I walked into the Seville Cathedral, in 1998, and, unprepared, found myself face-to-face with Cristoforo Colombo’s tomb. History classes had taught me he had “discovered” the Americas. My young mind could not make sense of how an European explorer could “discover” lands already home to millions of fellow humans. Even a young mind could grasp the implications in the narrative of “discovery” of the Americas: Europeans were superior to Indigenous peoples. After decades of curiosity and formal education, I finally had a chance to say a few words to Colombo’s remains in person. Here is my letter to him.
Author: Marcelo Diversi / professor in the Human Development department at Washington State University – Vancouver
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), article 101, defines piracy as “. . . any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew of the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft . . .” I imagine that Indigenous peoples of the Americas would have agreed that piracy was criminal, violent, morally despicable, and should not be tolerated, just as the UNCLOS states. But in our colonial history, piracy has been transformed, re-imagined, and celebrated under a different name, colonialism. If you were one of the millions living in pre-Columbus America, and if world maps had been present in Indigenous cultures, Europe would have been piracy central, Blackbeard’s mom and dad, pirates’ cocoons, privateers’ factories, and buccaneers’ headquarters. For Indigenous peoples still enduring centuries of acts of violence (Deloria, 1969, 1994), detention (Sentencing Project, 2016), and depredation, contemporary colonialism continues to be experienced as piracy.
But first, let me say something about pirates. I want to start with a confession. I loved pirates when I was a child. Reluctantly, I credit Walt Disney for that (Disney et al., 1953). Captain Hook was my favorite character in the Peter Pan animated film. Now, many decades later, I still remember why. I remember feeling really bad seeing the terror on his face whenever he heard the ticking of the clock inside the crocodile. I too was terrified of that crocodile, persistent hungry thing that he was. I remember cheering the pirate on as he swam away, still being chased by the crocodile, at the end of the movie. Walt Disney must have liked this childish version of Captain Hook. Or at least Walt must have liked him enough to keep the pirate from getting eaten at the end.
As I grew up, I started liking pirates for the more typical reasons so many young people of our times seem to like them: They seemed rebellious, adventurous, free, fierce, fearless. Also, living on land and far away from the seas, I didn’t have to deal with actual pirates. In my mid-teenage years, pirates, at least in their mythic version, actually came to my rescue. I wanted an earring. My father did not like the idea. When I showed up at the house with a puffy earlobe and a silver earring pierced through it, he was not pleased. He worried that earrings made men too feminine. I told him that pirates had earrings. And pirates were fierce and tough.
Real pirates didn’t wear earrings, he said.
My history teacher says pirates wore earrings as a way of always having something of value on them should they die at sea, so they had a way to pay for a funeral or the trouble of being brought back to land, I said.
My father raised his skeptical eyebrow and gave me a little nod in silence. I was surprised that was the end of the discussion. Saved by pirates, I got to keep my earring.
Note: Just before my father died a few years ago, while reminiscing about our relationship during my teen years, he told me the reason why my pirate argument had convinced him to let me keep the earring. He worried that I was too sensitive as a boy and was going to be crushed by what he used to call “the inherit brutality of the world” outside of our front door. He liked that I wanted to be like a pirate, he liked that I, for once, wanted to be like a tough and fierce masculine figure. He joked that he was also saved by pirates during those earlier years of uncharted parenting territory. I didn’t think much about pirates after that, except for the occasional costume parties in college.
Then, in my late 20s, pirates re-entered my life. I went to Seville, Spain, to visit some friends from graduate school living there for an exchange program. We eventually ended up visiting the Seville Cathedral, and the first thing I see as I walk in is this very large and elaborate tomb.
Cristoforo Colombo’s bones were inside this tomb, only a few feet from me. I did not expect that. I had never liked the guy. But after reading his first letter to the King of Spain about his discovery of the West Indies while doing an assignment for a graduate school class, I developed a strong dislike for him (Zinn, 2005). I was fascinated by the symbolism and the very material consequences that followed that first encounter with the Arawak in what we now call The Bahamas (Ife, 1992). In my early understandings about the colonization of the Americas, Christopher Columbus had become the person who fired the first shot in the American genocide. I realized that he is just a stand-in representing the Eastbound colonization forces brewing in Europe. Somebody else would have fired the first shot if he hadn’t taken the voyage in the first place. Still, the letter about the first encounter with Indigenous peoples of the Americas was written, or at least signed, by him. That letter showed the intentions and assumptions of colonization and I couldn’t shake the man off of its pages. In his words, translated from the original Italian letter:
I discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people. I took possession of all of them for our most fortunate King by making public proclamation and unfurling his standard, no one making any resistance. (Columbus, 1943).
