Christopher Columbus: Good Guy or Dirty Word? (A) “No man has dome more to change the course of human history than Christopher Columbus.” That was the conclusion of Edward Channing’s 1905 classic, History of the United States. To generations of school children, Columbus has been seen the all-time heroic figure portrayed by Channing and more romantically, by Washington Irving in 1828: “a man of great and inventive genius” whose “ ambition was lofty and noble. No wonder Pope Pius IX wanted to make the discoverer of America a saint, or that more places in the English-speaking world are named for the Admiral of the Ocean Sea than for any other historical person except Queen Victoria.
How the pendulum has swung. Lonesome quarters nowadays, the tale of the man who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 is a downright dirty word. Russell Means, the Native American activist, says the explorer “makes Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent.” In a new revisionist biography, The Conquest of Paradise, author and environmentalist Kirkpatrick Sale portrays Cristobal Colon (his real name) as a grasping fortune hunter, a poor sailor and an incompetent governor of Spain’s New World colonies, whose legacy to the Indians he “ discovered” was rape, servitude and death.
In the US and Latin America, the 500 anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to the New World is still two years away, but already it is marred by snappish and divisive quarrels over the meaning of the event. Native American zealots like Means see Columbus as a forerunner of exploitation and conquest. Hispanic Americans want to use the anniversary to stress the glories of the Spanish culture in the New World. Environmentalists see the anniversary as a reminder that the arrival of Europeans meant the despoliation of the New World and as a potential inspiration of modern-day Americans to save what is left of the hemisphere’s threatened landscape.
The Columbus anniversary has also sparked religious battles. In May 1992, the governing board of the Protestant US National Council of Churches resolved that the 500th anniversary should be a time for penitence rather than celebration. “ For the descendants of the survivors of the subsequent invasion, genocide, slavery, ‘ecocide’, and exploitation of the wealth of the land”, read the resolution, “ a celebration is not an appropriate observance of this anniversary.” Mario Paredes, executive director of the US Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center, called the council’s statement a “racist depreciation of most of today’s American peoples, especially Hispanic.”
If anything, the Columbus question is more intense in Latin America and the Caribbean. Fidel Castro renounced his own Hispanic background to declare himself an Indian and denounce the conquerors for raping and enslaving “our people”- the ultimate, perhaps, in expropriation. Conservative bishops in Latin America meeting in Santo Domingo in 1992 pushed for an anniversary declaration that stresses the heroism of missionaries who tried to defend the Indians from the cruelty of the Conquistadors (Spanish conquerors).
IN truth, there is much censure and correct in the record that begins with Columbus. US textbooks are just beginning to give proper emphasis to pre-Columbian cultures. Sale’s controversial biography is as one-sided as a lawyer’s brief, but the evidence of European disdain for the conquered Eden and its inhabitants is hard to challenge. Between 1492 and 1514, as a result of disease and accumulated atrocities, the native Taino population on the island of Hispaniola shrank from an estimated 8 million to 28 000. By 1560, the Taino were extinct.
…Columbus’s immediate reputation suffered from his failures as a colonial administrator and by a protracted lawsuit between the crown and the heirs of Columbus, casting doubt on the singularity of his plan for sailing west to the Indies. (Testimony by some seamen who had sailed with Columbus suggested that one of his captains was actually responsible for much of the idea). In time, Las Casas forced his contemporaries to question the morality of the brutal treatment of Indians at the hands of Columbus and his successors.
By the early years of the 16th century, Amerigo Vespucci, a more perceptive interpreter of the New World and a more engaging writer, had already robbed Columbus of prominence ion the map. His star was also eclipsed by explorers like Cortes and Pizarro, who obtained gold and glory for Spain and had the good fortune to conquer not an assortment of islands but splendid empires like those of the Aztecs of Mexico, and Incas of Peru, and by mariners like Vasco da Gama, who actually reached the Indies, and Magellan, whose expedition of circumnavigation was the first to confirm by experience that the world was round-and also left no doubt about the magnitude of Columbus’s error in thinking he had reached Asia.
Many books of general history in the first decades of the 16th century either scarcely mentioned Columbus or ignored him altogether. Writers of the time “showed little interest in his personality and career, and some of them could no t even get his Christian name right. Historians made much of the years of discovery but gave only passing notice to Columbus himself, though recognizing his strength and courage.
