After decades of only celebrating Columbus Day on the second Monday of October, Iowa inaugurated its first Indigenous Peoples Day to join it this year. There’s a story behind this.
At our September meeting Max Kirk’s presentation focused on heroes in general. My presentation can be viewed as a case study of one who once attained iconic hero status but has had a reversal since, namely Christopher Columbus. I‘ve been on a personal journey of discovery regarding Columbus, including not only the question of his hero status but some other equally important issues to think about using Columbus as stimulus.
So, here we go. My title is:
The Columbus Story and Controversy
Brave Sailor or Brutal Conquistador
Gene M. Lutz
October 23, 2018
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.
He sailed by night; he sailed by day;
He used the stars to find his way.
A compass also helped him know
how to find the way to go.
Day after day they looked for land;
They dreamed of trees and rocks and sand.
October 12 their dream came true,
You never saw a happier crew!
“Indians! Indians!” Columbus cried;
His heart was filled with joyful pride.
But “India”the land was not;
It was the Bahamas, and it was hot.
The Arakawa natives were very nice;
They gave the sailors food and spice.
Columbus sailed on to find some gold.
To bring back home, as he’d been told.
He made the trip again and again,
Trading gold to bring to Spain.
The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.
The source of this Columbus Day poem for children is uncertain but likely penned in the 1940s, based on a 1919 poem by Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr. She saw herself as a later day Mother Goose writing positive jingles and rhymes to help children learn history.
The poem romanticizes Columbus and is reflected in what critics call the Columbus myth. This may better be called a legend, but I won’t quibble about that here.
The primary claims of the Columbus myth/legend are that:
He was a great sailor bravely going off into the unknown.
His primary motive was to discover a route to Asia.
His journey was difficult and poorly provisioned.
His crew members were criminals who were poor at their duties.
He was the first to discover America.
He proved the world was round.
He introduced Western civilization, humanity, Christianity, etc. to the “New World”.
He is responsible for connecting Europe to the New World.
He was the first American hero.
He died in obscurity, unappreciated and penniless.
Nearly all of this is either misleading or plainly wrong!
There are opposing versions of the old children’s poem, for instance:
In fourteen hundred ninety two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain
to get to India from Spain.
He hit Bahama, he was pissed
His chance at fame and glory missed.
He took it out on the local folk
He stole their gold, and they were broke.
He killed their kids and let them know
Their lives would now be full of woe.
We honor him, I don’t know why,
May his soul in hell forever fry.
That version was penned by a Richard Lorenz and posted on-line October 12, 2009, for Columbus Day. It probably is not read in schools. There have been many more on both sides of the story. But you get the idea of the competing characterizations of Columbus as hero versus villain.
I will cover a few aspects of the story and controversy, give my analysis of both and offer a final assessment. All is worth a more thorough treatment than I will, or am able to give.
But first, a disclaimer: I am not an historian, nor expert in any of many fields relevant here. I am not a sailor, nor competent in Spanish. I have severely summarized the topic, and likely misrepresented some of it, too. I assume many in our group may know a lot about Columbus already, more than I did before this project, and more than I do now. My talk is as much my personal journey of discovery about Columbus, as about him directly.
This has been a personal quest. I hadn’t known much about Columbus but I’ve been casually interested in early exploration of North America, including that of the Vikings. I also needed a topic for our Club, and Paul Rider had told me that in its early days members were encouraged to delve into topics outside their expertise. I’ve definitely done that! I’ve amassed an embarrassingly large library of books and materials. Embarrassing, because it demonstrated how little I knew, now how thorough I was trying to be. I’ve wandered into all manner of related historical figures, from Marco Polo to the Ottomans and the Crusaders, and many others. It’s been an engaging adventure.
Two or three years ago I had chanced on a little book titled Irresistible North (Andrea Di Robilant, 2011) at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City. The subtitle got me: From Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers. I’d not heard of the Zen brothers. The cover leaf read in part, “a charming odyssey in the path of the mysterious Zen brothers, who explored parts of the New World a century before Columbus.” The book’s author retraced the journeys of two brothers claimed to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean via the Faeroes, Iceland, and Greenland until reaching the North American coast in the 1380s and 1390s. The Zen journeys have been alternately ridiculed or thought plausible ever since a book about them was published in 1558. That book was attributed to Nicolo Zen, a descendant of one of the two brothers. It was an intriguing idea that two Venetians had come to the so-called New World a century before our Columbus, and, like Columbus, they were Italian. So, here my journey began.
Part 1: Historical Context
I spent a lot of time reading about Columbus. But the more I read about him, the more I needed to understand the background to what happened. So, I took a long detour to learn about the historical context.
--Venice had been dominating Mediterranean trade in high rivalry with Genoa for 500 years. Venice had been the major gateway into Europe on the Silk and Spice Route from Asia and India.
--These historic trade routes were being blocked by the rise of the Ottoman Empire, disrupting the trade on which Western European powers depended.
--The Islamic Ottomans had been expanding and sieging as far west as Vienna and Venice. Their Islamic brothers, the Moors had been in Iberia for decades and controlled much of North Africa, and other Mediterranean areas. West Europeans were being pinched into a smaller geography. The Spanish and Portuguese seemed increasingly to be the last best hope for maintaining a Christian Europe.
--The Italian Renaissance was in its middle years (approximately the 14th to 17th centuries). E.g., Leonardo de Vinci was in his prime at 40 years old in the famous year 1492.
--The classic Crusades of the 1100 to 1300 era (actually 1096 to 1291) had ended. Eastern Christian Constantinople and the Byzantium Empire had finally been defeated by the Ottoman Mehmet II in 1453 after 450 years of Christian of control. The Muslim reconquest was thus less than 50 years before Columbus first sailed. Yet sieges for Christian control of Islamic places along the Mediterranean coasts were ongoing until 1590, 100 years AFTER Columbus. Thus, he and other explorers saw themselves as crusading for Christianity.
