Columbus and the making of historical myth barbara Ransby

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Barbara Ransby

  1. The quincentennial commemoration of Christopher Columbus's accidental 'discovery' of America, reminded us that history is, in large part, a battleground upon which scholars and activists fight to define the lens through which we view the past. There is also a struggle to define which historical actors will be immortalized as heroes and heroines and which events will be emblazoned into our collective memory as turning-points and historical landmarks. How the story of Christopher Columbus should be told is at the center of one such intellectual battle. The manufactured, but widely accepted, myth of Columbus as the brave and noble visionary who set sail on an unknown course and discovered a whole new world belies the real legacy of Columbus; a bloody legacy of rape, pillage and plunder. But, it is a myth which is quite consistent with how most of US history is recounted by mainstream historians – as great deeds by great white men which resulted in great things for all humankind. More specifically, it is a myth which celebrates imperial conquest, male supremacy and the triumph of military might as necessary components of progress and civilization.

  2. An examination of the Columbus myth illustrates how elites are able to justify their exploits under the guise of 'necessary evil'. Moreover, a survey of the treatment of Columbus in North American children's textbooks is a further indication of exactly how historical myths are made, and when and where the seeds of the dominant culture are planted. To assess how most Americans are introduced to the story of Columbus in grade school, I examined thirty social studies textbooks published between 1966 and 1990 by major US publishers. Many of the newer texts are currently used in public schools throughout the US, the rest were the intellectual baby food of the current generation of college students.

  3. In the overwhelming majority of writings about Columbus, particularly in children's books, there is a simplistic celebration of Columbus as a 'great discoverer [whose] courage opened a new world to Europeans', with little or no critical commentary. In the majority of more 'enlightened' texts, however, there is an uncomfortable reconciliation of Columbus, the avaricious, slave-trading pirate, with Columbus, the brave and venturesome Italian mariner who paved the way for the expansion of western civilization. Implicitly, of course, a new way could not be paved without the removal of obtrusive roadblocks to progress. Those roadblocks included millions of indigenous people who had lived on the land Columbus supposedly discovered some 25,000 years before his expedition arrived. They were people who had names, cultures, belief systems and a history. They lived in harmony with an entire eco-system which was harshly disrupted with the arrival of European invaders in the 1490s. But elementary schoolchildren are told very little about the Taino and Carib peoples, and even less about the bloody conquest of their civilizations by the European colonizers we now celebrate as national icons. It is a conflict with which mainstream historians are quite uneasy because it does not fit neatly into the panoramic sweep of progress which is how many of them opt to characterize North American history. Many of these writers are much more comfortable quoting selectively from Columbus's journal about how he admired the gentleness and generosity of the 'Indians', carefully coming to his conclusion that their kind and calm demeanor would make them easier to exploit and enslave.

  4. Most children's textbooks also fail to mention that Columbus actually introduced the slave trade to the Americas. When he was unsuccessful in his desperate search for gold and other natural riches in the islands of the Caribbean, he began sending human cargo back to Spain instead. Hundreds of Taino and Carib Indians were torn from their homes and families and shipped to Europe to be sold as servants and slaves in the decades after Columbus's arrival. Social studies texts, for the most part, omit, gloss over or reconstruct this ignominious episode in early American history. One text euphemistically describes the six Tainos Columbus forcibly took back to Spain on his first return trip as his 'guests'. Another text, which admits that the colonizers killed thousands of Indians, still describes the system of coerced labor set up by Columbus in the following terms: "Columbus tried to make use of the Indians by requiring them to bring him gold and to work for his colonies". This passage seems to suggest that the native people were idle and unproductive before Columbus's arrival and required his assistance in finding 'useful' and productive work.

  5. Ultimately, the popular myths surrounding Columbus serve as subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, justifications for both male supremacy and white supremacy. School children are taught, through omissions, euphemisms and outright distortions, that conquest is a heroic, masculine enterprise worthy of emulation, and that, when the casualties of such conquests are uncivilized people of color, they are expendable. Three hundred and fifty years after Columbus's initial invasion of the Caribbean, US president Andrew Jackson, himself engaged in a campaign to finish off the process of Native American genocide begun by Columbus, summed up the necessity of the early conquest in these words: "What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms … filled with the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion? According to historian Ron Takaki, during the nineteenth century, the ruling elite of the US concluded that 'white violence was a necessary partial evil for the realization of a general good – the extension of white civilization and the transformation of the wilderness into an agrarian society.