Charles Windsor, more than any other respected historian of the day, cast a cold light on the dark side of Columbus’s character. He had objected strenuously to Columbus’s proposed organization. In his view, Columbus forfeited any claim to sympathy when he robbed of proper credit the lookout who had cried “Terra!” and thus took for himself the lifetime pension promised to the first person to see land.
“No child of any age ever did less to improve his contemporaries, and forever did more to prepare the way for such improvements,” Windsor wrote in his 1891 biography. “ The age created him and the age left him. There is no more conspicuous example in history of a man having the path and losing it…” Columbus left his new world “ a legacy of devastation and crime. He might have been an unselfish promoter of geographical science; he proved a rabid seeker for gold and a vice-royalty. He might have won converts to the fold of Christ by the kindness of his spirit; he gained them desecrating the good angels.
By the early 20th century historians were beginning to expose contradictions, omissions and suspected fictions in the familiar story. No one could be sure when and how Columbus arrived at his idea, what his real objective was or what manner of man he was- an inspired but rational genius, a lucky adventurer clouded by mysticism, a man of the Renaissance, or of the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until 1942 that Columbus was rescued from mythology and portrayed as what he had been first and foremost: an inspired mariner.
The world and American are changing of course, and Columbus’s reputation is changing too. Modern life has made disbelievers of many who once worshiped at the altar of progress. IN the years after World War II, nearly all the colonies of the major empires won their independence and, like the US in its early days, began to view world history from their own anticolonial perspective. The idol had been the measure of the worshipers, but now there were atheists all around. To them, the Age of Discovery was not the bright dawning of a glorious epoch, but an invasion. Columbus became the avatar of oppression. Another Columbus for another age.
“A funny thing happened on the way to the 500th anniversary of America’s discovery” Gary Wills wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1990. “ Columbus got mugged. This time the Indians were waiting for him. He comes now with an apologetic air- but not for some, sufficiently apologetic… He comes to be dishonoured.”
Today historians are addressing consequences as well as actions-increasingly approaching European incursion in America from the standpoint the native Americans. They speak not of the “ discovery” but of the “encounter” or the “contact”. Alfred Crosby of the University of Texas has examined the biological consequences of Columbus’s arrival. While some- the exchange of plants and animals between continents, the eventual globalization fo biology-were generally beneficial, he found others, like the spread of devastating disease, to be catastrophic.
In public forums, Columbus is tarred as the forerunner of exploitation and conquest. Kirkpatrick Sale in The Conquest of Paradise argues that Columbus was a grasping fortune hunter whose legacy was the destruction of native population and the rape of the land that continues to this day.
Descendants of American Indians and the African slaves brought to the New World, as well as those who sympathize with their causes, are understandably reluctant to celebrate the anniversary of Columbus’s landfall. Leaders of American Indian organizations condemn Columbus as a pirate or worse. Russell Means of the American Indian organizations condemns Columbus as worse than Hitler. In a 1987 newspaper story, the Indian activist Vernon Belle court was quoted as calling for “ militant demonstrations against celebrants in 1992 “to blow out the candles on their birthday cake.”
In 1986, the United Nations abandoned its attempt to plan a celebration. Once again Columbus has become a symbol of exploitation and imperialism. It is time that the encounter be viewed not only from the European standpoint, but from that of the indigenous Americans. It is time that the sanitized storybook version of Europeans bringing civilization and Christianity to America be replaced with a more clear-eyed recognition of the evils and atrocities committed in wrestling a land from its original inhabitants.
Columbus made 3 more voyages but his skill and luck deserted him on land. He was an inept administrator of the colony he established at La Isabela, on the north shore of what is now the Dominican Republic. Ruling by the whip for three years, he antagonized his own men to insurrection (some lieutenants tried to seize ships and get away with a load of gold) and goaded the native Tainos into bloody rebellion. Thousands of Tainos were raped, killed and tortured and their villages burned. At the first opportunity, Columbus captured Tainos and shipped them to Spain as slaves, a practice not without precedent in Europe or even among the people of pre-Columbian America. Las Casas sadly deplored the practices of his countrymen: “If we Christians had acted as we should.”