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The debate around the five hundredth anniversary commemoration of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America tells us more about the present than the past, suggests Paola Martos

Columbus: rediscovering America

Books discussed in this article include:

  • The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, Kirkpatrick Sale, Hodder & Stoughton, £17.95 hbk

  • Columbus: His Enterprise, Hans Koning, Latin American Bureau, £4.99 pbk

  • Faces of Latin America, Duncan Green, Latin American Bureau, £8.99 pbk

  • In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the First Voyage, David Henige, University of Arizona Press, $24.95 hbk

  • The Curse of Columbus: Race & Class, Vol33 No3, January/March 1992, £4 pbk
The year 1992 is turning out to be one of unremitting economic gloom and political worry for the Western elites. It should come as no surprise then that some should try to compensate for the lacklustre present by focusing on a glorious past. One such opportunity to project a sense of a shared national history at a time when social cohesion is under strain is provided by the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. The quincentenary commemoration allows the US establishment to promote Columbus as an enduring symbol of the individual pioneering ethos that made America great.

But this flattering view of the American spirit is being challenged by an alliance of liberals, ethnic minorities and interest groups who insist on denouncing Columbus as a false hero. The charges against Columbus range from racism and genocide to sexism and environmental terrorism. The anti-Columbus lobby is calling into question the official interpretation by arguing that the year 1492 opened an era not of discovery but of genocide, not of freedom but of slavery, not of progress but of barbarism. One of the main liberal contributors to the debate, Hans Koning, describes Columbus as 'a man greedy in large and in small ways, cruel in petty things and on a continental scale' (Columbus: His Enterprise, p7). One American protester was more scathing, saying that Columbus 'makes Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent' (quoted in Economist, 21 December 1991).

What is striking about the arguments of the antiColumbus faction is their lack of originality. The modernday critics of Columbus have not unearthed any new evidence about what happened in 1492, but are simply reinterpreting some well-known facts. The barbaric treatment meted out to the American Indians by the Spanish Empire, for instance, has been condemned ever since Bartolomé de las Casas, a Catholic priest who travelled with Columbus, took up their cause. No significant new facts have been brought to light about the horrors of conquest which the Spanish themselves described without shame.

The absence of any new revelations about 1492 begs the question why is Columbus being indicted 500 years after the event? The ferocity of the contemporary debate about the merits or crimes of Columbus cannot be understood simply in the terms set out by the protagonists on either side. A comparison with the four hundredth anniversary celebrations of 1892 suggests that the current debate has less to do with what happened in 1492 and more to do with what is happening in 1992.

Antonín Dvorák's Symphony No9, 'From the New World', captured the mood of energy and optimism that accompanied the celebrations 100 years ago. Perhaps the key event to commemorate the discovery was the World's Columbian Exposition, organised in Chicago as part of the celebrations. Thirty times the size of the Paris Universal Exposition of 1855, it attracted 24m visitors in a country of just 63m inhabitants. The Exposition's publicists were not coy about promoting America's greatness: 'All the marvels of the world, and the products of all the master geniuses in art and invention, are gathered there to delight and instruct - a very panorama of the possibilities of human ingenuities and persistent effort.' (Quoted in Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, p353)

The purpose of the 1892 celebrations was not to remember the past but to celebrate the achievements of a country that had come a long way since 1492. There was no nostalgia for the past, because the future seemed to have so much to offer. Washington Irving's then popular biography of Columbus, written in 1828, remarked that, 'amidst the afflictions of his age and the cares of penury', Columbus would have been consoled if he could have imagined 'the splendid empires which were to spread over the beautiful world he had discovered' (The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus). America was proud of its past achievements and confident about the future.

The contrast with this year's five hundredth anniversary is stark. This time around, history, and having the correct interpretation of it, is the issue. For the American right, the Columbus anniversary is being used to proclaim the contemporary relevance of the American Dream. Of course, history has always been used to justify and promote a particular view of contemporary society. David Henige, for instance, understands that 'a serene but unexamined belief in the actuality of the recorded past is necessary to an acceptable present' (In Search of Columbus). But what is new today is that, unlike in 1892, a 'serene belief' in America's national myths is very unfashionable.

This is not surprising, considering how much things have changed in America's recent past. America is a nation in decline, best symbolised by George Bush being sick and passing out while on his car-selling visit to Japan. America is no longer the place where your dreams come true. Chicago, which hoped to match its performance of 1892, entered the contest to host the 1992 World's Fair. Unable to raise enough funds, it was beaten to it by Seville, capital of poverty-stricken Andalusia in Spain.

The current polemic reveals nothing about the past, but much about the present failures of American society. The national myths propagated by the right no longer bear any relation to the reality of life for a growing number of Americans. The US elite is less and less able to satisfy the expectations of the American people, and to unite them behind a common vision of national achievement. As the Clarence Thomas case and many recent public controversies have shown, American society is profoundly divided along ethnic and racial lines.

The deterioration of the economic and social fabric, and the marginalisation of black and ethnic groups, has encouraged a reassessment of the national myths that have shaped the nation's identity. Each section of society now claims the right to a history exclusive to their group. While the establishment celebrates Columbus as a national hero, dissatisfied minorities attack the official national history and insist that Columbus is a hero only for Americans of white European descent.

