• U.S.

The Trouble With Columbus

17 minute read
Paul Gray

Planned more than a century ago as a tribute to the landfall of Christopher Columbus in 1492, a five-story lighthouse now, finally, thrusts itself into the sky over Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Aggressively supported by the nation’s octogenarian President Joaquin Balaguer, the project will cost, when all the finishing touches are completed, about $20 million. It will also, when the switch is pulled, put on quite a show: 147 giant beams projecting a cross of light 3,000 ft. into the Caribbean night. The lighthouse comes equipped with its own power generators, which was a prudent idea on someone’s part. The Dominican Republic’s electricity system has virtually collapsed for lack of funding. Like the rest of the country, the neighborhoods surrounding this soaring beacon are routinely blacked out 20 hours a day.

The grandiose new lighthouse already looks like an anomaly, while the old poverty huddling at its edges seems all too contemporary. Overarching light and enforced darkness, cheek by jowl. The Manichaean contrast is altogether fitting for this, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ world-shattering voyage, which is itself increasingly seen in opposing terms of black and white. The Columbus quincentennial officially kicks off this Columbus Day, Oct. 12 — but it has even now generated enough contrast and controversy to outlast its appointed year and, quite possibly, this decade.

At the heart of the hubbub lies a fundamental disagreement, not so much about Columbus himself as about the Columbian legacy. What, in other words, did the enigmatic Genoan set in motion when he first reached the New World? In one version of the story, Columbus and the Europeans who followed him brought civilization to two immense, sparsely populated continents, in the process fundamentally enriching and altering the Old World from which they had themselves come.

Among other things, Columbus’ journey was the first step in a long process that eventually produced the United States of America, a daring experiment in democracy that in turn became a symbol and a haven of individual liberty for people throughout the world. But the revolution that began with his voyages was far greater than that. It altered science, geography, philosophy, agriculture, law, religion, ethics, government — the sum, in other words, of what passed at the time as Western culture.

Increasingly, however, there is a counterchorus, an opposing rendition of the same events that deems Columbus’ first footfall in the New World to be fatal to the world he invaded, and even to the rest of the globe. The indigenous peoples and their cultures were doomed by European arrogance, brutality and infectious diseases. Columbus’ gift was slavery to those who greeted him; his arrival set in motion the ruthless destruction, continuing at this very moment, of the natural world he entered. Genocide, ecocide, exploitation — even the notion of Columbus as a “discoverer” — are deemed to be a form of Eurocentric theft of history from those who watched Columbus’ ships drop anchor off their shores.

Not surprisingly, those who see Columbus’ journey as a triumph of the human progress toward perfection and those who view the same event as a hemispheric rape do not have many kindly things to say to one another. But they are shouting a lot, and this clamor, so far, has defined the ceremonies to come.

Outwardly, at least, the planned hoopla looks much the same as that attending other big-bow-wow anniversaries, such as the bicentennials of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1976 or of the French Revolution in 1989. Columbus will be given the now obligatory PBS documentary series for important occasions: Columbus and the Age of Discovery will spread seven hours over four nights, beginning Oct. 6, with the whole shebang to be repeated on Columbus Day. Furthermore, those hungering for Columbus T shirts, watches or other memorabilia should not have to search far to satiate themselves. The spirit of good old-fashioned boosterism in pursuit of tourist revenues is alive and well wherever a claim can be laid to Columbus.

Starting next April 20, Spain will stage Expo ’92, billed as the largest World’s Fair in history. The host city is Seville, which is not far from where the explorer set out on the ocean blue, and the extensive plans for the event include three replica ships — of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria — to be moored in a re-creation of a 15th century port. Another set of three replica ships will sail from Spain Oct. 12 and retrace Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. In Columbus, Ohio, “the largest city in the world bearing the explorer’s name,” yet another replica of the Santa Maria will be christened Oct. 11 and then docked on the Scioto River downtown. The city’s year-long schedule of events includes performances of new works by its orchestra, opera, ballet and theater groups, not to mention an educational exhibit called “500 Years of Accounting” to commemorate the Italian invention of double-entry bookkeeping.

