Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"They ought to make good and skilled servants..."

Sitting on the beach here in the Bahamas, looking out into the Atlantic, it is inevitable that one's thoughts turn to Christopher Columbus. What a thing it must have been for the native Bahamians, the Lucayans, to see those three winged ships appear on the horizon.

No sooner had Columbus stepped ashore and "taken possession" of the land in the name of the Spanish monarchs, than the Lucayans approached, "as naked as their mothers bore them." A tall, beautiful, well-built race, according to Columbus. "They are friendly and well-dispositioned people who bear no arms except for small spears, and they have no iron," wrote the Admiral in his log. "I know that they are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Faith more by love than by force."

They had no iron. Nor gold. Within 25 years every Lucayan was dead or transported and these paradisal Bahamian islands were deserted.

By the evidence of Columbus' log, which I have been reading in Robert Fuson's translation, he was not -- at least initially -- a bad man, and his first impulses were to treat the peoples of the Americas gently. We don't know the extent to which the Lucayans were converted to Christianity before they were made extinct, but we do know that greed and steel ultimately trumped Christian charity, all in the name of the "Holy Faith." The physicist Steven Weinberg might have been thinking of the Spanish-Lucayan encounter when he said, not so long ago: "With or without religion, good people do good things and bad people do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, that takes religion."