Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Tragedy of Christopher Columbus

My semester is ending and I am entering Christmas break.  I am the kind of person who needs structure in his life, so on my breaks between semesters, I like to create structures and projects for myself.  Stagnation and boredom depress me.  Beginning this morning, I've decided to read one author from The Norton Anthology of American Literature each day during my break.

For all you non-English majors out there, The Norton Anthology of American literature is like the Bible of literature.  It begins at the beginning, and goes to present day, containing excerpts from nearly all of the major authors throughout American history.  I am approaching this Christmas break project like I used to approach reading the actual Bible...one section a day, until maybe one day I've read the whole thing.


I remember, as a kid, reading something called The One Year Bible, which divided the entire Bible into 365 readings.  So, each day, you'd read something from the Old Testament, the New Testament, a Psalm, and a Proverb.  This morning, I thought it would be neat if someone published something like The One Year Norton.  So, each day you'd read, for example, some Twain, some Native American creation stories, and maybe some Langston Hughes.  I would buy that book.

However, all I have is the good ol' Norton, so today I'm beginning at the beginning, with the very first author, who happens to be Christopher Columbus.

I must admit, at the outset, that I have pretty negative thoughts about Columbus.  My boyhood idealization of the man who "discovered" America was shattered when I read A People's History of the United States in college.  From that book, I learned how Columbus enslaved and killed thousands of Arawaks and other Native American peoples.  I was expecting the Norton selections to present disturbing records of Columbus' genocide, but instead I got two letters, written by Columbus himself, one in 1493, and the other in 1503.  The letters show a man who at first was filled with passion and wonder about the new world, but who over the course of a decade, spiraled into destitution and despair as he reflected upon his legacy.  The letters are tremendously sad.  As the Norton introduction to the letters states, "His series of four voyages between 1492 and 1504 produced a brief moment of wonder followed by a long series of disasters and disenchantments."

The first letter, written in 1493 to a Spanish court official named Luis de Santangel, is full of hope and wonder.  In it, he recounts his voyages among various islands in the Caribbean, each of which he claimed for Spain, and gave Spanish names, despite the fact that they were already inhabited and had names.  "To the first island which I found I gave the name San Salvador, in remembrance of the Divine Majesty, Who has marvelously bestowed all this; the Indians call it Guanahani," Columbus writes with all the conviction (and arrogance) of Divine purpose.

He describes the lushness of the islands: "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...in the interior are mines of metals, and the population is without number.  Espanola is a marvel."  At the beginning of his exploits in the New World, Columbus seems optimistic.

However, the years that followed would bring tragedy and death.  The Norton introduction explains: "Apparently friendly relations with the Taino Indians on the island of Hispaniola in 1492 turned sour as the settlers Columbus left behind demanded gold and sexual partners from their hosts; on his return there in 1494, none of the Europeans were alive."  On another voyage in 1498, finding new settlers in rebellion to his authority, Columbus was "Able to reach a truce only at the expense of the Taino Indians, who were to be virtually enslaved by the rebels...Columbus soon found himself under arrest, sent in chains to Spain in 1500."

Columbus's final letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in Spain, written from Jamaica, describes a weary and broken man.  "Of Espanola, Paria, and the other lands, I never think without weeping," he writes, "they are in an exhausted state; although they are not dead, the infirmity is incurable or very extensive."  In this final letter, Columbus seems mostly concerned with trying to salvage his damaged reputation.  The New World he had once described as a paradise had turned very quickly into something much darker.

"Alone in my trouble, sick, in daily expectation of death...my soul will be forgotten if it here leaves my body.  Weep for me," he writes.

While I hesitate to weep for Columbus, considering the well-documented horrors he intentionally or unintentionally brought to the New World, I can at least sympathize with him.  He may have been a monster, but we must remember that he did not see himself in that way.  He saw himself as a man.


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