BY Oct. 12, the man credited with "discovering" the Americas
will have been the subject of more debate, more documentaries, more
speeches, and more controversy than perhaps any nonreligious figure
in world history. When the quincentenary observances are over we
may know a little more about Christopher Columbus. We will probably
know a lot more about ourselves.
It's hardly news that history plays fast and loose with the
reputations of great men. Or that the hopes and fears of any era -
as much as the historical facts themselves - color the way one
generation estimates the achievements of another.
But few reputations have been so completely the sport of
circumstance as that of the sturdy Genoese mariner, who on the eve
of his biggest anniversary party yet has passed from being hero to
villain in the eyes of many Americans. Just why, historians say,
reveals something significant about those who now judge him.
In this anniversary year, as in past ones, the central figure
will not be the historical Columbus but the symbolic Columbus, the
vehicle on which Americans continue to project their sense of
"If you look at the way Columbus is commemorated, it tells a
good deal about the times," says Claudia Bushman, author of a new
book "America Discovers Columbus.What it tells us is what we think
about ourselves. Columbus is a wonderfully culture-reflecting
Until recent years, Columbus has been more lionized than
reviled, reflecting the self-confidence and optimism of earlier
generations of Americans.
In the first Columbian celebration in North America, in 1792,
the intrepid navigator was hailed as a symbol of America's newly
won independence from England, as the agent of what the nation's
founding generation believed was America's destiny to prove the
virtues of liberty to a corrupt world of monarchs.
A century later, the symbol of Columbus was usurped again, this
time by a young nation eager to celebrate its fantastic material
progress and seemingly unlimited potential. More recently, the
heroic image of Columbus has been kept alive by various immigrant
groups that have pointed to his Italian and Roman Catholic origins
to buttress their own quest for legitimacy and to ease their
assimilation into American society.
But once the object of exaggerated praise, the man whose
encounter with America radically changed it has suddenly become the
object of exaggerated criticism. Blacks accuse Columbus of being
the advance guard of slavery. Native Americans say he despoiled an
advanced native culture. Environmentalists have tarred Columbus as
the agent of ecological destruction.
"In 1892, Columbus symbolized progress. In 1992, he symbolizes
American failure," writes Dr. Bushman. "Where once he was
considered too good for his time, he is now considered not nearly
This sudden burst of historical revisionism may have a good
side, balancing the record against the overwrought paeans composed
by generations determined, in Bushman's words, "to make a great man
out of a person who accomplished a great deed."
But judging the deeds and misdeeds of the 15th century mariner
by the ethical and social standards of the late 20th century does
Columbus an injustice, most historians say, revealing far more
about his critics than about Columbus himself.
"It's too much to ask Columbus to bear the burden of all Western
civilization," says Wilcomb Washburn, director of American studies
at the Smithsonian Institution. "We've reduced the debate over
Columbus to an almost meaningless series of potshots taken by one
ideological group after another."
"We make him a goat or a hero by extracting him from his own
time and place," says Richard Kagan, a professor of history at
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "This has little to do with
the work of historians, who study in the context of the times. …