holidays — October 14, 2013

Sailing Into the Fog of History

by Bob Williams

Columbus Day

As a real Baby Boomer who started his public school career in the early 1950s, I can tell you that our education on the circumstances surrounding Christopher Columbus’ alleged discovery of America was somewhat lacking in detail.

“Columbus discovered America. Next question?”

Now, of course, we know history is often much more complicated than that.

Some historians assert that Columbus was cruel to the native peoples he came in contact with and shouldn’t be honored with a holiday, especially since he never stepped foot on the North American mainland. Others stick to the Hollywood version of history and claim Chris was the benevolent discoverer who “turned on the lights” everywhere he went, bringing civilization and prosperity every time he planted the Spanish flag.

The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle.

Now, right up front, I’ll tell you that I am no crack historian of the Age of Discovery. But we can learn some important lessons of history without getting bogged down in the details. You can understand the main lessons of the Civil War, for example, without knowing the color of Robert E. Lee’s suspenders.

So what do we know?

No More Mr. Nice Guy

To have an idea what we should think about Columbus, we need to think about when he lived. In the 1400s, discovery of new territory was a business. The more land you found, the more gold you got. That was a pretty simple equation. So Christopher Columbus promised King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain that he could find land where none was thought to exist – by sailing dead west from Europe.

Columbus didn’t plan on landing on a new continent; he thought he’d run into Asia. He had the right technique, but the wrong conclusion. His entire life, Chris thought he had discovered the Indies (then considered part of the Asian continent), calling the native people “Indios,” which became our “Indians.”

His first voyage – the famous one in 1492 – took him to Cuba and its next-door neighbor, Hispaniola. It was during this voyage with the ships Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, that we see a glimpse of the not-so-noble Christopher Columbus.

Ferdinand and Isabella had promised a lifetime pension to the first person to sight land in the New World. A lookout on the Pinta spotted land (part of the Bahamas) in the early morning of Oct. 12, 1492. But Columbus later maintained that he himself had already seen a light on the land a few hours earlier, and claimed the pension for himself.

Columbus made a second voyage in the following year, basically retracing his steps and attempting to establish colonies in the new lands. It was during this voyage that allegations of torture crop up against Columbus when dealing with Indians.

A third voyage in 1498 took Columbus to Trinidad and the coast of South America.

Bad Management

Some criticism of Columbus could be explained away with “that’s the way it was done back then.” And that’s partially true. There was no leadership by committee in 1492. Nobody was looking out for the best interest of the Indians. That is, until 1500.

You see, Spain’s contract with Columbus named him Governor of all the lands he discovered. So beginning in 1492, Columbus would order the natives in various places he’d landed to deliver up gold or anything else he deemed of value. Refusal was met with considerable violence. Recently discovered reports to Ferdinand and Isabella say Columbus regularly used torture to govern Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic). Spanish historian Consuelo Varela puts it this way, “Columbus’ government was characterized by tyranny. Even those who loved Columbus had to admit the atrocities that had taken place.”

Under Columbus and subsequent governors, Hispaniola natives were enslaved and forced to work on farms and in mines. One report from that time estimates that a third of the male slaves died during each six- to eight-month mining operation. Indian child mortality skyrocketed because their mothers weren’t well enough to feed them. The native population was decimated over a decade.

The King and Queen had had enough. In 1500 they appointed another governor for Hispaniola, and ordered Columbus shipped back to Spain – in chains. Christopher Columbus was accompanied by his two brothers, Bartolome’ and Diego, who also had been arrested.

Columbus and his brothers were able to talk their way back to freedom, but they were done as governors. He made a fourth and final voyage, to Central America, in 1502, before retiring and eventually dying in 1506, at age 54.

The Big Picture

Now we get a more complete view of Christopher Columbus, the man. He was an outstanding sailor – and a lousy governor. A cutting-edge explorer for his time, Columbus resorted to brutality and torture when dealing with the natives he found. The man who was named Admiral of the Ocean Sea by the King and Queen of Spain sued them in his later years for 10 percent of all the profits made in the new lands (he lost).

So this Columbus Day, let us celebrate the genius and incredible seafaring skills of a very human hero. And let us also learn the lessons of his character. While we pledge to repeat his successes, let us swear to never again commit his failures.

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