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Rediscovering The Discoverer

June 2024
5min read

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.”

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.

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