--The Iberian Peninsula was composed of the kingdoms of Portugal, Aragon, Leon, Castile, and the Emirate of Granada. Granada had been the last bastion of Islamic Moorish control in Iberia until Aragon and Castile conquered it at the end of a ten year campaign in 1491, forcing both Moors and Jews to convert or leave; this is less than a year before Columbus first sailed.
--Meanwhile Portugal was exploring into the Atlantic and, like Spain, warring on Islamic cities on the North African coast. Portugal was also working its way along the West African coast around the Cape up the east African coast and finally across coastal Arabia to India. Columbus journeyed in the middle of this 100+ year effort noted for its brutality and it relieved Portugal from possible absorption under Spanish control.
I could not have told you hardly any of this before doing this project. But learning about this period was some of my most enjoyable reading. Maybe even better than reading about Columbus himself!
Part 2: The Columbus Voyages in Brief
From reading about Columbus using various, and often contradictory sources, I put together a summary of his story that seems likely, but not certain, to be mostly accurate. It is amazing how much debate there is about him historically. As dates are mentioned, I find it helpful to keep 1492 in mind as my reference point.
He was born Cristoforo Colombo in Genoa in 1451, the son of woolen weavers and Latin Catholics, and named for St. Christopher. Genoa was a center of ship building and map makers, as well as a preeminent trading hub. In his early life he began sailing in support of trade and conflicts between Mediterranean powers. Many islands from the Canaries in the south to the Azores and Cape Verde Islands further west and north had already been invaded and claimed in the early 1400s either by Spain or the Portuguese Prince Henry, the “Navigator Prince.” In 1477 Columbus, age 26, sailed with a trading mission into the north Atlantic to Lisbon, the Azores in the mid-Atlantic, to Bristol in England and on to Iceland. There he may have learned of Greenland and even Vinland.
Later he landed in Portugal following a sea battle where he collected maps and learned more about sailing, shipbuilding, celestial navigation, islands found further out into the Atlantic, and Portugal’s ambitious voyaging enterprise around Africa. His younger brother Bartholomew was already in Lisbon operating a chart-making business and made Columbus his partner. But, as I’ve mentioned, Portugal’s greatest effort was now focused on finding a sea route east to India to circumvent the old restricted trade routes. Voyaging out from Western Europe in all directions was well underway, and Columbus knew this. He saw his chance to combine his desire for personal wealth and higher status with the political agendas of Christian powers to hold off the Islamic threat and expand Christianity.
While in Portugal, Columbus was aware of others proposing Atlantic crossings, and it had been suggested to him directly. After contemplating his own voyage for a number of years, in 1484 he made his first proposal to the Portuguese sovereign João II. The king’s Maritime Advisory Committee doubted Columbus’ claims about geography. He had been given a letter and map by the Italian scholar Paolo Toscanelli in 1474 showing Asia extended close to northern Europe and advocating a voyage west to reach the Indies [SEE HANDOUT]. Columbus relied on sources that had under-calculated the Earth’s circumference to say it was about one-fourth or more too small, even though Eratosthenes had made an accurate calculation of it over 1600 years earlier.
In 1491 the German Heinrich Hammer produced a map with somewhat better accuracy, especially including more of Africa, and showed it to Columbus [SEE HANDOUT]. The German mariner, Martin Behaim, who produced our oldest surviving globe in 1492, showed it to Columbus but it had many of the same errors making the ocean between Europe and Asia to appear as a small expanse. Columbus said there were many islands to be used as way-stations to Asia including Japan (known as Cipangu), agreeing with the 200-year-old report of the Venetian Marco Polo that had placed it 1500 miles east of China (1271-1295). In addition, Columbus speculated that the Chinese Grand Khan or maybe his heirs would be there to warmly greet him (not knowing the Mongol empire had already disintegrated) because the Khan had sent an invitation to the popes to visit; that’s much in doubt. In short, Columbus cherry-picked assumptions made by some experts of the time to argue he could make the trip.
The Portuguese proposal was rejected and in the following year Columbus went to Spain with his plea. Meanwhile, in 1488 Bartolomeo Dias made a triumphant return to Portugal having rounded the Cape of Africa, sailed partway up its east coast and was now safely returned. It was a sensation to find and round the southern end of Africa. (Vasco Da Gama made the complete round trip to India 10 years later.) Columbus had been waiting two years for a Spanish decision and then renewed his request for backing from Portugal, but it stayed disinterested. Columbus’s Spanish proposal languished while the Catholic Monarchs finalized conquest of Granada in 1491. During this wait, Columbus’ brother Bartholomew was visiting England and then France trying to sell the idea, and Columbus himself set off on such a quest when he was called back to the Spanish court.
The monarchs, especially Isabella, now agreed to back Columbus as she knew other powers were thinking to sponsor similar attempts to reach Asia by going west, and the voyage had the potential to counter Portugal’s emerging monopoly of sea routes along and around Africa. This decision came despite skepticism about Columbus’ constant but erroneous assertions of the Earth’s geography. The financing is disputed but some say half came from Columbus himself and Genoa merchants in Seville and the rest from the crown having its debtors provide some ships and materials. Isabella didn’t hock her necklace to pay for it, unlike the myth.
Columbus proposed the same contract with the Spanish monarchs as he had to the Portuguese. In return for making the journey he could call himself a Don and the High Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as Viceroy and Governor in perpetuity of all the islands and mainland he might discover or that might be discovered thereafter, that his elder son succeed him and his heirs forever to have the same titles and rights, and even more, that he receive one-tenth of all valuables obtained within the area discovered for himself, and his heirs. A really big ask, I’d say. But the contract was signed.
With his famous three ships Columbus sailed from Palos, Spain to the Canary Islands off Africa, already a Spanish conquest, and west into the Atlantic on September 9, 1492. [BUT WAIT A SECOND HERE: The ship names had double meanings contrasting what Columbus called them with their salty crew vernacular: La Niña had been the Santa Clara but to the crew is was “the little girl”, La Pinta was nicknamed Pintada, “the painted one” meaning “prostitute”, and Santa Maria had been the Santa Gallega, a female from Galicia, loosely another prostitute to the crew. This was only the beginning of my many surprises. Now back to the story.]
