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From the files of the Grand Inquisitor
Interrogation of Christopher Columbus
(Something a little different)
In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a famous scene imagines the Grand Inquisitor interrogating Jesus about his actions on earth, and accusing him of deluding his followers by offering them freedom when what they really wanted was security.
The following picks up the story from there. It begins with a memo from the Deputy Inquisitor to the new Grand Inquisitor. It is undated, but suggests that the inquisitors’ work never ceases.
To: Incoming Grand Inquisitor
From: Deputy Inquisitor
Re: Old files
In the continuing digitization of our records system, numerous case files from the past have come to my attention. Knowing your interest in matters historical, I will forward a sampling of them for your perusal.
I think you will agree that the public has had a warped view of our work for centuries, at least since the melodramatic rendering of a leaked case file by the Russian dissident Dostoevsky. Nothing is to be gained by revisiting that incident. Nor need I describe the extent to which he misrepresented the conversation between Jesus and the Inquisitor, in particular eliding the responses of the former. Dostoevsky’s sudden death shortly after the publication appears to have been sufficient warning to any tempted to follow his dangerous course.
You will observe that the cases selected are drawn from a span of several centuries. The uninitiated observer might be impressed by this chronological depth, but a veteran like yourself will recall that our office has been in the business of probing human motivation for a very much longer period than that.
Read and enjoy.
Case 1: Interrogation of Christopher Columbus
Grand Inquisitor: State your name, please.
Christopher Columbus: I was born Cristòffa Cónbo. I have been called Cristoforo Colombo by the Italians, Cristóbal Colón by the Spanish, and Christopher Columbus by the English.
GI: You got around.
CC: Isn’t that why I’m here?
GI: We’ll come to that. State your profession.
CC: I was a seaman since a boy. I became a captain as a young man, sailing for merchants in Genoa and Portugal. I subsequently sailed for the king and queen of Spain.
GI: For what purpose did you sail for Spain?
CC: I knew I could find a shorter route to the Indies. Marco had gone overland. The Portuguese were rounding Africa. I proposed to strike out across the Ocean Sea. With difficulty I persuaded their Majesties to support my expedition.
GI: What were their purposes?
CC: To tap the wealth of the Indies. And to win souls to God.
GI: And these became your goals?
CC: My goal was to prove that I was right. That the shortest way to the East was via the West.
GI: Yet you drove a hard bargain to ensure your share of the riches you found.
CC: A laborer is worth his hire. I will note that the risk was mine. I risked my life and reputation.
GI: And the lives of your men.
CC: They knew what they were getting into.
GI: Did they? Did you not keep two logs of the voyage, one falsifying the distance you had traveled, lest the men refuse to go farther?
CC: The burden of command entails getting more out of one’s subordinates than they can get out of themselves. I knew how far we had traveled, and how far we had to go.
GI: Did you? Were you not in fact mistaken about the distance to the Indies?
CC: Before I answer that, you answer a question for me. What are the ground rules for this interrogation? Do we speak on the basis of knowledge at the time? Or are you allowed to bring the wisdom of subsequent eras against me?
GI: I could respond by observing that I’m the one asking the questions. But your question is apt. Indeed, it’s a question I hear all the time. Let me put it back to you: How do you wish to be judged? By your contemporaries? Or by the ages?
CC: I do not wish to be judged at all.
GI: That is not an option. You could have refused your summons to this conversation. Yet you came.
CC: And be judged in my absence? Better at least to speak in my own defense.
GI: Let us move on. Perhaps the basis for judgment will reveal itself. You say you sought to bring souls to God. How did you propose to do this?
CC: By sharing with them the Holy Gospel.
GI: Did you bring a priest with you?
CC: Yes, the Franciscan Fray Juan Pérez.
GI: But you made no mention of him in your journal.
CC: You have read my journal?
GI: I read everything.
CC: Then you will know that my journal was my professional log. It was a technical document. And you will know that I was accompanied by priests on my three subsequent voyages. Why not the first?
GI: That is the question, is it not? Again, let us move on. Explain how you were greeted on your arrival in the Indies.
CC: The natives we first encountered were friendly.
GI: Did they remain friendly?
CC: They became stubborn and suspicious, and then hostile.
GI: Why was that?
CC: They would not tell where their gold came from, and I was forced to persuade them.
GI: Why did you need to know where the gold came from?
CC: I have to explain this to you?
GI: I wish to hear it in your own words.
CC: Their majesties expected a return on their investment in the voyage. They would have been disappointed had I come home empty-handed.
GI: And you would not have been rewarded.
CC: As I said, I had taken a risk. But there was another matter. They needed to be brought to the Gospel.
GI: They could not simply have the Gospel read and explained to them?
CC: In their savage state, they could not understand. They were like children. And like children, they required discipline as they learned. You of all people should know that the human mind sometimes needs help to reach the truth.