And so it will go, in both hemispheres. A 14 1/2-ft. fiber-glass statue of the explorer has gone up in Columbus, Wis. Club Med is struggling to complete a new getaway retreat on the Bahamian island of San Salvador, one of the many spots that claim to be the place where the explorer first landed. Commercialism does, of course, entail risks. Genoa, Columbus’ birthplace, confidently expects at least 2 million visitors to attend its “Man, the Ship and the Sea” extravaganza, which begins May 15, amid rampant rumors in Italy – of corruption and misuse of funds by the planners.

The grandiloquently named Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission, established by Congress in 1984, has also run into some fiduciary problems. Its first chairman, Miami developer and Republican fund raiser John Goudie, resigned last year amid complaints of mismanagement. Meanwhile, the U.S. recession has put a crimp in the commission’s ability to obtain public and private donations. In Florida three separate state Columbus commissions have foundered on a lack of money.

This rain on the Columbus parade is nothing, though, compared with the storm of outrage that the prospect of quincentennial partying has unleashed among the anti-Columbians. “Our celebration is to oppose,” says Evaristo Nugkuag, a member of the Aguaruna people, who is president of the Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), an umbrella group in Lima, Peru. On Oct. 7, in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, about 1,000 members of COICA and other groups, representing 24 countries in the Western Hemisphere, will gather at a “Continental Encounter” meeting. One of the purposes is to determine strategies to counter the 1992 Columbus celebrations, including the establishment of an “alternative Seville” at a yet to be chosen site in Mexico. Nugkuag thinks such an antimainstream World’s Fair can be an occasion for reflection rather than celebration: “We want to recover our history to affirm our identity, to achieve true independence from exploitation and aggression and to play a role in determining our future.”

Similar protests have been percolating, or even boiling, for some time. When it opened at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History two years ago, an exhibit called “First Encounters: Spanish Explorations in the Caribbean and the United States 1492-1570” drew spirited opposition from Native American activists, including Russell Means of the American Indian Movement. “Columbus makes Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent!” yelled demonstrators. COLUMBUS MURDERED A CONTINENT read one of the placards. Last July a group of protesters dressed as South American Indians appeared unannounced in Spain, wearing loincloths, their faces and bodies painted. The invaders peacefully entered the shrine of the nation’s patron saint at Santiago de Compostela. They left flowers and other offerings and a message to ask “forgiveness for those who used his name to conquer, murder and destroy peoples.”

Anti-Columbus sentiments are by no means restricted to the descendants of those who were on hand when the Genoan first showed up. Last year the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S. adopted a resolution suggesting how 1492 should be commemorated: “For the descendants of the survivors of the subsequent invasion, genocide, slavery, ‘ecocide’ and exploitation of the wealth of the land, a celebration is not an appropriate observance of this anniversary.”

The charge that Columbus’ arrival instigated genocide has become a major weapon in the anti-Columbian arsenal. George Tinker, a Native American who teaches at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, says of the quincentennial plans: “We’re talking about celebrating the great benefit to some people brought by the murder of other people.” Further to Columbus’ discredit, at the bar of contemporary judgment, is his identity as a white European male. Across the U.S., academicians will be jetting to innumerable conferences where they will give papers on the colonial depredations and horrors that Columbus inaugurated. Author Hans Koning, who has written a scathing biography titled Columbus: His Enterprise (Monthly Review Press; $8.95), sums up this school of scandalized thought: “It’s almost obscene to celebrate Columbus because it’s an unmitigated record of horror. We don’t have to celebrate a man who was really — from an Indian point of view — worse than Attila the Hun.”

Granted, as less vitriolic modern historiography makes clear, Columbus was not the gem of the ocean, the flawless hero of so many earlier hagiographies. But was the historic figure whose name was adopted by a South American republic, the District of Columbia and countless other places and entities, really worse than Hitler or Attila the Hun? What in the New World is going on around here?

