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On one side: Columbus’s defenders, who consider him a mariner of extraordinary skill who brought his men across the Atlantic and discovered the New World, in a single blow broadening mankind’s vision of itself as it had never before been broadened. This spirit of discovery ushered in a new age of exploration and discovery in other fields, such as science, medicine and agriculture. On the fabled ships Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, he took four voyages that altered forever the face of the world. His admirers see in Columbus a man akin in spirit and achievement to his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci.

On the other side: the debunkers, who consider Columbus guilty of a host of crimes, from a callous and wasteful attitude toward the world and environment he encountered to slavery or outright genocide in the wholesale slaughter of the Indians he and his colleagues met. This is Columbus as a cross between baby-seal poacher and Adolf Eichmann.

At times, it comes down to a battle of words. His admirers like to speak of his “discovery” of America and a 500th anniversary “celebration.” His detractors prefer to call his 1492 landing an “encounter” or the more harsh “invasion.” Far from wanting a celebration, the milder bashers say they might tolerate a “commemoration” of the event.

The more extreme join the National Council of Churches, one of the most ardent debunkers, in calling for a year of prayer and lamentation over the many wrongs wrought by the white man in the Americas from the moment he set foot there, and which continue today, the debunkers say. . .

In his book The Conquest of Paradise Columbus-basher par excellence Kirkpatrick Sale indicts the admiral (and his successors) for introducing into the New World societies that ate red meat and for tolerating the growth of tobacco as a cash crop. Sale calls him guilty of “ecohubris.” Against the standards of the politically correct, Columbus doesn’t stand a chance.

Above all, the debunkers want to alter the picture they say elementary and high school texts present of Columbus as a man to admire and emulate. Indeed, they want to change everyone’s view of the man. As John Grim, a religion professor at Bucknell University and a moderate in the debate, says, “The ever-changing image of Columbus is an act of ongoing identity” on the part of Americans. In other words, what Americans feel about Columbus mirrors what they feel about themselves.

The traditionalists like the picture of the admiral as an ardent individualist and man of action, the prototype of the typical American achiever.

The revisionists want to portray nothing but a greedy, ambitious man, the destroyer of most of the good he came into contact with. Their image of Columbus is combined with a picture of Indians as ecologically wise, pacific and cooperatively communal, everything their Columbus was not.

The Columbus-bashers do have much to back them up. There can be no doubt, for example, that Columbus denied the pension he promised the sailor who first spotted land on the initial voyage and kept it for himself. As governor of the territories he discovered in the New World, he allowed, if not outright ordered, his men to slaughter Indians and did not bother to punish the many sailors guilty of rape and pillage.

He was a whiner of immense proportions, filling pages of correspondence to his sponsors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, with complaints that he wasn’t being treated fairly and that no one appreciated him. His temper was so phenomenal that associates learned to steer clear of him.

But is it fair to condemn Columbus, a 15th century man, by the standards of this century? Is it necessary that great men be nice men? The traditionalists think not. “How can we expect Columbus to step out of his times?” asks Michael Gannon., professor of history at the University of Florida and director of the Institute for Early Contact Period Studies.

A fair and complete estimate, says Gannon, would show that Columbus “was cruel to the Indian and that he was cruel and harsh with his own men. These were the principles of law and government practice that prevailed. No matter how much we want our great men to overcome the flaws of their era, they don’t.”

The traditionalists, too, doubt that anything is gained by cindering the whole man because of a few shortcomings. “What about his achievements? Is it to be forgotten?” asks James Axtell, professor of humanities at the College of William and Mary and chairman of the American Historical Association’s committee on the quincentenary.

Here was a man, says Axtell, “with a lot of stubbornness and a lot of imagination.” Columbus stood firm, he adds, “in the face of scholarly expertise—the learned men who advised his sponsors . . . that the trip couldn’t be made—and royal and bureaucratic opposition. He launches a personal crusade to find the East by going west. And he succeeds. [Columbus] was flawed, but he was also extraordinary.”

Admirers of Columbus also reject the charge of genocide. Spanish brutality is not denied; how could it be? The conquistadors and the Europeans who came after them were a bloody, violent lot. But the vast majority of Indians died of European diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis, to which they had no resistance. As more than one scholar has noted, the Europeans did not pick and choose the viruses and germs they brought with them . . .

--from “Debunking Columbus” by Stephen Goode.



Insight on the News. October 21, 1991.

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