The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Kris Lane klane1@tu­ Kris Lane holds the France V. Sc­holes chair in colo­nial Latin Amer­i­can history at Tu­lane Univer­sity.

As Colum­bus Day gives way to “fall break” and drops off many work­ers’ cal­en­dars al­to­gether, it has be­come easy to over­look a peren­nial teach­ing mo­ment. When Christo­pher Colum­bus does come up in the media or the class­room, he is usu­ally sim­ply bashed or praised, depend­ing on the view­point of the speaker. In ei­ther case, he re­mains more myth than man. Let’s re­visit some of the big­gest mis­con­cep­tions about the ex­plorer Mon­day’s fed­eral hol­i­day is named for.

1 Colum­bus proved the “flat Earth” the­ory wrong.

In an early scene in the 1992 Ri­d­ley Scott film “1492: Con­quest of Par­adise,” Colum­bus, played by Gérard Depar­dieu, gazes out at the At­lantic Ocean with his son. He tells the boy the world is like the or­ange he is peel­ing: round, not flat. In this tra­di­tional ren­der­ing, Colum­bus is an en­light­ened sci­en­tific fig­ure, a pre-Galileo sur­rounded by ob­scu­ran­tists de­ter­mined to scut­tle his plans. We owe this myth to Washington Irv­ing, who Amer­i­can­ized Colum­bus in a best-selling 1828 bi­og­ra­phy. Al­ready known for Rip Van Win­kle and “The Leg­end of Sleepy Hol­low,” Irv­ing was a ded­i­cated His­panophile who re­searched Colum­bus’s life and voy­ages while liv­ing in Spain in the 1820s. De­spite care­ful schol­ar­ship, Irv­ing ped­dled the “all Amer­i­can” idea that Colum­bus was a hands-on sea­far­ing man will­ing to chal­lenge im­mo­bile aca­demics who couldn’t see past the hori­zon.

In re­al­ity, that the Earth is more or less spher­i­cal was not news in Colum­bus’s day. The ques­tion was size, shape and how much of it was cov­ered by oceans. Colum­bus would even­tu­ally opt for a smaller, pear-shaped world vs. the rounder or­ange.

Floren­tine math­e­ma­ti­cian Paolo Toscanelli is cred­ited with in­spir­ing Colum­bus’s voy­age, but nei­ther Toscanelli nor Colum­bus could con­vince Por­tu­gal’s court of its fea­si­bil­ity. Span­ish cos­mo­g­ra­phers were sim­i­larly un­moved when Colum­bus met them in 1486, but the Catholic monar­chs, Is­abella and Fer­di­nand, were in­trigued. They gave Colum­bus a stipend and kept him on hold. Por­tu­gal was push­ing east to Asia by round­ing Africa. Would Spain be left out? The monar­chs granted Colum­bus another au­di­ence in early 1492. In April, an agree­ment was signed in the shadow of the Al­ham­bra. Colum­bus was now “ad­mi­ral of the ocean sea.”


Colum­bus was Ital­ian.

The Na­tional Ital­ian Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion calls the Colum­bus Day pa­rade in New York “the most vis­i­ble and ac­ces­si­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion of our Ital­ian Amer­i­can Pride,” and Ital­ian Amer­i­cans have led ef­forts to op­pose changes to the hol­i­day’s fo­cus na­tion­wide.

But when Colum­bus lived, there was no such thing as an Ital­ian; Italy did not ex­ist un­til 1861. The best ev­i­dence sug­gests that the ex­plorer was born in a vil­lage near Genoa, which is part of Italy to­day. To his deathbed, he proudly claimed Genoa as home. In Colum­bus’s life­time, Genoa was a fiercely in­de­pen­dent re­pub­lic with its own lan­guage, cur­rency and over­seas colonies. Its com­mer­cial ties to Castile and Aragon, in mod­ern-day Spain, were in­ti­mate. Ge­noese trad­ing colonies in Seville, Barcelona and Lis­bon were siz­able. Some Ge­noese who mar­ried lo­cally were nat­u­ral­ized Castil­ian, Cata­lan or Por­tuguese sub­jects.

Those cozy re­la­tion­ships helped give rise to a crop of Colum­bus “birthers.” Cata­lan, Ma­jor­can, Ibizan, Por­tuguese, Greek, Sephardic Jewish, Sar­dinian, Pol­ish and even Scot­tish claims have been made by a mix of se­ri­ous scholars and crack­pot the­o­rists. Most his­to­ri­ans be­lieve that Colum­bus was Ge­noese, but they hes­i­tate to call him “Ital­ian,” partly for the rea­sons stated above, and partly be­cause Colum­bus left home early and moved around a lot.

