Genoa, Italy (TFC) – The immense pressure on Columbus as he entered the public sphere mirrored Spain’s freshly minted role as a world superpower. Ferdinand and Isabella were reveling in the religious fervor of succeeding in the fall of the Muslims at Granada during the ‘Reconquista’; or, reconquest, uniting the entire Iberian Peninsula under Christian rule for the first time in hundreds of years. With the centralization of the Spanish crown, Columbus had his work cut out for him as he petitioned the court to supply him with men and ships to find a route to Asia which would give Spain the edge in the world markets.
Columbus’s personal letters reflect the political, economic and cultural forces that thrived in fifteenth century Europe. The role that the written word played in the formation of these narratives helps us to reflect upon and define these events and actions that took place five hundred and twenty years ago on the American continent. He was neither a statesman nor a soldier and his family was not born into nobility. He was at most an avid adventurer, with an uncanny skill at sailing. But when history presented him an opportunity to become famous, his blatant cruelty towards those who bade him no harm bled complete his devotion to the tyranny of the Church and Crown, which eventually aided in him going mad as he was led back to his native country in chains on his third and final voyage.
The Native-American humanitarian-priest, Bartolome’ De Las Casas, prepared the summary of Columbus’s first voyage for the Spanish Monarchy, declaring that our hero had offered the success of the mission up to his Christian god, “…I know that you will be pleased at the great victory with which Our Lord has crowned my voyage,” describing the ecosystem as virtual paradise, “All are most beautiful, of a thousand shapes, and all are accessible and filled with trees of a thousand kinds and tall, and they seem to touch the sky…” The intrepid explorer was in debt to Spain for the ships and men that had been provided for his journey, and with all the grand talk of the savior and his precious creation, which served as perpetual Carte Blanche for outright genocide-it all boiled down to one simple premise. Gold.
Europe on the world-stage at the time of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ was percolating from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Renaissance. Robert Divine states in his book ‘America Past and Present,’ “Medieval kingdoms were loosely organized, and until the early fifteenth century, fierce provincial loyalties, widespread ignorance of classical learning, and dreadful plagues such as the black-death discouraged people from thinking expansively about the world beyond their own immediate communities.” Secular and theological apparatuses had been buckling under the combined triage of plague, famine and war (the ‘Black Death’ had decimated a third of Europe’s 70 million human beings, compounded by a debilitating famine).That the idea of Christendom had been dissipating for some time with a new breed of secular rulers (led by Henry VIII breaking with the church, who would not grant him a divorce to Catherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn who would hopefully bear him a male heir; and, no doubt emboldened by Martin Luther King nailing those theses to the door of the church) who recognized the challenge to the papacy with its political and spiritual monopoly further added to the fragility of the state of affairs.
Christopher Columbus vaulted on to the global stage at a time when not only the (known) world was drowning in utter, desolate terror-the very threads of social mores and class struggles were bubbling up at the very edges of every aspect of reality, superstitions giving way to rational avenues of thought, but most importantly, the rise of global literacy due in part to the Gutenberg press with it’s movable type allowing mass production to reach a wider audience. In addition, the catalyst galvanizing the common man to question authority was due in part to Martin Luther King translating the Bible from Latin to German, thus omitting the priest as middle man, allowing the layman to posit on the almighty and his teachings for themselves.
As Europe commenced its journey to a print culture, the freshly-minted literary appetites of the public mirrored the overall political and cultural climates, with navigators and seaman seen as terrestrial astronauts of what Shakespeare called, ‘A brave new world.’ Richard Hakluyts masterpiece ‘The Principal Navigations (1598-1600)‘ collected the accounts of the endeavors of mariners to skirt the known world and to expand the consciousness of a malaise ridden population starved to know what was beyond known shores.
Roy Mathews and Dewitt Platt work, ‘Beginnings Through the Renaissance,’ echo these sentiments to a key, “The rise of literacy produced a growing educated class who learned to read and write the local language rather than Latin,” with the shift to vernacular in literature (i.e. Cervantes, ‘Don Quixote‘), “Two new groups-the monarchs and their courts and the urban middle class started to supplant the nobility and the church as patrons and audiences.” The common folk awoke from the yolk of feudalism to the realities of the developing modern world, who were able to exercise intellectual and political thought as the Gutenberg press was allowing them to posit for themselves ideas and stories that had separated them from the interpretation of the elites for centuries. Written works took on a new significance as people could read the bible on their own, (thanks to Martin Luther King’s translation from Latin to German) and interpret the teachings on their own – as the middleman had been eliminated.
