Sobibor were built. Third, the Nazis used disease and forced labor *as a means of* killing Jews and others (indeed, their plan *assumed* that hundreds of thousands would die by these means and would not have to be shot or gassed), so the idea that those deaths weren’t intended is ahistorical. Consequently, there was genocide before the Final Solution was formalised.

      There’s a distinction between coming to a continent and unintentionally spreading disease and packing thousands of people into a small ghetto knowing and hoping that many will die from disease before you ship them off to death and slave camps.

    • I really like your reply, Conservariarian. I like it because I could agree with all of it, although I won’t since it mistaken in several respect, and my argument against Ragnar’s post still be sound. You see, Rangar’s post didn’t claim that Rangar disagrees with an empirical claim or two in the genocide narrative or that Rangar disagreed with a difficult interpretive point about which reasonable disagreement may occur. Instead, Rangar claimed that there was no responsible way to motivate the genocide narrative. Your response, while trying to establish the claim that the Native American case is not a genocide, concedes that there are responsible ways to motivate the genocide narrative. Let me explain.

      Your counterexample to the definition of genocide I offered is dependent upon the claim that the “vast majority” of those killed are soldiers. Whether or not the vast majority of Native Americans killed in the Indian wars were akin to what you call “soliders” is an empirical matter. I have no idea whether or not the vast majority were “soldiers” or not; as I said, I am no historian. But even if I was a historian of the highest renown, record keeping on such matters was, no doubt, sufficiently imprecise (which the U.S. Census Bureau admits in reporting the data I quoted before) to prevent an authoritative settling of this empirical question. Without such documentary evidence to refute the claim that the vast majority of Native Americans killed were not “soldiers” but, instead, most of those killed were women, children, and elderly, one can most certainly rely on oral histories of Native Americans to support the claim that most who were killed in the Indian Wars were not “soldiers” without doing anything irresponsible.

      Similar points apply to your claims about the Holocaust. Whether or not “the Nazis used disease and forced labor *as a means of* killing Jews and others” in the early days of the concentration camps (which isn’t disanalogous, to the Native American case anyway. Trail of Tears anyone? Lord Jeffrey Amherst, anyone?), as opposed to proceeding through a gradual escalation of policies which began with removing property rights, then proceeded to forced labor, then continued to a disregard for human life of the targeted groups, and culminated in a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Jewish people and other targeted groups, is not a simple empirical claim but is an interpretive claim. It is no small interpretative claim either but an interpretive claim that, to determine conclusively, would require wading through seas of historical documents and reports, many of which will be highly ambiguous and many of which will support contrary interpretations. The idea that there is no responsible way to interpret this as a gradual escalation in which hundreds of thousands, even millions, died unintentionally, and thus no responsible way to justify the analogy to the Native American case, is clearly misguided unless by “responsible” you just mean “agrees with my interpretation.”

      So, to summarize, I did not need to show that the Native American case was indeed a genocide. All I needed to do was show that interpreting the Native American case as a genocide is not intellectually irresponsible. Since your attempts to show that the Native American case was not a genocide hinge on an empirical claim for which there is no conclusive evidence but against which there is a wealth of oral history and a complex interpretive issue that responsible scholars could disagree on, you have shown that there is a responsible way to interpret the Native American case as a genocide.

      Thank you for this response; it has really helped bolster my argument. Come back anytime. 🙂

    • Scott,

      “Your counterexample to the definition of genocide I offered is dependent upon the claim that the “vast majority” of those killed are soldiers.”

      1. I was counterexampling the claim that your three conditions are jointly sufficient. Adding that most Canadians killed were soldiers was a very easy way to show that they are not jointly sufficient.

      2. The counterexample does not depend on this. Suppose the US instead carpet bombed Montreal, killing 50,000 *as a means of getting the Canadian government to surrender.* They then surrender and pass the law to change Canada’s culture. Is this genocide? Obviously not. Of course, it’s a war crime, but not all war crimes are genocides. It’s no more a genocide than the bombing of Dresden.

      3. The above shows that even if most casualties in a war are civilians, it doesn’t follow that a genocide took place. So even if most of the casualties in the Indian wars were noncombatants, you still need evidence that the Europeans intended to exterminate the Indian tribes. We have lots of evidence that this wasn’t their intent. For example, the willingness of the Europeans to align themselves with this or that tribe against this or that European power that was itself aligned with some other tribe is evidence that their intent was not the extermination of the indigenous population. More evidence comes from the fact that many tribes were not exterminated, were allowed to survive, and are extant. If the intent was to exterminate them, it wouldn’t have been terribly difficult for the Europeans to do so.

