Profile: Christopher Columbus: A good thing, even: Harvey Morris berates those who lay all the ills of the West at one man's feet

Click to follow
HALF a millennium ago tomorrow, the flagship Santa Maria, commanded by Captain-General Christopher Columbus, and with the caravels Pinta and Nina in her wake, made landfall at the island of San Salvador, 30 degrees west of the outer limits of the charted globe. Europe had discovered America and the course of world history was irrevocably changed.

And how is the late 20th century marking the quincentennial of the Great Navigator's supreme achievement? With books, films, postage stamps, certainly, but also with - perhaps the dominant intellectual note - mean-spirited attacks on a Renaissance genius for allegedly infecting a lost Eden with all the evils of Western civilisation. Rather than being judged as a pioneer who expanded the horizons of a narrow medieval world, Columbus has been singled out to personify all that 20th-century Western man hates about himself - avarice, cruelty, racism and moral despair.

To defend Columbus, or, worse still, to point to positive aspects of the expansion of Europe, has become the intellectual equivalent of fox-hunting. Right-thinking people, seemingly unfettered by any sense of history, ignore the realities of 1492 and judge the admiral by the political formulae of 1992.

Thus, the Minnesota Law School's Human Rights Center recently found Columbus guilty, at a mock trial, of murder, torture, slavery, forced labour, kidnapping, violence and robbery. Without Columbus's discovery we would have been spared these pious judgements. But consider what else the world would have lost if he had not set sail on 3 August 1492 from the Spanish port of Palos and into the unknown - the tomato, the Bill of Rights, Marilyn Monroe, tobacco, the opera house at Manaus, Thornton Wilder's The Bridge at San Luis Rey, Chicago blues, the telephone, the aeroplane . . . An absurd argument, is it not? But no more so than the myth perpetrated by the anti-Columbus lobby that the Admiral of the Ocean Sea was somehow personally responsible for all the ills that followed his discoveries - colonialism, genocide, pollution, destruction of the rainforest, cocaine barons . . . .

Christopher Columbus was a man of his time, caught on the cusp of the medieval and the modern worlds. He was persistent, arrogant, greedy, easy to offend; he took undue pride in hollow titles and undue care to hide his humble origins as the son of a Genoese weaver; his deeds failed to match his stated intentions, which were to carry Christianity and civilisation to the lands he discovered; he was the representative of an expanding and inquisitive European culture, pressed by Islam in the east and with little option but to break out of its Mediterranean bounds. But neither the contradictions of Columbus's character nor the political and social realities of 15th-

century Europe appear to appease those who insist on condemning him by the standards of today.

One could forgive them their ignorance if it were not for their small- mindedness. Consider this, from a 'media pack'(]) entitled 'The Real Columbus', published this month by the triumvirate of Anti-Slavery International, the Latin-American Bureau and Christian Aid. In a Sun- style 'did you know?' column, the ASI-LAB-CA informs us that the real Columbus:

was not the first to arrive in the Americas but was preceded by the Vikings and 15th- century Bristol fishermen;

brought along a translator who spoke Arabic and Hebrew to speak to the 'Asians';

still believed that he had found Asia, even after four voyages of exploration - which explains why Latin America's indigenous people are called, inaccurately, 'Indians';

launched a conquest in which 90 million indigenous people in the Americas died in the ensuing 100 years;

fed his dogs on the bodies of murdered Indians and ordered that the hands be cut off all Indians on the island of Hispaniola who could not deliver sufficient gold.

Let us examine this step by step.

Whether or not the Vikings set foot on American soil (and most of the evidence is based on discredited documents) is beside the point; in any event, they failed to 'discover' America in the sense of revealing the existence of the New World to their own society. Ironically enough for the authors of 'The Real Columbus', this 'Viking' theory was dear to the hearts of post- war ultra-rightists in Latin America who sought to prove that the relatively advanced Indian civilisations of pre-

Columbian America could only have evolved as a result of direct intervention by white men from the east.

The 'translator' referred to is, presumably, Luis de Torres, the Christianised Jew who spoke not only Arabic and Hebrew but also Aramaic. Columbus, who had no more knowledge than his fellows of the existence of America, wisely took the precaution of taking with him an interpreter who spoke Arabic, the presumed lingua franca of the eastern kingdoms which he believed would be his final destination. That he went to his death still believing that he had found the western route to Asia is less significant than that he had the courage and enterprise to make four voyages across an unknown ocean in wooden sailing ships more suited to the well-charted waters of the Mediterranean. The clever clogs who compiled this would-be dossier of shame, without even having to prove their ability to cross the Serpentine in a rowing boat, nevertheless seek to minimise the technical achievements of the most intrepid navigator of the late medieval age for the purpose of reinforcing their argument that he was, in their nave view of history, 'a bad thing'.

The final two points in their list bring us to the numbers racket and the Black Legend. Estimates of the indigenous population of the Americas in 1492 range from something under 10 million to 100 million. The fact that many fell victim to slavery, brutality and the unintentional importation of European diseases and that their descendants continue to suffer second- class status in the Spanish, Portuguese and English-speaking Americas is beyond dispute. But to ascribe genocidal motives to Columbus is, to say the least, far-fetched.

An imperfect man in an imperfect world, Columbus set sail with good intentions and became seduced by fame, power and gold. Historical reductionists, however, refuse to accept any nuances in the character or context of Columbus's life and fall back on the cliche of comparing him to Hitler and the Nazis. This line of argument reaches its nadir in the work of Hans Koning. Concluding a diatribe against the admiral as 'a typical man of the (white) West', Mr Koning opines that at least the Nazis 'did the subject races of this world a favour. The great white-race civil war which we call World War II weakened Europe and broke its grip on Asia and Africa.'

The author of this remarkable statement is nevertheless forced to acknowledge that cruelty is not the preserve of a single race. 'I am not ignoring the cruelties of other races,' he writes. 'They were usually less hypocritical, though . . . What sets the West apart is its persistence, its capacity to stop at nothing. No other race or religion or nonreligion ever quite matched the Christian West in that respect.'

This argument may have its virtues but it fits uncomfortably with the concept of the Spanish colonial enterprise that followed Columbus's discoveries. Although Columbus claimed the new lands in the name of his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, he had little idea of what to do with them. It was left to others in Spain to philosophise about the nature of the country's role in the Indies. This gave rise to a great debate centring on concepts of natural justice, the shared humanity of races and the iniquity of slavery. Laws were passed guaranteeing the rights of the indigenous peoples; the tragedy was that they were flouted by the opportunists and freebooters who were brave or desperate enough to make the ocean crossing.

The contemporary colonist-turned- priest Bartolome de Las Casas castigated his fellow countrymen for failing to live up to Spain's pious intentions and his works found an eager readership in England, France and Flanders, where rival young imperialisms sought to blacken the name of Spain. But Las Casas did not seek to put the blame on Columbus for what he described as the destruction of the Indies; on the contrary, his biography of Columbus depicts the admiral as God's chosen instrument in the propagation of the gospel to the heathen.

But then, Las Casas also was a man of his era. He shared the values of an age - so unlike our own - of discovery, expansion, enquiry, moral debate and - perhaps most unacceptable of all to late-20th-century Western man - of optimism. Western society has become inward-looking rather than outward-going; consider the relative indifference with which we look back upon the first landing on the moon, arguably the most significant event of the millennium.

It may be that the true reason why Columbus is so deeply unfashionable is not for the iniquities that followed his discoveries but for the fact that he was an explorer. The explorer is no longer a hero in our apologetic age. Who now heeds the words of T S Eliot?:

We shall not cease from


And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first