Critics also seem to have discounted the devastation of Europe in the previous century brought on by the Plague. Estimates are that one third of Europeans died as a result of this epidemic that scholars believe originated in the Gobi Desert in the early 1300s.
The Black Death, as bubonic plague was known, had been brought to Europe from Asia. Much less fashionable than the moral indictment against Western nations for carrying disease to the New World is the counterclaim against Asia—and equally absurd.
No small part of the denunciation of Columbus and his successors in our times is an update of the leyenda negra—the Black Legend—that Protestant countries applied to the Catholic Spaniards. As the gifted writer G. K. Chesterton put it, many of the English histories of Spanish exploration and conquest reflected “the desire of the white man to despise the Red Indian and the flatly contradictory desire of the Englishman to despise the Spaniard for despising the Red Indian.”
Not all the Spaniards despised. Father Antonio de Montesinos addressed outraged settlers on the island of Hispaniola in 1511, barely a decade after Columbus’s last voyage:
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. This voice says that you are in mortal sin and live and die in it because of the cruelty and tyranny that you use against these innocent peoples. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what authority do you wage such detestable wars on these peoples who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, in which you have destroyed countless numbers of them with unheard of murder and ruin? . . .Are these Indians not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves?
And Montesinos was not as alone as his words would indicate.