We neglected Columbus on Columbus Day (other than a discussion of Mayor Bloomberg’s decision not to march in NYC’s parade). Gary Farber points us to a rather grim assessment of Columbus in the New Yorker:
- Columbus was one of history’s great optimists. When he read in Marco Polo that the palace of the Japanese king had floors of gold “two fingers thick,” he accepted it as fact. Cuba, he was convinced, was part of the Malay Peninsula; things of value were more plentiful in the south; and the riches of the Orient – or, barring that, the rewards of Paradise – were always just around the corner. On all of these points, of course, he was wrong, and should have been fatally so, except that he was also fantastically lucky.
Better to be lucky than to be good.
- Columbus made four round-trip voyages from Spain to the New World, each of which was a stunning feat of seamanship. To sail west across the Atlantic, a ship needs to find the easterly trade winds; to sail east it has to find the less consistent westerlies, and can easily end up becalmed. Several times, Columbus almost didn’t make it back. Returning from his First Voyage, he ran into a storm so ferocious that he decided his best hope for posterity was to write up an account of his discoveries, seal it in a barrel, and toss the whole thing overboard. (This manuscript was “found” four centuries later, in a wonderfully clumsy fraud.) But Columbus kept squeaking by and, in keeping with his general view of things, interpreted his good fortune as a sign that he had been singled out by God. In his later years, he assembled a book of Biblical passages showing that his discoveries were a prelude to the Day of Judgment, and took to signing his name with an elaborate Christological cryptogram. By this point, he may or may not have been mad.
So far, what’s not to like?
- Among the few quincentenary projects to reach a satisfactory conclusion is a twelve-volume series called, somewhat portentously, the Repertorium Columbianum. The series, produced by U.C.L.A.’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, features new English translations of the most important documents associated with Columbus’s voyages, including his “Book of Prophecies,” transcripts of his logs, and the earliest accounts of his arrival in the New World. Some forty scholars collaborated on the project, which took fourteen years to complete; this fall, a decade behind schedule, the twelfth volume will finally appear. The series goes a long way toward explaining, if inadvertently, why the quincentenary turned into a fiasco. In his writings, Columbus reveals that the flip side of his optimism was a casual greed and cruelty. He appears to have been dishonest with just about everyone he encountered and, most of all, with himself, as he forever tried to rationalize his idiosyncratic preconceptions. If we are, indeed, always refashioning history to suit our self-image, then what are we to make of the fact that the Columbus who emerges from the Repertorium is evidently a quack?
- In Columbus’s day, most geographers still relied on Ptolemy, who posited that the “known world” stretched a hundred and eighty degrees from east to west; the rest was water. This was a gross overstatement: the real span of what Ptolemy meant by the “known world” – Eurasia and Africa – was only about a hundred and twenty degrees. Still, even Ptolemy’s calculations left far too much ocean to be traversed in an eighty-foot boat. Columbus rejected Ptolemy in favor of Pierre d’Ailly, an early-fifteenth-century French astrologer, who maintained that land extended for two hundred and twenty-five degrees, water for only a hundred and thirty-five. From there, Columbus argued that the travels of Marco Polo proved that China stretched farther east, that Japan was thirty degrees east of China, and that, because he planned to embark from the Canary Islands, he could subtract nine more degrees of water. When all this was not sufficient, he argued that d’Ailly had been too conservative all along.
By now, Columbus had succeeded in shrinking the ocean down to just sixty degrees. Yet still he was not done. In one last, Panglossian twist, he chose to follow not the standard – and roughly accurate – measure of a degree developed by the Greeks but a slightly lower figure, which had been put forward by the ninth-century Arab astronomer Al-Farghani. Conveniently, he also decided that Al-Farghani’s calculations had been done in Roman miles as opposed to nautical miles, which are a fifth longer. On the basis of these and other manipulations, Columbus concluded that the distance from the Canary Islands westward to Japan was less than twenty-seven hundred miles. It was really thirteen thousand miles.
Okay, so he was a bit delusional.
- In 1490, a royal commission officially rejected Columbus’s plan, on the ground that, in the words of las Casas, “his promises and proposals were hollow” and “could not be fulfilled.” Two years later, the proposal was turned down again. Columbus was on his way to France, to try his luck there, when Ferdinand and Isabella, at the urging of one of their privy counsellors, had a change of heart.
Nothing survives to indicate what the Taino made of Columbus when he landed on the island of Guanahani, now called San Salvador, on October 12, 1492. Columbus, for his part, marvelled at the beauty and gentleness of the natives he encountered. In his log he wrote:
- I gave some of them red caps and glass beads that they put around their necks and many other things of little value with which they were very pleased, and they remained so entirely ours that it was a wonder. . . . All of those whom I saw were young men – for I saw no one of an age greater than thirty years – very well made, with very handsome and beautiful bodies and very pleasant features. . . . They do not bear arms, nor do they know them, for I showed them swords, and out of ignorance, they took them by the edge and cut themselves.
Within days, Columbus had come up with a use for these gentle souls: on October 14th, writing in his log again, he addressed himself to Ferdinand and Isabella: “When your highnesses should so command, all of them can be brought to Castile, or be kept captive on their own island, for with fifty men you will keep them all in subjugation and make them do anything you wish.”
The charge of genocide is generally assumed to be a late-twentieth-century indictment of Columbus, but it was first levelled nearly five hundred years ago, by las Casas. Originally a slaveholder himself, las Casas spent a decade in Hispaniola – the island now occupied by Haiti and the Dominican Republic – before undergoing a conversion. He devoted the next fifty years – he lived to be ninety-two – to trying, in vain, to defend the New World’s indigenous peoples. His “History of the Indies” is at once sympathetic to Columbus as an individual and frank about his culpability.
….Columbus’s administration of Hispaniola was recognized, even by his patrons, to be a disaster. On his Third Voyage, confronted with a rebellion among his own men, he instituted a system, later known as encomiendas, under which each Spaniard was granted a large piece of cultivated land and all the natives who lived on it. Evidently still convinced of his own righteousness, Columbus appealed to the King and Queen for a judge to be sent to the island. In response, Ferdinand and Isabella dispatched a knight named Francisco de Bobadilla. He arrived on August 23, 1500, and was greeted by the sight of seven Spaniards dangling from a gallows; Columbus had had them executed for plotting against him. De Bobadilla immediately had Columbus imprisoned and shipped back to Cadiz in chains. It did not take more than two generations for the entire native population of Hispaniola to be essentially wiped out.
Seriously then, he was a brilliant, if deluded, explorer, and a terrible administrator. Can we separate the two roles? Probably not, but we should at least acknowledge them and celebrate the one while condemning the other.