Christopher Columbus, The Great Governor

Many detractors of Columbus include the criticism he was a terrible governor. The article following factually proves otherwise.
Louis Gallo



Let's begin with the fact that Columbus was no politician.  Let's view what is to come through that lens.  A sailor, a cartographer, a scientist, a dreamer...but not a politician...and yet he:  established peaceful first contact with the islanders (both the friendly and otherwise); created the first permanent European settlements in the Americas; forged lifelong friendships with Taino chieftains; protected the islanders from enslavement by the hidalgos (low, landed nobles) who wanted to enforce Spain’s feudal encomienda system on them; defeated multiple rebellions by the hidalgos using arbitration rather than armaments; brought a Pax Columbiana to the West Indies in which “things were calm, the land was rich and everyone lived in peace;” unseated the villainous Viceroy Bobadilla who unleashed a reign of terror on the West Indies; and successfully lobbied for the first civil rights legislation of the Americas ensuring that “all the Indians of Hispaniola were to be left free, not subject to servitude, unmolested and unharmed and allowed to live like free vassals under law just like any other vassal in the Kingdom of Castile.”  Are these the marks of a poor governor?


Let's take a look at where his remarkable ability to govern -- despite no experience in politics -- might have come from.  We'll begin with his God-given attributes.


The Cardinal of Spain, who would come to know Columbus through his landlord, expressed that he was impressed by the Genoan's “fair speech and learning” and “good intelligence and great knowledge.”Bartolomé de las Casas, the author of many of the primary historical sources and first-hand accounts of the settlement of the West Indies -- and a biographer of sorts of Columbus -- described the Admiral as having an “unusual insight into human and divine affairs” and “good judgment” (Historia de las Indias, Book I).  Already, Columbus had the makings of a fine leader.


Columbus was an experienced sea captain, and his crews were commonly made up of "low men."In this still-savage age, unless a captain intended to press men into service against their wills, assembling a crew usually involved setting up at a table in a tavern and taking the names of anyone willing to lay down their life for a long and dangerous ocean voyage. Those that took the job were usually covertly running from something: if not religious persecution, then a death sentence or trial for murder, rape, or some other crime; a debtor seeking significant recompense; or an unhappy family life with a difficult spouse or parent. That meant that most crewmen were secretly troubled, difficult men at best, and hardened criminals at worst.  As a seasoned sailor, Admiral Columbus knew how to deal with an unruly crew of “low men.”  This certainly built his leadership skills in a crucible.  No politician, surely, had to deal directly, daily and face-to-face with desperate, starving men.  Columbus did, and this lifetime of experience honed his leadership skills.


Columbus's proposal to sail westward to China was mocked as a preposterous joke.  His proposal was rejected by his own Genoans (they feared that if he were successful, they would lose their trade monopoly over the Mediterranean, the only route to the Silk Road) and the Portuguese (King John actually stole Columbus's maps and charts and delivered them to his own fleet to set sail without Columbus until, by Divine Providence, a storm crippled the fleet and sent them listing back to shore).  These failures early in his endeavor taught him much about dealing not only with "low men" but with nobles.  He learned how to apply his remarkable people skills to all strata of the Age of Empires.


The Spanish crown refused him as well.  The court counsellors and treasurers exhorted the King and Queen to reject this pauper and send him away.  But Columbus was canny and had a sharp political mind.  He won over the Queen with a clever suggestion:  an alliance between Spain and the “Great Khan” of China.  Columbus suggested that the legendary military might of the Great Khan might help launch a two-front attack against the Jihadists who had, for 700 years, occupied Europe until Spain's recent unification.  He suggested that with the help of the Great Khan, the Spaniards could drive the Jihadists out of Europe altogether and, perhaps even liberate Jerusalem from them for all of Christendom.  Is this masterstroke of diplomacy -- in the face continued discouragement from the Crown's trusted court advisors -- the mark of a poor governor?  No.  Columbus had the makings of political greatness.  And he would go on to realize them.


The first glimpse of his capability for foreign diplomacy came on his First Voyage.  Columbus made peaceful and propitious first contact with the islanders of San Salvador.  In the two months that followed, he visited at least a dozen more islands, repeatedly and without exception making friends and allies with every single tribe and village he met on every inhabited island he visited (Bartolomé de las Casas, Digest of Columbus’s Log Book).


Upon his departure from the West Indies to return to Spain, his flotilla was attacked by cannibalistic Carib marauders, armed with poisoned arrows. Rather than return hostilities, Columbus welcomed the man-eating chieftain, painted head-to-toe in black war-paint, aboard the Niña, where, facing down the Admiral, he “made a speech as fierce as his appearance” (Id., Chapter 36). Admiral Columbus served him a meal (not of human flesh); bestowed gifts upon him; and, through his new Taino translators, worked a diplomatic miracle, completely diffusing the confrontation. Admiral Columbus sent the warrior back to shore, accompanied by a small cadre of sailors, who then bartered with the rest of the war party. 


