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Discovering Columbus: a bibliographic probe.

IN the age of political correctness, we have, it seems, to speak now not of the |discovery' but of the |rape' of America: colonisation meant exploitation, mass-murder and genocide. In Madrid the Association of Indian Cultures has called for the quincentenary of 1492 to be saluted with acts of |sabotage'; three shiploads of American Indians will |discover' Spain, even if there is no evidence of any such journey 500 years ago; 1992 is to be a year not of celebration but of repentance. On the person of Columbus are to be visited, it seems, all the crimes of our times: particularly imperialism, elitism, Europe-centredness, and being white. A London group, that includes Harold Pinter and Ken Livingstone, MP, was formed in 1991 with the title |500 Years of Resistance'. The 500 year history of the Americas is to be seen as a story of murder, pillage, torture and exploitation. Anniversaries are, it seems, to be opportunities for contumely, not for pietas. Columbus himself is seen as greedy, incompetent and autocratic. All seem to be agreed that he should have stayed at home. The fashion today is to debate over and over again that old Oxford Union debating motion: that in the opinion of this House, Christopher Columbus went too far.

It is not only, of course, 500 years of Columbus himself that is being celebrated. Although a number of towns, a central American republic and the Federal District of Columbia all honour his name, he did not figure prominently in the American national imagination until after the war of 1812, the so-called Second War of Independence. The New World, then a generation old as an independent state, discovered a need for new ancestors. Washington Irving in 1828 published his History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus to provide a new hero suitably endowed with an Italian name, and sailing under a Spanish flag. Columbus was |discovered' in 1828. Perhaps a distinct multicultural nation now needs a new hero: preferably black, non-English-speaking, and female?

All of which is sad: not because of its nonsense, but because it obscures the major debate for the historian: Was Columbus the hero, where did he go, how come the legend?

There might have been another hero of this journey in 1492. It was at two in the morning of October 12, 1492 that the look-out on the Pinta, Rodrigo da Triana, claimed that he saw a light. He should have been awarded -- the gift of the Spanish Crown -- the prize for the one who first sighted the New World -- an annual pension of 10,000 maravedis. Instead, the honour was snatched by Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, who insisted that four hours earlier (when 40 leagues from land) he had seen a bright light in the dark, |like a little wax candle rising and lifting'. Was Columbus a stickler for accuracy, was he just greedy, was he incapable of the first rule of leadership: generosity to, encouragement of, his subordinates? At least one hero disappears. Deprived of his annuity, Triana obtained a discharge, renounced his faith, and died in North Africa. It is not inconceivable that he died of Treponema pallidum, or syphilis, a disease unknown till then in Europe.

Of the many studies and/or biographies of Columbus that 1992 has produced, probably the best, and the most personal portrait, is that of Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.(*) He sees Columbus as God-driven, a collector of prophecies, deeply devout, and also socially ambitious, hungry not only for gold but for status and for titles that would be conferred as hereditary honours. Columbus was a student of Marco Polo; he was led astray by an incredible cosmography which persuaded him that only 3,000 nautical miles separated Spain from Cathay, and led him to read into garbled native words the placenames mentioned by Marco Polo. He placed the Garden of Eden on a nipple-shaped protuberance rising from the earth's breast-like surface in the southern Caribbean.

Three notable by-products of the Columbus quincentenary are special studies of European-Indian or of Spanish-Indian relations: Stephen Greenblatt's Marvellous Possessions, The Wonder of the New World (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1991), Roland Wright's Stolen Continents: The Indian Story (Houghton Mifflin 1992), and Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror (Deutsch 1992). They ask, though in differing styles, the same question: why, if Columbus and his successors, were on voyages of discovery, why so lightly armed, and why, if they expected to reach the lands of the Great Khan, why did they, then and later, use the language of conquest and victory? If they sought islands that were at the limits of one great Empire, why take possession of them for another, and re-name them? Columbus intended his meeting with the Great Khan to be peaceful, and had with him letters of introduction and an interpreter: but his attitude to those he thought were the Khan's subjects was belligerent and brutalising, and hardly designed to promote diplomatic harmony.

Ronald Wright recounts the barbarities in crisp detail -- though with full awareness (as his earlier book Time among the Maya showed) of the matching cruelties of the Aztecs, and the savagery of the Senecas and the Comanches. He has much that is fresh to say on the impact of the invaders on Cherokees and on Iroquois. Carlos Fuentes, perhaps Mexico's leading scholar, rejoices in the contact and mixture of cultures. More than half of the population of the US by 2050 will be Spanish-speaking, he contends; and since the State of California has officially declared that its language is English, the decree obviously proves the opposite. He adds that |You can already see bumper-stickers on cars in Texas which say "Monolingualism is a curable disease".'