The Canaries were believed to be on the same latitude as known ports of Japan and China. But in addition, Columbus knew about the Atlantic currents and weather, and the winds that blow west off Africa. These are the same winds that bring hurricanes our way. In 33 days on October 12, 1492, he hit land; most, but not all agree it was the Bahamas: it’s not my job to verify any of the claims. The initial land sighting may have been by the sailor Rodrigo, but Columbus said he had seen it the night before and so he could claim the promised yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life. If this really happened, then he cheated. Columbus called the place San Salvador and said it was part of the “West Indies” and now belonged to Spain.
The caravel-style Santa Maria’s main sail is shown in paintings as featuring giant red Crusader crosses; the arrival had to be an unbelievable site to the natives [SEE HANDOUT]. Columbus says he was surprised to find brown skinned natives (they were Arawak Taínos) who did not match his idea of Asians. He noted they greeted him warmly and he quickly assessed them to be gentle, naive, without religion and so needing it and easy to make into Christians. He handed out glass beads, hawk’s bells and red caps and received water, food, feathered items, and similar items back. He saw bits of gold on their adornments and demanded to know its origin. He later wrote “they do not bear arms…they would make fine servants… with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
He later roamed the coasts of Hispaniola and Cuba seeking gold and a path to mainland Asia. He made the crew take an oath that Cuba was part of the Asia mainland, not an island. Before leaving for home, he kidnapped some natives to show the monarchs; not all survived the trip. But on Christmas Day his flag ship, the Santa Maria, ran aground off Hispaniola. The crew was rescued by the natives, so he left 38 or so behind to make room on the two remaining ships. He instructed a fort built from the wreckage, and promised to return. Columbus turned this lemon into lemonade to say God caused the shipwreck so he would found the 1st Christian settlement there. Even paintings of the shipwreck romanticize it [SEE HANDOUT]. [ANOTHER PAUSE HERE: In 2014 some archaeologists claimed they found the ship underwater off Haiti and hope to raise it. If so, it sank but wasn’t used to make a fort? More history confusion I encountered.]
On his homeward trip he was blown too far north by a cyclone and landed at Portugal, where he was suspected of encroaching on territory Portugal had been exploring for decades. Columbus was nervously interviewed by the same King João who had rejected his initial proposal for the voyage and who now regretted the decision, but he was released to Spain. His reception there was very positive, including an audience with the monarchs. They expressed appreciation of his discoveries and amazement at the specimens of flora and fauna he brought and at the slaves. It’s unclear how disappointed they were about the lack of gold and a route to Asia, as some authors claim.
He argued he needed to quickly continue his explorations and prevent Portugal from claiming the area. The Spanish monarchs saw the potential, conferred upon him a coat of arms, the titles of “Viceroy” as well as “Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Indies” and agreed to sponsor a second trip. But soon they also made plans to launch other voyages captained by higher status men who like experts of the time assessed the area was not Asia but newly found lands that could be exploited.
His second voyage in 1493-96 was an armada of 17 ships with 1200 sailors, priests, craftsmen, herds of animals, supplies to last a year and heavy arms; its purpose was to establish a permanent Spanish settlement with Columbus as governor, subjugate the natives, and be a base for further exploration and conquest. By the way, he did go back to where he had left the sailors from the first voyage, but they had been killed by natives after looking for gold and taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor. It was during the second stay in 1494 that Columbus began shipping slaves to Spain to show some profit for the enterprise as gold was too scare to serve that purpose.
Soon after the second trip, Portugal and Spain clashed about who had a right to exploration westward. Alexander VI, the infamous Spanish Borgia Pope, issued a bull in 1494 drawing an imaginary line pole to pole in the Atlantic giving all to the west to Spain and all to the east to Portugal. As we might expect, the other European powers ignored this as being prejudicial and arbitrary. Portugal made a deal with Spain to move the line further west, as it already had suspicions of lands further to the southwest and wanted the right to take them. In Spain, negative reports were coming from the front and combined with innuendo, heaped much criticism on Columbus’ governorship, aided by jealousies and disrespect for his low status. In addition to enslaving hundreds, he was reported to be responsible for hundreds more to be mutilated and killed, and to use whipping, shackling and banishment of the Spanish settlers who disobeyed rules. All true.
Before Columbus returned to Spain from the second trip, he made his brothers Bartolomeo and Diego interim governors. His third trip in 1498 first took him to the north coasts of South America and his journal says he thought this must be a continent as it continued so far, but was it Asia? When arriving in Haiti he found a revolt was in process. Even worse, he experienced a mutiny after losing all his ships and was arrested and removed as governor, while his replacements furthered the explorations, searching for gold and brutally conquesting. Returned to Spain, Columbus was imprisoned while being investigated. He was additionally accused of being a Jew and a foreigner trying to steal the colonial riches. He was stripped of his title Admiral of the Sea in 1500, but then was excused of the charges and was backed for a fourth and final voyage of 1502-04. Between his 3rd and 4th trips, there were 11 voyages by others that replaced Columbus’ role in the conquest. His fourth trip focused on probing the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, as he continued looking for China despite awful weather and deteriorating ships, none of which returned to Spain. He was deliberately left marooned for a year before being rescued. He did not know how close he had come to finding the Pacific Ocean although natives told him it was there.
Back in Spain, Columbus continued his claim that he had found “new lands” on the outer reaches of Asia. He tried to garner all the rights and wealth he had contracted to receive but these were not fully honored, and he is commonly said to have been increasingly ignored, slipped into oblivion, and to have died penniless in 1506, age 54. Most authors counter this assessment by stating that even though the crown did not grant him 10% of the colonial profits, Columbus was appreciated at court and well-off, and even that he died rich (Charles Mann) as he had a gold mine worked by native slaves on Haiti (James Loewen)! His son Fernando is said to have inherited considerable wealth from his father’s “blood money” to build his extensive library. The penniless claim is likely pro-Columbus romantic propaganda.
