Columbus in Chains (1500)

Panel

"Columbus shows his chains to the crowd as he is about to go aboard the vessel that was to take him back to Spain after his third voyage. Don Francisco de Bobadilla, who was sent to replace Columbus and to investigate charges against him, is pointing to his instructions. After Columbus was cleared of the charges, he returned for the last time to the new world in 1502. Statuettes of King Charles VIII of France and Bartholomew Columbus, who was the explorer's brother and the lieutenant-governor of the Indies, are seen to the sides."

This panel exemplifies the glossing over of the role of brutality and mismanagement in the Columbus myth. The popular vision of Columbus does not include that of an incompetent governor who lost control of his garrisons, who encouraged the establishment of a slave trade, who gave tacit, and sometimes explicit, approval to brutality and cruelty. Bartolome de las Casas, at first a Spanish colonizer and later an advocate for the humane treatment of the indigenous peoples, gives a detailed account of the atrocities, often committed in the name of Christianity, but more often in the name of gold.

However, it was not for purely humane reasons that Columbus was removed from the governorship of Hispaniola. He was widely regarded as an inept leader, with little control over the colonists and less political savvy. Ferdinand and Isabella, knowing his personality, realized the danger of allowing Columbus free reign, and saturated his power with the arrival of priests and military leaders. The outpost soon degenerated into chaos and violence, and Columbus was brought back to Spain in chains. Although the inclusion of this panel in the story of the heroic Columbus would seem unusual, it is mitigated by the "understood" resolution: he was cleared of the charges and was allowed to sail again to the new world in 1502.


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