GI: You took some of the Indians prisoners.
CC: It was for their good and our own. They told us of fearsome tribes that lived elsewhere in the Indies and made war on them. Their bodies bore scars from the fighting. We could offer them protection. But they needed to help us. We did not communicate easily. They did not speak our language, and we did not speak theirs. We hoped to teach our language to them. This was why I ordered some of them seized. They would have run away otherwise.
GI: You intended to take them back to Spain with you?
CC: It would demonstrate to their Majesties that we had been to the Indies. And they would learn our language and become interpreters for future voyages.
GI: But they did not go of their free will.
CC: If we could have explained what lay in store for them, they might have. They would see things they had never dreamed of. But as I say, communication was difficult. Better to take them with us, and let them thank me later.
GI: Did you not intend to make them slaves?
CC: They would have been made slaves by their enemies. That was the reason their enemies came to their island. Any servitude under our rule would be benign compared with the alternative. And it would include conversion to the true Faith. Life is short and eternity long. Even if their servitude was harsh—and it was no harsher than the servitude of millions of others before them—it was nothing next to the torments of hell. Better to be enslaved and converted than remain free and pagan. But I don’t have to tell you that.
GI: Most of those you seized did not survive the return to Spain.
CC: That is true. Fever carried most of them away. Your point?
GI: If you had not taken them, they would not have died.
CC: We all die. They might have died in the next raid by their enemies. Or carried off by illness in their homes. We did not see many old Indians. Heaven measures the lengths of our lives. And so it measured theirs.
GI: Your very arrival in the Indies brought disease that killed millions of the Indians.
CC: You blame me for this? Blame God. He was the one who created disease. He the one who hid its causes from us poor humans for thousands of years. You might as well blame Marco for the Black Death. We humans are inquisitive creatures. God made us so. We travel. We explore. We carry the diseases God in his wisdom has afflicted us with. The meekest maid, the goodliest priest who first set foot in the Indies would have been as destructive as I and my sailors.
GI: The laws and practices of your successors increased the misery of the Indians.
CC: And brought them to God. I ask you, did the lot of the Indians get worse under Spanish rule? Show me how. I give you Cortez, the most brutal we produced. What did he do? He rescued Mexico from the rule of the Aztecs, a people more bloodthirsty than any Europeans. They conquered and oppressed their neighbors, then offered their most comely as human sacrifices to their fiendish deities. They tore the hearts out of their living breasts. Don’t talk to me about oppressive rule.
GI: Your successors brought African slaves to America, spreading the curse of that benighted practice.
CC: You confuse me with the English. They were the ones who spread slavery to the New World. But where is the crime, in any case? Slavery was universally practiced. It had been so since antiquity. Did Jesus condemn slaveholders? Show me the passage in the Gospel. Did St. Paul? Far from it. He commanded slaves to obey their masters. Slavery was a humane dispensation, the alternative to putting defeated enemies to the sword.
GI: Humane? Would you have chosen to be a slave?
CC: It would have depended on the circumstances. If I had been captured by pirates, as I well might have on any number of my voyages, I would rather have been sold into slavery than cut to ribbons and fed to the fishes, which would have been the other choice. If I had been a savage African, stranger to the Gospel and doomed to damnation, better for me to have been captured, enslaved and taught the Gospel. A few years in chains, an eternity in heaven—I would call that a fair trade.
GI: In time the world changed its view. Neither Spain nor the Church would condone slavery.
CC: In time all things are possible. You asked me before if I wished to be judged by my own time or by the ages. Judge my faults—what you call my faults—against my own time. Judge my accomplishments by the ages. Was I worse than others of my time? Show me how. Was I sterner than Fray Bartolomé? I don’t deny it. But I made the good padre’s work possible. Without me he would have had no Indians to save. Those Indians would have died unknown to Europe, victims of their enemies, ignorant of the Gospel, doomed to perdition. And he would have died unknown in Seville. What did I accomplish? I brought a new world into being.
GI: Yet you never acknowledged that you had found a new world. You always thought you had reached the Indies.
CC: Again you blame me for the ignorance of my times. You know, for you seem to know all, that the world would soon recognize what escaped me. I had found a whole new world. And look at what it became. Home to millions upon millions of souls who never would have been born. If you blame me for the deaths of Indians I never met, you must credit me for the hundreds of millions who would come to populate the New World. Without me, their parents and grandparents would have been crowded into Europe and died young. Without me, they never would have been born. Is that no small accomplishment?
GI: If it hadn’t been you, it would have been someone else.
CC: And you wouldn’t have disturbed my slumber with this interrogation. You would be hectoring someone else, for the very crimes you ascribe to me. Sorry, but not even you can have it both ways. If you blame me, you must also credit me.
(More cases to come)