Barbara Ransby, an African-American historian, applauds the 'efforts underway to reclaim, inch by inch, the confiscated territory which is our history' ('Columbus and the making of historical myth', Race & Class, Vol33 No3, January/March 1992). By contesting the official interpretation of American history, ethnic minority groups are fighting for a piece of the action and staking a claim to society's resources today.

In one sense, the backlash against the Columbus quincentenary is an understandable reaction to an insensitive official history. Unfortunately, the critics of Columbus have fallen into the trap of plundering the past in order to justify their own claims in the present. In doing so they have reproduced in a different form many of the prejudices which imbue the orthodox conservative historiography. Let's look in more detail at the charges levelled against Columbus and their implications for today.

Whereas for the right, Columbus is revered as the harbinger of progress, for radicals like Hazel Walters he was 'the bringer of catastrophe on an exponential scale' (Race & Class, pV). According to the left and liberal orthodoxy, Columbus did not simply pave the way for the decimation of the Americas, his discovery also laid the foundations for the practice of modern racism and the despoliation of the environment.

To the manufactured myth of Columbus as the brave visionary who set sail on an unknown course and discovered a new world, Barbara Ransby counterposes the 'real' legacy of Columbus: 'A bloody legacy of rape, pillage and plunder.' (p79) In fact, there is a tendency among his critics to blame Columbus for everything bad about the modern world. Duncan Green, in his survey of contemporary Latin America, accuses Columbus of creating 'the most unequal continent in the world'. He is blamed for the poverty, squalor, drugs, misery and environmental disaster afflicting Latin America today, which lets the US imperialists who are really responsible for destroying the continent off the hook very nicely.

Two charges in particular which have been levelled against Columbus are off the mark. The first is that Columbus was a racist who carried out genocide against the native peoples of the Americas. The second is that Columbus was an environmental imperialist who destroyed the natural environment of the Americas.

Many radical writers such as Hans Koning argue that Columbus was the first in a long line of European racists, arriving in a paradisiacal America only to sow the seeds of prejudice. But it is absurd to apply today's political concepts to a society so obviously different from ours, or even to imagine that the concerns of the twentieth century were to be found in the fifteenth century.

Columbus and his contemporaries were certainly brutal, but they cannot be condemned retrospectively as racists. Racism as a political category only acquires meaning in modern capitalist society alongside the notion of equality. In Columbus' times, there was no such thing as equality nor any conceptualisation of equality. Before the development of capitalism it was taken for granted that society was by nature unequal.

The treatment of the American Indians at the hands of the early Spanish Empire has to be examined according to the specific social relations that prevailed at the time. In particular, their experiences were shaped by the changes brought about in America's economic life. Slavery, forced labour, expulsion from the land - these are all symptoms not of racist prejudice, but of the creation of the conditions for capitalism.

Far from being exclusive to colonial America, these phenomena were evident throughout Europe. In 1547, for instance, Edward VI ordained that, in England, 'If anybody refuses to work, he shall be condemned as a slave to the person who has denounced him as an idler. The master shall feed his slave on bread and water, weak broth and such refuse meat as he thinks fit. He has the right to do any work, no matter how disgusting, with whip and chains.... If the slave is absent a fortnight, he is condemned to slavery for life and is to be branded on forehead or back with the letter S' (quoted in K Marx, Capital, Vol1, 1983, p686). The degradation of the American Indians was not unique. This was the lot of millions of Europeans throughout the Middle Ages.

Columbus has also been accused of another modern sin: a lack of respect for the environment. Kirkpatrick Sale argues that Columbus' attitude to nature was typical of the dastardly European character: 'A Europe that [was] in thought and deed estranged from its natural environment and had for several thousand years been engaged in depleting and destroying the lands and waters it depended on.' (The Conquest of Paradise, p74). Sale's argument is that the Renaissance, by placing human reason at the centre of everything, subordinated the needs of nature to the needs of man.

In this discussion, Columbus' detractors are again guilty of imposing the preoccupations of the present on to the past. Sale is puzzled that fifteenth century Europe did not spend much time praising the wonders of the natural world. He is astonished that Columbus was not that impressed by the virginal beauty of the New World. But this only displays an ignorance of the forces that shaped the outlook of the age of Columbus.

Renaissance man's view of nature was, of necessity, very different from that of today. Renaissance man wanted to dominate nature because he was constantly threatened by it. Throughout the long medieval period, natural forces had brought about famine, pestilence and disease. In the hundred years following 1492, for instance, there were no less than 11 epidemics and countless locust plagues, droughts and bad harvests in Spain. The Spanish population decreased by between seven and 10 per cent in the first part of the sixteenth century due to epidemics alone.

In societies at the mercy of these forces, nature was not thought of as the place to spend a holiday. Columbus' contemporaries could not but feel terrified of nature, and aspire to control it. Renaissance humanism, with its aspiration for man to control his own destiny and to free himself from the impositions of a higher authority whether God or Nature, was therefore a liberating project.

According to Sale, man's attempt to shape the world in his own image was a step backwards. In fact, it was the rationalist and humanist spirit of the Renaissance, and of the Enlightenment later on, that laid the basis for the affirmation of social justice and equality. Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish priest who did so much in Columbus' time to defend the Indians from the outrages of the Spanish authorities, argued that rationalism was the basis for the Indians' claim to equal rights: 'All the peoples of the world are men, and there is only one definition of each and every man, and that is that he is rational.' (Quoted in JH Elliot, 'The world after Columbus', New York Review of Books, 10 October 1991).

The arguments of the anti-Columbus lobby are not just ridiculous, they are also reactionary. In rejecting the legacy of Columbus' discovery of America his adversaries are suggesting that historical change can only end in disaster. Indeed, this view is implicit and sometimes explicit in the arguments of the liberal opponents of the quincentenary celebrations. Most contributions to the debate call into question the notion of progress. Thus Barbara Ransby complains that Columbus' 'weaknesses, mistakes and horrid transgressions are all excused in the name of progress' (Race & Class, p85).

Today's liberals are using the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America to reinterpret the meaning of the Renaissance which gave birth to liberalism itself. The parallels with the two hundredth anniversary of the 1789 French Revolution, which became the occasion for the right to rubbish its own revolutionary legacy, are striking. Both anniversaries demonstrate that conservatives and liberals alike are rejecting their own previous contribution to historical change.

The Columbus controversy reveals how far the liberal left has gone in rejecting liberal principles such as rationalism and progress. Instead, liberals now appear to favour a regression to the past; in Kirkpatrick Sale's case, a return to the literally prehistoric conditions that existed in America before Columbus' arrival. Implicit in the liberal attack on Columbus is the notion that after the discovery things changed for the worse; that the primitive civilisations that existed before were somehow superior, and that what came after was definitely inferior.

The past 500 years of history are being rubbished. The implication is that pre-capitalist society, with its superstitions and degradations, was preferable to the changes introduced by the discovery; that the ignorance and scarcity of primitive life were more valuable than science, reason and the fulfilment of our material needs. The dependence of primitive society on nature is seen as a 'spiritual earth-relationship'. Any discussion of the barbaric practices and inhuman conditions of those societies is omitted, in favour of celebrating the 'noble savage' at peace with his environment. This idealisation of the past amounts to a reactionary celebration of backwardness, and a denial of humanity's potential to better itself.

The development of transatlantic capitalism, made possible by the link forged by Columbus between the Old and New Worlds, was a violent process both for Europe and America. The process of change created losers as well as winners. Nevertheless, it represented a major step forward in the development of society. The economic and social changes brought about by capitalism made possible, for the first time ever, the removal of material want. That possibility did not exist either in medieval Europe or in pre-Columbian America. All that existed was the degradation of life in a society where humans had no control over their own existence.

In their embrace of the past, liberals are becoming more conservative than the conservatives themselves. The right, concerned with projecting a positive image of the past at a time when they have little to offer in the present, is still upholding the progressive legacy of Columbus. The left, meanwhile, is inventing its own mythical past and attacking the idea of progress.

This obsession with the past on the part of liberal America is the mirror image of the right's attachment to traditional values. Both views reveal a fear of change. Both see historical development as a process of degeneration which should be reversed. The controversy between conservatives and liberals is no longer a struggle between tradition and progress, but between two different schools of myth-making.

Both sides in this debate are just about as bad as each other. For the right, Columbus is a useful vehicle for claiming that, 500 years later, the spirit of enterprise lives on in America. Ironically, the liberals' concern to establish their own version of the past at the expense of challenging the present allows the right to get off the hook at a time when the degenerate and destructive character of capitalist society is more apparent than ever.

The Columbus debate has consequences beyond the rewriting of American history. Most importantly, the left's abandonment of the idea of change and progress is a recipe for inactivity and despair in the face of the problems facing humanity today. If change only ends in disaster as the left insists, what is the point of trying to challenge the present system? The rejection of change inevitably leads to fatalism and passivity. It means reconciling ourselves to the status quo.

Furthermore, blaming the past for America's problems only absolves the present. By focusing on the crimes of Columbus 500 years ago, the liberals allow America's modern-day rulers to escape criticism. In 1992, while the left is preoccupied with calculating how many Indians died in 1492, the quarter of a million Iraqis who died during last year's Gulf War hardly merit a mention.

So how should we regard the Columbus quincentenary? The right response to the establishment's celebration of history cannot be to fall into the trap of inventing an alternative past. The past, after all, provides little cause for celebration - which is why the world needs to escape from it as fast as possible.

The alternative to living in the past is to encourage people's aspirations for a better future. Neither the present, nor still less the past, should be accepted as the limit to expectations: that would mean abandoning any possibility of human betterment. Rather than rejecting humanity's potential for change, society should be encouraging a belief in the efficacy of human activity as the motor of progress. Those who dismiss human intervention in our own history are giving up the only hope of creating a new world.

The question of whether or not the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America should be celebrated is ultimately irrelevant. Creating a new world cannot be left to the old one.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992

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