Rediscovering The Discoverer

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The happy millions were supposed to include the non-Europeans according to a symposium, “Four Hundred Years of America,” conducted in The Independent for June 2, 1892. Bishop Benjamin Tanner, a black cleric, asked rhetorically if the “discovery” of America had been helpful or hurtful for “the Negro” and answered unequivocally that it was “vastly to his profit” all in all. “Not without suffering,” the bishop admitted, yet thanks to Columbus, “we are linked to the first race of the earth....Its language, its literature, its spirit are ours.” Thanks likewise to their “enforced transportation” here, African-Americans also enjoyed the uniquely white institution of constitutional government and the blessings of a Christianity that “brings to us the open Bible”—that is, Protestantism.

No Native American took part in the symposium, but Gen. Thomas J. Morgan, the commissioner of Indian affairs, concluded on behalf of his charges that they ought to be grateful. Their ancestors of 1492 had lived in a stage of “arrested development,” belonging to a “fast vanishing condition of things.” The Indians of the 1890s, some of whom would be on display at the exposition, had, to be sure, lost their hunting lands and distinctive identity. But in exchange they were being taught agriculture and the other arts of “the civilization of the nineteenth century, its culture, its civil and religious life, its opportunities for happiness and usefulness.” They had every reason to “thank the great Father above who guided to our shores the frail bark of the bold navigator.”

There were some dissenting voices in the chorus, though their motives might not always meet with the approval of today’s anti-Columbus skeptics. A writer in Harper’s Weekly grumbled at the elaborate celebration of the anniversary staged by New York City. His objection was that the “local patriotic traditions” of the city were swallowed up in a “flood of foreign sentiment” that saw Columbus as the man who founded the great American haven for immigrants.

The Harvard librarian and historian Justin Winsor offered, in the Magazine of American History, a “critical and common sense view” of Columbus that anticipated modern charges of genocide. “Shall Columbus escape the blood-guiltiness,” he asked, “of destroying a million and a half of his fellow men in Española, a million in Cuba, half a million in Jamaica, a hundred thousand in the Bahamas?” Winsor thought he should not, but laid the fundamental blame on Columbus’s Mediterranean blood. “Cruel and merciless, indeed, the Latin races have always been....The worst of the race seemed to have sailed under Columbus.”

In 1892 Columbus’s voyage was seen as no less than a preordained milepost in the march of Christianity and civilization together.

An Italian criminologist named Cesare Lombroso, whose claim to fame was the identification of various physical traits by which crime-prone individuals allegedly could be distinguished, speculated in The Forum, several years after the quadricentennial, on the question “Was Columbus Morally Irresponsible?” He decided that the lies, cruelty, and egotism of Columbus were a sign of “paranoea,” as he spelled it. But Columbus was no “vulgar paranoeic.” He was something of a genius, and his mental illness blinded him to the obstacles in the way of realizing his fantasy. Therefore, it “dowered him with that energy of action which a man of equal and perhaps even greater genius” (but no paranoia) “...would not have had,” and so made his exploits possible.

As the old joke goes, with friends like Lombroso, Columbus needed no enemies. I conclude my investigation without joining either camp.

I might add, however, that I came across two references to Columbian activities in 1792. Philip Freneau, styled “the poet of the [American] Revolution,” wrote some satiric verses embodying the idea that after all, “discovering” America was no great shakes since it was impossible to sail westward from Spain without bumping into it. “These islands and worlds in the watery expanse,” rhymed Freneau, “like most mighty things, were the offspring of chance;/Since steering for Asia, Columbus, they say,/Was astonished to find such a world in his way!”

More respectful treatment was accorded to Columbus in Baltimore. There the resident French consul, who had served alongside the Americans at Yorktown, had a fifty-foot-high obelisk of brick erected on his property to honor the “benefactor of the ages,” the first such monument to Columbus in the United States. By 1892 it had been cemented over, to preserve it, by the trustees of a private school that had taken over the site. In 1935, according to the WPA guide to Maryland, it was still standing at what was then North Avenue and Bond Street. But when I called the Maryland Historical Society to ask about its present condition, I was told that a housing project now occupies the spot, and no one knows what became of the memorial. So it goes.