Some Thoughts on Columbus Day

Public education may be crumbling in many of our cities, but if American schoolchildren are still taught history at all, they probably do know that on this day, five hundred and seventeen years ago, Christopher Columbus (they will not know that this Hispanicized Genoese sailor, born Christoffa Corombo, knew himself as Cristóbal Colón) made landfall in the Western hemisphere. He promptly set about the task of bringing the gifts of Spanish law, religion, language and culture to the new realm he claimed in the name of the Spanish sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella. To put it another way, he began the enslavement and brutal exploitation of the indigenous Taino people. This, combined with new European diseases, led eventually to their complete disappearance from the earth, along with many other peoples of the New World.

Stop. Before we get to those treacherous terms "civilization" and "genocide," let's learn something else about Señor Colón and his world.

Everyone knows that the men on the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María first saw the sun rise over Hispaniola (now the island that contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in the year 1492. Some of us will also recall that that was an important year for several other reasons: After a 700-year struggle, the Catholic Ibero-Celts of the various nascent Spanish kingdoms pushed the Muslim Moors back to Africa, ending a period in which, at certain times and places, Christians, Muslims and Jews had worked together to build a unique and beautiful polity; although this hybrid civilization was always under threat from the forces of Christian and Islamic reaction. Indeed, at other times and places during this period, the reactionaries won out. There were many kingdoms in the fragmented peninsula, with many different ideas about culture and heresy (I recommend Rosa María Menocal's wonderful book, The Ornament of the World, if you want to learn more about this remarkable episode in history and how it has shaped our modern world.)

Ferdinand and Isabella, surveying their newly united realms of Aragon and Castile (Isabella's inheritance, Castile, was the important one) decided that they would rule Catholic lands as Catholic monarchs. Jews and Muslims had three choices: Conversion, exile, or death.

What very few of us will know is that the day that Colón departed the Spanish port of Palos -- August 3, 1492 -- was the deadline for the Jews to leave Spain. And this was no coincidence. Columbus was waiting for the Jews to settle their affairs, because he needed a few of them on his voyage. Arabic was the lingua franca of educated Iberians, and Colón naturally assumed that it would be so in India, a land of enormous riches and sophistication. Jews in Moorish Spain had formed a sort of professional caste of translators of Arabic. Colón wanted Jewish translaters with him in India, so that he could talk to the natives.

My point is that it was a different world. People did not think as we do now.

We can praise or condemn Colón all we want, and certainly he was a brutal man, blinded to the natural world by greed, a sadistic and tyrannical Viceroy; his measures were too much even for the Spanish monarchs, who did not have weak stomachs, and after three voyages his governorship of the Spanish territories ended with his arrest and return to Spain in chains (the monarchs eventually forgave him and funded a fourth voyage, but he was never again their representative in the West Indies.) There's no better revisionist history of Columbus than Kirkpatrick Sale's Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise, in spite of Sale's recapitulation of largely discredited romances of American Indians as peaceful environmentalists.

There is a danger in simple narratives. When I taught junior high school in Oakland, California, a school district in which parents with the means to do so sent their children elsewhere for education (which is to say, there were no white kids), I would begin my Columbus Day lesson by saying that Columbus was a very important figure in history.

"NO! He was a bad man! This is white peoples' history! We don't think much of Columbus."

I told them that "important" did not necessarily mean "good." It was a useful introduction to the study of history, and how historians think about these words. I told them about those three ships -- we imagine huge floating fortresses, but Columbus' ships were shockingly tiny for an open ocean crossing, two small caravels and the flagship Santa María, a carrack -- making their way out of Palos that morning, on a voyage longer and more dangerous than a modern trip to the moon. The crew imagining that they were going to trade with Arabic-speaking Indians in India. The enormous, world-changing consequences still ahead of them.

My students were intrigued. But what they could not -- absolutely could not -- get their minds around was the idea that Columbus could be a slaver, an imperialist, a violent missionary, a bad man -- and also be a great explorer, a man of enormous achievements and importance.

But this is how history works. It's not comfortable or nice. That's what we're stuck with when we try to judge Columbus; and by inference, put the moral burdens of the changes he set in motion all on him, the burdens we still live with, to some extent, today. I'm not sure that it means anything worthwhile to cast Columbus as hero or villain. I'd like to think that, regardless of anything Columbus did, we have in the meantime learned at least something about curbing our darkest impulses, taken the lessons of conquest and death, Manifest Destiny, the Middle Passage, slavery and imperialism to heart.

What we do with those lessons will not be affected by Columbus' place in history, whatever we think that may be.