Compare also the quincentennial articles on Columbus and his achievement in History Today, vol. 42 (May 1992), notably again Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, |Columbus--Hero or Villain?', Helen Wallis, |What Columbus Knew', and Brian Fagan, |If Columbus had not called'; and the articles, |Columbian Encounters', in The William and Mary Quarterly, XLIX No. 2 (April 1992), particularly Delno West's survey of the scholarship of the last quarter-century, and John D. Daniels, |The Indian Population' of North America in 1492'.

For an anti-Establishment view of the Admiral, an indictment of his cruelty towards the Indians, and of his greed, and for the ravaging of a continent that began with him, there are three hostile treatments: Hans Koning, Columbus: His Enterprise (Monthly Review Press, NY 1976), Ronald Wright, Stolen Continent (Houghton Mifflin, 1992) and Kirkpatrick Sale's recent The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (Curtis-Hodder). To the latter, Columbus is not hero but liar, even mountebank. Sale's story begins, however, only with the departure of the three little ships from Palos, and excludes the man's determination for almost two decades to mount his expedition, and his reasons. The omissions from the book are serious, notably Indian savagery towards Indians and of the Indian allies who aided Cortes in his campaign against the Aztecs; he makes assumptions--that the Spaniards were driven to America to escape the terrible conditions at home and to seek a life of bliss among the Indians -- for which there is no contemporary evidence. For a vivid and fictional recreation of his life, read novelist Stephen Marlowe's The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus (Jonathan Cape, London 1987).

Marlowe adds to the canon some unnecessary embroideries, having Columbus educated by a prostitute called |The Amazon' in the Renaissance palace of Rodrigo Cardinal Borgia; and being responsible for the fall of the last Moorish stronghold in Granada as an agent of Ferdinand and Isabella's Secret Service -- not to mention the intriguer Amerigo Vespucci, the introduction of cigars and syphilis to Europe, the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, pirates and alchemists, Irish monks and Icelandic saga-tellers, and the haunting Jewish beauty, Petenera, whose organisation Blue Pimpernel saved people from the Inquisition. It is readable |1492 and all that', but wrecked by its many anachronisms and by its camp style, by its thin-ness on the stories of the voyages, and with not a single map. A much superior recreation of the first voyage comes from another novelist, who uses history as raw material for the picturesque and the anecdotal, in C. S. Forester's The Earthly Paradise.

These recent studies make, however, three important points. One is, then as now, the importance of the interpreters and the go-betweens. This is all too often taken for granted in accounts of the meetings of cultures. The major questions are always: Who said it? What did he or she say, and how came he or she to know how to say it? Thus Cortes in his conquest of Mexico needed one called Melchior, a baptized Indian; he needed also Jeronimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who, after shipwreck, had been an Indian slave for eight years, and not least that remarkable Indian woman whom the Spaniards called Donna Marina. Similarly those who landed in Florida needed Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, who after shipwreck and seventeen years of captivity by the Calusa Indians, on his release spoke at least four languages and became a major interpreter. These are only a few of Stephen Greenblatt's own discoveries.

Secondly, all such studies stress the wonder of the so-called New World (or should we ask New to whom?) and of Europe's reaction to it. The wonder survived the disorientation, the greed, and the hatred; it was indeed cunningly yoked by Columbus and others to the service of colonial appropriation. Indeed what pass in our own day in South America as conflicts of right versus left, of CIA versus communists, of Church versus State, sometimes even as Church versus Church, are at core Spaniards versus Indians; or -- with more intricacy -- creole versus native. In North America, even after Custer, and after the last Indians have been sequestered on reservations, the conflict continues in lawsuits and protest movements, even occasionally in violence.

Thirdly, not only among Aztecs and Incas and Mayas, and their science and architecture, but in the North too are abundant evidences of symbolism, art and myth. The Cherokee and the Iroquois were highly sophisticated societies, closer to being nations than tribes, and some of their own chiefs were also cast in a heroic mould. And of them too legends are built.

The viewpoint of 1992 is an imposed one: the writing is in order to discover villains or at least guilty men. It does not arise from the one viewpoint that research in recent decades makes possible: the archaeological. Thus the University of Florida has begun probes on the sites believed to have been visited or founded by Columbus. Recent writing ignores what research at La Isabelita is revealing. Yet this is hardly surprising. Just as American immigration history is dominated by attempts to track down and chronicle the journeys of blacks, just as studies of wars are haunted by recollections of Vietnam, and as American domestic history is seen largely as the stories of minorities, of the impoverished and of the role of women, so Columbus scholarship is made to serve a political cause, to right a wrong. It is perhaps salutary, then, to conclude with a reminder of the great immortals of the chronicles of Columbus, even if they saw him primarily as navigator and explorer, even if they minimised his ill-treatment of the First Americans, even if, in the end for them too, he died dishonoured. But the writers of an earlier age wrote well, and they were themselves heroes.

