Shakespeare, Columbus Day & the Pledge of Allegiance

Conscience is but a word that cowards use, Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.“Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords and law!”

(King Richard III, act 5, sc.3)

Each year, on or around the 12th of October, the United States  celebrate the discovery of America. It is Columbus Day. In countless clubs and institutions citizens stand up and, with a hand on their heart and an eye on the American flag, they recite the pledge of allegiance.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The “under God” was added in 1954 to feed in the populace fear and hatred of the Russians because they were atheists.

Let’s overlook these unconsidered trifles, or rather the vexing question whether “God” is or was Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or just American.

By reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on Columbus day, the declaimers probably do not realize that they are also paying homage to imperialism, to genocide and to the neo-liberal capitalism of which unwittingly Columbus was the forerunner.

Imperialism? Genocide?

This is what Columbus wrote on the ship log of the “Santa Maria” about the first Native Americans he met (the Arawaks).

“They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. They would make fine servants…. With 50 men we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want.”

It was Friar Bartolomeo de Las Casas, who took upon himself to transcribe Columbus’ entries as well as to tell us about the original Native Americans. And while women had to wait for the XXth century to have their Liberation Movement, this is what Las Casas reports on the subject,

“Marriage laws are nonexistent. Men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon to help nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man’s head or at his hands.”

But Native Americans had an even greater problem, they were communist and atheist.

“They have no religion, or at least temples. They live in large communal buildings, housing up to 600 people, at one time – buildings made of strong wood and roofs made of palm leaves… They prize bird feathers of various colors, beads made of fish-bones, and green and white stones with which they adorn their ears and lips. But they put no value on gold and other precious things. They lack all manner of commerce neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token, they covet the possessions of their friends and expect from them the same degree of liberality.”

With such handicaps it was clear that with the Europeans the Native Americans would have a hard time. So much so that of the five estimated millions of them in the territory of the US at the time of Columbus, only (perhaps) 500,000 remain. Their languages disappeared, their culture  destroyed, their traditions eradicated.

The numbers speak for themselves, but to be historically more accurate, the last word on the matter belongs to Andrew Jackson, president of the United States from 1829 two 1837, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.

Alright, the reader may say,  let’s admit imperialism and genocide. But what have Native Americans to do with capitalism? They don’t or, rather, they do by exclusion. They were unwilling to become slaves. Therefore the Europeans had to resort to Africans to reduce the cost of labor –  this eternal, weakening ballast of profit.

Africans were a godsend because they reduced practically to noise level the cost of agricultural production. Today the countries of Southeast Asia provide the slaves. With a difference. While in the plantations slaves died but a few at a time, in Bangladesh and neighborhood slaves die by the thousands for each event, as per recent reported episodes.

Incidentally, there is a certain perception that American slavery was mainly a protestant venture, while Catholics were immune or less prone to the practice.

In 1610, a Catholic priest in the Americas, Father Sandoval, wrote to a church functionary in Europe asking if slavery was legal according to church doctrine. In response,  (letter dated March 12, 1610) Brother Lewis Brandaon answers as follows:

“Your Reverence writes me that you would like to know whether the Negroes who are sent to your parts have been legally captured. (this was not the question but let’s go on). To this I reply that I think your Reverence should have no scruples on this point, because this is a matter which has been questioned and debated by the Board of Conscience (sic) in Lisbon, and all its members are learned and conscientious men. Nor did the bishops who were in Sao Thome, Capo Verde and here in Loanda – all learned and virtuous men – find fault with it. We have been here ourselves for 40 years and there have been among us many learned Fathers. Never did they consider the trade as illicit. Therefore we and the fathers of Brazil buy these slaves for our service without any scruple.”

Of course, to remind of these matters the Columbus Day declaimers of the Pledge of Allegiance, would be most unfair and plainly “anti-American”. After all isn’t conscience
“but a word that cowards use to keep the strong in awe”?

In the play. Richard addressing the troops before the final battle with Richmond’s forces at Bosworth field.

This entry was posted in After Dinner Quotes, Best Shakespeare Quotes, Elegant Shakespearean Quotes, Philosophical, Psychological & Historical Considerations, Presentation Ideas, Shakespeare and Politics, Shakespeare in Management, Shakespeare in Politics, Shakespeare on Mass Psychology and Group Behavior and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.