Discovering Columbus After 500 Years

THE fame of Christopher Columbus has trailed into the 20th century less as a meteor and more like a frayed banner.

His discovery of islands in the Caribbean in l492, and the magnitude of what followed, forces us to think about the difference between the exploration of ideas and the exploitation of people. Across a wide spectrum of political and economic issues, the conflict inherent in these two conditions, and how humanity uses both, continues today throughout the world.

An armada of books about Columbus, the world of 1492, and the civilization-altering repercussions of his short 33-day voyage to a different world has appeared this year. Nearly everybody agrees that what Columbus started was hardly an illustrious, nonexploitative, caring enterprise.

Those who want to set the record straight do it with force. In Confronting Columbus: An Anthology (edited by John Yewell, Chris Dodge, Jan Desirey, McFarland & Co., 217 pp., $24.95), a collection of critical essays details the horror of human exploitation that followed Columbus's "discovery." The Spaniards had nothing but a debilitating impact on the islands, ranging from slavery and slaughter to diseases that wiped out whole populations.

Essayist Jean Sindab writes that the Spanish monarchy invested in an "invasion force" when it backed Columbus's voyage - the principal motive was seeking profits from gold. Those who followed Columbus into the North American continent continued the invasion.

Several writers in this collection examine the historical distortions in books and attitudes that created the simplistic impressions of Columbus over the years. At the back of the book is a resource directory of organizations around the world planning counter-Quincentennial events.

To understand the historical context from which Columbus set sail, historian Barnet Litvinoff, in 1492: The Decline of Medievalism and the Rise of The Modern Age, (Avon Books, 268 pp., $11), writes about all the forces at work on the European continent in l492.

In the realm of religion, Litvinoff contends that Europe then was "hovering beneath the threat of an Islamic deluge." Not until Islam was surrounded and passively defeated in Granada, the last kingdom of the Moors, did Christendom go on to ride the crest of the wave of world exploration and exploitation.

Litvinoff writes, "Islam, Christendom's collective enemy, became contained within the Old World. It could advance deeper into Europe and fringe all of Asia besides a large portion of Africa."

Concomitant with these ventures away from Europe was the fervor of the Renaissance in Europe, a true exploration of ideas, which put an end to the Middle Ages. Litvinoff describes 1492 as "the hinge of a door not completely closing upon one epoch nor completely opening another, but allowing for replacement of the atmosphere that people breathed."

Perhaps equal in effort to the planning Columbus must have done to ready three ships and men for his voyage is the effort that produced Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, edited by Jay A. Levenson (Yale University Press/National Gallery of Art, 671 pp.,$59.50). This big, sumptuous book was compiled by an international team of 55 art historians, historians, anthropologists, and 30 scholars who provide essays with superb reproductions throughout the pages.

A book so wonderfully beautiful - balanced between a reference book and the readability of a coffee-table book - is nutrition to rare people who might spend a weekend (or longer) munching through the blend of art, history, and human achievement flowing through the pages.

The book reveals that when Columbus stepped ashore at Guanahani (known more widely as Hispaniola) to meet the naked Tainos, he is reported to have said "... it seemed to me that they were a people very poor in everything."

In fact, they were merely different from the European model of how people should look, act, and worship.

In a short article in the book by Irving Rouse and Jose Juan Arrom, the Tainos are revealed as illiterate, but they practiced an advanced form of agriculture using two root crops, cassava and sweet potato. They cultivated corn, peanuts, pineapples, cotton, tobacco, narcotics, and other plants, and even used irrigation, no casual feat in an island ecology.

The Tainos were also expert weavers, carvers, and potters. Their social structure was sophisticated and rooted in permanent villages with family houses grouped around a plaza. Throughout the islands, the people were ruled by a hierarchy of regional, district, and village chiefs.

Even though Columbus was dazzled by the hunt for gold, he did commission a lengthy study (completed in 1498) of the beliefs and customs of the Tainos that affords insights into their culture. Various deities, or zemis, were worshiped and personified in wood, clay, and stone figures. A handful of these are seen in the book, all chunky and skillfully done, some whimsical. A wooden one portrays Boinayel, the rain giver, with tears streaming down his face.

But gold and greed, followed closely by disease, led to the virtual destruction of the Tainos. Most of them were eventually punished or slaughtered by the Spaniards during the ensuing years. Records indicate that in 1496 there were an estimated 1,100,000 Tainos. By 1542, there were fewer than 200.

All this aside, the scope and splendor of this book radiates from the scholarship and the quality of the reproductions. The book is divided into three sections: "Europe and The Mediterranean World," "Toward Cathay," and "The Americas." On every page the photos and reproductions are flawless.

So much is unknown about Columbus that it's not unreasonable to be a little skeptical anytime an author comes along to claim something "new" about the record of the man. What John Cummins has done in The Voyage of Christopher Columbus: Columbus' Own Journal of Discovery (St. Martins Press, 240 pp. $19.95) is to take a new look not at the explorer's journal (which doesn't exist), but at a 16th-century copy of it written by a priest, Bartholome de las Casas. (For an earlier translation of the journal, see today's Home Forum page.)

The result is a quite useful, often fascinating, book. First, Cummins has cleaned up the original copy, which had a tendency to change tenses. He presents examples of old and new versions side by side.

Second, he includes in the book court testimony of crewmen who were recounting aspects of the voyage in a dispute between Columbus's heirs and Spain. Third, in the introductory pages, Cummins offers a solid, if brief, contextual summary placing Columbus in time and place, including a description of life aboard sailing vessels of the day.

Finally, Cummins suggests that Columbus and his zeal, both for gold and to spread Christendom, should not be judged too harshly.

"Five hundred years after Columbus," he writes, "his evangelistic aim is unfulfilled, and the inculcation of the civilizing values of Christendom continues to be a more complicated process than he and his age, in their own naivety, anticipated."

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