by Kevin H. Siepel
Back in 1952 my social studies book portrayed Christopher Columbus as a sort of cardboard figure, a likable guy who sold an idea to the queen, took three ships, discovered America, and sailed back home, leaving presumably happy Indians and settlers in his wake. We commemorated him without fuss on Columbus Day. The guy discovered America, didn’t he? Certain ethnic communities loved him, and the rest of us surely had nothing against him. He was Columbus. Like Washington and Lincoln, he got us a day off.
That’s all changed. Today in the US October 12 is marked mainly by his vilification, which seems to be starting early this year.
Opinions abound. He was the face of European oppression, a grasping, odious, incompetent man, despised by many of his peers. He was a good person, a talented navigator, sensitive, religious, creative, far-sighted.
What was he then?
Check “all of the above.”
It’s difficult to get a handle on Columbus. The venerable Columbus scholar Samuel Eliot Morison rightly idolized him as a mariner, even if his navigation skills may have been picked up “on the job”. It’s clear from Columbus’s writings that he was a sensitive man, although prone to self-pity and frequently depressed by physical pain. He showed an ability to come at problems in fresh ways. He was tenacious, and not shy about using others to reach his goals. Like most of the Europeans whom he led to the New World, he had a clear view of himself as superior to the poor denizens of the lands he was claiming for Spain. Like a father who is ambivalent about fatherhood, he alternately loved and punished these people. Finally, he was not only religious, but even mystical by nature, some of his religious ideas reaching head-scratching extremes.
One seeks in vain for contemporary praise of Columbus—he and his brothers came to be loathed by most of the adventurers he brought to the New World, pretty much as he is loathed by today’s anti-Columbus agitators. His maladministration of the Crown’s new holdings across the sea caused dismay in the Castilian court. If it were not for his improbably close relationship with Queen Isabella, whose support for him seemed almost never to waver, he would have been recalled and possibly even imprisoned. He was in fact once arrested.
Columbus made four voyages to the New World. Most know of his first voyage (1492-93), where he made landfall on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas. Throughout this voyage, he believed strongly that he was in the Orient, with an Oriental potentate just around the next point of land. It would take another voyage for him to become disabused of this notion, and to replace his search for the Orient with a search for gold. His second voyage (1493-96), joined by hundreds of eager adventurers, some bringing with them their horses and large hunting dogs, was confined to portions of Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola. By this voyage’s end he had virtually lost control of his enterprise. On his third voyage (1498-1500) he headed farther south, landing for the first time on a continent—South America, in today’s Venezuela—but on his return to the Hispaniola colony, now in turmoil, he found himself arrested by the new governor (no formal charges being brought) and shipped back to Castile in chains. Released and exonerated by the queen, he soon undertook what he called his alto viaje, his top voyage (1502-04), a disastrous trip that led him as far south as today’s Panama, and that resulted in his being marooned for a year with a mutinous crew on a Jamaican beach.
Like many Europeans, he saw the Indians as a means to an end—namely, riches—and if they assisted him or at least did not impede him, he treated them well, at times even professing profound admiration for them. “They are such a loving, docile, peaceful people,” he wrote to the sovereigns, “that I swear there can be no better people in the world. They love their neighbor as themselves. Their speech is sweet and cheerful, and always delivered with a smile.” He was overcome by the beauty of the newly discovered lands themselves. “Everything so green”, he rhapsodized after a stroll around today’s Crooked Island in the Bahamas. “It’s like April in Andalucía. The singing of the birds is so sweet that a man might never want to leave here. The flights of parrots even darken the sun.”
Being a man of his times, however, almost his first thought was of binding these obviously ignorant but clever people over into servitude, saving their souls along the way. “They should prove to be good servants and intelligent,” he wrote to the monarchs. “I feel it will be easy to make them Christians.” During his second voyage he proposed to the king and queen a system of trade between Castile and the nascent colony—Indian slaves for livestock and other commodities from Castile. To acquire these slaves, or at least to tamp down their resistance to servitude, he at times occupied himself strenuously with the “pacification” of Hispaniola.
In this effort he tolerated cruelty among his men—on his second voyage apparently not batting an eye at the almost casual beheading of an Indian with an axe aboard ship. He presented a captive Indian girl as a gift to a friend, knowing perfectly well what the friend had in mind for her. He scooped up Indians wherever he could for transport back to Spain.
In 1495 he permitted the assembly of 1,500 captive Indians—many of them women with infants at the breast—for the purpose of choosing 550 to ship to Castile as slaves. Women who were not selected for this trip were given their freedom. Such was their dread of the Spaniards, however, that they abandoned their infants, dropping them on the ground and running pell-mell for the mountains to escape these terrifying strangers.
Throughout his domains, he resorted to violence, threats, and intimidation to make the colonists work—many of them highborn men who had never known a day’s work in their lives. These men, angry, carried back tales to Castile of a foreign despot gone mad. On a beach in Cuba’s far west, he forced his men to take an oath before a notary that they had landed not on an island, but on an extension of the Asiatic mainland, imposing grave penalties for maintaining the contrary. He could not allow news to seep back to the monarchs that they were financing a mere island excursion.
Having lost his hold over the colony he had founded—and insisting strenuously that the fault lay with others—he attempted to make a fresh beginning in today’s Panama. He wrote to the sovereigns of his dream for this future settlement, comparing it to the disastrous ventures of the past. “This is not,” he said in reference to his planned new enterprise, “a child to be turned over to a stepmother for raising. I can’t think of Hispaniola or those other lands, without weeping. I believed that our approach there would serve as an example to others, but it has not. These lands are already in a state of exhaustion. Although they are not dead, the sickness is incurable and widespread. Let those who brought them to this state produce the remedy if they can.”