Let that sink in for a moment.  Few instances of first contact in history have proceeded without bloodshed or loss of life. Admiral Columbus -- he was not yet governor -- managed to negotiate first contact with at least a dozen tribes of the West Indies -- including hostile, cannibalistic canoemen who twice attacked him and his crew -- without a single fatality, sowing good will and friendship in every village port.  Are those remarkable foreign diplomacy skills the mark of a poor governor?  Hardly.


And he thought ahead, politically speaking.  He worried about vassals of the Great Khan or subsequent European settlers from other nations (the Portuguese for example) arriving in his wake only to enslave the tribal peoples.  He encouraged all the islanders he met to receive Baptism, rendering them immune from enslavement by any who would seek to apply the repartamiento to the tribal people of the West Indies, that part of the feudal “encomienda” system that entitled medieval Spanish nobles to subject conquered enemies to servitude.  Politically, he was far ahead of his time, already thinking outside the medieval paradigm.


I cannot emphasize enough the milieu in which Columbus achieved all of this.  This unique, self-educated genius managed to defy not only the primitive ideologies of his time, but also the sizable, war-mongering, political forces that opposed him, and accomplished all his unparalleled deeds in the face of them.  And he hadn't even been appointed governor yet.


On his Second Voyage, he arrived as Don Cristoforo, now governor of the West Indies and all lands he should discover.  He was no engineer, civil or mechanical, yet his first official act was to begin building a new settlement. He and the crews of his seventeen ships constructed irrigation canals, mills, water wheels and farms with “many vegetables.”  This was not his expertise, though there were undoubtably builders sent with him on the seventeen ships that comprised his second fleet.  Think about that for a moment:  seventeen ships.  That's an enormous amount of people under his command, at sea in close quarters for weeks and weeks.  He had to manage the logistics of a seventeen-ship fleet, attend to all problems and concerns, while still navigating -- only for the second time -- uncharted trans-Atlantic waters that few could survive.  These skills translated well into the establishment and management of a land-bound settlement.


Even as he oversaw the construction of the settlement, he managed both domestic and foreign relations with great aplomb.  Taino caciques of many tribes and their womenfolk frequented the settlement bringing yams, “nourishing [and] greatly restor[ing]” the Spaniards, who were grateful for the succor ( (Hernando Colón, The Life of the Admiral, Chapters 63-64; Letter of Dr. Diego Chanca).  Could a poor governor manage all this while still excelling at human relations with those who did not even speak the same language?  That's preposterous.


The video said that Columbus was an overly-permissive governor.  The evidence flatly contradicts that.  The hidalgos, made up of entitled nobles who refused to toil, or pardoned criminals who were too indolent to toil, insisted on enslaving the islanders to build the settlement.  Columbus refused, demonstrating himself not only to be a keen governor, but a moral one.


So, many of the hidalgos plotted “to raise a revolt [and] load themselves with gold” as they were “exasperated” and “discontented” from “the labor of building the town” (Hernando Colón, Life of the Admiral, Chapter 51). And so began the discontent that would forever drive a wedge between the entitled, Spanish hidalgos and their low-born, foreigner governor.  Again, I exhort you to keep this in mind as you read of all his subsequent accomplishments; he achieved them all not in an atmosphere of cooperation from his subjects, but in the face of their constant defiance and enmity, born of their own arrogance and high-born entitlement (or low-born shiftlessness).


Columbus not only oversaw the building of an entire settlement for the occupants of a seventeen-ship fleet, but simultaneously oversaw the construction of a distant fort to protect the settlement.  When he returned to the settlement, and in his absence from the fort, a tribe of islanders robbed the fort captain and his men. The capatain captured the robbers and cut off their ears in retaliation. He then brought them to the settlement, before Governor Columbus, for further punishment, but Columbus was horrified by the captain's maiming of the islanders. Again, exhibiting the “good judgment” and “unusual insight into human and divine affairs” that de las Casas described of him (Historia de las Indias, Book I, Chapter 3), Governor Columbus used the same clever intrigue on the islanders’ chieftain as he often used on the King and Queen of Spain. He told the chieftain that the punishment for the robbers’ crime was death, though Governor Columbus had no intention of ever carrying out that threat. When the chieftain heard the pronouncement, he offered a tearful apology for his villagers’ misdeeds. Columbus immediately set the robbers free into the custody of their chieftain, and announced to the fort captain that the matter was settled (id., Chapter 93).  Again, Columbus's clever diplomacy won the day, without a further drop of blood shed.