The Columbus voyages are part of an explosion of signature voyages by Europeans occurring over the 60 year period of 1480s-1540s [SEE HANDOUT]. Each commander took many journeys but except for Columbus, I only gave each one a single entry, to save space. You see how Columbus fit into this abbreviated chronology.
Bartolomeo Dias (Portuguese for Portugal) 1487 Africa’s Cape of Good Hope
Columbus (Italian for Spain) 1492 Bahama, Hispaniola, Cuba
Columbus (Italian for Spain) 1493 Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Cuba
Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) (Italian for England) 1497 Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Maine
Columbus (Italian for Spain) 1498 Venezuela, Hispaniola
Vasco Da Gama (Portuguese for Portugal) 1498 India
Pedro Cabral (Portuguese for Portugal) 1500 Brazil
Amerigo Vespucci (Italian) for Spain: 1499 Venezuela; for Portugal: 1501-1502 Brazil, Argentina
Columbus (Italian for Spain) 1502 Hispaniola, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama
Alfonso Albuquerque (Portuguese for Portugal) 1503-1512 Arabia, India, Spice Islands, S. Pacific
Ponce de Leon (Spanish for Spain) 1513 Florida
Vasco Balboa (Spanish for Spain) 1513 Panama and view of Pacific Ocean
Hernando Cortés (Spanish for Spain) 1519 Aztec Mexico
Ferdinand Magellan (Portuguese for Portugal) 1519-1522 Circumnavigation
Francisco Pizarro Gonzalez (Spanish for Spain) 1528-33 Inca Peru
Giovanni da Verrazano (Italian for France) 1524 North Carolina, Newfoundland
Jacques Cartier (French for France) 1534-42 Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, Montreal
Hernando de Soto (Spanish for Spain) 1539 Florida, 1540 SE US, 1541 SW US
Due to the earliest voyages, in 1507 a new map by Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann likely was the first to show a narrow version of the Americas on the extreme left and to use the term “America” on a map; it also showed a separate Pacific Ocean [SEE HANDOUT]. I’ll come back to this map later.
Part 4: A Social Construction of Reality Explanation for the Myth
So, I asked myself how Columbus came to be viewed as a hero with the attendant elements of his myth I listed earlier. The “social construction of reality” is a concept coined and introduced by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their 1966 book of the same name about the sociology of knowledge. It has been rated one of the top 5-10 most important books in the field. Its point is that what we consider to be reality is socially constructed; it is not inherent or innate in anything. It contrasts with an ancient Greek (Aristotle) idea that things have an “essence” that defines them. Rather, the meaning of a thing happens because we agree to what it means through common socialization and reinforcement by way of our interactions. Those interactions can achieve a level of institutionalization such that the meaning is now “taken for granted” and not contested. It has some similarities to our contemporary idea about a “narrative” in politics or other fields, although narratives are less permanent, and have limited consensus. This is a very short description of the social construction of reality, for which you may be grateful! And I am certain our philosophy friends could have much to say about this.
The social construction of reality idea helps to explain both Columbus myth making and its debunking.
There is near silence on Columbus in Europe from the early 1500s for centuries. He also was mostly ignored by the early colonialists on our East Coast. I puzzled then about how he was resurrected to become a US hero. Consider that Spain failed through war and treaty to keep any of its so-called New Spain territory as permanent parts of a North American empire. Once it had claimed most of the area west of the Mississippi, the Southwest, and Florida. We further had the Spanish-American War to oust Spain from the Caribbean. The US did not establish Catholicism as our state religion. As each sending power, Spain, England, France, Holland, and others established colonies and imported settlers, there was a struggle for which traditions and ways would dominate. It was England that won this struggle to be our founding heritage. Why then choose this Italian Catholic who had represented Spain as our first national hero?
An interesting thing had begun happening around the turn of the 18th century. At the same time the US was being formed, Columbus emerged as a representation of the new country with parades and celebrations. He was chosen as a useful symbol for the newness of the nation while providing a direct link to the past. As Columbus had taken land from the Caribbean natives, so the young US was taking land from the native North Americans. Both felt justified and divinely so.
The first Columbus Day celebration was in New York City in 1792 on the 300th anniversary of 1492. The organizers were the Columbian Order, later known as Tammany Hall. Other places also initiated annual ceremonies and parades to honor Columbus. These promoters were Italians and Catholics.
Perhaps most influential in the 19th century was Washington Irving’s 1828 fictionalized history of Columbus titled A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus; this prompted the myth that medieval Europeans thought Earth was flat. As a result of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, organized in 1882, President Benjamin Harrison encouraged celebrations in 1892 for the 400th anniversary and there was a flurry of Columbus statues erected for that anniversary. [SEE HANDOUT]
While a primary motivation of the Knights of Columbus was to be a mutual benefit society, the background is the struggle for Catholics to overcome their marginalization by Anglo-Saxon Protestants and thus to establish themselves as full members of American society. () As a 1878 editorial in The Connecticut Catholic publication said, “As American Catholics we do not know of anyone who more deserves our grateful remembrance than the great and noble man – the pious, zealous, faithful Catholic, the enterprising navigator, and the large-hearted and generous sailor: Christopher Columbus.”
Similar to Catholics generally, Italian and Irish immigrants were at first low status groups competing with the English and Protestants for a place in the young nation. They were natural allies of the Catholic block in jointly working toward upward mobility and inclusion with Columbus as their symbolic champion.
The federal US holiday of Columbus Day was proclaimed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 again after intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. Its date is now fixed as the second Monday in October. It is one of only two federal holidays now named for a single individual, the other being Martin Luther King, Jr.
