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A Columbus Day High

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Columbus Day:  October 10, 2016

Here we are in the Americas 523 years after Christopher Columbus became ostensibly the first white person to discover the new world. At 2:00 am on October 12, 1492 Colombus’s crew spotted the island in the Bahamas that became the first point of contact. Columbus named the island San Salvador. Others called it Hispaniola. We do not know precisely today which island in the Bahamas Columbus visited first but Watling Island usually presumed the place today.

In February 1493 on voyage back to Spain Columbus described in detail his encounters with the Taino natives on the island in his “Letter to Luis de Santagel Regarding the First Voyage” which you can access at http://www.ushistory.org/documents/columbus.htm.

Columbus has served as a punching bag for historians at least since the 500-year anniversary of the original voyage. Maybe he deserves his fate. Let’s see what his interpretation of his first encounter was.

As always, I encourage you to interact with me and other readers with your comments and, I hope, discussion. And it doesn’t matter when you encounter The Literary Life blog or when you read this posting for the first time. I hope all discussions will be ongoing.

Early in the letter Columbus writes, “And there I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.”

Let’s examine this passage. Notice his point of view: he is an outsider who has stumbled upon this island. But he offers no deference to those who inhabit the place. He finds a “people innumerable.” Now whatever island geographically this was, it had to be relatively small. Historians’ estimates vary widely from 100,000 to eight million. Even at the small estimate, there were a lot of people wandering around up and down the beaches when the Santa Maria landed.

Imagine you are in your boat at 2:00 am and you spot an island. Early after first light you land and go ashore. Thousands of people are swarming around everywhere. In the distance you can see the villages and towns. It’s as if you landed at Santa Monica beach near the pier with its Ferris wheel starting its first ride. The skyline of the entire LA area is visible. What would be your reaction?

For one thing, would you do what Columbus did? He says, “I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled.” Would you plant your flag on the Santa Monica beach and declare it all yours?

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What are the underlying assumptions of Columbus’s late medieval worldview that he could blithely make such a statement? Columbus declares that he has “taken possession” of the islands for “their highnesses” Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. What kind of attitude toward the native inhabitants’ rights underlies this ritual of possession that Columbus employed?

Columbus is clearly aware that the lands he “discovered” already have native names. In this letter, he explains that the Arawak Indians call their island “Guanahani.” Yet Columbus seems to have no reluctance about renaming the island San Salvador, for religious reasons, of course. Why in the world would he feel justified in renaming the islands? What might he have hoped to accomplish in bestowing these Spanish names?

Columbus sends two of his men inland to explore “to learn if there were a king or great cities.” Obviously, that’s not what they found. But notice: “They traveled three day’s journey and found an infinity of small hamlets and people without number, but nothing of importance.” Thousands if not millions of people all about, yet his scouts found nothing of importance. If Columbus’s men found nothing of importance, what were they looking for that would have been important? What was utterly unimportant to Columbus?

One last thing: at the end of this letter Columbus describes the New World. He describes it in almost Edenic terms and ends by saying “Española is a marvel.” What makes it a marvel, in Columbus’s eyes? Is Columbus simply admiring the beauties of nature?

So there you have it, your Columbus Day high. Enjoy your Monday.

(A Literary Life Classic from October 12, 2015)

 

 

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