1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE  (1992)

Historical Context:  Print -- Video -- Online

Whose Columbus? Whose America?

[1]  Writing a historical account on Christopher Columbus is much like trying to read a book under a strobe light-- the information is before you but none of it seems to cohere.  Each new piece of information splinters from what you have just read and dangles over the scribbled page until another word jumps out and fractures the page into jagged bits of information.  The task at hand is not so much a capturing of a definitive account of Columbus but a sifting through information and seeing what is left after the myths have dropped away.

[2]  First of all, his name is not Christopher Columbus.  It is uncertain what the-explorer-formally-known-as- Columbus went by.  Various names he used were:  Cristoforo Colombo, Christobal Colom, Cristobal Colon, Christoual, Christovam, amongst others.  Most historians claim that he was born in 1451-- though some historians argue that it was between 1450 and 1452.  Columbus was supposedly born in Genoa.  What confuses many historians, though, is how a man born in Italy shows no evidence of being able to write Italian (even when writing to people in Genoa).  Competing places of birth are: Corsica, Aragon, Galacia, Portugal, France, Poland, Greece, and Chinos.  Columbus's father, Domenico, was a weaver and tavern keeper.  Columbus married Felipa Moniz Perestrello in Portugal (at an unknown date), had a son named Diego with her (birth date unknown), and she then died (date unknown).  Later, in Cordova, Columbus had a mistress named Beatriz Enriquez de Arana and fathered a child named Fernando with her.  Why Columbus did not marry Beatriz is conjecture-- some historians suggest that if he married Beatriz, a lower-class orphan, his reputation would be in jeopardy and impede his quest to get royal sponsorship for his voyage.  All of this we know about Columbus's personal background, which is a euphemistic way of saying that we don't know much.

[3]  Before embarking upon Columbus's historical adventures, it is necessary to debunk some myths that have grown around him: 1) few, if any, people believed that the world was flat during Columbus's time.  The main issue about Columbus's voyage was if the distance between Spain and Asia was crossable; 2) the Turks never closed trade routes to Asia.  Matter of fact, they had no reason to close such routes since they made a handsome profit as a result of them.  Columbus's voyages were not the result of a Turk blockade of land routes to Asia but of expediency and colonization-- quicker routes that other competing European nations were unaware of; 3)  Queen Isabella never pawned her jewels for Columbus's venture, nor do any texts show she had a romantic liaison with Columbus.  There are other myths that will be debunked in this essay, but it is imperative that some of the more prominent ones get pushed aside in the beginning in order to clear the historical air.

[4]  In his early twenties, Columbus went to Portugal, known for its maritime activity.  It is a matter of debate among historians as to how much sea experience Columbus had before sailing to America.  Some historians claim that Columbus sailed often up and down the west coast of Africa. Other historians, using Columbus's own Diario that he wrote during his first voyage (but was translated and reworked by Columbus's contemporary Bartolome de las Casas-- we have lost Columbus's original), claim that his writing exhibits a lack of sea experience: he constantly claimed false alarms of land, and on September 22 Columbus sent a map to the captain of the Pinta, Martin Alonso Pinzon, to check coordinates.  Although Columbus most likely had a good deal of sailing experience, he is far from the faultless navigator that many historians claim.

[5]  While in Portugal, Columbus read many accounts of the Western world.  Some of the works by explorers, scientists, and philosophers he read were: Cardinal Pierre d' Ailly's Imago Mundi, Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis, Aeneas Sylvius's Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum, Marco Polo's account of his travels to China, Ptolomey's, Johann Muller's, and Marinus of Tyre's various works.  Many works confirmed that there were lands west of Spain.  Others showed that the earth's circumference was not as large as once believed and made sailing across the Atlantic a feasible operation.  Sometime during all this reading, Columbus decided that he wanted to sail west.  His motives for wanting to do so are complex and unclear.  Historians debate Columbus's motives ranging from greed for gold to glory and fame to a divine mission to Christianize the "pagans" of Asia.  Most likely his motives were a combination of all the aforementioned.

[6]  Columbus approached Spain with his idea of sailing west in 1485 but was initially rejected-- as he was similarly rejected in Portugal earlier.  It is unclear what finally persuaded the queen and king of Spain to fund Columbus's ships.  Many historians claim that Spain's success in expelling the Moors helped free up money that could be used for Columbus's adventure.  There are also some relatively unknown historical figures who have seemed to help Columbus's project.  A Franciscan friar named Antonio de Marchena supported Columbus's cause to dukes and counts who could offer Columbus money.  Martin Alonso Pinzon, a native Spaniard and experienced navigator, helped Columbus buy ships for the journey and sailed with him.  Finally, Luis de Santangel, a chief accountant, provided some necessary collateral for the voyage.  When all is said and done, Columbus somehow received the money and Spanish backing needed for his voyage in 1492-- seven years after his initial inquiry to Spain.