For all its intensity, the Columbus controversy has very little to do with 1492 and almost everything to do with 1991. The peoples of the New World, the land that Columbus made inevitable, are engaged in another convulsive attempt to reinvent themselves, to conceive a version of the past that will justify the present and, if possible, shape the future. In older, fixed civilizations, this sort of cultural enterprise would be all but inconceivable. History is what happened and what everyone is stuck with — “a nightmare,” as James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus described it, “from which I am trying to awake.” But bad dreams have never been popular, particularly in the U.S., where it has been assumed they can be erased by a different way of seeing the things that caused them.

Ironically, Columbus drew much of his stature from one such national mind- change. Prior to the War of 1812, he did not figure large in the U.S. imagination. But after that conflict, American patriots felt an urgent need to link the national cause with non-British heroes: the New World needed new ancestors. Washington Irving’s 1828 A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus glorified a commanding character with an Italian name and sailing under a Spanish flag who nonetheless displayed virtues and characteristics that U.S. citizens, most of them from northern Europe, could admire. Thus did the heyday of Columbus idolatry begin — in an early attempt to provide the nation with the icons of multicultural diversity.

That idolatry is now guttering out — inconveniently, by many people’s lights — for several reasons. The U.S. population is not what it was during the first decades of the 19th century; it now includes a higher percentage of people, and a number of far more vocal people, who feel they have a historic grievance against Columbus and the European invasion he represented. These include, most prominently, Native Americans, many of whom have joined hands with their coevals in Latin and South America to take a stand against a long- ago uninvited guest; and African Americans, whose forebears were packed into slave ships and sent across the Atlantic because the Europeans needed their labor to replace that of the decimated indigenous populations. Their toppling of the Columbus icon represents, at its best, a bid to construct a new national mythology — an urge they paradoxically share with the patriots after the War of 1812.

At the same time, what Columbus actually wrought by bringing Europe into the Americas is being assessed with increased historical sophistication. Two worlds collided nearly 500 years ago, and none of the fallout from that impact now seems as simple as it was once portrayed. Textbooks on American history once began with Columbus’ arrival, as if nothing that had happened before bore mentioning. Those careful enough to note that the explorer found people already living where he touched down did not go on to say very much about them.

Yet there is much to say, as archaeologists, anthropologists and ethnographers have known for a long time. The prospect of the Columbus quincentennial not only lent new urgency to scientific research already under way about the land that the Italian encountered, but also suggested an expanded context in which discoveries could be viewed. “The impetus has changed,” says archaeologist Jerald Milanich, “from a celebration of Columbus and the triumph of European civilization to a new theme: the people that discovered Columbus. There’s a huge amount of research focusing on the impact of native Americans.”

It has never been a secret that the Americas and Europe reciprocally influenced each other, although the focus in much traditional history was on how the colonializers tamed — or exterminated — the natives and resettled the land along European models. The process worked both ways. The New World galvanized the European imagination; knowledge of its existence and its peoples was an important factor in the explosion of the Renaissance, which involved not only the reappropriation of classical learning but also the heady sense of a future yet to be discovered. In “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” written roughly a century after Columbus’ landing, the English poet John Donne describes his lover’s disrobing until her final article of clothing is cast off and then exclaims, “O my America! my new-found land.”

In the current politically correct climate, Donne’s rapturous recognition can easily be dismissed as a typically white European male response toward unclaimed territory, combining voyeurism, sex and predatory aggression. This reading filters out all the fun and, more important, the awe and wonder that the Americas sparked in European minds. And the New World fed Europe more than literary tropes, intellectual excitement and a whiff of the exotic. It fed Europe . . . food, stuff that native Americans had been cultivating for thousands of years and that Europeans had never heard of: peppers, paprika, potatoes, corn, tomatoes.

A wider understanding of this transfer of knowledge from the New World to the Old should by fostered by the Smithsonian Institution’s “Seeds of Change,” the largest exhibition ever mounted at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Opening Oct. 12 and running through April 1993, the Smithsonian exhibit sets forth five “natural” elements — sugar, disease, maize, the potato and the horse — the exchange of which has profoundly altered both the New and Old Worlds in the 500 years since Columbus’ first voyage.