His dream of a new beginning in Panama would soon be splintered by the arrows and spears of local Indians, who did not share his vision of new beginnings.
He was tenacious in pursuit of his ends. As a penurious foreigner in a land not noted for acceptance of outsiders he nonetheless made strenuous efforts to cultivate influential men, and showed no hesitation even to the badgering of royalty in Portugal, Spain, and—through his brother Bartholomew—England for support of his notion of reaching the east by sailing west.
He was notable for keeping his head during crises and sometimes showed good management skills, even flashes of brilliance. When, on Christmas Day 1492, Santa Maria was wrecked on a sandbar, he immediately saw in this event not disaster but opportunity: he would now be able to supply a group of settlers for a year with the equipment and provisions taken from the wrecked ship. On his fourth voyage, with his two ships sinking, and forced to save them by running them aground on a Jamaican beach, he did his best to keep his men under wraps and away from the Indians by requiring them to seek permission to leave the beached ships, even to signing out. He later saved his men from starvation in this land by frightening suddenly unhelpful Indians into giving them food. He did so by threatening a heavenly portent of their doom—an eclipse of the moon—for failure to provide rations. The eclipse took place exactly as he had foretold, and the Indians, frightened out of their wits by his apparent power over the heavens, immediately strove to outdo one another in delivering food baskets to these obviously powerful strangers.
Abetted by luck, but doubtless due greatly to his levelheadedness in crisis, he brought his men through storms whose horror is difficult for us to grasp. Of a near-death experience off the Panamanian coast, he wrote graphically to the monarchs, “For nine days I ran, lost, with no hope of survival. Eyes have never seen the sea so high, so ugly, so seething with foam. The wind would not allow me to move forward, nor did it permit me to seek shelter behind some headland. It held me in a sea turned to blood, boiling like a cauldron on a roaring fire. The sky had never been more frightening. For a day and a night it blazed like a furnace. And through it all the rains came pelting down. It wasn’t just rain, but felt more like the coming of the second Flood. The people were already so broken in spirit that they begged for death, just to escape this martyrdom.”
Quieter waters gave him time to meditate on the meaning of these lands he had discovered, his meditation leading him to conclusions likely startling even to his contemporaries. On the basis of some anomalous compass readings he began to believe that he was sailing on a bulge of the globe. “I’ve noted an irregularity,” he wrote to the sovereigns. “And for this reason I say that the earth is not round as has been written, but is more pear-shaped—round except near the stalk, where it bulges out more.” He went on from there, slipping into his habitual biblical frame of reference, conjecturing that the South American continent was actually the site of the Garden of Eden. “I believe,” wrote this ostensibly hard-headed mariner to the monarchs, “that the earthly paradise is there, and that no one may go there unless God wills it.”
With the perspective afforded by time, he began to acknowledge his own role in the mess that had been made of Spanish colonization so far. His self-criticism, however, remained well attenuated. “My errors,” he wrote to Juana de Torres, a friend at court, “have not been committed with the purpose of causing harm, and I believe that Their Highnesses will take my word for this.”
Yet withal, he remained overtly defensive about his effort, a stance that pulled him slowly downward into self-pity. “I have arrived at a point where even the vilest person thinks nothing of insulting me,” he wrote to Torres. “To refrain from doing so is actually counted as virtue. [People] have made war on me right to this day as if I were a Moor.”
“It would be a charity to me,” he continued, “if Their Highnesses might censure that mob that knows of my exhaustion. The slander I have suffered from these people has done me very great damage. If my honor were restored by them, their action would be told throughout the world, because the importance of this enterprise will be proclaimed and recognized more and more every day.”
“In Spain,” he concluded, “they judge me as if I’d been sent to govern Sicily, or a city or town already in good order, and where the laws are strictly kept with no fear that everything might collapse. This grieves me. I ought to be judged as a captain who left Spain for the Indies, to conquer a people numerous and warlike. By God’s will I have established in such places the rule of the king and queen, our sovereigns—another world, through which Spain, which once was called poor, has become very rich.”
Columbus had served as a bridge between two worlds. Like a bridge, it was his fate to be trodden upon. It is difficult to see him in the full joy of discovery. Everything he grasped seemed to turn sour in his hand. Perhaps our most poignant picture of Columbus was supplied by his own pen in the last letter he ever wrote to the sovereigns—a letter written from his seemingly hopeless isolation on a Jamaican beach, to be carried more than a hundred miles across the sea on a modified log by a daring young man, and at length almost miraculously to reach them in Castile.
“I myself have profited little from twenty years of laborious and dangerous service,” he wrote. “Today in Castile I have no roof over my head. If I need a meal or a bed, I must go to an inn or tavern, and I frequently have no money with which to pay the bill. I’m sick and worn out. I am so ruined. I’ve always wept for others, but now may heaven have mercy upon me, and may the earth weep for me.”
“Weep for me,” he repeated, “whoever has charity, truth, and justice.”
So—what are we to think of Columbus? Does he merit our admiration, condemnation, or pity? Or all three? And whatever are we to do about Columbus Day? Or Columbus statues?
Kevin H. Siepel is the author of Conquistador Voices, a two-volume work on the Spanish Conquest of the Americas.