[7]  Friday, August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail out of the Port of Palos.  According to Columbus's Diario, the trip to the New World was largely uneventful.  The Pinta had a faulty rudder and had to go into port at Grand Canary, but, after being fixed, all three ships sailed over calm waters.  On October 10, Columbus mentions that the men on his ship complained of the long voyage, but Columbus easily subdued their fears by claiming that their troubles would be generously rewarded when they reached their destination.

[8]  October 12, land was spotted by a lookout of the Pinta.  As Columbus approached the island he named San Salvador, Tainos natives appeared on the shores.  What to make of the first encounter of Columbus and the Taino has filled books upon books of debate (we do not want to go into it here).  Some interactions and actions between both groups to keep in mind are: Columbus renamed all the land, seas, etc. he found in the name of Spain; Columbus exchanged Spanish trinkets with the Tainos in the hope of discovering where they hid their gold; Columbus claims that he would like to convert the Tainos to Christianity and Spanish customs through love rather than force, yet he also takes many Tainos prisoners to serve as interpreters; the Tainos, at first, think the Spaniards are gods and treat them with awe.  For the most part, the first encounter with the natives is not filled with confrontation but manipulation of mixed intentions.

[9]  An often unremarked event of the first voyage is how the Santa Maria crashed on some rocks while Columbus was asleep.  The Tainos helped unload the ship in order to lighten it, but the ship remained grounded.  Because the Santa Maria was badly damaged and its goods and men could not fit on the Nina (Capt. Pinzon mutinied Columbus and took the Pinta on November 21), Columbus founded the colony of La Navidad and left thirty-nine of his men there.  On January 8, 1493, although Columbus could not leave that day to a contrary wind blowing, he desired to leave the New World since he worried that Pinzon might reach Spain before him and spread slanders about the expedition.

[10]  By all accounts, Columbus did not receive a grand homecoming.  Columbus showed the queen and king some of the gold he found, some useless vegetation that he thought was valuable, and some Tainos that he enslaved.  Convinced that the New World had economic potential, Columbus was authorized to make a second trip with seventeen ships and fifteen hundred crewmen.  Columbus received the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy of the Indies-- one of his demands that he petitioned for before he embarked upon the first journey.  He was at the height of his career.  It is unclear if Columbus actually believed that he landed off the coast of India and that the lands held vast amounts of gold, but what is certain is that Columbus convinced almost everyone else that he discovered a new route to Asia that held a wealth of gold.

[11]  Columbus returned to the New World in 1493.  Almost immediately the signs were foreboding.  On November 27, Columbus came upon La Navidad.  The entire village was destroyed.  It is largely believed that the inhabitants of the village were attacked for their past actions: mercilessly killing the natives and raping the women.

[12]  Columbus began instituting slavery full-scale on the natives during his second encounter.  He created the tribute system where the natives would bring a certain amount of gold to the Spaniards every three months.  If the natives failed to bring the gold, they would have their hands cut off.  After the tribute system failed, Columbus created the encomienda system that forced entire native villages to hard labor. In 1495, Columbus had the Spaniards place twelve hundred Arawaks in slavery.  Five hundred of the slaves were shipped to Spain (around two hundred died in route).  Columbus, it should be kept in mind, was not doing the bidding of Spain in regards to slavery, since Queen Isabella was adamantly opposed to it.  Matter of fact, Isabella sent back the three hundred slaves that Columbus initially sent to Spain.

[13]  Columbus was also having administrative problems with his own men.  Some Spaniards rebelled at engaging their own hard labor for the construction of various colonies and at not having found a land filled with spices and gold.  Although the rebellious Spaniards tried to seize some ships and sail back to Castile, Columbus managed to suppress the rebellion.

[14]  Most historians agree that even if Columbus was a skilled navigator, his administrative skills were horrible.  Near the end of his second visit to the New World, Columbus appointed his brother Giacomo as temporary Viceroy since Columbus was about to return to Spain. His other brother, Bartolome, was co-ruler of the islands with Columbus during Columbus's stay.  Giacomo and Bartolome (and Columbus for that matter) had no backgrounds in government, and their installation in the New World provided a further impetus for the troubles that Columbus would experience in the New World during his third voyage.

