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In Place of Columbus’ Statue, Build One for Francisco de Vitoria

(Jacques Clément)

Perhaps the strongest argument considered by Vitoria relied on what today we might call “humanitarian intervention.”

Statues of Christopher Columbus are being toppled by enraged mobs. Apparently, as protesters see it, Columbus began the type of colonial oppression that ultimately led to the killing of George Floyd. Make no mistake: Columbus was a vicious individual, and many of his actions are inexcusable (including the enslavement of Native Americans). However, given that Columbus represents something much larger than the particular details of his own life, this is a good occasion to ask: Is colonialism always a bad practice, or could it ever be justified?

As it happens, these are two different questions that are often clumsily merged into one single question. Perhaps colonialism was not so bad, one argument has it. Not long ago, Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University, courageously wrote an article defending this view. It was published in 2017, and he received a torrent of criticism for the piece. Unfortunately, his article was removed from Third World Quarterly, which speaks volumes about the disturbing vigor of cancel culture in academia. In the article, though, Gilley purports to prove how colonialism resulted in significant improvements for the lives of most people in colonized territories. Gilley also mentions how many of these now-independent nations are devolving into chaotic and corrupt countries, and some of their citizens are even hopeful that colonists might return.

Gilley’s claims may be open to debate. Yet, even if he is absolutely correct, that says nothing about whether colonialism was justified in the first place. For, in the overwhelming majority of cases, colonial rule was imposed. Even if colonial rule was, in fact, benign and accomplished great things, it was never consensual. So, any defense of colonialism ultimately appeals to paternalism: The colonizer does a favor to the colonized, even if it is unrequested. 

For any liberal (in the original meaning of the word), such paternalism would be anathema. Yet, sadly, even the patriarch of liberals, John Stuart Mill, believed that non-Westerners were not entitled to autonomy. In his view, this was because very much as children, they still did not have the capacity to understand what was best for them. Therefore, European colonialists had a duty to civilize them, even against their will.

Could the conditions of native societies have been so brutal that, in some cases, conquest and subsequent European rule were justified, as a way to protect the victims of that brutality?

Mill has been castigated for such views, and rightly so. Non-Westerners are perfectly capable of deciding what is in their best interest; to think otherwise is to infantilize these peoples, and this is surely a hallmark of racist thinking. So, even if we acknowledge that colonialism may have—on balance—been good for natives, there was still no justification to first impose colonial rule.

Or, perhaps there was. Could the conditions of native societies have been so brutal that, in some cases, conquest and subsequent European rule were justified, as a way to protect the victims of that brutality? This is an interesting possibility that was explored by Spanish philosopher and jurist Francisco de Vitoria in the 16th century, a few decades after Columbus’ arrival to the Americas. Vitoria delivered a series of lectures that eventually came to be published as his 1532 work On the Indians. In that document, Vitoria examined the common rationale given by Spanish authorities for their conquest of the Americas. 

Vitoria considered the most common defenses of the Spanish conquest at the time, and he rejected them all. All of these defenses are quite risible today. For example, it was argued that the Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V, who was also king of Spain at the time) had sovereignty over the entire world. More commonly, it was said that the Pope is the lord of the world—and inasmuch as Alexander VI had issued a papal bull donating the Americas to the kings of Spain and Portugal—such kings had the right to conquer those territories. It was also asserted that the American territories were a gift from God to Spain and Portugal. Another argument was that Spain and Portugal had discovered the new territories, so they were entitled to them. This thinking, however, assumes that the Americas were an empty continent, and the land was up for grabs. There was one final, more serious argument at the time, and it was that the native people’s refusal to accept Christianity entitled Spain and Portugal to conquer them, on behalf of Christendom. Vitoria went to great lengths to refute this argument. He explained that even if Christianity were the one, true religion (as he certainly believed), conversion could not come by force, and, thus, the natives people’s religion was not justification for conquest.

On account of these views, Vitoria may be hailed as a champion of anti-colonialist thought. However, after reviewing these spurious arguments, Vitoria considered other arguments that, in his view, could have justified the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Vitoria argued that if Spaniards (or any other people) were denied the right to travel freely, trade, and peacefully preach in another land, then this would be justification to depose the rulers who enacted these policies and impose new authorities that do protect these rights. This is not a bad argument. Commerce and peaceful religious preaching are not acts of aggression. By contrast, a denial of the right to engage in this type of activity is, itself, an act of aggression. And, once this act of aggression has been committed, there is justification to depose the aggressor—in order to restitute the natural rights of free trade and free preaching. Likewise, if there were Christians in native kingdoms and they were persecuted, Spain was entitled to wage war to protect those religious minorities from oppression.

However, the problem with this argument is that colonial powers themselves engaged in the same abuses that were proposed as rationale for the conquest. Spain did not allow the free preaching of, say, Judaism or Islam in its territories. Indeed, Muslims and Jews were severely persecuted in Spain at the time of the conquest of the Americas. And, during colonial times, there were trade monopolies imposed by the Spanish crown. Spain could not have used these arguments to justify the conquest of the Americas—not because the argument was wrong but because Spain itself was engaging in this same type of abuse. It would have been the height of hypocrisy. 

Vitoria is considered a great exponent of Just War Theory, and a central tenet of that theory is proportionality. Even if the ultimate objective of the conquest was to eradicate cannibalism (it wasn’t), the conquest was not proportional to that objective.

