Letters Archive
Fall 92, Vol. 1, No. 1
  • The South as an American Problem: An Interview
  • Changing Images of Columbus
  • Transatlantic Encounters: The "Discovery" of the New World and the Old
  • Changing Images of Columbus

    From the time of the earliest writings about Columbus he has been revered as a hero of mythic proportions. Columbus was an unabashed self-promoter who sincerely believed that God had chosen him to bear the light of Christianity to unknown corners of the world. In a flourish of pretentious mysticism, Columbus adopted the name "Christo Ferens" ("Bearer of Christ") and compiled a book of biblical prophecies about his discoveries. Contemporary historians accepted the propaganda. The history attributed to Columbus's son Ferdinand is nothing short of a hagiography. To Peter Martyr D'Anghera, the great Renaissance humanist and preceptor to the court of Castille, Columbus was "the sort of whom the ancients made gods." Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, the Dominican defender of the Indians against Spanish abuses, was, in a delicious historical irony, Columbus's first editor and historian of the 1492-93 voyage. Although he condemned the abuses of the Indians committed by Columbus and his followers, Las Casas held the Admiral of the Ocean Sea in high esteem for conveying Christianity to the New World. Francisco López de Gómara, the chaplain and personal secretary of Hernán Cortés, called the Discovery "the greatest event since the creation of the world (excluding the incarnation and death of Him who created it)." There is much in these attitudes and assessments that survives today.

    In contemporary American political rhetoric, Christopher Columbus is regarded as the skilled and courageous navigator who discovered the Americas and, in so doing, brought to our ancestors the promise of the New World. This image can be traced to the very beginnings of the United States as an independent nation. Illogically, Americans adopted a fifteenth-century Genoese merchant mariner sailing for Spain as the paragon of all-American virtues: extraordinary vision, deep inner strength combined with physical endurance, unending perseverance, fierce individuality, tenacity in the face of adversity. This is the image of Columbus portrayed by Joel Barlow's epic poem, The Vision of Columbus, which appeared in 1787. The first Columbian celebrations in America marked the third centenary in 1792 with events in Baltimore, Boston, and New York that hailed a glorious past and a promising future. As the new republic expanded westward in the nineteenth century, Americans interpreted Columbus as a heroic individual standing alone in the wilderness, struggling against ignorance and skepticism, and overcoming incredible odds. Washington Irving's reverential History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828, was couched in this heroic vein. This is the image of the Columbus that was prevalent among scholars until the end of the nineteenth century.

    By the time of the fourth centenary in 1892, cracks were beginning to appear in the facade of Columbian heroism. Chauncey M. Depew, the president of the New York Central Railroad and attorney for Cornelius Vanderbilt, commented at a quadricentenary celebration held at Carnegie Hall, "If there's anything I detest more than another, it is that spirit of historical inquiry which doubts everything, that modern spirit which destroys all the illusions and all the heroes which have been the inspiration of patriotism through all the centuries."

    Perhaps Depew had just read the very sober biography of Columbus by Justin Winsor, published in 1892. Another realistic assessment of Columbus, by Henry Harisse, had been issued in 1884; a third, by John Boyd Thatcher, followed in 1904. These histories debunked the heroic vision of Columbus and developed a view of him as a very complex man whose life must be appraised in light of his failings as well as his achievements, a man whose uncommon ability in seafaring was matched only by his utter incompetence in colonial administration. They pointed out that Columbus inflicted death and misery on the native inhabitants of the islands that he claimed for the kings of Castille and Aragon. By the turn of the century, professional historians offered a more balanced portrayal of Columbus, yet the heroic image persisted with little change in popular culture as it does even today.

    The heroic image may have been tarnished by the dedicated work of impassioned historians, but it was cleaned and polished to a high sheen by the organizers of the World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. If Columbus had personified the frontier and its challenge in the early nineteenth century, now he was the national symbol of a robust, expansionistic, capitalist power. Prominent attractions of the Chicago fair included a replica of the monastery at La Rabida, where Columbus sought refuge after his failure to secure support in Portugal for his proposed voyage. Native Americans took center stage in the newly installed ethnographic exhibits as well as on the fairgrounds. Three anthropology exhibitions, two on the exposition grounds and the third on the tawdry Midway Plaisance, juxtaposed extinction against assimilation. Exhibits featured living villages with Indians demonstrating traditional lifeways. A model Indian school illustrated Native American progress, measured in terms of Western values. Delegations of Indian students from government and religious schools were recruited to attend the fair. In addition, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, installed on a large lot not far from the Midway, included about 200 Indians, mostly Oglala Sioux. As far as anyone can determine from surviving records, the Indians were not particularly concerned about the implications of participating in a celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's arrival and the advent of European domination over the world.