[15]  The third voyage began on May 31, 1498.  It mainly differed from the second voyage only in degree rather than kind (though Columbus did encounter South America during this voyage).  Conditions of the New World worsened.  Internal rebellions were more frequent.  A man named Francisco Roldan rebelled to such a degree that Columbus could not suppress him.  Ironically, Columbus instead promoted Roldan to the position of alcalde mayor for life-- a rather prominent position.  As a result, more rebellions were underway.  Adrian de Moxica followed Roldan's example.  Although Columbus suppressed Moxica's rebellion (and killed Moxica), the hostilities persisted.  Columbus, in his writings and treatment of the natives, held even more disgust for the Tainos-- no longer considering them capable of conversion since he thought that they were on the level of animals.

[16]  Columbus's health began to rapidly decline, which began to show in December of 1494 during his second journey.  He could not eat or sleep well.  No one is certain what ailment Columbus suffered.  By his third journey, Columbus began to show signs of madness.  In a letter to the sovereigns, Columbus explains how the earth is not round, as he formally believed, but pear shaped with a woman's "teat" on top of it.  Furthermore, he believes that an earthly paradise (as described in Holy Scripture) is to be found in the southern section of the New World.  Although it is not entirely rare to hear people mention an earthly paradise in the fifteenth century, Columbus's claim of having located it in a land that was consistently consumed with rebellions, wars, and disease was, at best, wishful thinking and more than likely delusions of grandeur.

[17]  Columbus had to be removed, along with his brothers.  On August 23, 1500, Francisco de Bobadilla arrived in Santa Domingo and placed Columbus and his brothers under arrest.  They were shipped back to Spain.  Although Columbus was initially placed in chains, he was allowed the opportunity to remove them once he reached the ship destined for Spain. Columbus chose to wear them until he was absolved of the charges brought against him by the queen and king of Spain.  When he reached Cadiz, Columbus was not placed in a prison but a monastery under guard.  After five weeks, he received word from the king and queen that he was to be released.

[18]  Columbus's (mental) health got worse.  He wrote a manuscript called the Book of Prophecies in which he asserted that his mission in the New World was ordained by divine prophecy and that he needed to return there. In fact, Columbus likened himself to that of Jesus Christ.  More out of necessity to get rid of Columbus than any need of him in the New World, the Spanish sovereigns obliged Columbus with a fourth voyage-- with the stipulations that he not set foot on Espanola where he served as governor and that he have a notary on his trip who records all that Columbus finds.

[19]  In March 1502, Columbus set sail on his final voyage.  His brother Bartolome accompanied him as well as his thirteen-year-old son, Fernando.  Nothing much came from the final voyage.  He did come close to encountering the Pacific Ocean, but the voyage was mostly plagued by bad weather, battles, and mutinies.  Columbus's illness got worse and caused him to rest in Santa Domingo for a month before returning to Spain in September 1504.

[20]  Columbus, contrary to popular myth, at the end of his life, was wealthy.  Although he was never regranted the privileges and titles that he was given after his first voyage, he had more than enough money to live comfortably.  He successfully sued Bobadilla who stole much of his wealth when he arrested Columbus in Santa Domingo.  In his final days, Columbus might have been humbled, but he was no pauper as his letters suggest.  Additionally, his son Fernando wrote a hagiography of his father that would later bestow Columbus's heirs with some of the prior lost privileges.

[21]  On May 20, 1506, Christopher Columbus/Cristoforo Colombo/Christobal Colom/Cristobal Colon/ Christoual/Christovam died at the age of fifty five/fifty four/fifty six.  He "discovered"/encountered/conquered/ prophesized/exploited/enslaved a New World/native land/delusion that is still coming to terms with what happened on that day in October 12, 1492, when he tread upon a shore that he wanted to call his/Spain's/Christianity's own, but it/they/we would not let him.  Somewhere between the words lies the history of America(s).

Print Resources

Axtell, James.  Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America.  New York: Oxford UP, 1992.  (esp. Chapter Ten: "Moral Reflections on the Columbian Legacy")

A book of collected essays and speeches in regards to the conquest of Native Americans.  Axtell offers a more nuanced history in which he attempts to correct past historical misrepresentations.  He claims the the Native Americans cannot be viewed as a homogeneous group of people.  Axtell states, "the Columbian encounters were never between generic 'Indians' and 'Europeans' but always between segments or factions of native groups (which we call 'tribes' for convenience) and similar, equally interested subgroups of European nationalities"  (100).  He also focuses on the Native Americans' thoughts and motives in regard to the Spaniards, which are often effaced in history books.  Rather than thinking that the Tainos were a naive bunch of people, Axtell shows that their trade with the Spaniards and joining with them was not necessarily because of any trust they placed in the Spaniards but because they needed methods to counter the Spaniards invasion.

