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The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia.

Now that it is 1993, the spirit of Columbus can at last rest easy. For journalists, media-people and some Columbus scholars, 1492 was largely devoted to the fashion of political correctness, which, being translated, meant sarcasm and scorn for Columbus, as man and sailor, and falsification -- or at best a very fanciful re-telling -- of his story. Of the dozen books on Columbus and his times that I reviewed in this journal in September last, only Felipe Fernandez-Armesto told his story straight. A Renaissance geographer of 1492 has been judged by the meanness of spirit of our own times, where gimmickry and novelty are paramount. Thus, at a session of the Minnesota Law School Human Rights Center, where a mock trial was held, Columbus was found guilty of murder, torture, slavery, forced labour, kidnapping, violence and robbery. Philip Glass's new opera had its premiere at the New York Metropolitan on Friday, 9th October, with tenor Timothy Noble and mezzo soprano Tatiana Troyanos; it had the Cambridge cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking and a space shuttle crew also in starring roles.

By contrast Franchetti's Cristoforo Colombo, written in 1892 for the 400th anniversary and performed in a number of European cities, was selected after a competition was held in which Guissepe Verdi was one of the panel of judges -- Verdi had declined the invitation to compose it himself, busy as he was with Falstaff. 1892 also saw the holding of the great Colombian Exposition in Chicago, the erection of many monuments, notably in New York and in Philadelphia (mainly by public subscription among Italian-Americans). By contrast 1992's celebrations were marked by ridicule and contempt for the navigator, who was all-but-universally seen as the introducer of terror-economy to the Caribbean, and as the involuntary conveyor to the Americas of malaria, smallpox, and other killer diseases, not to mention colonialism, genocide and destruction of the rain-forest. He took back to Spain in exchange, it seems, only a few Indian captives -- and syphilis.

Happily, one product of 1992 dispels the gloom: this splendidly printed, well illustrated and comprehensive encyclopedia, edited by Silvio Bedini of the Smithsonian Institution. A frequent name on its pages, on Genoese or Columbus family topics, is that distinguished academic and Italian senator Paolo Emilio Taviani. This is the work of some one-hundred contributors and advisory editors, each of whom adds a short bibliography to his essay. Among the contributors one is happy to note at least three British names, Helen Wallis of the British Museum, Oswald Dike, Emeritus of Leeds (and war-time in Intelligence in the Middle East) and David Quinn, Emeritus of Liverpool (and Maryland). The range is staggering: from the study of La Rabida Monastery, which played a major role in sustaining Columbus (and where one of the brothers persuaded Queen Isabella to support his first voyage) to studies of the rival locations for the first landfall. There is no item on Columbus as a theme in opera -- but there is, it seems, everything else. There is a long, fascinating and well-illustrated essay on Columbus Monuments and Memorials by Barbara Groseclose of Ohio State University; and vivid pieces on tides and currents, on weather and wind, ships and crews (for each of Columbus's four voyages), and cannibalism. Angel Alcala of Brooklyn College is to be congratulated on her items on the Jews in Spain and on the Inquisition, Rebecca Catz of Berkeley for her piece on Columbus's goal, Cipangu (Japan). There are six articles (40 pages in all) on one or other aspect of Columbus's biography, a matching number on the American Indians. Among the nuggets, one notes: Columbus and Vespucci were friends rather than rivals; there is no evidence of direct contact between Columbus and Toscanelli; and not least one notes the place of the conversos like the wealthy Santangel family, who served the royal family of Aragon through a number of generations, largely through their mercantile interests in Genoa -- and they too backed Christopher Columbus. This is a rich treasure house of detail, vividness and originality.

There is happily one omission here: but it tells another side of the story. A 1988 federal law and a series of court decisions allow 140 Indian tribes to operate 150 gambling saloons. Their revenue from gambling has grown from $287 million to over $3 billion today. Some tribes are now rich. In Minnesota eleven Indian band earn $120 million in annual profits: they use the money in their reservations for housing, education, sewer-construction and roads. Have we, after all, 501 years on, something to learn from the Indians?
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Author:Wright, Esmond
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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