What qualities make a hero?
What shall we tell the children when they see his statue in the square?
Our brave hero, Columbus, was bull-headed and ignorant, ungrateful, greedy, ambitious, ruthless, reckless, a murderer, a whiner and a liar.
These are not the usual qualities of our pop culture heroes, perhaps, but you could hardly have chosen a better person than he to spearhead the European attack on the Americas.
Columbus has been called a product of the Renaissance, but that is not true. He was clearly a product of Medieval Europe, of medieval thinking, of medieval brutality. His ambition was to grow rich and to use his wealth to finance the retaking of Jerusalem for the Christians, a quintessential medieval ambition. Anyway, Spain and Portugal, Columbus’ stomping grounds, were, at the end of the fifteenth century, pretty much untouched by the cultural movement known as the Renaissance, which was centred in Italy and elsewhere.
According to a story by Washington Irving, a myth which has come down to us as truth, Columbus was a visionary who insisted against conventional wisdom that the world was round. This would make him a scientific man, I guess, if it were true.
However, everybody in Columbus’ day pretty much already agreed that the world was round. They had known it since the time of the Greeks, if not before. Ships sailing over the horizon visibly dipped down over it, hull first, mast last. You could see the round shadow of the earth cast on the moon during a lunar eclipse. Anyway, it was not the roundness of the earth that Columbus was insisting on: it was the size, and on that matter he was dead wrong.
The size of the earth was something that also had been calculated by the Ancient Greeks, with remarkable accuracy. What Columbus was insisting was that the Earth was much smaller than what most scientific persons of his era believed. He thought it was something like 16,000 kilometres round (10,000 miles) when it is actually 40,000 kilometres (25,000 miles.)
Columbus defended his own calculation against all comers, against all men wiser than him, because his calculation was the only way to justify sailing across the Atlantic to China. (Nobody involved in this discussion knew anything about America, of course.)
If the wise men were correct – and they were – then the journey from Spain to China was too far. But Columbus read and researched and uncovered any authority that appeared to agree with him, that challenged the notion of a larger earth, and he did so not as a scientist does, but as a dogmatist does. Logic, reason and evidence had nothing to do with it. Columbus was not a scientist, and the notion of a scientific approach was foreign to his nature.
In essence, Columbus got to discover America for the Europeans because he was a damn fool.
In terms of heroic qualities, damn foolery is a hard sell.
Hence the continued existence of the Washington Irving fairy tale.
Then there is Columbus the sailor.
He conducted four voyages of exploration. In the first one he lost one of his three ships, and he lost it because he was sailing at night along an unknown coast, something no good sailor would do. As a result he left one of his crews behind when he sailed back to Spain.
The crew had disappeared by the time he returned to find them. Most likely because they were dead. Oh dear.
On Columbus’ fourth voyage he lost his entire fleet through recklessness and a stubborn failure to conduct even elementary maintenance, and he had to be rescued by the natives who took him in and kept him and his crew of 100 alive for an entire year.
Kirkpatrick Sale writes,
The four voyages, properly seen, quite apart from bravery and fortitude, are replete with lubberly mistakes, misconceived sailing plans, foolish disregard of elementary maintenance, and stubborn neglect of basic safety. The Conquest of Paradise, 209-10.
As for Columbus the man, the best that the apologist historians can say of him was that he was “a man of his time,” which means, I suppose, that he was a person shaped by his time, although it sometimes seems to mean that “he was a person who lived a long time ago before humans developed morals,” which is sheer historic drivel.
In terms of the basics – lying, murdering, exploiting, and so on – humans have always known what they were doing, because such understandings are basic to being a social animal. And, yes, human beings were social animals even in Columbus’ day.
“Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs,” said Stalin.
But not, apparently, by Columbus.
When Columbus sank the Santa Maria, his cargo was rescued by the ready assistance of the local Tainos. But the chief of those who helped him, Guacanagarí, eventually had to escape the ravaging Spanish, and he died a wanderer in the mountains.
Of his rescuers from his fourth voyage, the Jamaicans that kept him and his crew alive for an entire year, Columbus says only, “daily expecting death, surrounded by a million savages full of cruelty and our enemies.” Columbus’ “savage” Taino rescuers were destroyed along with the all the other people the Spanish encountered in the Caribbean, and without a second thought.
Columbus was always willing to help such destruction along if it furthered one of his prime obsessions, gold. While he was governor of Hispaniola, he instituted a practice of giving out tokens to the native Tainos under his power, a new token every three months in exchange for a certain amount of gold. If a Taino could not obtain enough gold to redeem a token, however, Columbus ordered his hands to be chopped off. That was not the worst atrocity the Tainos were to suffer from the Spanish, unfortunately, but serves well enough to show the quality of hero we are dealing with here – maiming was a favoured tactic of Columbus when he wanted to get his way.
Historians say that Columbus was not the worst of the Conquistadors.
That is true. And Nagasaki wasn’t as bad as Hiroshima.
According to written materials produced by the colonizers themselves, the Tainos and other indigenous people were hunted for sport and for dog food. Bartolomé de las Casas says of the conquistadors: “They made a law among themselves that for one Christian whom the Indians killed, the Christians should kill a hundred Indians.” (Quoted in The Conquest of Paradise, p. 156.)