20th century interest in Columbus was stimulated by Samuel Eliot Morison’s 1942 Pulitzer Prize winning book Admiral of the Ocean Sea, A Life of Christopher Columbus. This detailed Morison’s attempt to re-sail Columbus’ voyages using his interpretations of Columbus’ sailing journals. Around the time of the 500th anniversary in 1992 and since, there are many books with such titles as 1492 The Year Our World Began, 1493 Uncovering the New World Columbus Created and America Discovers Columbus. Translated materials from Columbus and other invaders are presented in Columbus, The Four Voyages and the two volume series Conquistador Voices, and others. Too bad we don’t have much from the natives to balance these.
Columbus as hero is evident in the ways we are awash in Columbus celebratory culture, including place names, state capitals, statues, monuments, public squares, streets, rivers, a world fair, space shuttle, even sausages in HyVee, and many other references including our federal District of Columbia. The statues with globes send an ambiguous message about Columbus’ accomplishment: Columbus made the whole world known, the world isn’t flat, Western civilization rules the world, or what?
We generally take the Columbus naming of things for granted as merely honorific of Columbus himself or more generally of exploration. But if you think more deeply about it, you find his name defines Columbus as an American, meaning US, hero. Columbus and his myth have continued to have a prominent place in US history school books for over a century. These are all indicators of how the myth has been institutionalized.
Part 5: Deconstructing the Myth and Replacing it with a Different Story
Now to the opposing view. Opposition to Columbus often emerges around Columbus Day as it did again this year. Early on European Protestant and anti-immigrant groups rejected the Day based on prejudice against Catholicism. In more recent decades it is objected to on grounds Spanish colonialization caused genocide and subjugation of Native Americans and set in motion continued oppression of people who are not from northern Europe. Statues of Columbus are now attacked in October [SEE HANDOUT].
The federal Columbus Day holiday is not observed in all states. Several have replaced or paired it with alternatives such as Berkeley’s Indigenous People’s Day, South Dakota’s Native American Day, and Hawaii’s Discoverer’s Day for their Polynesian settlers. (History.com) Montana legislators have proposed renaming the day as Montana Heritage Day. This past October 8 was the first time for Iowa’s official Indigenous People’s Day.
The critical view of Columbus is mirrored in the criticism of sports mascots and team names that many view to appropriate or denigrate Native Americans, such as “Indians”, “Braves”, “Seminoles” and so on. By the way: a “redskin” is not a benign reference to skin color; it was a skinned face removed from a Native American skull.
The social deconstruction of Columbus points to his personal failings and the negative aftermath of his explorations. Indigenous population totals in the “New World” are impossible to know for certain, but a mid-range estimate is that of the approximately 50 million in 1500 there were only 6 million after European contact 150 years later in 1650. Other estimates say it either was worse or not so as extreme but yet dramatic. Entire ethnic groups were eliminated including total destruction of the Aztec and Inca empires. From this point of view, Columbus is described as a conqueror who abused those he encountered. To him and his fellow explorer-conquerors natives were considered to be uncivilized and they were justly enslaved, their cultures destroyed, their riches looted, and marginalized when allowed to survive.
But opposition to Columbus is not as new as we may think. I mentioned that during his third voyage he had been sent home in chains (some say) as a deeply flawed governor of Hispaniola, both because his administration was too harsh and ineffective in establishing a well-functioning settlement and because there were many undermining him. His voyaging partners staged mutinies and his competitors claimed lands he had visited first.
The criticism of Columbus and what the Spanish were doing was documented by Bartolome de las Casas, as an 18 year old and later slave owner. He had participated in the conquest of Cuba in 1502 and witnessed the torture, slavery and mass slaughter of natives. The Christian evangelizing had descended into genocide. He later became a priest and bishop, dedicating his life to protecting and defending the natives as being fully human, even as he supported a Spanish right to sovereignty over them. His observations and outrage were recorded later in several books, including Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies written in 1542. It was intended to inform the Spanish crown and warn that God would destroy Spain if the atrocities did not stop. While the Crown directed there be better treatment, their agents, the conquistadors in the field didn’t comply.
Las Casas tells us that when the natives began to experience beatings and worse, they stopped cooperating, hid their food stocks, went into hiding, fled entirely or staged counter attacks. In response, the Spaniards hunted them down with dogs trained to kill, hacked them to pieces with swords and lances, placed bets on being able to cut a man in two with one stroke, suspended 13 at a time just above a blaze “in honour of our Savior and the twelve Apostles” (1542: 15). Famously, after 1513 the crown required (“Requerimiento”) that on first encounter the Spaniards were to read a command to adopt Christianity and pledge allegiance to the Spanish crown or to suffer the consequences…this was read in Spanish! When the natives did not comply, this was sufficient to justify all the subjugation and terror that followed. Clearly this was a transparent “crass legalism” to ease the Crown’s conscience (Griffin 1992: xxv).
Jumping to our own time. The social movement of the 1960s with its student activism and civil rights advocacy took up speed in the 1990s to move beyond criticizing Columbus into remaking him into an anti-hero; one who lacks morality and acts out of self-interest. It is succeeding to a significant extent. There are protests and petitions to have Columbus statues torn down. In January of this year, Mayor De Blasio of NYC decided to keep the Columbus statue at Columbus Circle but plans to add side panels to give a more balanced context. San Jose took their statue out of its city hall. Twin City residents have petitioned to have the Columbus statue at the state capitol replaced by one of the deceased artist Prince; cheeky!
Columbus is having a hard time of it, but not completely. In 2016 Puerto Rico erected a Russian-made, 350 foot Columbus statue named Birth of the New World as a tourism attraction. It is now the tallest statue in the Americas [SEE HANDOUT]. It was first offered to Columbus, Ohio, but refused, as it was by several others. There also is an 1888 giant 197 foot statue in Barcelona where Columbus went to appear at court after his first voyage. That’s ironic because opening the west route to America actually plunged Barcelona into a long economic depression.
