Putting Columbus In His Place

Two worlds didn't 'collide' in 1492: One was steamrolled by the other. Columbus gave license to centuries of future Western colonialism.

NOT far from my home stands a statue of Columbus in a private park, surrounded by a locked iron fence. This is the Columbus of official history: guarded, untouchable, a stone presence to be admired from a distance. The gatekeepers of the official Columbus may admit that the statue's nose and cheekbones are chipped, but hasten to add that these flaws only highlight his majestic features. Now, they say, the year 1992 is the time to plant gardens of praise at the statue's feet, celebrating 500 years since h is gaze first fell on the Americas.

But the gatekeepers are rattling their keys, pouting and chattering about vandalism. Someone egged the statue as the gatekeepers slept. They demand that all eggs be confiscated, lest Western civilization itself be drowned in a goo of dripping yolk.

A recent fall/winter "Columbus Special Issue" of Newsweek provided a bullhorn for the gatekeepers, with an obligatory egg or two handed to the vandals. The gatekeepers' defenses of Columbus are typical and bear repeating.

"When Worlds Collide," by Kenneth Auchincloss, declares: "The problem is that those who denounce Columbus today ... are looking at history through contemporary glasses." He goes on: "It is too simplistic to picture him and the other European explorers as mere money-grubbers."

Another Newsweek contributor, Raymond Sokolov, whines, "Stop Knocking Columbus." Mr. Sokolov, who sees history as a restaurant menu, credits Columbus for bringing us, albeit indirectly, everything from "Sichuan chicken with chiles and peanuts" to "strawberry souffl as a result of the impact when the Old and New Worlds "collided" (that word again). Sokolov asks, "Shouldn't I ... be ashamed to survive on a diet created at a huge cost in human lives?" No, he answers. "Fie on all this self-hating revisionism . Let's raise a glass and hail our 500th."

Then there is the gatekeeping of Gregory Cerio. "Were the Spaniards that cruel?" No, he says. Though "the Spanish committed horrifying atrocities" in their conquest of the New World, "by their standards, they acted with moderation." "Genocide," he concludes, "may be the unfairest of all the accusations leveled at Spain."

Now, all this word-salad may be nothing more than my just, karmic punishment for reading Newsweek. But allow this vandal his eggs.

For Mr. Auchincloss, worlds "collide," a neutral term which belies the fact that this was a conquest, not a no-fault car accident; the New World was not bumped, but steamrolled. The notion that the denunciation of Columbus is based on "contemporary" values overlooks the critics of the conquest who spoke out in the 1500s, such as Father Bartolome de Las Casas, and provides a blanket of absurd moral relativism to cover a host of crimes, crimes clearly motivated by greed.

Columbus was more than a "money-grubber," but he was obsessed with gold. The curriculum guide "Rethinking Columbus" points out constant references to gold in the journal for his first voyage, including, "Our Lord in his Goodness guide me that I may find this gold." In 1495, as governor of Hispaniola, Columbus decreed a tribute system, where Taino "Indians" were required to collect a quota of gold for Spain or have their hands cut off. Auchincloss would have us see no villains in this.

Sokolov betrays himself when he refers to condemnation of Columbus as "self-hating revisionism" and praises "our 500th." To paraphrase an old joke: What you mean "we," white man? The implication of his formula is that only Europeans, or European-Americans, are involved in this debate. In fact, the most moving criticism of Columbus is heard from people of color, particularly native Americans. Descendants of conquered people do not necessarily share in the "strawberry souffl of the world restaurant envisio ned by Sokolov.

The rhetorical question posed by Mr. Cerio regarding conquistador cruelty can be answered by turning to Kirkpatrick Sale and his book, "The Conquest of Paradise." He quotes Father de Las Casas: The Spaniards "made bets as to who would slit a man in two or cut off his head at one blow...." Mr. Sale estimates the obliteration of the Tainos in Hispaniola: from 8 million to 28,000 in just over 20 years. That is more than decimation [but rather] something we must call closer to genocide." There are no Tainos

left today.

The value judgment underlying the defense of Columbus is a dubious one. It holds that, in spite of the horrors perpetrated on the indigenous populations of the Americas and Africa, the benefits of the "discovery" outweigh the costs and should therefore be celebrated. But slavery and genocide cannot be so weighed. The scale breaks.

Nor does the compromise position work: namely, that if adulation of Columbus is wrong, so too is condemnation. In "Rethinking Columbus," Cheyenne-Creek activist Suzan Shown Harjo responds: "The Eurocentric view, having been exposed for its underlying falsehood, now wishes to oppose any other view as either equally false or simply the flip side of reality, a secondary or dual reality. But there are some things that don't have a dual reality."

Those who would celebrate Columbus must confront the kind of man he was. He is not simply a "scapegoat," held responsible for a chain reaction of events, spinning out over the centuries, that he could not envision, would not endorse, and over which he had no control. This was a man who spoke, according to Sale, of having his crew kidnap "seven head of women, young ones and adults, and three small children" for consignment to slavery. Of these same "gentle Tainos," he advised, "if you discover that some o f them steal, you must punish them by cutting off nose and ears, for those are parts of the Body which cannot be concealed" (again, from "Rethinking Columbus"). The vaunted adventurousness of Columbus was also a form of predatory prowling.

Nevertheless, the question remains as to why a man whose bones have been powder for centuries is so fiercely and blindly cherished in this country. In the current issue of Race and Class, Nancy Murray explains that Columbus is a figure "around whom have crystallized the potent and self-celebratory myths which make up the national image and from which derive the American dream. Columbus ... is the quintessence of the individual pioneer rolling back the frontier.... Columbus is celebrated, too, as the firs t European immigrant."

For me, there is the additional dimension of Columbus and Puerto Rico. He directed the destruction of the Taino people, who are essential to the Puerto Rican identity. He gave license to centuries of future Western colonialism, and provided the justification: racism. Thus comes 400-plus years of Spanish domination, the Spanish-American War of 1898, and United States colonialism in Puerto Rico throughout the 20th century. Puerto Rico is the oldest colony in the world, with all the pain that implies.

Yet, as a Puerto Rican, I must acknowledge the importance of the Columbus invasion, must commemorate the 500th anniversary of the "encounter" without celebrating the occasion. Many Latin Americans find in their ancestry both oppressor and oppressed, the fruit of violation.

Hans Koning writes of "The race, that is, as it now exists, of mixed Spanish and Indian and African stock.... These children of conquerors and slaves are the only achievement of the conquest, the only wealth it produced."

What should we do, then? Nancy Murray quotes Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who sees in the 500th anniversary an opportunity: "Not to confirm the world, adding to the self-importance, the self-glorification of the masters of power, but to denounce and change it. For that we shall have to celebrate the vanquished, not the victors."

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