    • This just keeps helping my case, Conservatrarian. I’ll grant that some other condition might need to be added to my non-expert definition of ‘genocide’ to make the conditions sufficient. That has no effect on the force of my argument. But you just keep digging a deeper hole for yourself with your modification of that thought experiment. If the U.S. carpet bombs Montreal, takes control of Canada and then outlaws living a Canadian lifestyle (enforcing those laws as well, of course, to make sure your counterexample isn’t disanalogous in yet another way) so that over the course of a few generations there are no longer any Canadians, this just might be a genocide, not “Obviously not,” on any plausible definition of genocide.

      Again, my position does not require that the Native American case is one of genocide. All I need is for it to be reasonable to interpret it as such. The work you keep having to do to try and show the Native American case doesn’t quite fit the definition of genocide (a definition, I might add, no one in this discussion other than myself has had the courage to even offer for consideration) just underscores how reasonable the alternate position is. Unreasonable positions don’t take so many reasons to demonstrate their falsity.

      And even if I were to say to you, Conservatrarian, “You and Ragnar are right. I’m wrong. What the Europeans did to Native American’s can’t reasonably be construed as genocide. It was just an intentional killing of many tens of thousands of Native Americans in conjunction with an attempt to eradicate their culture and way of life through non-lethal means which were dependent upon the intentional killings for the subjugation of the Native Americans in order for the non-lethal cultural eradication to be possible.” Just what have you and Ragnar gained here? You could now reply with, “Agreed, just don’t call it a ‘genocide!'” Isn’t that kind of like the Confederacy winning the Battle of Palmito Ranch?

    • No, it obviously isn’t a genocide. The mere fact that the culture was destroyed doesn’t do anything to show that a genocide occurred. A culture can forcibly change with nobody being killed. Genocide is the intentional extermination of a group of people, not the forced destruction of their culture.

      ”…so that over the course of a few generations there are no longer any Canadians..”

      Of course there are still Canadians. Since nobody was killed during the occupation, there will be many Canadians! It’s just that Canadians have adopted a different culture. No no genocide took place because nobody was killed after the war ended.

      Your view has the absurd consequence that genocide can be a good thing! For example, we know that the Aztec heathens had a morally abhorrent culture. Tens of thousands of people would be sacrificed to their gods every year, sometimes thousands in single events. It would *clearly* be permissible for a benevolent power (not that there were any at the time) to eradicate their odious culture in favour of, say, liberal culture, especially with very minimal bloodshed. But your silly view implies that they committed genocide in doing so!

      “Just what have you and Ragnar gained here? You could now reply with, “Agreed, just don’t call it a ‘genocide!’” Isn’t that kind of like the Confederacy winning the Battle of Palmito Ranch?”

      Nope. You’ve described atrocities, but not all atrocities are genocides. Nobody denies that atrocities were committed by Europeans. But the idea that the Europeans intended to exterminate American Indians flies in the face of the evidence of which I’m aware, which includes the obvious fact that many Indian tribes were allowed to continue to exist.

  4. “According to the report, Columbus once punished a man found guilty of stealing corn by having his ears and nose cut off and then selling him into slavery. Testimony recorded in the report claims that Columbus congratulated his brother Bartolomé on “defending the family” when the latter ordered a woman paraded naked through the streets and then had her tongue cut out for suggesting that Columbus was of lowly birth.The document also describes how Columbus put down native unrest and revolt; he first ordered a brutal crackdown in which many natives were killed and then paraded their dismembered bodies through the streets in an attempt to discourage further rebellion. “Columbus’s government was characterised by a form of tyranny,” Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian who has seen the document, told journalists. “Even those who loved him [Columbus] had to admit the atrocities that had taken place.”- Wikipedia

    You can embrace whatever narrative you want about the wider impact of European contact on the Americas, but fuck Christopher Colombus. The fact that you’re willing to defend him is horrifying.

    • “The fact that you’re willing to defend him is horrifying.”

      Where did the article ever defend Columbus as a person? (Aside from establishing the incredibly weak claim that Columbus did not commit genocide, the post was almost entirely about the “historical” narrative about European genocide of the Indians.)

      You are obfuscating as well as slandering the author. I think you’re just upset your narrative was thoroughly demolished.

    • Like I said, we can agree to disagree on the rest of the article. I think it’s beside the point. There are very good reasons to characterize Christopher Columbus as an iron-fisted colonial tyrant. Given his open contempt for the life and well-being of Natives, I’d feel totally comfortable calling this genocide.

      The author clearly only uses CC as a framing figure to inflame leftists sensibilities, but this should be a bi-partisan no-brainer. The sooner the intellectual right loses it’s fascination with scandalizing the left, the sooner an actual discussion can happen.

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