  6. Most Americans know, in some vague sense, the grim fate that befell the native populations of the Caribbean islands after Columbus's advent. Within fifty years of the arrival of the European invaders, a population over 300,000 native people was wholly decimated, with not one member surviving by 1540. This was due in part to disease and displacement, but much of it was due to outright brutality and savagery on the part of the invaders, who waged genocidal wars against those they perceived as obstructions to progress. Women were raped, the environment was ravaged and, eventually most of what had existed before was destroyed. The land was cleared for the building of a new world. Columbus initially described the so-called Indians he met as 'gentle souls', but when they refused to acquiesce passively to his plans for their subjugation, he was relentless in his brutality against them. Columbus biographer Kirkpatrick Sale describes a scene near the colony of Isabela in 1495:

to subdue the recalcitrant natives and tame the countryside … the soldiers mowed down dozens with point blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and 'with G-d's aid soon gained a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed. Of the valley that was Paradise they made a desert, and called it peace.

Moreover, what happened in the Caribbean islands in the 1490s and early 1500s was only a dress rehearsal for what was to transpire on the North American mainland some 300 years later.

  1. Even though most Americans do not know, or choose to know, all the gory details of the Columbian conquest, there is a general awareness among most that genocide did occur and that a people was annihilated. Authors of children's texts about Columbus, as hard as they try to evade the brutal truth, are often faced to admit that 'the Indians were treated unfairly', and 'many Indians died'. Yet, both in popular myth and in written texts, authors have attempted to reconcile the good and the bad in the Columbian legacy, minimizing the latter and highlighting the former. 'He had his faults, but …' is the sentiment echoed throughout many of the writings about him.

  2. The reticence of scholars to dethrone Columbus, despite the admitted atrocities he committed, is reflected in the following quote by the Columbian researcher and Pulitzer prize winner, John Noble Wilford:

We do know he was an inept governor of the Spanish settlements in the Caribbean and had a bloodied hand in the brutalization of the native people and in the start of the slave trade. But we are left wondering if he is to be admired or praised, condemned – or perhaps pitied as a tragic figure.

Despite his admission that Columbus murdered and enslaved Indian people, Wilfred is still uncertain whether such behavior really warrants condemnation. He speculates that perhaps the significance of such actions is outweighed by Columbus's own personal tragedies. Similarly, other texts mention Columbus's reprehensible deeds, but describe them in such dispassionate terms that they seem almost benign. One 1990 textbook casually refers to the genocidal conquest of the native people in this way: "Though they had a keen interest in the peoples of the Caribbean, Columbus and his crews were never able to live peacefully among them. The author seems perplexed by the fact that the enslavement of native people and the theft of their land was any cause for tension between them and the European invaders. He is also reluctant to assign blame for the mysterious conflict, as indicated by his ambiguous and neutral choice of words. What such erroneous formulations effectively do is reduce the crimes against native people to footnotes in a larger, implicitly more important, text. The main story is about the greatness of western civilization, the march of progress, the triumph of civilization over savagery, Christianity over heathenism, and the imposition of order upon the chaos of the wilderness. This is a fundamentally racist formulation, consistent with the ways in which the subjugation and massacre of people of color have been rationalized both by scholars and the ruling elites for generations. In fact, the rationalization offered by the apologists for Native American genocide sound frighteningly similar to the justification for the Gulf war. The murder of thousands of Iraqi civilians was described as an unfortunate but necessary action, taken in order to abate the greater evil of unchecked barbarism.

  1. While the Columbian myth is both an American and a European one, it has a special significance in the context of US history and folklore. Even though Columbus was a European, and his first voyage predated the American revolution by nearly 300 years, he is revered by many as the first American hero. The nation's capital is named in his honor, as are several US cities, streets, parks and schools, including one of the country's oldest and most prestigious universities. His birthday is a federal holiday and the US government spent millions of dollars in 1992 to commemorate the quincentenary of his initial transatlantic voyage. The legacy of Columbus has become an integral part of the annals of North American history because it fits so neatly into a larger scenario which celebrates the so-called pioneer spirit as that which has propelled the US to its current greatness. And, after all, Columbus was the first pioneer, followed by the Pilgrims, the cowboys, and US troops guarding the new frontiers of democracy around the globe today. Columbus was one among many great white explorers who courageously ventured into the darkness of the unknown, only to find a wilderness crying out to be tamed. The wilderness included both the land and its people. When the newly formed US began the process of constructing a national identity and culture, the memory of Christopher Columbus was resurrected as a symbol of the virtues of rugged individualism, stoic determination and a ruthless pioneer spirit which the young republic sought to instill in its citizens. It is no coincidence then that in 1692, the bicentennial of Columbus's fateful voyage, there were no great celebrations in the American colonies. But 100 years later, in the immediate wake of the American revolution, Columbus was lauded in commemorative festivities throughout the newly independent nation.

