Discovering Columbus: A Bibliographic Probe

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IN the age of political correctness, we have, it seems, to speak now not of the |discovery' but of the |rape' of America: colonisation meant exploitation, mass-murder and genocide. In Madrid the Association of Indian Cultures has called for the quincentenary of 1492 to be saluted with acts of |sabotage'; three shiploads of American Indians will |discover' Spain, even if there is no evidence of any such journey 500 years ago; 1992 is to be a year not of celebration but of repentance. On the person of Columbus are to be visited, it seems, all the crimes of our times: particularly imperialism, elitism, Europe-centredness, and being white. A London group, that includes Harold Pinter and Ken Livingstone, MP, was formed in 1991 with the title |500 Years of Resistance'. The 500 year history of the Americas is to be seen as a story of murder, pillage, torture and exploitation. Anniversaries are, it seems, to be opportunities for contumely, not for pietas. Columbus himself is seen as greedy, incompetent and autocratic. All seem to be agreed that he should have stayed at home. The fashion today is to debate over and over again that old Oxford Union debating motion: that in the opinion of this House, Christopher Columbus went too far.

It is not only, of course, 500 years of Columbus himself that is being celebrated. Although a number of towns, a central American republic and the Federal District of Columbia all honour his name, he did not figure prominently in the American national imagination until after the war of 1812, the so-called Second War of Independence. The New World, then a generation old as an independent state, discovered a need for new ancestors. Washington Irving in 1828 published his History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus to provide a new hero suitably endowed with an Italian name, and sailing under a Spanish flag. Columbus was |discovered' in 1828. Perhaps a distinct multicultural nation now needs a new hero: preferably black, non-English-speaking, and female?

All of which is sad: not because of its nonsense, but because it obscures the major debate for the historian: Was Columbus the hero, where did he go, how come the legend?

There might have been another hero of this journey in 1492. It was at two in the morning of October 12, 1492 that the look-out on the Pinta, Rodrigo da Triana, claimed that he saw a light. He should have been awarded -- the gift of the Spanish Crown -- the prize for the one who first sighted the New World -- an annual pension of 10,000 maravedis. Instead, the honour was snatched by Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, who insisted that four hours earlier (when 40 leagues from land) he had seen a bright light in the dark, |like a little wax candle rising and lifting'. Was Columbus a stickler for accuracy, was he just greedy, was he incapable of the first rule of leadership: generosity to, encouragement of, his subordinates? At least one hero disappears. Deprived of his annuity, Triana obtained a discharge, renounced his faith, and died in North Africa. It is not inconceivable that he died of Treponema pallidum, or syphilis, a disease unknown till then in Europe.

Of the many studies and/or biographies of Columbus that 1992 has produced, probably the best, and the most personal portrait, is that of Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.(*) He sees Columbus as God-driven, a collector of prophecies, deeply devout, and also socially ambitious, hungry not only for gold but for status and for titles that would be conferred as hereditary honours. Columbus was a student of Marco Polo; he was led astray by an incredible cosmography which persuaded him that only 3,000 nautical miles separated Spain from Cathay, and led him to read into garbled native words the placenames mentioned by Marco Polo. He placed the Garden of Eden on a nipple-shaped protuberance rising from the earth's breast-like surface in the southern Caribbean.

Three notable by-products of the Columbus quincentenary are special studies of European-Indian or of Spanish-Indian relations: Stephen Greenblatt's Marvellous Possessions, The Wonder of the New World (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1991), Roland Wright's Stolen Continents: The Indian Story (Houghton Mifflin 1992), and Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror (Deutsch 1992). …