3 Colum­bus was a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man and a model leader.

An early Amer­i­can archetype, Colum­bus has long served as a model en­tre­pre­neur. Colum­bus Day blog posts and ar­ti­cles have in­cluded “3 Busi­ness Lessons Learned from Christo­pher Colum­bus” and “5 Lessons in Lead­er­ship Ef­fec­tive­ness from Christo­pher Colum­bus.” These in­spi­ra­tional es­says boil down to mem­o­rable bullet points such as: “Find an op­por­tu­nity where the wind is at your back.” One asks, “Do you have a Colum­bus in your com­pany?”

By all ac­counts, Colum­bus was a con­fi­dent risk-taker who knew hot com­modi­ties. He sailed the West African coast seek­ing gold in the early 1480s, then moved on to the sugar of the Madeiras, where he mar­ried a Por­tuguese no­ble­woman, Filipa de Per­e­strello. Colum­bus also knew the North At­lantic’s cod fish­eries, but there was no ro­mance in fish. He wanted the spices of Asia, lov­ingly de­scribed by Marco Polo.

Had Colum­bus reached Asia, per­haps he’d have proved a keen en­tre­pre­neur. As it hap­pened, he landed on Caribbean shores, in a densely pop­u­lated re­gion that was eco­nom­i­cally im­pen­e­tra­ble for an Old World trader. Some gold was avail­able, but it was not used as cur­rency. Cap­tives could be had, but they weren’t sold in open mar­kets. Colum­bus pre­sumed soon af­ter land­ing that he could make friends and trade for gold and slaves fol­low­ing Por­tuguese prac­tices in West Africa, yet with a few ex­cep­tions, there was no mar­ket econ­omy in the Amer­i­cas to match those of the Old World.

Fail­ing to un­der­stand this, Colum­bus quickly made man­age­rial mis­takes, some fa­tal. He planted a colony on the north shore of Haiti and named it La Navi­dad. When he re­turned on his sec­ond voy­age, ev­ery­one at “Christ­mas town” was dead. Colum­bus launched another set­tle­ment, named La Is­abela for his royal pa­tron, that met much the same fate.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have found that La Is­abela was con­structed like a hy­brid Ge­noese-Por­tuguese trad­ing post of the sort found in the Mediter­ranean and At­lantic Africa. It was in­tended to sur­vive by trade rather than self-suf­fi­ciency, prompt­ing in­hab­i­tants to en­gage in sui­ci­dal raids on neigh­bor­ing in­dige­nous vil­lages. Colum­bus’s misun­der­stand­ing of lo­cal economies and his fail­ure to adapt to lo­cal con­di­tions cost not only Span­ish lives but also count­less in­dige­nous ones.


Colum­bus com­mit­ted geno­cide.

On Colum­bus Day in 1989, the late Na­tive Amer­i­can ac­tivist Rus­sell Means led an Amer­i­can In­dian Move­ment protest, pour­ing buck­ets of fake blood over the Colum­bus statue in down­town Den­ver while Ital­ian Amer­i­cans pa­raded in the streets. (Colum­bus Day was in­au­gu­rated in Den­ver in 1907.) The city’s pa­rades were can­celed for a decade. AIM ac­tivists are not alone in charg­ing Colum­bus with mass mur­der, and in re­cent years sev­eral cities and states have in­stead started cel­e­brat­ing “In­dige­nous Peo­ple’s Day” or “Na­tive Amer­i­can Day.”

But if we judge Colum­bus on what we know from the his­tor­i­cal record, is that the right charge? He def­i­nitely saw profit in en­slav­ing and selling na­tive peo­ples kid­napped from Caribbean shores. Once he made al­lies among what he called “good In­di­ans,” Colum­bus ad­vo­cated fight­ing and en­slav­ing na­tive groups he pre­sumed to be can­ni­bals. By 1500, he and his broth­ers had sent nearly 1,500 en­slaved is­lan­ders to Euro­pean mar­kets to be sold. Even “friendly” in­dige­nous peo­ples were forced to mine gold en masse, speed­ing death from mal­nour­ish­ment, over­work and dis­ease.

