Goodbye Columbus? Canada's Chains of History

By Gough, Barry | History Today, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Goodbye Columbus? Canada's Chains of History


Gough, Barry, History Today


* With relief some historians are glad that 1992 is now a thing of the past, for the year carried with it all the apparent guilt of five centuries of European expansion and all the unanswered charges of the tyranny of imperialism. 1992 was the year of rhetoric. Columbus has been vilified, whereas a century ago he was a hero. His voyages of discovery have been discounted as to their value. His findings, scientific and navigational, have been minimised or dismissed as of little account. No longer a heroic symbol of progress of an enlightened Europe, Columbus is now discounted in the journals and politically correct articles as an imperialist and a brute.

Books crafted for popular audiences, including Kirkpatrick Sale's The Conquest of Paradise and Ronald Wright's Stolen Continents: The Americans through Indian Eyes since 1492, rail against conventional history, decrying history as a record of human progress that is in need of correction. No longer is Columbus symbolic of adventure, science and enlightenment. The new view is to portray him and the Columbian legacy as a long chronicle of crime and brutality, enslavement and subversion, corruption and theft. The discovery of America is no longer the viewing of a New World; it is the despoliation and enslavement of an equally ancient, undoubtedly sophisticated and pluralistic world on the opposite side of the Atlantic. The current fashion decries adventure and fascination with the new; instead, it poses an altogether radical set of assumptions built around the guilty of history, even the reversibility of historical processes, as if events and previous portraits of the past can be re-ordered to set right imbalances that are everywhere apparent around us. Has History become a tool for the politically correct? You bet it has. Has History become only a mirror of our own preoccupations? You bet it has.

Undoubtedly the plight of the native peoples of the Americas has a claim on our consciences, and daily we are reminded of the ongoing struggles of such persons in the depths of the Brazilian hinterland or in prisons in tyrannical regimes in Central America. But there is no sense in claiming that North America's society is thoroughly corrupt or that civilisation will lead to death. Not only are these blanket statements unquantifiable; they are blatantly false. Kenneth Whyte, reviewing Sale's and White's books, notes with wisdom that you cannot correct a particular historical bias by offsetting it by work with an opposite bias, and he quotes Sir Herbert Butterfield's trusty line: |We do not gain true history by merely adding the speech of the prosecution to the speech for the defence.' To which might be added, with insight, the further observation that there is no sense in approaching history as a challenge cup, with points scored for and against. In the Cambridge don's words the object of historical inquiry should be |to find the unities that underlie the differences, and to see all lives as part of the one web of life.' 1992 has pointed out the differences, undoubtedly, but we may now be further away from balance than ever before.

Even the term discovery has fallen into disrepute, and the substitute, encounter, which had a shelf life of about a generation now seems to be going the way of the dodo bird on the grounds that the encounter was actually a European development, and that the Spanish, French, English, Portuguese and others came uninvited. The form rather than the substance of history is now up for discussion, and again commentators of historical processes are not arguing about facts but the selection of facts.

But let us suppose for a fleeting moment that we can still use the term discovery. It can have entirely different connotations. The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier called the Columbus |discovery' the greatest event in the history of mankind. Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan novelist, agrees with this, though for entirely different reasons. …

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