Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus Daze - Part 1

What you think about Christopher Columbus says a lot about your heritage.
  • If you're a Native American, a Caribbean native, or a native of Central or South America, you probably consider Columbus to be a barbaric marauder who introduced previously unknown diseases to the Western Hemisphere and pillaged its natural resources.
  • If you're a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant, you probably consider Columbus to be the great explorer who discovered the New World.
  • If you're a super-conservative church-going WASP, you may consider Columbus to be God's gift to western civilization.
  • If you're a liberal Ivy Leaguer, you probably consider Columbus to be the seminal cause of every problem western civilization has known since 1492.
  • If you're Spanish or Italian, you probably gush with pride over the accomplishments this intelligent, long suffering, single-minded, and quintessentially charismatic man managed to achieve when everybody else thought the world was flat.

Sailing the Ocean Blue

Well, like most characters of history whose legacy has grown larger than life over the intervening centuries, Columbus really was a little of everything.

Except the first person to say the world wasn't flat. Greeks had been claiming the Earth is spherical since the Third Century BC. And Columbus's four voyages didn't necessarily prove the Earth is round, either. Ferdinand Magellan did that in 1521.

But Columbus did indeed achieve a stunning global feat with his exploits in search of a new spice route to Asia. He persuaded Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to bankroll his excursions and let him share in the profits. And while he wasn't the first person to discover the New World of the Western Hemisphere (where'd all those natives he met here come from?), he did establish nautical trade routes to this land mass, even if it wasn't the Orient. That is his claim to fame which nobody can deny. A master navigator, Columbus literally charted new waters to open up new territories... for exploration, as his supporters see it; or exploitation, as his detractors see it.

Either way, "discovery" of the "New World" was unavoidable.

For even in 1492, the world was becoming increasingly smaller and global. Eventually, somebody in Europe or Africa was bound to want whatever lay west of the world they already knew. You see, "go west, young man" isn't so much an American expression as it is one of western civilization as a whole. And for the Spaniards, fresh from defeating Islamists and restoring Roman Catholicism after generations of war, the close of the 15th Century brought heady days of victory. Their newfound sense of invincibility helped grease the wheels of ambition driving Columbus across the Atlantic.

Had Asians been the first to establish a globally-relevant sociopolitical beachhead on the Western Hemisphere, world history would have taken a completely different course. America's pioneers would have said "go east, young man" in a decidedly Asian accent. The natives who were here when Columbus arrived obviously hadn't the sophistication or inclination to establish robust ties with Asia, Europe, or Africa, so our continent was ripe for incursion from across either the Atlantic or Pacific. Was it Columbus' fault that he possessed both the technological ability and the audacious determination to secure a stronghold here before the British, the Dutch, or the Chinese?

Villain or Hero?

Today, educated elites like to join in the Columbus-bashing that "New World" natives and Columbus' own rival explorers began during his day. For a man who really only plotted the coordinates to a new source for raw materials, Columbus has been vilified for so much more. It's easy to forget that if he didn't discover the new trade route which he mistakenly thought had landed him in Asia, somebody else would have. Maybe somebody with less loyalty to European royalty, yet even more narcissism in his own personal fate. Would somebody else other than Columbus have been better? We'll never know.

You see, Columbus was himself a piece of work. He considered himself an emissary of God to trigger the Apocalypse and a Biblical Heaven on Earth. His writings, which have been characterized as either delusional by critics or prophetic by admirers, depict his voyages as not only an emphatic coda to the demise of Islam (oh, if only that were the case!), but also the extension of the spreading of the Gospel. He believed that once everyone on Earth is taught Christianity, then Christ will return to reign over the world. Columbus even claims this as his motivation for exploration in his treatise, The Book of Prophesies.

Some scholars claim The Book of Prophesies merely represents his desperate bid to cajole Isabella and Ferdinand to keep financing his trips to the Americas. Others claim that it was a reverential exegesis of Columbus' personal faith, and as such represents a manifestation of divine providence in the founding of what became the United States.

Indeed, having become the caricature of New World exploration, Columbus has been enshrined by many right-wing conservatives as a Christian hero who was directed by God to establish a beachhead of Christianity upon these previously heathen shores. And while it's impossible to deny that God allowed Columbus to be the explorer who navigated the first commercially-viable route between the Western Hemisphere and Europe, it's not entirely possible to claim that Columbus believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior.

Christian or Catholic?

As a glorified emissary of the Spanish crown, Columbus would have been well-versed in the stoic imperatives and colloquialisms of the Roman Catholic Church vis-a-vis sovereignty. He desired fame. He became obsessed with end-times prophecies. Some have even even suggested he may have been Jewish and the victim of anti-Semitism. Might all of these factors have combined to make him a gifted mariner as well as a skilled salesman with extraordinary drive? Evangelical in tone, his writings gush with lavish, well-honed euphemisms from the Catholic lexicon validating his zeal and self-aggrandizement. Columbus certainly knew how to extract favors from his royal patrons.

European monarchs generally contrived their authority from misquoted Biblical texts, which the Roman Catholic Church was only to happy to promulgate as long as it fit their interests. So for Columbus to serve both the church and the crown by his voyages to the Americas, he would have to meet with their favor. Especially after his first return voyage, when he proved he knew how to get back home, contrary to the fatalistic expectations of his sovereigns. It's worth noting that the contract for his first trip rewarded Columbus handsomely upon his homecoming in part because Isabella and Ferdinand never thought they'd see him again.

Part of the problem with ascribing saintly affection to Columbus involves the murky character of the Roman Catholic Church during this time. You see, 25 years after Columbus first landed on our continent, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a Roman Catholic Church door in Germany, marking the beginning of Protestantism's split from the faith of Columbus. Doesn't this challenge the generally Christianized interpretation of his God-given destiny, the assumed parity between Roman Catholicism in Columbus' day and orthodox Christianity, and the validity of his personal faith in the Trinity?

Tomorrow: Conclusion (and it's not as anti-Columbus as you may think!)

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