---.  "The Moral Dimensions of 1492."  Historian 56.1 (1993): 17-28.

A comprehensive look at the accusations of genocide (see his "Moral Dimensions" chapter in Beyond 1492): how is it defined, what evidence is used, what evidence is not used, why is the word used, why we judge the past, what types of moral responsibility is involved.

Bercht, Fatima.  Taíno: Pre-Columbian Art and Culture from the Caribbean.  New York: Monacelli Press, 1997.

"The" book to make the Taino, so invisible often in discussions of Columbus, visible.  Chock full of color photographs of Taino art broken down into thematic categories.

Bodmer, Beatriz Pastor.  The Armature of Conquest.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992.

Provides an insightful chapter titled "Christopher Columbus and the Definition of America as Booty" in which Bodmer examines how Columbus reinterpreted America and the Tainos to fit his discourse of discovery.  By using past discourses found in other historical writers and philosophers, Columbus tailored a portrayal of America that justified further voyages to the New World despite the New World contradicting much of the information Columbus had previously read.  Bodmer focuses on how Columbus redefined the natives as things and the places of the New World as raw materials in order to further Spanish conquest.  As Bodmer states, "From the very beginning, rather than discovering, he confirms and identifies.  The central meaning of the term 'to discover,' that is, to unveil or to make known, does not describe the actions and conceptualizations of Columbus, whose method of inquiry, informed by his need to identify the newly discovered lands with preexisting sources and models, was a mixture of invention, misrepresentation, and concealment"  (10).

Bushman, Claudia L.  America Discovers Columbus:  How An Italian Explorer Became An American Hero.  Hanover: U P of New England, 1992.

Chronicles the ways in which Columbus has been linked to being a religious figure, a Founding Father of America, a rationalist, a visionary, and colonizer who propogated genocide.  Only recently, within the 1700s, has Columbus become a figure of historical importance in North America.  With America's desire to break from England, Columbus was utilized to provide North America with a history free from England's past.  In the late 1800s, Columbus's Italian (and Spanish) origins were emphasized by various ethnic groups immigrating to the United States.  As other minority groups (e.g. native americans and blacks) gained more of a voice in American history, Columbus's role as colonizer has been focused upon to address the misdeeds that all the Americas were founded upon.  Overall, Bushman claims, "What we think of Columbus reflects what we think of ourselves"  (190).

Churchill, Ward.  Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America.  Maine: Common Courage, 1994.  (esp. "Bringing the Law Home: Application of the Genocide Convention in the United States")

Claims the Columbus exploits in the New World are no different than Hitler's treatment of the Jews.  The United Nations 1948 Convention on Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide defines Genocide as "a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.  The objective of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and the lives of individuals belonging to such groups"  (12-13).  According to the above definition, Columbus's creation of slavery, the encomienda system, the renaming of the natives' lands, and spreading of new diseases all constitute his and Spain's genocide of the native americans.  Furthermore, one can see Columbus's racist practices echoed in the present through the stereotypes of Native Americans in movies and professional sports-- particularly the Atlanta Braves tomahawk chop.  See also Churchill's A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997).

Columbus, Christopher.  The Diario of Christopher Columbus's First Voyage to America, 1492-1493: Abstracted by Bartolome de las Casas.  Trans. Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr.  Norman:  U of Oklahoma P, 1989.

An absolutely fundamental source that allows one to understand what occurred on Columbus's first voyage.  Although Columbus's own diary of the first voyage has been lost, de las Casas was a friend of Columbus's-- yet also opposed Columbus's treatment of the Tainos-- and traveled with Columbus occasionally.  As a result, we have a transcription of Columbus's diary that is as close as there can be to the original.  Of interest are the historical moments that usually get "edited" from traditional history books: the crash of the Santa Maria and the Pinta's abandonment of Columbus in its own search for gold.  The diary shows Columbus's interaction with the natives-- neither condemning nor condoning his actions.  Instead the diary provides a complex understanding of Columbus who seems equally motivated by greed as by god.

Columbus, Christopher.  The Four Voyages.  Ed. and trans. J. M. Cohen.  New York: Penguin Books, 1969.

Another fundamental source that collects letters about and by Columbus during all four of his voyages.  The work also includes Columbus's diary of the first voyage, which was abstracted by Bartolome de las Casas.  By providing such a diverse amount of texts about Columbus's exploits, one gains a greater understanding to the complexity and ambiguity that his legend contains.  One case in point is the comparison offered between Columbus's own log of the first journey and his later letter of the same journey to the queen and king of Spain about his journey.  Columbus omits from his letter how captain Pinzon of the Pinta abandoned Columbus at the New World and how the town of La Navidad was founded because the Santa Maria crashed on some rocks and was sunk.  It is also of interest how Columbus's own view of himself changes as the letters progress.  By the time of the third and fourth voyages, Columbus emphasizes what he sees as his own Messianic role in the New World and the sense that Spain is making a martyr out of him by sending Francisco de Bobadilla to remove him from the New World.