But that story doesn't end there.  No sooner had Governor Columbus adeptly resolved this matter did horsemen arrive from the fort, informing that islanders had surrounded it and attempted to kill its occupants. In Columbus’s absence from the fort and without his pacifying presence, the relationship of the settlers there and the nearby islanders soured terribly. De las Casas makes a point to note, “I would not dare blame the admiral’s intentions” for the discord, “for I knew him well, and I know his intentions were good” (id.).  Once again, Governor Columbus shed no blood over the incident. He sent cavaliers to make only a show of their “arms and horses” as to “instill fear” in the tribal warriors responsible for the siege (id.). The tactic successfully scared the warriors off with no fatalities, liberating the besieged Spaniards (Hernando Colón, Life of the Admiral, Chapter 53).  Not only did Columbus demonstrate a keen political mind and superb diplomacy skills, he knew how to engage in subtle-yet-peaceful intrigue to keep his men and those who would be hostile to them in line.  No "poor governor" is capable of such feats.


Later, a band of tribal marauders descended upon the protective fort, murdered ten settlers in cold blood and set fire to a hospital containing forty patients.  Columbus's son, Hernando Colón, notes that the tribal warriors “would have killed many more if the Admiral had not arrived in time to prevent them” (id., Chapter 61). His men-at-arms caught some of Guatigana’s murderous warriors, but again, Governor Columbus exhibited temperance; he did not presume to try, much less punish, the attackers, but rather delivered the prisoners to the Crown to have their day in court.  Add to the list of feats of this so-called "failure of a governor" the ability to swiftly de-escalate an already hostile and deadly situation, while still exhibiting a sense of modern, not medieval, justice.  Again, he was ahead of his time in affairs of governance.


Thereafter, although the settlers still struggled with food scarcity and disease, “the Christians’ fortunes became extremely prosperous” and peace reigned supreme under Columbus's gubernatorial administration.  And he was loved for it, by the tribal people if not by the chagrined hidalgos.  “Indeed, the Indians would carry [Columbus] on their shoulders in the way they carry [men of] letters.”  In gratitude and brotherhood, the Tainos led the settlers to their own copper mines and revealed to the settlers the locations of precious gemstones such as sapphires, ebony and amber; spices such as incense, cinnamon, ginger and red pepper; and gums and woods such as cedar, brazil-wood and evergreen mulberry (id., Chapter 62).  Above all these masterstrokes of governance, Columbus enhanced trade and peaceful commerce between the Spanish and tribal settlements.


And yet, Governor and High Admiral Columbus maintained a humility through it all.  The “Admiral attributed this peace to God’s providence” (id.), not his own doing.  


He was only part-way through his administration as governor of the West Indies, and he had already had freed the Taino slaves from captivity by the cannibalistic Caribs; overseen the building of multiple settlements in harmonious coexistence with their tribal neighbors; and defeated the Carib marauders, bringing peace and slowly restoring prosperity to the land.  He brought to the West Indies what I call the Pax Columbiana, as his very name suggests: “Columbo,” Italian for “dove,” the symbol of peace.


Still the hidalgos wanted slaves of the islanders.  The more they received, the more they wanted.  These are the people -- greedy, immoral opportunists -- with whom this weary sea captain had to contend.  Let's not forget that.  He did all this while never desiring to be a governor and wanting only to "escape from governing these dissolute people…full of vice and malice” (Letter of Christopher Columbus to Doña Juana de Torres, dated October 1500).


Governor Columbus quelled no less than three rebellions by the hidalgos — Alonzo de Hojeda, Fray Bernardo Buil and his conspirator Captain Pedro Margarite, and Juan Aguado — and finally restored peace and prosperity to the West Indies.  But while still in the throes of these many rebellions, Governor Columbus had written to the Crown, beseeching them to send him someone the hidalgos would respect. On a dark day in history, the Crown sent Francisco de Bobadilla, the true villain of the West Indies.


The Crown told Bobadilla to see what all the conflicting letters were about:  Columbus was sending missive after missive complaining about the recalcitrant hidalgos, and the hidalgos were sending letters complaining about this low-born foreigner given authority over true "people of quality."  The monarchs told Bobadilla to sort it all out, and if he did find that Columbus was a miserable governor, to unseat him, and take the ~~perpetually-hereditary title~~ for himself.  That was all Bobadilla needed to hear. 


