Rediscovering The Discoverer

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Columbus Day, 1992, is finally here, amid the explosive echoes of the long debate over whether it should be celebrated at all, and if so, how. It has been my pleasure to stay more or less above the battle. Actually, Columbus has never been a special hero to me, possibly in reaction to having some terrible glorifying verses by Joaquin Miller forced down my schoolboy throat. “Sail on!” was their chief refrain; “sail on and on!” And so they did, for a seeming eternity. We really don’t know much about Columbus except that he was a skilled sailor, brave or bullheaded enough to test in person the theory that you could reach the East by sailing west. But the idea of a round earth didn’t originate with him, and he grotesquely underestimated its size. He was also vainglorious, greedy, fanatical, and cruel. See the excellent roundup of a year ago in these pages ("Everything You Need to Know about Columbus,” October 1991).

On the other hand, I’m not ready to blame him for opening the door to every last act of exploitation and violence committed in the Western Hemisphere for the last five hundred years. That assumes that the peoples he encountered were innocents in paradise and would have remained so without intervention. It also exaggerates CoIumbus’s individual importance by loading him with the responsibility for the whole course of history since. Which is exactly, simplistically what his canonizers did at the last Columbus centennial celebration in 1892. What they had to say about him shows more about their self-centered and optimistic reading of the past (in contrast with ours) than it does about the shadowy Columbus who emerges from a very incomplete documentary record.

To illustrate the point, I went back to sample some popular magazine articles of the 1890s on the subject. I have to confess that the exercise enlarged my sympathy for the anti-Columbus school of thought by showing me what its members are reacting against. The four hundredth anniversary celebrations teemed with imperial and racially arrogant assumptions, and you don’t have to be very liberal to find them outrageous. Yet along with them came some general notions about the connections between individualism, free inquiry, and human betterment, and these may not be so easily dismissible as “Eurocentric” chest thumping.

 

Writers who rhapsodized about Columbus were naturally in the majority. They believed that his voyage was a preordained step, a milepost on the road along which Christianity and civilization were steadily marching together to envelop the world. Roman Catholic Christians took special pleasure in reminding readers that both the Admiral of the Ocean Sea (the title Columbus requested) and his royal Spanish sponsors saw themselves as apostles of Rome. Maurice F. Egan wrote: “O Faith incarnate, lit by Hope’s strong flame/And led by Faith’s own cross to dare all ill....thy pure and glorious name/Is one clear trumpet-call to Faith and Will.” Another writer in the same magazine said of the great event: “This is not the case of an idea ruling the world; it is that of an idea—the idea of one man—calling a world into existence.” But the author slightly tempered his tribute to blind faith with an appropriate latenineteenth-century bow to science. “Columbus,” he informed readers, “was an enthusiast, yet no mystic, but a practical man of science, such as science was in his day.”

The basic theme was that mystic or scientist, one man with a vision could single-handedly change the course of human events. As Horatio Perry, in the New England Magazine, explained, Columbus was a loner who “laid himself open to the bitterest criticism of a brutal age” by contesting the “huge dragon cloud of superstition which then brooded over and covered the ‘Dark Sea.’” He was “a man of science capable and accustomed to live a higher life than that...of the fifteenth century.” The word higher is the key, because to the opinion makers of 1892, the direction of history was inescapably upward. As they saw it, the Dark Ages of ignorance and brutality had given way to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (all these terms were considered purely descriptive) followed by the Age of Liberty and Science. The “discovery” of the Americas was the pivot point.

No one put it better than the celebrated orator Chauncey M. Depew at the dedicatory exercises of the great Chicago Columbian Exposition, proudly reported in a forerunner of American Heritage called The Magazine of American History. According to Depew, ancient history was a “dreary record” of unstable, despotic civilizations. The only bright spot was the birth of Christ, but the “revolutionary influence” of Christianity took centuries to develop. “Columbus carried it westward across the seas,” Depew explained. From there it was a straight course to the Declaration of Independence. Therefore, “All hail, Columbus....Unnumbered millions...who enjoy in their liberties and their happiness the fruits of his faith, will reverently guard and preserve, from century to century, his name and fame.”