The Smithsonian show and much of the other serendipitous scholarly digging in preparation for the Columbus quincentennial actually work quietly against the more extreme positions staked out by those who hate or love what transpired 500 years ago. Thank goodness. Because it is impossible, even with the best will in the world, to find a simple common ground between the contending notions of Civilization or Genocide, Progress or the Cyclical Harmony of the Seasons, Mastering the Land or Living with the Bounty That the Land Will Provide on Its Own.

Impossible, because all these abstractions belong more to the world of morality plays than to the messy arena of history as it occurs. The vast amount of new information being discovered about the New World, both before and after 1492, actually points the way toward a genuinely harmonious understanding of the present moment and how it was achieved. The Columbus quincentennial deserves some credit for focusing this energy and attention. But the worry is that if the debate grows louder and more strident, it could obscure this increasing pool of common knowledge in a shouting match of cliches.

If any book can be said to summon up the passions of this moment, it is Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise, (Knopf; $24.95). Published last year, the 453-page popular history has become a call to arms for the anti- Columbians; it is also the book the traditional Columbus faction most loves to hate. Sale is a social historian whose research into Columbus’ life and travels and the explorer’s contemporary world is impressive; his narrative, especially when he joins Columbus aboard the Santa Maria, is gripping. Sale persuasively describes what it must have felt like for the explorer to stumble upon an unimagined world, peopled, as the author notes, by the tribe known as the Tainos, a European name attached to them that was taken from their own word for “good.”

Sale goes on to note that “the Tainos’ lives were in many ways as idyllic as their surroundings, into which they fit with such skill and comfort. They were well fed and well housed, without poverty or serious disease. They enjoyed considerable leisure, given over to dancing, singing, ballgames, and sex, and expressed themselves artistically in basketry, woodworking, pottery, and jewelry. They lived in general harmony and peace, without greed or covetousness or theft.”

Never mind the aesthetic objection that Sale makes these people sound ^ suspiciously like a bunch of New Agers vacationing in the Bahamas. Discount the fact that Sale does not mention evidence of the Tainos’ hierarchic social structure, which included, at the bottom level, slaves.

The deepest problem is that Sale, like others who idealize the people whose fate was sealed by the explorer’s arrival, actually does them another kind of injury. The perfect island race of Sale’s imagination is denied its commonality with the rest of humanity. Father Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America, who chaired the National Council of the Churches meeting at which the controversial Columbus quincentennial resolution was debated, is one of those who question the notion implicit in Sale’s work that evil was something imported exclusively from Europe: “In a certain sense this is patronizing; it’s as if native indigenous people don’t really have a history, which includes civilization, warfare, empires and cruelties, before white people even arrived.”

Lurking behind Sale’s argument and that of many other vociferous critics is a prelapsarian myth: the world was once perfect and now it isn’t, so someone or something must have ruined it. Many cultures possess a form of this myth; it is particularly strong in Western thought because of the Adam and Eve story in the Old Testament. In the 18th century, Jean Jacques Rousseau popularized a secular version of that Eden story with his writings about the Noble Savage. And part of his inspiration for this concept came from his knowledge of the New World. Even Sale’s anti-Columbian ideas, it seems, owe more to Columbus than some of his readers might imagine.

Mythology is a closed system, a revolving circle of self-reinforcing perceptions. The true history of 1492 and ever after occurred in a different plane of existence, where questions like Were Savages Noble? are either meaningless or susceptible to proof. For too long, the American myth demonized or ignored the people whom Columbus encountered on these shores. Must people now replace this with a new myth that simply demonizes Columbus and Europeans? It is easy to see why former victims might like their turn as heroes. But if that is all the quincentennial produces, an important opportunity for self- reflection will have been wasted.

Celebrate Columbus? Not if that simply means backslapping and flag waving. But it can mean more: taking stock of the long, fascinating record, noting that inevitable conflict resulted in losers as well as winners and produced a mixture of races, customs and habits never before seen in the world. Columbus and all he represents may simply provide an excuse for finger shaking. But perhaps it is possible to celebrate Columbus by trying harder to understand each other and ourselves.

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