Cowley, Geoffrey.  "The Great Disease." Newsweek  Fall/Winter 1991 (Special Issue): 54-56.

Cowley claims "The worst of the suffering [by native peoples] was caused not by swords or guns but by germs"  (54).  Millions of Native Americans were killed by the diseases of the Spaniards, who were immune from the diseases they carried.  Because of Europe's overpopulation, the Spaniards were able to become immune to diseases such as measles and smallpox since "the microbes that cause measles, smallpox and other 'crowd type' diseases require pools of several millions people to sustain themselves"  (55).  The African slave-trade was largely dependent upon many Africans' shared immunities to European diseases, which made Africans more productive laborers than the Native Americans who had no such resistance.

DeSirey, Jan, Chris Dodge, and John Yewell.  Confronting Columbus.  Jefferson: McFarland and Co., 1992.

John Yewell's introduction clearly states the book's objective: "The editors have not been interested in balance, but in pursuing truth.  'Balanced' history gives equal weight to murderer and victim. 'Balance' grants five minutes to Hitler and five minutes to the Jews. 'Balance' stigmatizes the pursuit of truth and perpetuates sanitized historical records" (xi).  The book is concerned with focusing on the underrepresented aspects of the Columbus history: the Tainos, women, and blacks.  Many of the authors tie Columbus's legacy to the existing inequalities of the present.  As Howard Zinn states, "It seems to me that to hide the truth about Columbus is to hide the very sort of genetic truth about Western civilization and what it means and what it has meant for so many people" (8).  In order for anyone to understand his/her present historical location, that person must understand where his/her history originated.  Columbus's exploits are important in that they can bolster or challenge any future exploits that might help or hurt various underrepresented people.

Gates, David.  "Who Was Columbus?"  Newsweek  Fall/Winter 1991 (Special Issue): 29-31.

Gates makes the observation that "Christopher Columbus has mostly been who people wanted him to be.  To Renaissance humanists, he was the open-minded explorer, the arch-empiricist; to North American revolutionaries, he was the Founding Fathers' father, standing toe to toe with Old World monarchs and making them see things his way"  (29).  As a result, Columbus has remained a shadowy figure with many different interpretations.  Besides knowing some basic facts about Columbus's whereabouts and explorations, his motives and desires are extremely unclear-- bordering on extreme greed to extreme piety.  The Columbus of our present times is a complex character.  Only through our imaginations and a reassembling of historical facts can we gain any idea of who was Columbus-- though, this technique still might not create any completely clear picture.

Gelman, David.  "Columbus and His Four Fateful Voyages."  Newsweek  Fall/Winter 1991 (Special Issue): 39-46.

The article quickly summarizes the four voyages Columbus made.  According to Gelman, Columbus was a man of his times: equally influenced by greed as by religion.  People had inevitably sailed to the New World before Columbus.  Columbus, though, unlike the prior explorers, went to the New World with the intent to colonize.  He dealt with the natives "with a kind of schizoid duplicity": giving them various items of his but also enslaving them to a harsh system.  One of the reasons that Columbus is so well known is because his voyages were better documented than other people's.  But it must be questioned why Columbus's first and most idyllic voyage (though, he still enslaved the Tainos during it) is more well known than his later voyages where colonization and slavery became worse.

Gonzalez, Ray, ed.  Without Discovery: A Native Response to Columbus.  Seattle: Broken Moon, 1992.

A text that "gathers Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Native American writers who have written about the impact of the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas"  (ix).  Many of the writers suggest that the Americas are still reaping both the positive and negative effects of Columbus: multiculturalism and colonization.  Native American and Puerto Rican writers focus on the largely silenced history of the Natives' perspectives when Columbus arrived.  The Chicano writers, such as Benjamin Alire Saenz, examine how contemporary Chicanos struggle to understand their place in history: being both an oppressor of others through the Spanish conquest and being the oppressed in the United States by Anglo-Americans.  Additionally, all the writers emphasize the importance of language and the need to control it since language allows people to remember and stay connected to their past and, as a result, control their future.

Greenblatt, Stephen.  Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World.  Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 1991.

