Columbus Cracks an Egg

Natural History, December 1992 | Go to article overview
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Columbus Cracks an Egg


Was the great voyager also a heavy-handed trickster?

The moment of truth--put up or shut up--has arrived. It is September, and this column has a lead time of three months. I either write about Christopher Columbus now or I miss the opportunity to note the most important quincentennial of my lifetime. Five hundred one just doesn't have that nice, even ring that we associate with celebrations.

Obviously, since I have delayed to the last possible moment, I have experienced no burning desire to address this subject. My reluctance does not arise from any doubt about the importance of the event, or of its relevance to natural history, but only from a widely shared feeling of personal ambivalence toward the value and meaning of Columbus's Bahamian landfall. History is full of horror, and we prefer to commemorate rare moments of light. I did not note, in 1983, the 500th anniversary of Torquemada's leadership of the Spanish Inquisition, so why should I celebrate, nine years later, an expedition that led to even more bloodshed and chauvinism (and was, incidentally, not unrelated to Torquemada's success)?

I am scarcely alone in my ambivalence, and this greatest opportunity for a white man's patriotic outburst has been a muted thing indeed. The usual, and entirely valid, reason for subdued acknowledgment arises from the treatment of indigenous peoples by their European conquerors--a panoply ranging from enslavement to genocide, with occasional islands of decency. For a natural historian, the further theme of environmental rape and pillage only adds to the profound feeling of ambiguity. While fully allying myself with these reasons for doubt, I would rather emphasize another set of home-grown factors, all too rarely discussed (and often not even mentioned) in popular statements of reluctance to celebrate.

Fourteen hundred ninety-two was an amazing year in Spain, a moment of triple coincidence. We may now be marking Columbus's quincentenary, but 1992 is also the 500th anniversary of military victory over the Moors and of the expulsion of all Jews from Spain--and the three events are complexly intertwined, for this is a causal coincidence, not a fortuitous array of simultaneous happenings. Moreover, Columbus's expedition ranks last in time among the three, and was partly a consequence of the other two, not a prod.

The marriage, in 1469, of Ferdinand of Aragon (roughly east Spain) and Isabella of Castile (roughly west Spain) began a train of events that led to both increased power and, in a term now tragically in vogue, to "ethnic purification" for a white and Catholic Spain. Isabella's victory in her war of succession against Afonso V of Portugal, and Ferdinand's accession to the throne of Aragon, following the death of his father, John II, in 1479, established a powerful joint monarchy, committed to the expansion of power and territory and the contraction of the ethnic and religious diversity that had marked the Iberian peninsula for centuries.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica's article on Spanish history notes: "With its large Moorish and Jewish populations, medieval Spain was the only multiracial and multireligious country in Western Europe, and much of the development of Spanish civilization in religion, literature, art, and architecture during the later Middle Ages stemmed from this fact" (quoted from the 1980 edition, before contemporary terminology of "political correctness" came into vogue--so don't blame this claim on early 1990s fashion).

But the reyes catolicos (the Catholic kings), as Ferdinand and Isabella were called, struggled to terminate this diversity and succeeded in the Columbian year of 1492. The campaign against the Moors, who had held power for nearly 800 years and had once ruled almost all of Spain, had been proceeding for centuries. The final conquest of Granada and its Alhambra, with the capitulation and exile of Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler, ended a long process of conquest and removed the last handhold of Islamic temporal power in Western Europe (although the Turks besieged Vienna in 1683).

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