Perhaps the strongest argument considered by Vitoria relied on what today we might call “humanitarian intervention.” If indigenous kingdoms engaged in gross atrocities, such as human sacrifice or cannibalism, then there was justification for Spain to intervene, depose their despots, and outlaw such horrific practices.

Some post-colonialist critics believe that cannibalism never truly existed, and that accounts of Aztec cannibalism were a colonialist invention in order to justify the Spanish conquest. Such views are highly questionable, and the evidence supporting the existence of cannibalism in pre-Hispanic America is quite strong. However, even if cannibalism did take place, was that enough justification for the conquest? I would argue that it was not. Certainly, cannibalism and human sacrifice were horrendous and caused many deaths in the Americas. But, most likely, the Spanish conquest amounted to an even greater amount of deaths, with plenty of atrocities and gratuitous violence of its own (even if it was all exaggerated by the so-called “Spanish Black Legend“). Vitoria is considered a great exponent of Just War Theory, and a central tenet of that theory is proportionality. Even if the ultimate objective of the conquest was to eradicate cannibalism (of course, it was not), the conquest was not proportional to that objective.

Vitoria never took a definite stance on these views, so for him, the question of whether or not the Spanish conquest of the Americas was justified, remained unsolved. On the basis of his arguments, I believe the following conclusion is warranted: The Spanish conquest of the Americas was not justified, but it could have been. If Spain had allowed religious freedom and free trade in its own territories—and if the deposing of indigenous authorities and the eradication of cannibalism would have been achieved without gratuitous violence—then Spanish authorities could have had legitimacy in conquering the Americas.

And the same reasoning, in turn, applies to most experiences of colonialism. Apart from Columbus’ statue, the statue of king Leopold II of Belgium has also been targeted in the recent protests. Belgian expansion in Congo is another example of a colonialist project that could have been justified; however, in the end, it was not. One of the very first European explorers to reach Congo, David Livingstone, enthusiastically promoted the abolition of slavery, as well as the establishment of trade and religious freedom.

King Leopold II picked up on these noble intentions and annexed Congo as his personal territory. The chiefdoms of Congo were certainly deficient in these regards, so, in theory, a benevolent project of colonialism could have been proposed in order to eradicate slavery and advance the causes of free trade and religious freedom. Sadly, we know now that this ultimately became a horrible cynical ploy, and Congo itself became little more than a forced labor camp, with atrocities arguably worse than anything that had been in place before the arrival of the Belgians. 

In his essay defending colonialism, Gilley quotes a contemporary Congolese person who asks: “How long is this independence of ours going to last anyway? When are the Belgians coming back?” Again, it may very well be that many Congolese are now disillusioned with independence, and perhaps Belgian colonialism ultimately made Congo a better place; however, the bottom line is that, given the way the Belgian colonialism was practiced, there could be no justification for it. Yet, as per Vitoria’s reasoning, given the viciousness of many African kingdoms and chiefdoms, there could have been justification for Europeans to conquer those territories, as a way to protect the victims of those despotic powers.

Vitoria’s reasoning is relevant—not only to consider whether colonialism was (or could have been) ever justified, but also to assess what the international community ought to do in the future. In large measure due to Vitoria’s intellectual influence, the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) is gaining credence. According to this line of reasoning, sovereignty does not apply whenever a despot engages in atrocities. Humanitarian interventions are warranted in order to save lives. 

Protesters are indeed justified to be upset about police brutality against black people in the United States or the United Kingdom. But, far more black people are killed by African despots.

Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that R2P does not have a colonialist aspect to it. Let us, instead, come to terms with the fact that, indeed, similar rationales were used in the past in order to justify imperialist acts of aggression. Yet, the fact that a concept has been abused in the past does not imply that such a concept can never be legitimately be used again. And, in that regard, interventions that do have a colonialist dimension can still be justified and actually become a force for good.

Consider Black Lives Matter activism. Protesters are indeed justified to be upset about police brutality against black people in the United States or the United Kingdom. But, far more black people are killed by African despots. In 1994, Western powers refused to intervene to stop the Rwandan genocide. Surely, there were many reasons for that moral failing, but one of them (admittedly, not the central one) may have been that European powers did not want to be perceived as neo-colonialist masters involving themselves in African affairs.

Ever since that tragedy, Western powers have now intervened in Mali to avoid similar experiences, yet places such as Darfur (prior to the toppling of Omar al-Bashir) still suffered from atrocities at the hands of African despots, in large measure because foreign powers refused to intervene. Such interventions could certainly be characterized as colonialist, an example of the obnoxious colonialist concept of the “white man’s burden”; however, in the end, these interventions are justified, and anti-colonialism activists should consider how those interventions could, indeed, save many black lives.

As such, I do not oppose the toppling of the statues of Columbus. One, after all, cannot dispute the point that the kind of colonialism that Columbus inaugurated was vicious. But, in their place, perhaps we can build statues honoring Francisco de Vitoria. He had enough honesty to admit that the rationale Columbus’ supporters provided for the conquest of the Americas was nonsense; yet, at the same time, Vitoria had the audacity to claim that some conquests and apparently colonialist interventions could be justified. Even today, such interventions could save many black lives.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. His Twitter is @gandrade8o.

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