Seattle, Columbus, and Historical Fictions

NOTE: If you haven’t already, please take a moment to click on TCT Video for our latest podcast (or watch it on YouTube) in which Fr. Jeffrey Kirby and I talk about his new book, “Thy Kingdom Come: Living the Lord’s Prayer in Everyday Life.”  It’s a lifeboat in times like these. Earlier podcasts in this new series feature Brad Miner and me talking (what else?), Fr. Gerald Murray on the Papal Posse, Robert Reilly on the American Founding, and Mary Eberstadt on identity politics. All our podcasts may be found here. And I’ve just recorded a new one with Carrie Gress on a theology of home. The podcasts are available in both video and audio formats. And let us know what you think about these conversations. – Robert Royal   

Chief Seattle, who gave his name to the currently troubled city in the State of Washington, was pure Native American (father Suquamish, mother Duwamish). A mighty warrior, he essentially eliminated the rival Chimakum tribe in a battle on what is now the Quimper Peninsula. Like other native chiefs, he owned slaves. And he was a convert, probably in his fifties, to Roman Catholicism.

I learned about him more than 30 years ago, when I was researching my very first book, 1492 and All That, as controversy was raging about the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. Seattle’s story shows how complex, to say the least, are our individual lives – and how false and disrespectful of those lives it is to use past historical figures in what are manufactured, simple-minded, ideological morality plays.

Native Americans are not supposed to have been violent, like “white men.” Or at least not against other Native Americans, because all those different peoples must have been One Harmonious Anti-White Thing, no?

And his tribe, as “people of color” (which for the moment seems to include Hispanic descendants of Spanish conquistadores), couldn’t have owned slaves or perpetrated “genocide” against another tribe.

And how could such a man, as a successful and mature adult, choose to become, of all things, a Catholic?

Yet he was hardly unique in these and many other ways. And, properly understood, is still a great and noteworthy figure whose name (and statue) should remain, undisturbed, in Seattle.

We’re all fallen creatures, in need of forgiveness and mercy, not least those who don’t know it. Shakespeare’s Hamlet had the old Christian wisdom and human decency exactly right: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?”

I say this not out of any desire to deny Seattle’s – or anyone’s – sins, but to point out that he was more than those faults, even than the slavery. I said as much during a panel discussion on Columbus in the 1990s and was – still am – a bit shocked that one participant responded, “Well, slavery worked for them.” Sadly, that was the comment from a black historian – who knew that Indian cultures were not to be criticized.

Christopher Columbus is getting a bad rap, again, at this moment. And truth be told, he too indulged in a bit of the “noble savage” myth. In his report about his first voyage, he told Queen Isabella of the Tainos he encountered in the Caribbean: “They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal. . . .They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.”


Later, when the difficulty of two such different cultures meeting and mingling became clear, and his men were clashing with Native Americans, he sang a different tune: “I should be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a people numerous and warlike, whose manners and religion are very different from ours, who live in sierras and mountains, without fixed settlements.”

It’s curious that those who want to use such clashes to blame Columbus for every human evil that followed 1492 would never dream of giving him credit for all the marvelous things that have happened in the Americas since he joined two very different worlds previously unknown to one another.

We might even want to extend some credit to the overall legacies of St. Louis, Junipero Serra, Washington, Jefferson, Churchill, and many other fellow human beings currently being threatened with banishment from society.

Decent people do not judge others now living by groups – black, white, female, Jewish, Asian, etc. And it’s only right to try getting individual historical figures, even early Europeans who came to the Americas, in clear focus.

The great Dominican “defender of the Indians,” Bartolomé de las Casas knew Columbus personally and spoke of his “sweetness and benignity.” Cortez could be brutal, but ended in a monastery doing penance for his sins. Pizzaro was a psychopath.

Imagine, white people, even back then, differed from one another.

Columbus was something other than a “white” conqueror; despite the unprecedented difficulties he faced in the new cultures he encountered, there were remarkably few instances of his mistreating anyone and some touching moments of understanding. He was usually unsure of himself, as we ourselves often are. Las Casas said of him, “Truly. I would not dare blame the admiral’s intentions for I knew him well and I knew his intentions were good.”

In a way, this is no great surprise because Columbus was a serious, almost obsessive, Christian. Indeed, there’s considerable evidence that he had some sort of revelation about making his first voyage, even though he probably knew through his scientific studies that “the Indies” were farther than he let on. He finished his days dressed as an Observatine Franciscan.

These and similar facts are well known to historians. But you’d never know it from current public discussions.

I gave dozens of lectures at universities after my book on Columbus appeared  – a memorable one in a packed room at Princeton on October 12, 1992 organized by our friend Fr. John McCloskey, who was chaplain there at the time. I heard, quietly but multiple times, from history professors at whichever institution I happened to be visiting: We’re glad you said all that. We can’t.

My modest 1492 and All That was the only book of mine ever to be reviewed in the prestigious New York Review of Books. Oxford historian J.H. Elliott, who did the review, remarked at the time that it was regrettable that such a book even had to be written. But it did.

And still does. I’ve just agreed with Sophia Institute Press to do an updated and expanded second edition, which will appear on Columbus Day this year.

It’s almost forty years since the first edition, and we’ve not only learned nothing, we’ve forgotten what little we once knew and thrown away much of the human decency we still possessed. And there are many furiously busy today trying to make sure we never tell the whole truth. But when you cut the roots, it’s just a matter of time before the whole thing comes crashing down.


*Image: Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn, 1846 [U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.]

Chief Seattle, 1864

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.