The overall Columbus controversy, then, can be seen as part of the larger “culture wars” that encompass such issues as what our traditional core literature should be, how we should respond to our own past racisms and ethnic genocides, what to do with statues that honor disgraced heroes, and so on. Of obvious relevance has been the American Indian Movement and books such as Custer Died for Your Sins (Vine Deloria, Jr., 1969.) [SHOW SHIRT] The Columbus Controversy has been unfolding within this broader contest for definition of our culture and nation.
Part 6: Contemporary Issues that Connect to Examining Columbus
Before bringing this to a conclusion, there are three broad issues to mention as a consequence of examining Columbus. First, “What does it mean to be the first to make a geographic discovery?” Asking “Who was first to discover America?” is a simplistic and political question. It assumes there is one singular and definitive answer. We cannot know how many people came to the American continents before Columbus and when they came. There were likely many informal journeys by fishers, curious voyagers, exiles and some merely taken off course by environmental conditions to go from Europe into the Atlantic and find North America in the 500 years between the Vikings of 1000 at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Columbus. Any claim about who was first to come from Europe is ultimately a boast of cultural imperialism.
Confirming a geographic “first” for 15th century West Europeans meant establishing a permanent settlement. Impermanence is cited as the reason to discount the Vikings in Newfoundland, and the English settlement of Roanoke. The first island-town founded by Columbus on his second voyage named La Isabella, failed completely after 5 years due to starvation, insects, and poor administration, so it did not persist either. (See: Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, 1998:6 and Charles Mann, 1493 Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, 2011: 9-13).
Clearly Columbus did not reach continental North America but he did reach Central and South America. Regardless, he didn’t know where he was. It would seem you need to know what you’ve found to be its “discoverer.” Our country is named for Amerigo Vespucci. This is credited to the map made by Waldseemüller in 1507 that I mentioned earlier; he believed Vespucci was first to identify the coasts from Brazil southward as a new continent and so labeled it “America” in his honor [SEE HANDOUT]. Later Waldseemüller decided that was not true, as do historians, but his map had such success that he couldn’t convince people otherwise. Vespucci was a very dodgy character, far exceeding Columbus in his lies and misrepresentations, which add to the dispute. That we are called America likely is a huge error.
The whole issue of “first” reflects both our cultural emphasis on competitiveness and on discrete events rather than historical processes. We tend to conceptualize discoveries to have one or a few persons to suddenly jump out of time to be the first to make a finding. We tend not to think how there could have been a more complex, multi-factor, non-linear progression of actions and players leading to a so-called “discovery.”
The second issue I’ll briefly mention returns us to last month’s topic, “What is a hero and why do we have them?”
I set aside the classical meaning of the term as a mythological character, such as a Hercules, Icarus, Shiva, or Beowulf, as being in a special category. I don’t see any one set of characteristics to universally define a human hero, but I do note there are two types, the personal and the public hero. The personal hero’s primary attributes are the admiration and inspiration elicited; the reasons for this can be anything that appeals to the individual. The personal assessment itself makes the definition. The public hero is someone widely accepted to be a hero. While the criteria can also vary, the core feature is the wide agreement on the designation. This is another way of saying the personal hero has been personally conceptualized and the public hero has been successfully and socially constructed through a campaign to use the hero to symbolize values that are being widely promoted. The public hero is a personification of the promoted values. In short, the public hero is a symbolic champion for virtues to be honored and emulated. We seem to have a ubiquitous yearning for heroes, especially in response to external threats. Columbus was created as a public hero to symbolize bravery, discovery, newness and crusading. Columbus is being recreated as an anti-hero symbolizing immorality, conquest, oppression, and nationalistic propaganda.
The third and final issue regards teaching history as a way to promote nationalism and patriotism. It is likely universal to all nations that what and how history is taught is intended to create national identity and pride. History is simplified when taught to children because it is so voluminous and complex, but that risks reinforcing simplistic, nationalistic thinking. So how can we tell kids that we have not been perfect, that there is uncertainty; that facts are often partial, even temporary? How should they learn to assess for themselves more fully what has happened or is happening?
The Zinn Project is a project of Howard Zinn (“Z I N N”). It is a complete coincidence that his name is so similar to that of the Zen (“Z E N”) brothers in the little book that started me on this personal adventure into Columbus. Howard Zinn’s most well-known book is A People’s History of the United States first published in 1980, with revisions four times since. It sets out to correct our history by being honest. Some of the most entertaining books about historical mistakes are those by James Loewen beginning in the 1990s and continuing since. Prime examples are his Teaching What Really Happened, and Lies My Teacher Told Me About Columbus. A similar resource book for teachers is Rethinking Columbus, the Next 500 Years (edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson, 1991.)
These and other projects provide materials for teaching history without gloss and errors. Their objective is to stiffen the spines of schools to stop passing along false, overly patriotic messages of our heritage. Zinn especially is hell on the authors of school history books. He concludes they are more or less frauds who have copied earlier works of tortured history to focus instead on fiddling with the language so it more appealing to young readers and to be more marketable.
I looked at the AP US history textbook my granddaughter is using in tenth grade. Its title is “Give Me Liberty, An American History”, an obviously patriotic theme. Yet, the contents are a much more complete and objective discussion of Columbus and European conquest than I recall from my high school course. It invites critical assessment of history, yet it avoids assigning blame to individuals. Nonetheless, a more critical thinking message is coming through. When asked about Columbus, all of my grandchildren from elementary school age and up have said “he was not a hero”, citing the two reasons of “he did not discover America” and he “killed the natives.” So, that’s a refreshing change from “the noble Columbus sailed the ocean blue” jingle of earlier times. There are still the old voices, however, that see this as being unpatriotic. For example, a competitor school history book is titled A Patriot’s History of the United States (Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, 2004). Its blurb says it has “become the definitive conservative history in our country, correcting the biases of historians and other intellectuals who downplay the greatness of America’s patriots.” It begins with Columbus as the first patriot. These authors slam Howard Zinn’s A People’s History by saying it is “at least honestly Marxist;” it isn’t Marxist. So, the battle continues.
Part 7: My Final Assessment
Throughout this project, I felt a dislike for Columbus, but how is this relevant to being fair? Wasn’t he a “self-made man” who by determination rose from a modest background and fought through prejudice, dishonesty and hardship to do something really important? I wasn’t admiring of the aristocrats, the monarchs, competitors, priests or any of the players in this drama, either. So, let me try to make a final fair assessment of Columbus.
What is to his credit and his blame? Some Columbus defenders credit him with bringing “Western civilization” to the Americans. That’s a lot of things. Clearly he did bring Christianity with him albeit brutally, as did all Spanish and Portuguese invaders of the time. In fact, all voyagers from Europe imposed Christianity on native populations. Christianity did become institutionalized throughout the Americas, and Columbus was an initial vector for it.
What else could be credited to Columbus? It would not be democracy as that did not yet exist in Europe, or liberty, or human rights, or respect for cultural diversity. He better could be blamed for introducing ethnic cleansing, cultural destruction, new diseases, and violence using gun powder and steel. To his personal discredit, he practiced slavery, genocide, and cultural exploitation. He was often a “brutal conquistador.”
What about the “Columbian Exchange”? This was the widespread transfer of products, culture, technology, ideas and peoples between the so-called Old World, New World and West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. It also included diseases, insects, animals, and plants that altered ecosystems in all three areas.
What about Columbus’ role in the “Age of Discovery”, the 15th through 18th centuries? The avalanche of voyages west across the Atlantic that followed Columbus’ return to Spain in 1493 were not based on his false idea about geography but it encouraged the other voyages nonetheless. The Age of Discovery should not be passed off as an “Age of Exploration” either; it was not about scientific discovery and knowledge of geography and people for pure interest. It was an Age of Conquest featuring exploitation, expansion of empire, economic and political competition between powers, domination of trade, and religious hegemony. It was a new chapter in globalization based on colonialism and mercantilism as the first stage in European domination of most of the world. The conditions that inspired Columbus also inspired the other navigators and their supporters.
I vacillated on the question of whether Columbus was a brave sailor. There were instances of sailing into storms, harboring in places that trapped him, going off-course, shipwreck, and reports that he did not personally know how to use some of the navigation tools of the day. Yet, he is nearly universally said to be a sailor who often made his way with uncanny ability, good at using celestial navigation techniques, and displaying keen awareness of how the winds and currents were taking him that impressed others. He efficiently made his way back and forth across the Atlantic again and again despite storms, rotting ships, hostile natives, uncooperative authorities, and many unknowns. There was much risk and it took courage to make that first voyage especially, even if he deluded himself about what he was doing. I’m inclined to say he was a great sailor and leave out the “brave” part as that is mixed up with his arrogance, avarice and self-promotion as primary motivations for his voyaging. I prefer ”brave” to describe those who are more selfless and more humble.
But overall, the Age of Discovery, the conquest of the “New World”, and European linkages with the Americas, both positive and negative, would have happened without Columbus. If so, it could be argued he is only responsible for what he personally did, and not what followed. In this sense, he could be credited with successfully convincing a European power in this time period to legitimize the first voyage westward from Europe toward Asia that found areas and contacted cultures previously unknown to them. The ethnocentric methods he used were those of his own sending culture. We could leave it there except that he was raised up to be a hero symbolizing Christian civilization brought to the new area. That opened him and his hero status to scrutiny and directly results in him being recast as an anti-hero symbolizing brutal conquest and immorality.
So in the end, what is the appropriate ethical response to all this? Should we change the Columbus place names, tear down his statues, erect counter statues, expunge him from text books? Should we offer better compensation to Native Americans for their losses, suffering, and continued marginalization? I’m not convinced Columbus will soon be deposed as a US hero, even as he is being brought off his pedestal. He is too ingrained in our culture to go away entirely…he is an icon created by our culture and even criticized icons don’t easily disappear.
My bottom line: We should tell the truth about Columbus and accept whatever contradictions we find.
Re: Claim that he proved the world was round. This is one of the silliest ideas, and entirely False. You have sail all the way around the globe to prove it is round and Columbus didn’t do that. This Columbus myth is a real canard. European belief that the Earth was a globe was widely accepted long before Columbus. The Greek astronomer, mathematician, and geographer Eratosthenes made a calculation of the size of the globular Earth in the late years before Christ. His accuracy was not exact but might have been within 1% of the true circumference of 24,860 miles. It’s a great story of how he used geometry to figure this out. He even developed a geographic system of latitude and longitude to go along with this. The “round discovery” isn’t something Columbus himself asserted; rather it is either a naive interpretation of various statues of him holding a globe, or a mischievous claim made by his promoters.
Re: Claim that his crew members were criminals who were poor at their duties. True and False. All but one sailor were experienced seamen on the first voyage. The Nina was captained by Vincente Anew Pinzon. The Pinta was captained by his brother Martin Alonzo Pinzon. Both were somewhat hostile to Columbus and later committed sabotage. On later voyages convicts working off their sentences were part of the crews but the evidence of competence by crew members overall is mixed. Some did complain of Columbus’ own competence, however, and some actually mutinied.
Re: Slavery. Columbus did not invent slavery, of course, since it is documented back to the earliest historical records of humans, and existed within Native Americans before his arrival. Even within Western Europe, the first African slave market had been founded in 1444 in Lagos, Portugal, so it was an established cultural institution that Columbus took with him.