They are destitute of arms, which are entirely unknown to them, and for which they are not adapted; not on account of any bodily deformity, for they are well made, but because they are timid and full of terror . . . guileless and honest.
Columbus then declares that the land could easily be conquered by Spain, and the natives “might become Christians and inclined to love our King and Queen and Princes and all the people of Spain.”
“They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane . . . They would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” (Zinn, 2005, p. 1). And here, in his initial accounts, is further evidence that Christopher Columbus was the first pirate of the Caribbean: “They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things . . .” (Zinn, 2005, p. 1).
Columbus’ account of his third voyage to the Americas, when he surveyed the northern tip of South America and the Amazonian forest, is particularly enthusiastic about the abundance, variety, and sizes of parrots. Exotic bounty to be exchanged for gold coins upon return to Europe.
That day in December of 1998, surprised by finding myself suddenly before Christopher Columbus’s tomb, I whispered words to his bones.
If you only knew what you started, Pirate Colombo.
Would you be pissed to know your West Indies were named America
In honor of another Italian explorer that showed up after you,
And not Colombo?
I wonder what you would think about the last frontiers of piracy in the West Indies?
Here we are, more than 500 years after the first parrot sat on your shoulder, moving piracy from the edge of land, the green tropical shores of the Atlantic Ocean, ever deeper into a sea of forest and rivers and native peoples. These modern pirates use landships, riverships, and airships. But they are still ships flying the flags of their kings. These modern pirates are still looking for gold and parrots. They have to dig deeper than you did. But their yield would make you quiver with excitement and riches, I think. Can’t enslave natives these days, though, at least not with the king’s official consent. But modern pirates can still remove natives who don’t accept the king’s terms. Just like the natives who heard of your initial sacking of Hispaniola, modern-day natives are putting up a brave and formidable resistance.
In addition to the guns, germs, and steel of your inaugural piracy, modern-day natives have also to contend with mining, damming, tree harvesting, cattle grazing, soy plantations growing rapidly to the size of Spain (Corbett, 2019), and the modern addiction to something even more valuable than gold in our times . . . oil.
Piracy has gotten powerful beyond any defense strategy natives and allies have been able to develop to date. But I don’t think you, Columbus, would call it “piracy.” I don’t think you would call yourself a “pirate.” You served the most powerful kings of your day. That made you a hero to European settlers. Should you resurrect from this tomb, your kings would be called CEOs, Presidents, Energy, Progress. You would have to brush up on your language skills a bit as trade and conquest now is done in English, not your native Italian and trade Spanish. I bet you didn’t see that coming in your days. But do not fret, for the Pope, for whom you and your masters swore total devotion and allegiance, is still around, certainly less powerful than in your days, but still relevant and influential in the storytelling of the so-called “discovery” of the Americas. The Doctrine of Discovery of your days continues to shape and inform land and sovereignty policies in the Americas, from north to south, and east to west (Miller et al., 2010).
And the land passages from Europe to the Far East
Continue to be filled with armies and unrest as your days
And the exploration of the Americas
And their natives continue to be good business
You would even find some old school pirates in the Indian Ocean
Off the coast of eastern Africa
I don’t blame your bones
For the new open mercury veins crisscrossing the Amazon
Or for the last stand of the surviving
From the lenses of our critical qualitative inquiry people, you were simply an agent of the superstructure and status quo of your days. But my mind is not powerful enough to shake off the thought that your bones, inside this tomb, opened the way to the colonial piracy of our days. So meeting your bones here in Spain, on my vacation from my hybrid existence in the Americas that you first pirated, makes me pause and wonder if the modern-day pirates will finish what you started 500 years ago. Modern-day natives have won some major battles lately, despite the pirates’ overwhelming firepower. Modern-day natives are still fighting with cane spears. But they also have created and mobilized large and savvy anti-piracy alliances.