The first thing he did upon landfall was to ally with his fellow nobles and imprison Columbus and his brothers in the bowels of a prison ship -- with no investigation, no evidence but the calumny of the hidalgos, and no due process.  He then sent Columbus back to Spain -- where Columbus soundly defeated all the false charges Bobadilla levied against him AND secured the unseating of Bobadilla to boot.  But that took time.  Consider what Bobadilla did during that time, and, more importantly in Columbus's absence.  If you're still not convinced that Columbus constantly engaged in Herculean -- and successful! -- efforts in maintaining the delicate balance of governing the West Indies, let what happened in his absence be the final nail in the coffin of the argument that he was a poor governor:


In Christopher Columbus’s absence, Bobadilla and his hidalgos enslaved, raped and murdered tribal people, sometimes simply on a whim and as cruel jokes. Bobadilla’s men, who considered the Tainos no better than “dogs,” plundered their villages with impunity.


Young Bartolomé de las Casas, who witnessed these atrocities first-hand, would later note that without Governor Columbus to keep the hidalgos in check, “they grew more conceited every day and fell into greater arrogance, presumption and contempt toward these humble [islanders].”   Without Christopher Columbus’s humane governance and the strict discipline that he had imposed on the hidalgos, they became “[s]oulless, blind and godless.”  They “killed without restraint and perversely abused” the tribal peoples of the West Indies (Book II, Chapter 1).  With Bobadilla’s usurpation from Christopher Columbus of the governance of the West Indies, the encomienda, as well as Bobadilla’s own personal brand of murderous tyranny, reigned supreme.


If you still think Columbus vacillated between being overly permissive and overly severe, consider this:  “The Spaniards loved and adored [Bobadilla] in exchange for such favors, help and advice, because they knew how much freer they were now than under Columbus” (Id.).  But at the cost of nearly wiping out the tribal people.  That was a calamity that Columbus's gubernatorial prowess had successfully avoided. 


Yet, Christopher Columbus bore no hubris and afterward wrote with humility about his ability to govern, despite that he had proven himself to be the greatest governor the West Indies had ever seen under Ferdinand and Isabella’s rule, if not the greatest governor the West Indies has ever seen. Despite having freed the Taino slaves, built multiple settlements and defeated the Carib marauders, bringing prosperity and a Pax Columbiana to the land, he lamented about the naïve trust he had placed in the hidalgos to respect his authority.


Though he governed better than most politicians who had the luxury of ruling a civilized people, he admonished future critics that he should not be “judge[d] as if I were a governor in Sicily or of a well-regulated town or city” – where the social fabric is intact and the laws “observed in their entirety.” Rather, “I should be judged as a captain who left Spain for the Indies” and found himself unwittingly in “a warlike nation [with] no towns or governments,” all the while opposed by villainous hidalgos and conquistadors who imposed upon him “the ingratitude of injuries” ( Book I, Chapter 181).  These are fair and wise words that modern critics are quick to forget.


And his political prowess did not end with the end of his gubernatorial administration.  Though he was not trained as a lawyer or legislator, once back in civilian life, Columbus carefully drafted a petition to the Crown that he hoped would protect the tribal peoples from any further depredations by Spanish governors: a petition for the first civil rights legislation of the Americas.   This act by Christopher Columbus marked a milestone not only in the life of this Genoan mariner and not only in the history of the Americas, but in the history of worldwide civil rights.


Historian and translator Andrée M. Collard noted that Christopher Columbus ignited what was to be the undoing of the feudal encomienda system.  Could a poor political mind do that?  Collard suggests that Columbus's championing of the civil right of the tribal people sparked the spread of “the enlightened Spanish legal tradition” first set forth in “the Siete Partidas” (Historia de las Indias, editor’s “Introduction”), a seven-part (as the name implies) Castilian statutory code first compiled in the thirteenth century during the reign of Alfonso X, establishing a uniform body of normative rules for the kingdom akin to the Magna Carta or the American Bill of Rights. Christopher Columbus sought to extend these civil rights protections to the tribal people of the West Indies.  In other words, Columbus not only changed the world, he changed the law, and for the better.  No poor governor could single-handedly do that -- in fact, few capable lawyers even could.


The monarchs read Columbus’s petition for the civil rights legislation, and agreed with him. They granted his petition and promulgated the first civil rights legislation of the Americas. This royal decree from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella included “a very specific clause” at Christopher Columbus’s behest: “all the Indians of Hispaniola were to be left free, not subject to servitude, unmolested and unharmed and allowed to live like free vassals under law just like any other vassal in the Kingdom of Castile” (Book II, 83). Whatever treachery the hidalgos might plan this time under Ovando’s governorship, Christopher Columbus saw to it that the tribal peoples of the West Indies would now have the protection of law as mandated by two kings, the worldly and the heavenly. 


Columbus had not only the capability to captain "low men" and govern blue-bloods, he had the political prowess to change the minds of monarchs.  NOW tell me he was a poor governor.

Robert Petrone Esq.

the truth about christopher columbus