And perhaps we are being unfair to Columbus for bringing him to task for the untimely deaths of perhaps a 100 thousand Tainos during his rule of Hispaniola.
(And to Jack the Ripper maybe, a second rate monster who was responsible for the untimely deaths of merely five women.)
Yet most Eurocentric historians seem to adhere to Stalin’s dictum,
A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.
Stalin’s brand of reasoning makes Jack the Ripper clearly worse than Columbus. Or Stalin. Or European colonialism.
Then there is the slave trade.
Christopher Columbus launched the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and personally brought across the Atlantic more than any single person, about 5000.
He also created the encomienda system, where grants of land in the New World were accompanied by the right to enslave the people already living on this land. This system was later imported to other Spanish colonies, and resulted in such massive depopulation of the native Americans that Columbus’ son eventually, by 1505, had to start importing slaves from Africa to do the labour the colonists were themselves disinclined to do.
Thus, as James W. Loewen has written,
Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass. (Lies My Teacher Told Me, 60.)
But it is as a liar and a propagandist that Columbus did some of his most effective work in bringing about European domination. He began the demonization of the Caribs, making their name synonymous with cannibal (“cannibal” is in fact merely an alternative spelling of their name) and that demonization provided a ready excuse for Carib persecution by all the Spaniards who followed, and an ongoing excuse for the persecution of indigenous Americans in general.
Columbus also, in his eagerness to have his exploits recognized, greatly exaggerated the riches and opportunities to be found in the Caribbean, and inadvertently he encouraged many people to follow him. When those who followed did not find what Columbus said was there, they consoled themselves with a reign of terror while continuing with the search for the riches which Columbus insisted were there.
Finally, in 1499, the Spanish discovered gold, and that caught the attention of Portugal, France, Holland and Britain, who began to take an interest in the lands across the sea. It is possible to think of the discovery of gold in Haiti as the golden death knell for the independent peoples of the Americas.
As for Columbus, he returned to Spain a wealthy man, and he spent his final years whining to all who would listen about how he had been cheated of further wealth and honours. His tone was such that some historians actually believed that he died in poverty, which is far from true. But very little that has been said about Columbus is true.
And straying from the truth is often how heroes are made. Let’s tell lies to our children and keep Columbus a hero.
Just as Stalin advises, “Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”
6. Ocean Crossings
Okay, I hear you saying it. What about the fact that Columbus discovered America, that it was the Europeans who discovered America first?
A relevant question, which needs to be answered in context.
First, as I pointed out before, Columbus didn’t discover America, since people were already living there.
Second, Columbus was not the first European in the Americas, as everybody already knows. The Vikings and the Celts arrived first. And there is considerable evidence that the oceanic barrier had been crossed many times before by other peoples, from Africa, from Asia, by the Polynesians and so on. And as the centuries went by, with the improvement of nautical and navigational technology, the crossing of the oceanic barrier became more or less inevitable.
Columbus won the horse race, but like other horse races, if he didn’t win, then some other horse would have. Columbus was not at all essential to this process. In fact, in 1500 a Portuguese ship was blown off course by a storm and found itself off the coast of Brazil.
Without Columbus the barrier would have been crossed anyway.
And as for the Europeans getting there first, who would you expect to do it? I suppose historians never look at maps. China has the Pacific Ocean between it and the Americas, and Europe has the Atlantic. The Pacific Ocean is two and half times wider than the Atlantic. Thus the oceanic barrier is two and a half times wider for the Chinese than for the Europeans.
Worth at least a mention in the history books, I think.
And further, the Atlantic Ocean has trade winds which can bring European ships directly to the islands of the Caribbean, a perfect staging ground for an attack on the American continents, and on the civilizations of Central America and Peru. The Europeans also have another trade wind to bring them back home.
The equivalent wind systems on the Pacific are in the north, and they have a fatal flaw. They bring the traveller from China to the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Northwest is my home, a beautiful place and I love it, but hardly a place ready for the kind of exploitation which made European conquest possible.
If Columbus had discovered the Pacific Northwest for Ferdinand and Isabella instead of the West Indies, you would never have heard of him.
Don’t kid a kidder. Early European exploration and conquest was all about gold, and as dependent upon Aboriginal agriculture as pearl diving is upon oxygen. And gold and Aboriginal agriculture were really only available roundabout where Columbus landed. No gold, no Aboriginal agriculture, (no West Indies, maybe) — no European exploration.
Europe had an oceanic road to the New World, coincidental to the fact (if you know anything about continental drift) that they were located to the east of the Americas. It was that simple geographic advantage, nothing else, which allowed them to reach the Americas first.
All other explanations are self-congratulatory Eurocentric nonsense, in my uppity Aboriginal opinion, and none of them make any attempt to address the geographic realities.
My sources are the same as the previous unit, but add:
JM Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: geographic diffusionism and Eurocentric history, 1993, Guildford Press, NY.
This is the source of my map argument, but is relevant for many other historical matters as well.
My map is based on the following source:
Our thanks to Joseph Stalin for helping to keep Columbus in perspective. I found the Stalin quotes at