Columbus's main way of taking possession of the New World was through his speech acts: renaming the lands, waters, and natives.  By largely effacing the natives' autonomy in what he said and wrote, Columbus was able to disposses the natives from their land and make conquest all the more viable.  As Greenblatt states, "According to medieval concepts of natural law, uninhabited territories become the possession of the first to discover them.  We might say that Columbus's formalism [in his speech acts] tries to make the new lands uninhabited . . . by emptying out the category of the other"  (60).  Columbus's renaming of the lands was parallel with the christian notion of christening: a cleansing and making new of the non-Christian into the discourse of Christianity and Western ideologies.  Greenblatt continues, "Such a christening entails the cancellation of the native name-- the erasure of the alien, perhaps demonic, identity-- and hence a kind of making new; it is at once an exorcism, an appropriation, and a gift"  (83).

Limbaugh, Rush.  "Multiculturalism."  The Way Things Ought to Be.  New York: Pocket Books, 1992.  204-13.

The controversy over the Columbus quincentennial gets emphasis in this attack on multiculturalism: To multiculturalists bashing Columbus is "the single best way to get at easily influenced young minds and tear the country down.  If the man who discovered America is flawed, if he's a bad guy, then everything that followed from that discovery has to be immoral. . . . No one can convince me that the point of all this is not to discredit all that America stands for -- and the ultimate goal, I firmly believe, is the destruction of the capitalist way of life, the destruction of free enterprise, and the establishment of socialism, because socialism to these people equals fairness."

Loewen, James. W.  Lies My Teacher Told Me.  New York:  New Press, 1995.

Of particular interest is a chapter titled "1493: The True Importance of Christopher Columbus."  Loewenberg shows how most school history books he surveyed do not represent Columbus in an "objective" manner.  Most often excluded from the books are Columbus's role in slavery and the fact that Europeans were not the first people to the Americas.  By employing "a rhetoric of certainty" school history books do not allow the students to realize how tentative historians' knowledge of Columbus remains.  Loewen claims that most school history books are guilty of Eurocentrism; their focus on Columbus as the sole and great discoverer is really the books' championing of white, European culture as the only one deserving of primary focus.

Morganthau, Tom.  "Slavery: How It Built the New World."  Newsweek  Fall/Winter 1991 (Special Issue):66-69.

Morganthau asserts that slavery "began earlier, lasted longer and played a larger role in shaping modern societies than most Americans realize" (67).  During the time of slavery at least ten million Africans were shipped to America.  Because of the New World's labor shortage, slavery was needed.  Matter of fact, without the free labor of slavery the New World would not have been built, since its profits had been so negligible.  One of the amazing traits of America was that slave revolts were so seldom and unsuccessful.  The slavery of Columbus's first voyage can be traced to the inhumane conditions that followed the period of Reconstruction where black people in the South were held to subhuman wages and living conditions that was known as debt peonage.

Morison, Samuel Eliot.  Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.  New York: The Heritage, 1963.

An excellent source that chronicles Columbus's letters and diaries along with other people's letters who sailed with him.  This book contains much of the primary material that historians use to construct who Columbus was and what purpose his voyages served.  The material makes it apparently clear that there are many gaps in information to have an absolutely clear idea of Columbus's history.  Of interest is the way Columbus's diary of the first voyage differs from the letters he sent to the queen and king of Spain about the same voyage.  One gains a better understanding of Columbus's motives and manipulations  in comparing how he wrote in different tones and excluded and included various material depending upon whom he was writing to.  Also, the primary material contains much information that has been sanitized from many history books that do not want to tarnish Columbus's image.  Slavery, Columbus's mad ramblings, and his greed are all observable within the following primary sources.

Pagden, Anthony.  European Encounters with the New World.  London:  Yale UP, 1993.

The discovery of the New World had thrown many of the paradigms of the Ancients into question by placing experience over reason.  Yet Columbus's questionable character was clearly at odds with the role of epoch maker and needed a historical make-over.  Many writers of the 1800s saw Columbus as the epitome of the Enlightenment rationalist.  He started with a hypothesis-- just as Copernicus did-- but also verified it empirically-- like Galileo with his telescope.  His method of discovering the New World, according to some writers, was no different than the discovery of the stars and their characteristics.  Other writers, like Alexander von Humboldt, viewed Columbus as a transhistorical genius by having a poetic vision of the New World.  Inevitably, Columbus's trip to the New World had tremendous effects upon Europe; what those effects were, however, are largely defined by the times and writer who is studying Columbus.

Royal, Robert.  1492 And All That: Political Manipulations of History.  Baltimore: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1992.