For the European discoveries, and the view that Columbus was primus inter pares, none of today's pundits rivals S. E. Morison, The European Discovery of America: the Northern Voyages (CUP, London 1971) and his superb Christopher Columbus, The Admiral of the Ocean Sea (OUP, 1942). Italy's leading expert on Columbus, Paolo Taviani, Christopher Columbus, the Grand Design (Orbis, London 1975) finds Columbus unskilful only in his handling of people. Nor is it accidental that Morison built a ship to match the Santa Maria, for the Harvard Columbus Expedition of 1940, sailed over Columbus's route in it, and was an Admiral as well as, and contemporaneously, a Harvard Professor. Taviani fought in the Italian Resistance against Mussolini, and became an Italian Senator. These writers were old-fashioned in style as in viewpoint, themselves heroes looking for heroes. John Lamer is a little unkind in distinguishing among Columbus scholars, between the Yachtsmen or the Intellectuals.

There are a number of studies of Columbus of a generation ago that are worth a note. Thus for its first landing and its locale, see Robert H. Fuson's edition of The Log of Christopher Columbus (Ashford Press, Southampton 1987) and his article in Proceedings of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 8, 1976. For England's role, see D. B. Quinn's voluminous writing England and the Discovery of America (Allen & Unwin, London 1973) and W. P. Cumming, R. A. Skelton and D. B. Quinn, The Discovery of North America (Paul Elek, London 1971); and for sparkling but meticulous surveys of many enterprises, G. V. Scammell, The World Encompassed: the first European maritime empires c.800-1650 (Methuen, London and NY 1981), and D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America (Yale University Press 1986). The savage side of the story is well portrayed in De las Casas, Devastation of the Indies (Seabury Press, NY 1974). Although he respected Columbus's skill as sea-man, Hans Koning, Columbus: His Enterprise (Monthly Review and Press, NY 1976) is a sustained critic of his barbarism towards the Indians. His book has recently been re-issued (Latin American Bureau), with an afterword by a Bolivian |activist' for Indian rights, Domitila Chungara.

The best illustration of the merit of archaeology is not in the Caribbean, nor in the Folsom or Clovis Indian digs, seeking to date the first appearance of the Indians in North America, but in those who preceded Columbus by almost 500 years: the Norsemen. The best brief accounts of the Norse voyages and of the discovery of L'Anse aux Meadows is by the discoverer himself, Helge Ingstad, in his chapters in Ashe (ed) The Quest for America (Pall Mall Press, London 1971) pp96-114 and 175-198. For the fuller story, see Anne Stine Ingstad (vol. 1) and Helge Ingstad (vol. 11) The Norse Discovery of America (Norwegian University Press, Oslo 1985, distributed OUP); and F. Pohl, Atlantic Crossings before Columbus (Norton, NY 1961). Cf. also Helge Ingstad, Westward to Vinland (St. Martin's Press, NY 1969). For a useful summary, see also David B. Quinn, North America from earliest discovery to first settlements, pp21-40 (Harper & Row, NY 1977) and its bibliography, and Scammell op cit 1-37. Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (OUP, London 1968) is valuable background. So is also Eric Wahlgren, The Vikings and America (Thames & Hudson, NY 1986). For the Vinland map, see Helen Wallis et al |The Strange Case of the Vinland Map', Geographical Journal CXL (1974) 183-214. The Norsemen were there 500 years before Columbus, but Newfoundland was bleak and unwelcoming. They did not stay more than three or four years. Was this discovery? So that the First Americans were the Indians, who came millennia before, and by another ocean. Half a millennium after Columbus's first voyage, scholars and authors are still sailing forth in their books seeking to discover the real Columbus. (*) Columbus: His Enterprise by Hans Koning, (Latin America Bureau), The Conquest of Paradise by Kirkpatrick Sale (Curtis), Columbus by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (OUP), Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World by Stephen Greenblatt (Clarendon), Columbus: for Gold, God and Glory by John Dyson (Hodder), In Search of Columbus by Hunter Davies (Sinclair-Stevenson), Stolen Continents, The Indian Story by Ronald Wright (Houghton Mifflin), The Buried Mirror by Carlos Fuentes (Deutsch), Christopher Columbus Master of the Atlantic by David Thomas (Andre Deutsch).

[Esmond Wright is Emeritus Professor of American History in the University of London and one of the founders of American Studies in Britain. He is the author of Washington And The American Revolution and a recent biography of Benjamin Franklin. He was also, from 1967 to 1970, Conservative MP for Glasgow, Pollok.]
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Author:Wright, Esmond
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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