With literature becoming integral to the everyday realities of life, Europe began to stabilize and recover due in part to the centralization of power, as Devine puts it, “The Renaissance fostered a more expansive outlook among literate people in the arts and science” which allowed the orthodoxies of the dark ages to be questioned and rationalized, fostering a perpetual sense of wonder as the common world woke to found that neither the monarchy nor the papacy could imagine what Columbus was about to bring to the known world. As European populations were being replenished in the wake of the Plague, land grew in demand and rose in price. Devine again, “Landlords profited from these trends and as their incomes expanded, they demanded more of the luxury items, such as spices, silks, and jewels that came from distant Asian ports. Economic prosperity created powerful new incentives for exploration and trade.”
All these factors were prevalent in how Columbus chose to word his letters home. He professed to be exploring for the glory of god and the crown, but in his fourth letter, an ominous tone ensues, “I did not sail upon this voyage to gain honor or wealth; this is certain, for already all hope of that was dead. I came to your highness with true devotion and with ready zeal, and I do not lie…may the Holy Trinity preserve your life and high estate, and grant you increase of prosperity.” In this fourth letter, the darker, pleading tone that replaces the inevitable optimism of initial discovery perhaps lays bare Columbus’s notion that slaughtering every Native American on sight, in the name of Christianity, perhaps was not the purest of moral imperatives that drives one’s life work, or calling in life. What he presents to his ‘masters’ appears on some level to be nothing more than what a plundering pirate stood for.
“Seven years I was at your royal court, where all to whom this undertaking was mentioned, unanimously declared it to be a delusion. Now all, down to the very tailors, seek permission to make discoveries. It can be believed that they go forth to plunder, and it is granted to them to do so, so that they greatly prejudice my honor and do very great damage to the enterprise.”
That medieval lore had given way to reliable technological and scientific knowledge was a given (Ptolemy had mapped the known world – and posited it was round – the Dark Ages had suppressed classical teachings, which the Arabs had gracefully preserved after the sacking of the Library of Alexandria in the wake of the Crusades).
With the Renaissance in full swing perhaps one would think that the spirit of discovery would foster some sort of interest in global (secular?) humanity, Devine agrees, “Sea captains published their findings as quickly as they could engage a printer (Gutenberg) and by the beginning of the sixteenth century…educated readers throughout Europe were well informed about the explorations of the New World.” It was into this world of literacy surpassing blind faith, and the edges of the known world giving birth through technology, that Columbus prepared his reports to his employers, painfully erected on the global stage as the ambassador between epochs, and he couldn’t wait to enslave and butcher every Native American in sight.
Perhaps Columbus intended his legacy to be one of wonder and temperament, tales of epic discovery unfurled within the banner of a progressing humanistic worldview. Perhaps something to usurp the contingency of legacies of brutality and violence that had marred world history since inception dates had been carved in stone.
In the wake of the flood of wealth that changed the global economy on the backs of Native Americans, Christendom morphed the monopoly it had held on the church’s politics, fashioning the economy and culture into a centralization of governmental power, embracing little tolerance for competing visions of faith-based doctrines as it commenced its place of dominance yet again in a changing world. Into this amalgam of competing narratives Columbus set forth to change the world…
There are historians who have chosen to battle this master narrative of the end justifying the means. And there is perhaps not a better progressive take than Howard Zinn, “The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual…the treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders…My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present.”
What was left after Columbus was arrested on his final voyage was that of a man marred by the inconsistencies of ideological excess and the wanton belief in martial law as the ultimate incarnation of justice via his interpretation of god’s written word.
Out of this incumbent lack of empathy for the ‘savages,’ the potential for a new age in social evolution was perhaps squandered indefinitely. These factors that allowed Spain, England and Portugal to become world super-powers set the stage for colonialism breeding third world maladies the world over, threatening the global hegemony to this day; whose seed of thought and action ultimately lay in the fevered dreaming of a simple, worldly man, Christopher Columbus.
Columbus, Christopher. “From Letters to Luis De Santangel regarding the First Voyage.” 1493. Volume A. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. 31-34. Print. Vol. A of The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4 vols. The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Divine, Robert A. Volume One: To 1877. NJ: Longman, 2011. Print. Vol. one of America past and Present. 2 vols.
Mattwhews, Roy T., and F. Dewitt Platt. Beginnings through the Renaissance. 2nd ed. Mountain View, Ca: Mayfield, 1995. Print. Vol. One of The Western Humanities. 2 vols.
Zinn, Howard. A Peoples History of the United States. NY: New, 2003. Print.