What Are We to Make of Columbus Today?

Lithograph depicting the landing of Christopher Columbus at San Salvador. (Library of Congress).

It being the fashion to tear down monuments these days, I assume on this Columbus Day we will see renewed efforts to tear down effigies of this supremely significant figure in world history. That would be stupid, of course, but it attests to the efforts of some people to reassess the mindless hagiography of Columbus that  marked the American response right up to the Sesquicentennial in 1992. And it brings up the question of  how we are supposed to regard this man from our perspective today.

I should admit at the outset that I am partially responsible for this new assessment of  Columbus, since my book The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy that came out in 1990 led a great many to take a second look at what the man was really like and what he really achieved.  It effectively knocked most of the wheels off the Sesquicentennial  bandwagon that I was hoping to ride to bestsellerdom.

My essential point was that Columbus was responsible for a great achievement: the opening up of “the New World” to European invasion and the subsequent enrichment and empowerment of one small impoverished continent, “the greatest event since the creation of the world,” as Spanish historian Lopez de Gomara called it in 1552. The discovery enabled Europe to become the dominant society not only in the Americas but around the world, to develop the elements both political and social that provide the basic structures of modern civilization, and in the process enabling a vast exchange of biotic and animal life-forms, purposely and accidentally, more thoroughly than any time since the Permian, allowing one single species to dominate nature around the world as never before.

Columbus believed that this significant discovery would bring him “an honorable fame throughout Christendom,” and so it has: more monuments and statues and memorials exist for him than any other secular figure in history.

But what most people, and most previous biographers, tend to forget about is that all this was accomplished at the expense of the populations of the Americas, perhaps then as many as 100 million people, with as many as 95 per cent dying from the seven-dozen European diseases introduced from 1493 to which they had no immunity.  Of the destruction of established Indian tribes and cities and civilizations, with their ages-old customs and knowledge and medicines.  And ultimately of the stable ecosystems of two continents that had been used in various ways for centuries by the Indians but still so healthy that Europeans repeatedly described them as “a wilderness,” replaced by regimes devoted to the domination of nature and the exploitation of its treasures as loot or “natural resources” for human use.

The assessment of the Columbian achievement has never been fully settled and has remained a tangled question for centuries.  But I believe that the truest measure of the Discovery was rendered most accurately and most fully in the 18th century, by one Abbe Guillaume Reynal.  In 1787 he set out to answer the question, “Was the discovery of America a blessing or a curse to humankind,” and after citing both pros and cons comes up with this conclusion:

Let us…consider ourselves as existing in the time when America and India were unknown.   Let me suppose that I address myself to the most cruel of the Europeans in the following terms.

There exist regions which will furnish you with rich metals, agreeable clothing, and delicious food.  But read this history and behold at  what price the discovery is promised to you.  Do you wish or not that it should be made?

Is it to be imagined that there exists a being infernal enough to answer this question in the affirmative!  Let it be remembered that there will not be a single instant in futurity when my question will not have the same force.”

It is for that reason, for our own self-examination as a nation, that we should leave those monuments and statues standing, so that we may look upon them and confront the Abbe’s question.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of seventeen books.  A 50th anniversary reprint of his classic SDS has been published this fall (Autonomedia).