Monday, October 10, 2011

Books: The Many Faces of Columbus

It is Columbus Day here in the U.S. which, even when I was a kid back when we actually celebrated Lincoln and Washington on separate days, had and still has very little meaning. I don’t think we get mail today, right? Anyway, this is the kind of day you wish you were Canadian; happy Thanksgiving to all you all.

Columbus has fallen on hard times in the opinion polls, as I’m sure we’re all aware. When I was young he was an important explorer; now he’s been denigrated to meddling mass murderer – weapon of choice: syphilis. My Dad was a member of the Knights of Columbus; now that Catholic confraternity just calls themselves “Knights”. Lo, how the mighty have fallen.

But even historical degradation – deserved or not – can be taken too far. That is exactly the feeling I got when I saw the headline of this article over at The Washington Post: “Was Christopher Columbus on a Religious Crusade?” The first sentence screams:

Two recent books argue that explorers Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were more like Christian crusaders than greedy mercenaries or curious adventurers.

First off, awesome overuse of adjectives there and then second, are all those things really mutually exclusive? Couldn’t we reasonably say that Columbus was greedy for glory and sought it as an adventurer, tacking his Catholic faith on when his zeal for notoriety didn’t quite live up to his expectations?

As far as Carol Delaney is concerned, the answer to that question must be no. In her book Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem she posits that Columbus was seeking wealth in India to fund a Crusade against the Muslims, thus taking back the Holy Land for Christendom and, I gather, setting the stage for the second coming of Christ. I am not making that up.

If all that doesn’t make you too dizzy to read more, the other book discussed in the article is even more to the same point. Entitled Holy War and written by “… British writer and amateur historian” Nigel Cliff, this book basically says the same thing about Vasco da Gama. Da Gama, a contemporary of Columbus, sailed around Africa to actually get to India; something Columbus never managed.

Mr. Cliff is quoted in the article as saying:

… mere economic advantage wasn’t a medieval concept.

Reread that if you need to and then let’s break it down. Both Portugal and Spain – just like all their European neighbors – were busy growing a burgeoning merchant class at the end of the 15th century. Wars had emptied royal coffers all over the continent and every head of state, having tasted the wealth of the East during the actual Crusades, wanted more, more, more. Nationalism had become a viable commodity by 1492 and, like the Cold War arms race, the rush to acquire new lands and the gold they held was on. To discount economic advantage as the springboard for the Age of Exploration is tantamount to saying pirates didn’t really want loot, they just liked to risk their own lives.

Evidently I’m not the only one who sees shades of mischief among these “theories”. Two rather famous historians, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto of the University of Notre Dame and Sanjay Subrahmanyam of UCLA have both cried foul. As Fernandez-Armesto notes:

… a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam [is] “a figment of contemporary imaginations”; Subrahmanyam said it is “sensationalizing history by linking it with contemporary events.”

Well put indeed. Fernandez-Armesto strikes the final blow by accusing both Cliff and Delaney of using provocative but unprovable theories to get published and sell copy:

If you are taking refuge from another discipline in the belief that history is easy, without bothering to do the basic work… you will deserve to fail.

And that’s Jenga as far as I’m concerned. Columbus was a glory hound and – worst of all in my opinion – a very poor sailor. It’s hard to imagine that a man so caught up in his own existence would trouble himself to be passionately anti-Islam. If you’d like to see what he was thinking in his own words, you can peruse Columbus’ journals at Fordham University’s website.

With that, Happy Columbus Day and best of luck to Cliff and Delaney; that said, I won’t be reading their offerings any time soon. There are more pirates to research, after all.

Header: Book cover via Amazon online


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Well played... "And that’s Jenga"... Nice "Paul" reference there.

In all seriousness, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Columbus was anti-Islam, but not to the extent that it was main focus (or anything even close to it). That's just silly. Columbus obviously had a lot of failings for which he is an easy target by modern revisionist historians, but let's not forget that he also had a lot more balls than most people of his own era, let alone our current society.

Pauline said...

I can't argue with you at all. Setting out on the open ocean without knowing where, exactly, you're going is gutsy whether your Columbus, a group of Polynesians or some Pilgrims. What you do when you get there is another issue all together.

And yeah; had to slide the "Paul" reference in there.

Anonymous said...

Pauline, whether Columbus was after glory, wealth, or on a religious crusade (which I doubt), I'm glad he broke the ice. Otherwise I'd probably be grubbing away in a potato patch in Ireland. So here's to ye, Chris, me lad.

Pauline said...

I can't disagree by any means, dberry.

Capt. John Swallow said...

Sensationalizing history indeed...what absolute rubbish.

For the record...(and dberry4captainkate take special note):

Christophe Colombe (aka Christopher Columbus), the Genoese Italian, had a map…which the Spanish borrowed from the Vatican…who stole it from the Irish, who drew it on finding the New World about 525AD (St. Brendan The Navigator) – the same place the Vikings landed 500 years after that, and called Vinland (present day Newfoundland, Canada).
…as it happens, Columbus couldn’t really follow a map either, since he was several thousand miles off course (probably had it upside down and refused to admit it).

I won't even touch on the fact that Columbus should have his photo in encyclopedia as the originator o' "Genocide In The New World"...

Pauline said...

As always, you've added a lot of thought provoking history to the discussion, Captain. Thankee. Of course some would argue that Columbus only vaguely touched upon a long, bloody tradition of treating all indigenous people brutally. And he certainly didn't originate the idea; the Romans come to mind, here.

As a curious aside, the late, great Peter Steele of the band Type O Negative advocated renaming North America Vineland in celebration of his Viking ancestors. Some of the most astonishing people have good historical recall.