Royal argues that contemporary liberal historians' portrayals of the Native Americans as a benign and ideal people and Columbus and Spain as a colonizing scourge of the earth are gross over-simplifications of the past events.  Columbus, though guilty of many atrocities against the Native Americans, did have some humane relations with them.  Royal claims one such moment was when the Santa Maria crashed upon some rocks.  The Tainos helped unload the ship's materials with the Spaniards.  Because of the Tainos' assistance, Royal believes that this exemplifies the natives' trust toward Columbus.  Similarly, Royal cites Columbus scolding his men for trading unjust amounts of materials with the Native Americans.  Columbus's scolding exemplifies his sense of justice to the Tainos.  Royal believes that liberals' idealizations of the natives' culture has less to do with actual history and more to do with contemporary culture's desire to escape from post-industrial capitalism's inhumane conditions.  Although such "flights" of imagination are understandable, they make for bad history.

Sale, Kirkpatrick.  The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy.  New York: Knopf, 1990.

The text is largely concerned with deflating the mythology that surrounds Columbus.  According to Sale, it is questionable if Columbus was ever an experienced sailor prior to his New World voyages.  It is also questionable who Columbus actually was.  Columbus, using a series of different names and accounts of his life, seemed to want to keep his past unclear and in the past.  As a result, much of our knowledge of Columbus is suspect, but by observing the actual historical documents that do relate to Columbus, one will find a person quite unlike the one championed during Columbus Day and in schools throughout the country.  Sale claims that Columbus was motivated equally by greed, glory, and god.  Furthermore, Sale believes that the gradual destruction of America's environment and the slave trade can all be traced back to the events that Columbus initiated upon his fateful first landing.

Stannard, David E.  American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World.  New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Literally for openers, Stannard's prologue compares the Trinity A-bomb test with the landing at San Salvador: "Those moments of achievement crowned years of intense personal struggle and adventure for their protagonists and were culminating points of ingenious technological achievement for their countries.  But both instances were preludes to orgies of human destructiveness that, each in its own way, attained a scale of devastation not previously witnessed in the entire history of the world."  "The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world."

Stavans, Ilan.  Imagining Columbus: The Literary Voyage.  New York:  Twayne Publishers, 1993.

The book divides into two sections: historical sketches and literary sketches of Columbus.  As the book progresses, though, it becomes more clear how the literary and historical material merge.  The book shows how historians' and writers' perceptions of Columbus have less to do with Columbus himself and more to do with the society that wants to use Columbus as symbol.  Columbus has represented all ranges of the political spectrum: devoutly religious to Renaissance man to Enlightenment philosopher.  The popular conception of Columbus most people are familiar with is provided by both Washington Irving's three-book work on Columbus and Harvard professor Samuel Eliot Morison's historical work.  Although Morison's work does not idealize Columbus to the extent that Irving's work does, he mainly designates Columbus as a brave adventurer and worthy of our admiration.  Stavans' book is particularly useful in tracing the genealogy of perceptions of Columbus for the first four hundred years after his first voyage.

Zinn, Howard.  "Columbus and Western Civilization." Howard Zinn on History.  New York: Seven Stories P., 2001.  97-120.

A speech given in the 1992 quincentennial year.  "To me, the Columbus story is important for what it tells us about ourselves, about our time, about the decisions we have to make for our century, for the next century."  To celebrate Columbus is to celebrate wealth, imperialism, "progress."  But progress at what human cost?  "If it be the part of civilization to maim, rob, and thwart, then what is progress?"

See also:

Cacciutto, Franklin C.  "Columbus In Chains: The Image of Columbus in Literature."  Diss.  St. John's University, New York, 1991.

Hedges, William L.  "Irving's Columbus: The Problem Of Romantic Biography."  The Americas 13:2  (1956):127-40.

Jorgen, Randolph, ed.  Columbus and Beyond.  Tuscon:  Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1992.

Loewenberg, Bert James.  American History In American Thought: Christopher Columbus To Henry Adams.  New York; Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Miller, Susan.  "The High Price Of Sugar."  Newsweek  Fall/Winter 1991 (Special Issue):70-74.

Schnaubelt, Joseph C., and Frederick Van Fleteren, eds.  Columbus and the New World.  New York:  Peter Lang, 1998.

Sokolov, Raymond.  "Stop Knocking Columbus."  Newsweek  Fall/Winter 1991 (Special Issue):82.

Video/Audio Resources

Columbus Didn't Discover Us.  Massachusetts: Turning Tide Productions, 1992.

Chronicles the gathering of three hundred native peoples during the First Continental Congress Of Indigenous Peoples at Ecuador 1990.  All the speakers discuss the impact the Columbus legacy had on their lives and ways in which they can create better futures for themselves and humanity as a whole.  The indigenous people refuse to celebrate the Quincentenial of Columbus's landing in the New World since they feel that such celebrations legitimize the colonial past in the present.  It is a common concern among indigenous people that they become decolonialized not only physically but psychologically as well.