    The enduring image of Columbus as hero was celebrated at succeeding world's fairs in the early twentieth century. Meanwhile, modern historians, especially Samuel Eliot Morison, perpetuated the sanitized, romantic portrayal. First published in 1942, Morison's partisan biography of Columbus concentrated on "what he did, where he went, and what sort of seaman he was." With the subject thus defined, Morison conveniently avoided the most obvious unpleasant aspects of first contact. "Never again may mortal men hope to recapture the amazement, the wonder, the delight of those October days in 1492 when the New World gracefully yielded her virginity to the conquering Castilians," Morison effused. While this book punctured many Columbian myths, Morison ignored or only curiously mentioned the atrocities committed against the Indians.

    Something happened to the heroic image of Columbus on the way to the postmodern world. The advent of social history in the 1930s shifted scholarly attention away from the deeds of individuals to patterns and process in whole societies. The Civil Rights Movement brought renewed awareness of the moral problems surrounding slavery. The American Indian Movement reminded us of our own history of internal colonialism. The powerful impact of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) and Vine Deloria, Jr.'s Custor Died for Your Sins (1969) made the reading public aware that America was fully populated at the time of the European's arrival and that European expansion into the Americas was an act of unmasked aggression against native peoples. The growth of anthropology in the twentieth century made it possible to demonstrate the diversity depth of American Indian culture. Archaeologists have established that the New World was discovered, not by Europeans, but by Asians who crossed the Bering Strait at least 12,000 years ago. These considerations are now part of the popular and scholarly psyche, and they influence the way that we think about Columbus.

    It is not surprising, therefore, that the past decade, and especially the past few years leading up to be commemoration of the quincentenary, have seen the publication of a spate of new books that treat Columbus as a villain.

    Columbus is denounced as a genocidal megalomaniac; he has even been compared with Adolph Hitler, and the word "holocaust" is sometimes used when referring to Colombian encounters. The legacy of the Discovery is seen as "ecocide." Many of the charges are difficult to refute. Columbus is now widely, and properly, regarded as the first European slave trader in the Western Hemisphere. He brought disease, starvation, forced labor, and death to millions of Native Americans. He and his brother were directly responsible for at least 50,000 deaths (perhaps several times that many) in the punitive campaigns in the interior of Hispaniola in 1945-96.

    Two recent books have been especially influential in fostering negative images of Columbus. Hans Koning's Columbus: His Enterprise, first published in 1976, treats Columbus as a racist, full of premeditated malice and cruelty towards the Indians. Kirkpatrick Sale's The Conquest of Paradise, published in 1990, is a radical environmental interpretation of Columbus a rootless adventurer representative of a modern Europe that had become alienated from the natural world, a civilization that had lost its bearings.

    While these thoughtful and provocative books will undoubtedly challenge many readers to reconsider the heroic image of Columbus, other writers have altered the image with more balanced, less impassioned scholarship focusing on the broader impact of the contact between the Old World and the New. Particularly stimulating in this regard has Alfred W. Crosby's The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, published in 1972, which examines the impact in terms of the exchange of disease, plants, animals, and peoples. This is the same approach taken by Seeds of Change, published in 1991 to accompany the Smithsonian Institution's exhibition by the same name.

    Other changes in the image are occurring as a result of recent archeological research on the first settlements in the New World. José Cruxent, Kathleen A. Degan, Charles R. Ewen, and others have brought the methods of historical archaeology to the first settlements established by Columbus on the island of Hispaniola. Their discoveries help us to put Columbus and his men into context as real people facing a very difficult challenge. Archaeological studies of Spanish-Indian interaction in the early contact period offer a perspective on events not found in the historical documents, which in turn helps put Columbus into perspective.

    Columbus the visionary, the explorer, the Christ-bearer, is joined at the helm of the Santa María by Columbus the racist slave trader, the genocidal murderer, the incompetent administrator. Is it possible to seek a synthesis of these competing images? Or should we conclude that every generation, or every Columbian centenary, will develop its own image of Columbus? Archaeologist David Hurst Thomas, the curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History who has directed excavations of a Spanish colonial mission on St. Catherine's Island, Georgia, has suggested that we apply a cubist analogy to enhance our perspective of the European "discovery" of the New World. Thomas developed this analogy with reference to Spanish Borderlands research, but he would agree that it applies equally well to interpretations of Columbus. Like the cubist artists in early twentieth-century Paris, we should be willing to shift perspective at will. Thomas encourages us to abandon the attempt to find "truth" in history as revealed by a single perspective.

    Once we rid ourselves of the notion that only one perspective is possible, we can entertain multiple, simultaneous views of the subject. Instead of a single, all-encompassing view of Columbus and the Discovery, we should seek to a multidimensional view in order to articulate the desperate and often conflicting histories and the different versions of reality that they contain.

    One thing is certain, regardless of the image that one contemplates: Columbus's first voyage and the fateful landing on a Caribbean shore in 1492 changed our world forever. It is essential that we study this event and its impact in all its complexity and assist students in gaining a sophisticated understanding of Columbus and his legacy in creating the modern world.

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