Printer Friendly

The legacy of Columbus.

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AFTER THAT FAMOUS AND INFAMOUS LANDFALL OF 1492, we find ourselves in a fight -- a fight to establish the truth about our past, finally; it is a fight about how we teach our history to our children. Four hundred and fifty years ago, in 1542, Bartolome de Las Casas published his Very Short Account of the Devastation of the Indies. De Las Casas was no rebel but a rather solid Establishment man. A bishop in Mexico and an early admirer of Columbus, he had "seen the light" in 1515 during the Spanish conquest and pacification of Cuba, which in cruelty even surpassed the subjugation of Hispaniola by Columbus and his two brothers during their rule of that unhappy island (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, from 1493 till 1500).

De Las Casas put that "very short" (brevisima) in his title in the hope that it would entice his King to read the account, but if the King did, it was already too late for the Caribbean, the "Early Spanish Main." Those islands of the West Indies, perhaps no paradise, but surely blessed in nature and climate and with a peaceful population, had by then been turned into empty wastelands: "In Hispaniola alone, more than a million of your vassals have been destroyed," a Dominican priest, Pedro de Cordoba, wrote the King as early as 1518, "by common consent there will be none left in four to five years." De Las Casas himself had started his account with these words:

Hispaniola was the first land in the New World to be destroyed and

depopulated by the Christians.... Into this sheepfold came Spaniards

who immediately behaved like ravening and famished wild

beasts ... with the strangest and most varied methods of cruelty, never

seen or heard of before.... I have not described the thousandth part of

what the Indians endured. God is my witness.

He writes of men, women, and children burned alive over slow fires of green wood, and in rows of 13 "in honor of our Redeemer and his twelve Apostles." He describes the butcher shops where flesh of dead Indians was sold for dog food, because it was considered good military policy by the Spaniards to give their dogs a taste for Indian flesh. He describes the system for collecting gold that Columbus set into motion when the "mountains of gold" he had promised his King and Queen were not to be found: all Indians over 14 years of age were set to collect alluvial gold dust from the streams of Hispaniola. Every three months they had to bring a quota to a Spanish fort where they got a copper token to hang around their necks. Indians caught without such a token had their hands cut off. In Haiti, I have seen the old prints illustrating this: you see them tumble away, looking with surprise at their air stumps pumping out their life's blood. Indians who fled into the mountains were chased (hunted is the proper word) with those man-eating dogs. After two years of this, even Columbus himself had to admit there was no more gold; he then tried to deliver the promised wealth by shipping Indians as slaves to Spain. They died too quickly to promise good business and then, lastly, he switched to the encomienda system: the land was divided up among his followers and the Indians who still remained became slaves of the new owners. The latter could also rent them out to do forced labor anywhere else, under circumstances where their life expectancy was rated as "about three months."

In all his many letters, apologias, and petitions to the Spanish court, Columbus continued to his dying day with announcements that he was just about to reach "King Solomon's Treasures," that he was indeed in Asia, no matter what his detractors said, that he was surrounded by ungrateful Spaniards and savages, and that he alone knew the way to those treasures as well as "to the Earthly Paradise" that he had found. In all those writings there is very much talk about gold and not one word of regret, let alone of remorse, about those "gentle and shy people" (to quote his first letter of 1492) whom he had destroyed. Although that first letter was the one and only one in which he wrote about the native population not as "piezas," pieces to be sold and used, but as people, you will find it quoted now by what I can only call "the Columbus lobby." Various scholars, institutions, groups, and individuals have in the last year or so taken it upon themselves to defend the indefensible, to try to obfuscate the historical truths about 1492 as they attempt to find a place in our mass media. We are told that no one knows precisely what happened in those early years of the Spanish Conquest. This is total fantasy. The huge "Library of the Indies" in Spain has literally millions of manuscripts and books, and the tale they tell is basically the selfsame as in de Las Casas' little book. The Columbus lobby tells us that de Las Casas' book has been exaggerated and used for anti-Spanish propaganda by Protestant England and Holland of the time, and that the illustrations were drawn by Dutch artists who had never been there. This is the so-called Black Legend. Yet the harsh truth is that de Las Casas describes what happened in painstaking detail, quoting dates and witnesses -- nothing in his report has been questioned except for his estimate of the total number of Taino or Arawak Indians who were there and who were exterminated. Presumably they were fewer than the 10 millions or so he guessed at, but if that is relevant, we get into the company of those neo-Nazis who tell us the Germans did not kill six million Jews and Gypsies, but rather only four or three million. As for the Dutch and Flemish illustrators: indeed, they had not been on the spot, and if they had, they would have been garotted by the Spaniards, as they garotted all Protestant sailors during the next two centuries who ventured in that part of the world given to them by the Pope. But de Las Casas draws a precise picture of those burnings and hangings and that is what the artists drew -- it is difficult to see where "exaggeration" could enter into it.