Columbus On Trial.  New York: Women Make Movies, 1993.  San Francisco: Xochitl Films, 1992.

WorldCat states this movie is "a satire on the controversy surrounding Christopher Columbus as to whether he, indeed, did discover America and introduce European civilization and Christianity to the native populations there, or if he (from the Native American point of view) invaded their territories and began the systematic destruction of their cultures that has continued for the following 500 years.  Set in the context of a trial presided over by a woman judge of Hispano-American descent.  Performed by the comedy troupe, Culture Clash."

Columbus's World.  Princeton, NJ:  Films for the Humanities and Sciences, Inc., 1991.

Offers a historical account of Europe in the 15th century and the need for Asian ports to expand their economic influence.  Columbus's early life is recounted and the voyage of 1492 is retraced.

1492 Revisited.  San Diego: KPBS-TV, 1992.

Participants (many Spanish or Native American) in an art exhibit titled "Counter Colon-ialismo" talk about their work and the construction of history.  For example, imperial power is used to link "discovery" with the atomic bomb, and a gun in a chapel aimed at the Bible represents the history of forced christianity.  The language of counter-discourse predominates: for instance, Columbus inaugurates a "culture of death," and the "colonization of the minds is still going on."

This Just In . . . Columbus Has Landed.  Nebraska:  Creighton University, 1991.

Described by WorldCat as "done in the style of a network news show being broadcast upon the death of Columbus.  Looks at the accomplishments and failures of Christopher Columbus.  Examines the controversy surrounding his voyages and landings in North America."

Online Resources

A Faithful Response to the 500th Anniversary of the Arrival of Christopher Columbus
http://www.indians.org/welker/faithful.htm

A response by the indigenous groups of North America about the negative repercussions that resulted from Columbus's arrival in their world.  The site links to a site called "Indigeneous Peoples' Literature" where one can learn more about various Native American beliefs.

Christopher Columbus and Early European Exploration
http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/grd/resguides/columbus.html

An excellent list of primary and secondary sources not only on Columbus but other accounts of Spanish colonization.  The site provides a wealth of texts that can keep one reading for years.

Discoverers Web
http://www.win.tue.nl/~engels/discovery/

A site of more explorers than one can recognize.  Of particular interest are the amount of articles provided by various students and scholars.  There are also other articles dealing with the historical context in which Columbus initiated his journeys.  Other articles concern the explorations of non-European explorers and explorers who sailed to the Americas prior to Columbus.

Extracts from Columbus' Journal on the First Voyage
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/columbus1.html

Exactly what the title says: this site provides extracts from Columbus' journal on the first voyage.  The best trait of this site is its accessibility.  Rather than having to go to the library and shuffle through all of the journal's pages, this site offers an abridged version of the journal that allows someone just beginning to learn about Columbus to get a sense of what the first journey was like.

Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation
http://www.taino-tribe.org/

"We of the tribe of Jatibonicu' and its Tribal Council of Elders and tribal members, extend to you a very warm Taino greeting. We who are the original people of the Island of Borikén (Puerto Rico), do hereby offically welcome you to our Boriken island homeland and our Taino tribal nation home page."

The Columbus Landfall Homepage
http://www1.minn.net/~keithp/cclandfl.htm

Just exactly where Columbus first landed is a matter of dispute.  This page includes over eleven theories ranging from "a few problems" to "theories way out on a limb."  All the theories are endorsed by well known scholars and allow one insight into the range of debate on one supposedly simple issue.  Although it might seem frivolous in disputing where Columbus originally landed, it is not so frivolous for the people who first had to encounter him.

The Columbus Navigation Homepage
http://www1.minn.net/~keithp/

An interesting page that is mainly devoted to the "history, navigation, and landfall of Christopher Columbus."  Hypothetical routes for all four voyages are examined as well as what Columbus's crew did and how he navigated to the New World.  The site also provides links to other web sites.

1492: An Ongoing Voyage
http://metalab.unc.edu/expo/1492.exhibit/Intro.html

A page to the Columbus exhibit at the Library of Congress, Washington DC.  It is a good starting point to get familiar with the history of Columbus and some of the controversies involved with Columbus's history.  The exhibit is divided into six sections: 1) What Came To Be Called "America," 2) The Mediterranean World, 3) Christopher Columbus: Man and Myth, 4) Inventing America, 5) Europe Claims America, and 6) Epilogue.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2000 by Christopher Robe’, Graduate Student at Lehigh University.

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