Colum­bus was clearly no friend of na­tive peo­ples, but a doc­u­ment dis­cov­ered 10 years ago in Si­man­cas, Spain, sug­gests he was an equal-op­por­tu­nity tyrant. Wit­nesses tes­ti­fied that his brief gov­ern­ment of His­pan­iola was marked by rou­tine cru­elty not only to the na­tive Taínos but also to Spa­niards who de­fied or mocked him. A woman who re­minded Colum­bus that he was the son of a weaver had her tongue cut out. Oth­ers were ex­e­cuted for mi­nor crimes.

Colo­nial­ism is never pretty, and in his treat­ment of na­tive peo­ples, Colum­bus was fol­low­ing Span­ish and Por­tuguese trad­ing and slav­ing prac­tices. We may charge him with geno­cide by neg­li­gence (if there is such a thing), but it is harder to prove in­tent. Colum­bus wanted liv­ing and mul­ti­ply­ing sub­jects to tax and gov­ern. He was not in­ter­ested in de­pop­u­lat­ing newly ac­quired ter­ri­to­ries.

Was Colum­bus an ac­tive pro­tec­tor of Na­tive Amer­i­cans? No. Did he wish to elim­i­nate them? No. Did geno­cide di­rectly re­sult from his de­crees and his fam­ily’s com­mer­cial aims? Yes.

5 Colum­bus be­lieved he had dis­cov­ered Amer­ica.

For decades, U.S. school­child­ren learned that in “four­teen hun­dred and ninety-two, Colum­bus sailed the ocean blue” on his way to “dis­cov­er­ing” the New World. By the 1992 quin­cen­ten­nial, though, new aca­demic schol­ar­ship had be­gun to seep into ele­men­tary and sec­ondary history lessons. To­day, few peo­ple claim that Colum­bus was the first Euro­pean to sail to the Amer­i­cas. Ev­i­dence for me­dieval Norse voy­ages and col­o­niza­tion is over­whelm­ing.

What did Colum­bus him­self think he was do­ing, though? He never be­lieved he had landed some­where that Euro­peans weren’t oth­er­wise aware of, and thus Amer­ica was named for another nav­i­ga­tor, the Floren­tine Amerigo Ve­spucci, who rec­og­nized the “new­ness” of South Amer­ica. Colum­bus thought he was dis­cov­er­ing some parts of Asia not de­scribed by Marco Polo or other Western author­i­ties. He also be­lieved he had found a new mar­itime route to the East Indies that would cir­cum­vent Mus­lim-con­trolled land routes and wa­ter­ways.

As Ni­colás Wey-Gómez has re­cently shown, sail­ing south to the trop­ics was per­haps Colum­bus’s main in­no­va­tion, since he wanted to reach the Spice Is­lands first. From there, he could travel to China from a safe com­mer­cial base — the for­ti­fied trad­ing post he had tried to es­tab­lish on His­pan­iola. Colum­bus’s ge­o­graph­i­cal stub­born­ness seems strange to­day, but he was hardly alone in re­fus­ing to be­lieve that he had stum­bled onto con­ti­nents that were un­known to con­tem­po­rary author­i­ties. The fact of an en­tirely new world in­hab­ited by many mil­lions of pre­vi­ously un­known peo­ple was sim­ply too much for most ed­u­cated Euro­peans to grasp.

If Colum­bus did dis­cover some­thing, it was the true ex­tent of the North At­lantic trade wind cir­cuit. Por­tuguese mariners had al­ready ob­served this wind-and-cur­rent sys­tem, but Colum­bus went much fur­ther, prov­ing over his four voy­ages that transat­lantic sea travel in the age of sail was far more cer­tain than any­one had imag­ined.

For true dis­cov­ery, we must go back at least 13,000 to 14,000 years be­fore Colum­bus. Re­cent re­search con­firms that the first hu­mans to reach the Amer­i­cas mi­grated from north­east Asia to North Amer­ica via a tem­po­rary isth­mus or by short is­land hops in the Bering Strait and along the Alaskan and Bri­tish Columbian coasts. In sev­eral waves, these ear­li­est Amer­i­cans made their way south and east, rapidly set­tling and al­ter­ing two vast con­ti­nents and nu­mer­ous is­lands.

For Na­tive Amer­i­cans, Colum­bus’s fate­ful ar­rival prompted 523 years of re­sis­tance. Whether we call it Colum­bus Day or In­dige­nous Peo­ple’s Day, Oct. 12 mer­its re­flec­tion.


The Christo­pher Colum­bus statue at Union Sta­tion pays trib­ute to a man who, in fact, never re­ally be­lieved he’d dis­cov­ered a new con­ti­nent.

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