• U.S.

Ideas: Good Guy or Dirty Word?

5 minute read
John Elson

“No man has done 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 American schoolchildren, Columbus has been 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 that 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 personage except Queen Victoria.

How the pendulum has swung. In some quarters nowadays, the name 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 (Knopf; $24.95), author and environmentalist Kirkpatrick Sale portrays Cristobal Colon (to name Columbus correctly) as a grasping fortune hunter, a mediocre sailor and an incompetent governor of Spain’s New World colonies, whose legacy to the Indians he “discovered” was rapine, servitude and death.

In the U.S. and Latin America, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ 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 precursor of exploitation and conquest. Hispanic Americans want to use the quincentenary to stress the glories of 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 to modern-day Americans to save what is left of the hemisphere’s threatened landscape.

The Columbus anniversary has also sparked religious battles. In May the governing board of the predominantly Protestant National Council of Churches resolved that the quincentenary should be a time for penitence rather than jubilation. “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 Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center, called the council’s statement a “racist depreciation of the heritages of most of today’s American peoples, especially Hispanic.”

At its annual meeting in Washington last week the National Conference of Catholic Bishops also joined the Columbus fray, in a pastoral letter on the evangelization of the Americas. The text acknowledged that indigenous Americans’ encounter with Europeans was “harsh and painful.” Nonetheless, the bishops went on, “the effort to portray the history of the encounter as a totally negative experience in which only violence and exploitation of the native peoples were present is not an accurate interpretation of the past.”

If anything, the Columbus controversy is more intense in Latin America and the Caribbean. Fidel Castro has 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 prelates of the Latin American Catholic bishops’ conference (CELAM), which will meet in Santo Domingo in 1992, are pushing for an anniversary declaration that stresses the heroism of missionaries who tried to defend the Indians from conquistadorial cruelty. But CELAM will also sponsor a “people’s tribunal” of minority representatives and leftist adherents of liberation theology, who propose to pass judgment on 500 years of European conquest. +

In truth, there is much to censure and correct in the record that begins with Columbus. U.S. textbooks are just beginning to give proper emphasis to pre-Columbian cultures. Sale’s iconoclastic 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.

But good history calls for careful distinctions. In the Jesuit weekly America, Rutgers Professor James Muldoon has argued that the National Council of Churches’ resolution is unhistorical. The council blamed Europeans for introducing slavery into the various new worlds they encountered, ignoring evidence that the Aztec and Inca empires were also based on forced servitude. The resolution virtually ignores a reality highlighted by the Catholic bishops’ pastoral: that the evils condemned by the council were first noted, in angry detail, by early Spanish defenders of Indian rights like the Dominican friar Bartoleme de Las Casas.

Stripped of its pious rhetoric, Muldoon argues, the council’s resolution amounts to a “condemnation of the entire history of the modern world.” As such, it represents a peculiar form of intellectual masochism, selectively judging the past by the imperfect standards of the present. Moreover, even sweeping apologies for historical sins are unlikely to satisfy the angry advocates of belated justice for Native Americans, some of whom would settle for nothing less than canceling the festivals entirely.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com