Re: Claim that his primary motive was to discover a route to Asia. True and False. Discovering a route was one of his motivations, but he did so as a means of finding personal wealth and higher status. Finding a route was only one of his primary motives. Columbus had relatively low status and wanted to improve this by making the big discovery of a sea route to Asia. The overland trade routes linking Europe to Asia had been blocked by the Turks after the Mongol Empire collapsed ending what had been largely free trade. It was now made difficult by Middle Eastern powers, not to mention pirating. Even the big trading centers of Venice and Genoa were having problems. Portugal’s King Joao II invested in finding a sea route around Africa, notably with Vasco de Gama. The big goal was to restore the trade in spices, not because they only improved the taste of food, but because they were more valuable than gold to Europeans at the time. The dominant view was that the spice sources and middlemen were artificially hiking the prices and enriching themselves at the expense of the Europeans. A solution to this had to be found or Europeans would go bankrupt. Further, Christianity was being squeezed into ever smaller territory as the Moslem powers expanded westward. The Crusades had failed to retake Jerusalem. Adding to the fervor, Columbus claimed there was historical evidence that the descendants of the Chinese Khans had written to the popes expressing an interest in Christianity (Filipe Fernandes-Armesto’s 1492 The Year Our World Began, 2009:187) which is highly unlikely. With these high political stakes and his incorrect assertions, Columbus turned to Spain for backing of a voyage he thought could be beneficial to himself and to Spain. Although initially rebuffed here, too, Queen Isabela did finally give him the OK as a potential way to counter the Portuguese in their intense rivalry. We might uncharitably say Columbus’ first ambition was to make him wealthy as well as notable.
Re: Sources. How do we know much about Columbus at all? His original log for the first journey is considered lost but was reproduced by his second son Fernando who had inherited his father’s library of papers. Fernando was a scholar and book collector who wrote his father’s biography using those inherited materials along with his own experiences on the fourth voyage.
Columbus’ first son, named Diego as was one of Columbus’ brothers, was governor and “Viceroy of the Indies” for 15 years after his father’s death. He had an extended litigation to secure his father’s claims, failed, but his son, Luis, partially succeeded to have an annuity, title, and estate on Panama. Las Casas also says he reproduced parts of Columbus’ journals for his books. So, there are many documents from them. But there are also Columbus’s numerous dispatches and letters and accounts by other sailors and colonialists, and some of these are eye-witness accounts. Columbus was also known to have kept two sets of journals, one as the official document for the monarchs to showcase his accomplishments but with vague references to some places to make it had for poaching competitors to claim them, and a second journal for himself with more detailed notes on weather, navigation, people, and places. Contradictions between the two still keep historians busy. The royal historian of the time, Oviedo, created a history that still exists, although it contains much speculative nonsense as well as good information. Peter Martyr, the Catholic Monarchs’ personal historian did the same. There are many other official related documents in the archives of Spain and elsewhere to provide background. The Internet has a lot of material, but much of it is drivel when compared to full-length books, although they often disagree on many points.
Re: Earlier. There is some supposed evidence of exploration even from Europe far back before Christ and thereafter. To sketch the evidence, during the Ice Age of 26,000 BCE (Before Present) and 12,000 BCE, a land bridge existed to allow migration from Siberia to Alaska. Ocean travel from Asia to the Americas may well have occurred simultaneously to this and before this, maybe back as far as 70,000 BCE. “Inuits or Eskimos arrived by kayaks beginning perhaps 9,000 to 2,000 B.P. … and have kept in touch with relatives in Siberia ever since,” claims James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus (2014: 18.) Using archaeological evidence, Afro-Phoenicians are thought by some to have sailed from Morocco to Mexico in about 750 BP. And then we have the Zen Brothers and other similar but uncertain accounts a century or more before
Columbus. There is definite evidence for Vikings coming west from northern Europe (800-1100) to the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland and then journeying to the Canadian coast and maybe to New England, and even possible evidence of similar journeys in pre-Viking times. Columbus apologists disqualify the Viking settlements in Newfoundland because they did not persist, even though Viking settlements in the North Atlantic lasted 500 years.
Columbus. There is definite evidence for Vikings coming west from northern Europe (800-1100) to the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland and then journeying to the Canadian coast and maybe to New England, and even possible evidence of similar journeys in pre-Viking times. Columbus apologists disqualify the Viking settlements in Newfoundland because they did not persist, even though Viking settlements in the North Atlantic lasted 500 years.
Re: Statement to Natives. Read in Spanish: “I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you all, I will make war everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves….The deaths and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me.”
Re: Finding a New Continent. The European awareness that the lands they first encountered in the “Americas” is expressed in various vocabularies. “New Lands” only means they are new pieces of land to the voyagers. But finding a “new continent” is the big prize. Both Columbus and Vespucci used the term “new lands” for their “finds.” Columbus also said of this 1498 voyage the coast along Venezuela went on so long it seemed to be a “continent.” After his voyage of 1501-1502, Vespucci also introduced the phrase “new world” (“Mundus Novus”) to say that what we know as Brazil and the land southward was not India, but must be a new “fourth continent.” It is disputed whether he or some others wrote that Vespucci had been there in 1497, preceding Columbus’ 1498 journey; regardless, it is likely a fraudulent claim as his first authenticated voyage there was in 1499. Further, Vespucci was a passenger on the voyage, not its leader. It’s ironic that Europeans and we refer to Europe as a “continent” when it clearly is not. Rather it is part of the greater Asia continent, and might better be called “Eurasia.” It is another example of the ethnocentric language used to describe Columbus, the voyaging of his time and ourselves.
Re: Columbus Genealogy.
Parents: Domenico Colombo and Susanna Fontanarossa
Cristiforo is their first born child (1451-1506)
Siblings: Giovanni Pellegrino, Bartolomeo (the “Adelantado” as interim governor), Giacomo (aka Diego), Bianchinetta
Spouse: Dona Filipa Perestrello y Moniz
Child of CC and Filipa: Diego (1480-1526)
Unmarried Partner: Beatriz Enriquez de Arana (1465-1520)
Child of CC and Beatriz: Fernando (1488-1539)
Re: Columbus names.
Born: Cristiforo Colombo
As a Spanish citizen: Cristóbal Colón
Anglicized: Christopher Columbus
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