I have met Italian-Americans who explained to me that Columbus was their childhood hero, the only name they could use as a shield when they were the victims of discrimination, and it is not difficult to understand the emotions involved when he is toppled off his pedestal. I have had calls from teachers asking me to provide them with some real Italian heroes to talk about, so as to placate the hostility of Italian-American parents. (I mentioned da Vinci and Dante, Bruno, Garibaldi, and Gramsci. Gramsci didn't go over so well with those who knew who he was.) The publisher of my Columbus biography has sent out a letter of mine in which I asked, pleaded, for them to abandon this false hero and, indeed, the many false heroes in our history.

Yet the Columbus lobby has enough well-known, not to mention "respectable," outlets (for instance the Smithsonian Institution) to enable our New York Times to ask for a rounded picture of the man, and not one all in black. Well, I admit that Columbus was obsessively devoted to the idea that he could reach Asia by sailing west. He was wrong, and he only believed this because he thought the earth was much smaller than it is, but he was saved by the fact that there is something, indeed an entire hemisphere, between Cadiz, Spain, and Japan. He surely showed courage in steering out into the unknown, not because everyone then thought that the world was flat -- no educated person in the late-15th century thought that -- but because the prevailing winds were from the west, and his crew thought they'd never get back. His astronomical observations were terrible, his geometry a mixture of superstitions, with bits from Aristotle and the Old Testament plus some more recent observations thrown in, but he had a great flair for guessing winds and currents. Apart from those traits, there is nothing further to be found to please the editors of the New York Times; he was almost incomprehensibly cruel, both in small matters and in large ones, and starting out on the "bloody path of the Conquest" (as de Las Casas wrote), he set the stage for a century of insane obsession with gold before which all other considerations were abandoned. He was a man of his time, but that time at its very worst. As long as one street or square in this country is named after him, we share in this shame.

People have an astounding talent for putting up walls within their own minds. Even those scholars who describe all the horror, proceed, in the next paragraph, so to speak, to describe Columbus as a hero for all time. Moreover, it is fairly simple to guess why it has been so difficult for us to admit the truth both to our children and to ourselves. It is only a step from Columbus and his man-eating dogs to that governor in New England who offered a 40[pounds] reward for any adult Indian scalp and $20 for any scalp of an Indian child. When we cope with the Conquest, we cannot avoid coping with the history of these United States. Yet now, in 1992, it is high time to do just that, it is high time to overcome the Columbus legacy. Only thus can we overcome that ultimately suicidal notion that we are "God's Chosen People." Only thus can we look forward to a future of conciliation of people, races, and tribes in this land.

Hans Koning (500 Ellsworth Avenue, New Haven, CT 06511) is a novelist and author of five nonfiction works, including Columbus: His Enterprise (New York: Monthly Review Press). He has been prominent in activities to expose the Columbus myth and the official Quincentennial.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Crime and Social Justice Associates
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Christopher Columbus
Author:Koning, Hans
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Jun 22, 1992
Previous Article:Re-visioning native America: an indigenist view of primitivism and industrialism.
Next Article:Deconstructing th Columbus myth: was the "great discoverer" Italian or Spanish, Nazi or Jew?

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters