When Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the Caribbean in 1492 along with his motley crew of swashbuckling predatory hustlers, thereafter began an unprecedented new age of violence and plunder. Born also was a new era of poppycock, deceit and obfuscation. Quite a few of us grew up on this diet of fabricated historical contrivance masquerading as truth, taking us many more years to disabuse ourselves of these questionable notions. How many times had we heard, and is frequently still repeated, that Christopher Columbus “discovered the New World”, and often without real critical debate? This notion of “discovery” is not the whole truth. It is everything else but the truth.
Was Christopher Columbus the first to come into the realization that the world was round? Was he lost? Was he the first to venture west across the Atlantic? What of Amerigo Vespucci or John Cabot? Where does their legacy fall vis-à-vis Columbus’ relatively oversized shadow? The history books that fed our intellects during our formative years unfortunately did not grapple with these provoking and inconvenient questions. Rather, we were left with the decided impression that Cristóbal Colón was one of the greatest mariners in history; a visionary genius that held that the world was round, while everyone else said it was flat.
Indeed, more than one generation of history students held the belief that Columbus was a mythical heroic figure who stood head and shoulders above all others, having proved his point by making it to “India”, earning for himself the grand title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea.
When Columbus and his men disembarked from the Santa María, La Niña and La Pinta, we were made to understand that they were doing exactly as they were ordained to do, occupying a place of historical pre-eminence exactly the way destiny intended. And of course, they knew exactly where they were. It is now readily acknowledged that there was great confusion among the participants of this expedition.
While Columbus and his men could be described as courageous pioneers, history shows that they made a gross error in judgment. They did not come upon East India as they had planned. In fact, the region looked nothing like the India they knew or heard of. To cover up their mistake they named it the “West Indies” just the same and in so doing made it so – problem solved! With that exercise of self-proclaimed prerogative, a whole region became some place it was not, and forever. Herein began the history of bamboozle in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Jamaica’s Burning Spear declared Columbus “a damn blasted liar”.
Christopher Columbus reached the end of his life, descending and dying in disgrace after being stripped of his status by Spanish authorities. How then did he ascend to such heights of pre-eminence over and above all other explorers of his time and generation? How did he posthumously gain such acclaim? Was it because he was the first to do what he did? Was he really? Who gave him that entitlement and why? The hoopla-like and frenzied adulation surrounding this man’s place in history seems overblown and inconsistent with the facts. Suspicion about the authenticity and legitimacy of this recognition is surely warranted. There are too many nuanced misrepresentations and half-truths associated with Cristóbal Colón and the history he allegedly spawned must now be discredited and demystified.
Recalled readily is The Making of the West Indies, a book jointly authored by Fitzroy Augier, Shirley Gordon, Douglas Hall and Michael Reckford, first published in 1961. Students in preparation for their G.C.E ‘O’ level examinations in West Indian History have copiously used this book over the years. Augier and Gordon were also responsible for preparing Sources of West Indian History (1962), a collection of first hand historical accounts. Here in their introduction, the co-authors offer up a valuable caution not to accept the historical accounts of others at face value:
“Many different kinds of people wrote these accounts and it is important to consider who the writer is when you are trying to assess what he is saying. He may be biased about the subject he is discussing, and you must judge whether other people would have reported the matter the same way…To use a source profitably it is necessary to ask as many questions of it as you can.”
Heeding this call to critical thinking means that popularized hallowed notions of Christopher Columbus can and should be challenged. Was his fame exaggerated? Were there any deliberate omissions? One can still recall history books written 30 to 50 years ago, particularly those intended for younger audiences that promoted sheer ignorance, using stock phrases designed to camouflage the truth, truth dressed in a jargon intended to mask certain realities.
While most of us have become more informed today, the tendency to present a biased rendition of history and or to give a distorted interpretation still prevails. The tendency to use deception and contrivances in order to conceal the truth, justify intentions and actions, win loyalty, squelch criticism and allay suspicions is still very much with us; and the more absurd and exaggerated the deception, apparently the more believable.
When Christopher and his men landed in the Caribbean, it took skilled sleight of hand to pull off the mass defrauding of the indigenous people they encountered. It also takes a similar craftiness to cover up the unjust deeds and to camouflage the ill-begotten proceeds derived from criminal acts committed under guise and with much guile. Admiral of the Sweet Swindle is more of an apt title for the man many celebrate on October 12.
Were the Grand Admiral and his men invaders and marauders? Early history books do not depict them this way. Rather, they were seen as discoverers and explorers on a royal mission divinely ordained by the Holy Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. According to some rendering of this account, being greedy and ruthless imperialists was never a part of the intent of this global thrust.
However, when the veneer of obfuscatory proclamations are pulled back, another version, far more compelling in its veracity, is revealed. In brief, this more profound reality is summed up thus: When the Europeans came, they saw and they conquered, effectively subjugating the “discovered” population, thereby setting in motion the creation of a society typified by social inequality, political subordination and economic dependency.
When Columbus and his men landed in the Caribbean they unleashed a set of contradictions that have prevailed until today. Hidden behind their tentative half smiles were sincere scowls of greed, dripping at the mouth, enticed by the lure of stealing the people’s wealth, prosperity and peace. While extending a handshake with the one hand, they used the other hand to covetously clutch on to the people’s property and well being. While waving a bible to ostensibly convert souls, they plundered with a sword to convert local property into foreign entities. By their historical deeds they instantaneously instituted a marriage between religion and exploitative conquest, a union that today seems almost irrevocable. Not only until death do they actually part and even then the separation is not guaranteed.
With the arrival of the Europeans to what is now known as North and Latin America and the Caribbean came also dysentery, small pox and other European diseases that led to the decimation and eventual elimination of an entire native culture, almost without a trace. Some versions of this episode will highlight that the natives died because they had no defences against these alien infections, suggesting by implication that it was the natives’ own fault why they were dying off. These biased reports omit to mention that the Europeans who came were unhealthy, lacked proper hygiene and were generally unsuited for the conditions they were now confronting.
Over and beyond epidemiological questions, the Europeans also brought with them foreign concepts and practices. These concepts included such practices as “private property ownership”, “hard labour” and “taxes”. Rather than respecting local customs, they chauvinistically imposed their own systems on the native people.
There was also the introduction of a system of slavery, the introduction of which eventually led to the first recorded genocide in the history of the Caribbean and Latin America. In a short time, what was a thriving population of indigenous peoples became a lost civilization, memorialized now only by archaeological relics and place names. Considering this outcome, a more fitting title for Augier’s book could have been The Destruction of the West Indies, for when the Spaniards first took root in what was then known as Hispaniola and, later on, on the mainland, they effectively practised an early form of “ethnic cleansing”. One of their own, Las Casas, noted for his sense of fair play and integrity offered a report in 1540, in which he summed up the scenario:
“An infinite number of people have left Spain to dwell in these countries. They generally touch at Hispaniola, which is a very fertile and large Island, and is become very famous…We shall make it evidently appear to your Majesty, that the Spaniards in about eight and thirty or forty years have unjustly put to death above twelve million of your subjects; and what an incredible damage must your Majesty have further sustained by the massacres, as they have hindered all these people from multiplying…And how unjust soever those wars have been which they have made upon the Indians, if the poor creatures put themselves in a posture of defence, they cruelly cut their throats without any distinction of quality, sex or age; such as escaped their fury they reserved for slaves, many of whom they condemn to the gold or silver mines, others they yolk together like beasts to make them carry vast burdens. They don’t much concern themselves whether the Indians live or die, provided they reap some advantage by their labour. (Las Casas, An Account of the First Voyages and Discoveries made by the Spaniards in America, 1540.” Sources of West Indian History, Augier and Gordon, 1962. )
Ideas promoting Christopher Columbus as an iconic heroic historical figure have either been trite or biased. The first glimpse of globalization, as we know it today, is credited to him as well as the multi-cultural exchanges of religion, language, dietary and other customs and traditions. All this goes back to the feet of the man whose name and memory is celebrated in the Americas every year on October 12th since the early 20th century. How would the Americas have been able to advance toward civilization had it not been for the arrival of those three ships on that fateful day? By and large, these ideas are adulterated, conveyed to us in history texts that purport to educate but which instead have led to the mis-education of a generation.
The tendency of placing Christopher Columbus in a place of historical pre-eminence to the point where his name has been empowered to split history into a pre and post –Columbian era, is a striking example of yet another misleading smokescreen. This device, ostensibly intended to sub-divide historical periods for the purpose of understanding, has had the intended or unintended consequences of highlighting and elevating the significance of European influence throughout the Americas.
While the arrival of the Europeans may have been a considerable event worthy of demarcation, the use of the term pre-Columbian is an obvious sign of the Eurocentric version of this story telling. Whoever ordained the use of the term might have had one objective in mind and that is to highlight for supreme attention the introduction of European “civilization” to the Americas thereby excluding or shrinking from view all other storylines. The term serves as an effective disguise, subtly masking the more important story of the cruel eradication of American indigenous cultures.
Referring to the era before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, this Eurocentric artificial time period is both apocryphal (fictitious) and apocalyptic (disastrous). The truth is, prior to Columbus’ arrival, there existed in the Americas a thriving and dynamic civilization that could easily have been the envy of others. Incontestable historical records show that civilizations such as the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas and others were highly developed, well organized complex societies notable for their social, economic, scientific and architectural accomplishments. Today, the ruins of Technotilan, the ancient site of Mexico City, or Machu Picchu in Peru, are but glimpses of a culture that was laid to waste after the arrival of the three merchant ships.
The notion of a pre-Columbian era is arrogant, elevating the so-called “discoverer” to the status of a deity, not unlike that illustrated by the use of the terms “Before Christ” or “Anno Domini”. More importantly, the notion shrouds the real significance of the European intervention into the affairs of the Americas. Certainly there were other optional elucidating terms that could have been so employed. Why not use the term “pre-demolition” or “pre-annihilation” for example, or why not “post-Atahualpa”?
Atahualpa, who died in 1533, was the last native ruler of the formidable Inca Empire that at its zenith stretched from Peru to Chile, to Ecuador, Bolivia and Columbia. A powerful and inspiring leader, Atahualpa provided the last formidable resistance to European colonization at a time when the Aztec empire was already in shambles and the Mayans were already decimated. Not to be easily defeated, he retreated to the high and frigid mountains of Andean Peru.
Ultimately, however, the Emperor was killed by the Spanish, thereby making the way clear for the persistent European plundering of the Andes and the rest of the “new world” that they had “discovered”. It was here that Francisco Pizarro, the illiterate but ruthless conquistador made his name. Like Hernán Cortés, his second cousin who plundered the Aztecs in Mexico, Francisco Pizarro González overran Peru mercilessly and the Americas were never to be the same afterwards.
While we may make a case for Atahualpa to be recognized as a profound historical figure after whom to name a historical epoch, it is the lore of Cristóbal Colón however that continues to hold sway, embellished as it is with its tales of heroism and a host of many other fables relating to other Europeans who were to follow him in quick succession. The fictional account involving the bestowing on Christopher Columbus of the role of the one who “discovered the New World” is not only incongruous with the facts but is also demeaning to the people he encountered when he arrived. It was as if the people whom he came upon had not really been there before his arrival; as if the natives he “discovered” had not been really human at all, having full possession of their own language, culture, religion, economy and sense of self.
What if Atahualpa had the inclination to invade Europe and had sailed east across the Atlantic in his own ships to overrun Europe? Would the history we have come to know today have been written differently? Would colonization as we have come to know it have been in reverse order?
In a 1957 address, Martin Luther King Jr described the pervasiveness and insidious racist character of the twin headed monster of European colonialism and imperialism:
“There are approximately two billion four hundred million (2,400,000,000) people in this world, and the vast majority of these people are coloured – about one billion six hundred million (1, 600,000,000) are coloured. Fifty years ago, or even twenty-five years ago, most of these one billion six hundred million lived under the yoke of some foreign power. We could turn our eyes to China and see their six hundred million men and women under the pressing yolk of British, Dutch and French rule. We could turn our eyes to Indonesia and see a hundred million men and women under the domination of the Dutch. We could turn to India and Pakistan and notice four hundred million brown men and women under the pressing yoke of the British. We could turn our eyes to Africa and notice there two hundred million men and women under the pressing yoke of the British, Dutch and French. For years all of these people were dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated.”
When King made his address in 1957, the Caribbean was also under the yoke of colonial rule. Vast portions of Latin America had achieved some measure of independence from their colonial rulers, however the region now faced a new behemoth called the United States of America, a country that had shed its own colonial shackles in 1776. By 1957 however, 180-plus years later, the U.S.A had grown in the region to become an imperial power in its own right while internally practising segregation and racism against its Black, Latino and Indigenous peoples.
This is the house that Cristóbal Colón built and while he cannot be held directly responsible for the subsequent proliferation of the injustices of imperialism throughout the world, his “discovery” must be appropriately seen in this larger historical context. The ghastly consequences of colonialism and imperialism in modern history can appropriately be termed post-Columbian, for this indeed has been an intrinsic part of his lasting legacy.
On a personal level, Christopher Columbus was a man of exceptional character, a pioneer willing to take risks in the pursuit of his vision. But he did not “discover” the new world by virtue of his four voyages between 1492 and 1502. Rather he “discovered” a new way for Europe to make money via the exploitation of people in foreign lands.
Ironically, the same iniquitous system he midwifed eventually turned against him and mistreated him in the latter part of his life. In 1500 he lost his title as “Governor of the Indies”, was arrested and shipped back to Spain in manacles along with his two brothers who had joined him to share in the looting of local wealth. The Spanish monarchy had accused him of villainous acts during the course of his governorship.
Apparently, the exploitation of others is hard work and Christopher Columbus and his henchmen worked tirelessly in the execution of their colonial mandate. They worked so hard at it they committed numerous atrocities in the process. While Spain approved of the wealth accrued from Columbus’ endeavours, they frowned publicly upon the methods he used. Spain therfore eventually abandoned Columbus but they did not abandon the idea of expoliting wealth. They and other European countries simply came up with a more systematic and improved methodology, one that they could legalize and formalize and morally justify, at least to themselves.
Recall that Spain had removed Cristóbal Colón from his Governership in 1500 ostensibly because of the atrocities he was accused of committing. It is evident from las Casas’ 1540 account that the situation had not improved since. Rather it had become even worse by comparison. The process continued over time, mutating into new and more virulent forms as the history of the region evolved under European management. Like ripples emanating from the bow of the heaving ships of Christopher Columbus, this exploitation, like undulating waves, has continued to stretch and swell outwards washing up on many shores, painfully touching many lives, known and unknown, with its stinging and stultifying wallop.
Based on a previous deal made with Spain, Columbus made a last minute bid to obtain 10 per cent of all profits made by the Spanish Crown from its expolitation of the “New World”. Columbus’claim was however met with an uncompromising rejection. History says he died a fairly wealthy man (1506). Yet, Christopher Columbus would become a collateral casualty of the same imperialistic greed with which he was aligned. Perhaps rather than revered, he should be pitied. Perhaps rather than celebrated, his life and legacy should be mourned by virtue of the havoc that has been wreaked since. Rather than the grand title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, perhaps Christopher Columbus could be considered for the title of Admiral of the Bamboozle.
Perhaps the now moribund icon can be abandoned in favour of celebrating the image of an historical personality who eschews oppression, is a champion of justice and one who can inspire progressive change. Perhaps it is about time to move on.
About Mark Lee
Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.