  2. It is also significant, and not at all surprising, that the blatantly racist and sexist nature of the Columbian conquest has in no way diminished the great discoverer's status as an enduring and celebrated American hero. While most children's books essentially ignore the issue of gender and minimize the issue of race in re-telling the story of Columbus, both race and sex are integral features of the conquest of the Caribbean islands. The racist nature of the conquest is readily apparent. Repeatedly, in the descriptions of the world Columbus 'discovered', the native population is referred to as part of the natural landscape, nearly indistinguishable from the other wild creatures who inhabited the islands. The following passage is typical: '[Columbus] returned to Spain taking with him a few of the curious copper-skinned natives, some birds, and some fish which he found. No distinction made by this writer between Columbus's human and non-human souvenirs. Children reading such a passage could easily be left with the impression that the significance of those copper-skinned human beings was no greater than that of the captured fish or birds.

  3. Initially, the native people were described by Columbus as generous and docile creatures. Later, when they got a taste of what their European visitors had in store for them and began to resist colonization and 'progress', Columbus increasingly characterized them as 'cannibalistic savages' who had to be beaten into submission or extinction. Columbus's animosity towards the native people was not the result of some innate aversion of people of color or any xenophobic aversion to difference, as indicated by his initially favorable description of them. Rather, deeming them 'racially', socially and culturally inferior served as a convenient rationale for confiscating their land, usurping their labor and, eventually annihilating them as a people. In fact, it was not their dark skin which Columbus alleged was an indicator of their inferiority, but their culture, their way of life and the fact that they did not embrace Christianity. After all, the Moors and Jews had just been expelled from Spain for the same reasons by Columbus's benefactor, Queen Isabella. So as early as the fifteenth century, the notion of an inferior 'breed' of men and women served as reason for their exploitation and subjugation.

  4. Columbus's legacy is not only that of racism and imperialism, but of sexual conquest as well. According to Kirkpatrick Sale, 'the women of America were as much a part of the bounty due the conquering Europeans as the other resources in which it luxuriated. Native American women, like their African and African-American counterparts centuries later, were victims of sexual terrorism as a part of the larger scenario of conquest and colonization. An Italian sailor, who was part of Columbus's entourage when he invaded Santa Cruz island, described in his journal a scene that was probably typical:

I captured a very beautiful Carib woman whom the Lord Admiral [Columbus] gave me, and with whom, having taken her into my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived desire to take pleasure [rape her]. I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun … I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams that you would not have believed your ears.

The rape of Indian women was not uncommon, but seems to have been systematic and routine. Another member of Columbus's crew described the situation in the colony of La Navidad in 1493: 'Bad feelings arose and broke out into warfare because of the licentious conduct of our men towards the Indian women'.

  1. Moreover, the story of Columbus's voyage is, above all, characterized in an adventure story in which men, more specifically European men, are the principal, if not the sole, cognizant actors. It is recounted as a romantic tale of fearless seamen who set out to explore the far reaches of the earth, only to stumble upon a treasure greater than they could have imagined, a new world. It is couched as a distinctly male adventure, a biased but favorable characterization which ignores and minimizes the very real experiences of the native women who were some of the chief victims of the conquest and colonization.

  2. Schoolchildren in the US are encouraged to view Columbus as a great hero, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Most of them learn the familiar rhyme: 'In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue', which firmly implants the legendary figure in their memories. They are even encouraged to learn from, and emulate, his example. One popular text urges teachers to highlight Columbus's virtues so that children see the benefits of patience and courage. And, since most public schools in western nations socialize children not to be critical thinkers, but to be good citizens, hard workers and, if need be, loyal soldiers, the myth of Columbus serves those purposes well. Moreover, openly to acknowledge the brutal and unsavory origins of European influence in the western hemisphere would mean confronting the bloody traditions spawned from those beginnings. Therefore, Columbus's image has been scrubbed clean and sanitized by many generations of American historians so that he can now be offered up as a sterling example of the glorious era of discovery. His weaknesses, mistakes and horrid transgressions are all excused in the name of progress. The construction of the heroic myth and legend surrounding Columbus also belies the notion that the writing of history is ultimately written by the victors, and by those with the power and resources to publish, distribute and thus validate the version of history which best serves the interests of the status quo.

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