After studying numerous High School American History textbooks, James Loewen compiled the following composite biography (or perhaps more accurately mythology) of Christopher Columbus:
“Born in Genoa, of humble parents, Christopher Columbus grew up to become an experienced seafarer, venturing as far as Iceland and West Africa. His adventures convinced him that the world must be round and that the fabled riches of the East—spices and gold—could be had by sailing west, superseding the overland routes, which the Turks had closed off to commerce. To get funding for his enterprise, he beseeched monarch after monarch in Western Europe. After at first being dismissed by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Columbus finally got his chance when Isabella decided to underwrite a modest expedition. Columbus outfitted three pitifully small ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and set forth from Spain. After an arduous journey of more than two months, during which his mutinous crew almost threw him overboard, Columbus discovered the West Indies on October 12, 1492. Unfortunately, although he made three more voyages to America, he never knew he had discovered a New World. Columbus died in obscurity, unappreciated and penniless. Yet without his daring, American history would have been very different, for in a sense he made it possible.” -James Loewen
ADVENTURE CAPITALISM (THE MYTH OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS)
In the mid 1980’s, most of America agreed that Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays could be merged into “President’s Day.” Which is fascinating. Washington, a Virginian land-baron, plantation-owner with hundreds of slaves, and Lincoln the emancipator who crushed and scorched the South – would these guys have been friends? I certainly feel like I see a lot of pictures of them together. The Presidents’ Day merger, also known as the “Forget-that-Other-Day-Off” Compromise, had an additional ironic result: Now there are only two historical persons who have an American Federal holiday named after them. Columbus and Martin Luther King. I don’t think I ever, in all my childhood, saw one single coloring-book picture of Martin Luther King and Christopher Columbus together, like shaking hands, or just standing side by side looking in the same direction. I don’t believe that those two could have been friends. Every year Columbus Day is surrounded by contention and indignation. Here in the North, anyway. There are still pockets of the South where Columbus is a hero and they grumble about Martin Luther King day.
In 1989, George Bush senior said “Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished by perseverance and faith.” Today, there are some Americans, a remarkable number, who would not call slavery and genocide “monumental feats.” But George Bush was a CIA operative, who’d spent his career overthrowing elected South American governments and installing tyrannical dictators to extort natural resources for foreign investors. So we can understand his admiration. To the CIA, Christopher Columbus is like a god. “Wow – look at how he processed those foreign savages. They told him everything.” They still hold on to a little piece of Cuba, where they can celebrate their hero by torturing brown people the way Columbus once tortured the island’s natives.
Some, perhaps many of us, in this room today are not CIA operatives, and I imagine we have some mixed feelings about Christopher Columbus. Mine for example are indignation mixed with disgust. Also, admittedly mixed with “man I need a day off, and if I get one because of this mass murderer? God forgive me but – thanks, Christopher. Cristobal, whatever.”
Why do we celebrate Christopher Columbus? Your average high school graduate would likely respond that he was the first man ever to sail the ocean blue. So much for our education system. Water isn’t blue! Also, not only was Columbus NOT the first man to sail, he was also not the first person to discover America.
The first Europeans to enter and settle the land were Siberians who crossed the land-bridge to Alaska more than twelve thousand years ago. And I read recently that some of their descendants, Native Americans, later sailed across the Atlantic and got shipwrecked in Holland in 60 BCE, almost sixteen centuries before Columbus’ voyage – but nobody ever says that Native Americans “discovered” Europe. One might conclude that in our culture, discovery doesn’t count unless a white person does it. But then what about the ruddy Vikings who established villages in Canada centuries before Columbus? Recently I read that Columbus was not the first, but the LAST man to “discover America.” So why do we celebrate him?
And do we really celebrate the historical man at all, or do we celebrate a mythological creature called Christopher Colubumbus that we, ourselves, invented? For the answer to that, we’ll need to sort through some of the messy myth and midrash surrounding the famous explorer.
Biographers agree that Christoper Columbus was born, but then sources disagree about whether his family was “poor” or “prosperous.” The humble background sounds more impressive, so we go with it. The only thing we can say for certain about young Columbus and poverty is that he was Italian, but Italy had never seen the tomato or the red pepper before (they’re both new world crops). Now imagine young Cristobal growing up on all sorts of Italian foods, but now imagine these foods without the color red. That was the real poverty in Christopher’s childhood. Columbus discovered gold for Spain but he also discovered red for Italian cuisine, and that’s a gift we can all share. As a matter of fact, if someone said there was one man we could thank for introducing the tomato into Italian food? I’d say “There should be a Federal Holiday to celebrate that man.” And it turns out there is.
Columbus wrote, “With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project.” But the Lord was in no rush to open the purses of any European monarchs to finance the expedition – Columbus was ready to sail the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and eighty six, but queen Isabella handed him off to a committee of Roman Catholic bureaucrats who discussed his proposal for five years before rejecting it. Shocking headline, “Church Committee Votes to keep Things the Way They Are,” I almost had a heart-attack when I read it. But then again it’s the Church we can thank for 1492 rhyming with “blue,” I for one never would have passed High School without that useful memory-trick.
Isabella later convened another committee who also rejected the proposal, but then something fascinating happened – she decided to go ahead with Columbus’ proposal anyway. Imagine the headline, “Uppity Woman tells Church Committee to stuff it.” Why didn’t that get into our American mythology? My daughter should be coloring in a picture of Isabella dissing the bureaucrats. And it turns out, the wizened committee actually did know that the world was round, they concluded that a ship could sail west to India, but they did not believe that he would be able to sail back. Which may sound ridiculous to us, but that’s because we have a very different idea about the “round”ness of the world. Christopher Columbus and other Christians of his day believed the world was round, but not a ball. In a journal entry he described the world as being shaped like a woman’s breast, and he believed the nipple at the top would be Eden. Like every great man on every great voyage he speech-ified his lofty aims but his heart carried the deeper, secret hope of seeing tits.
Our mythology tells us that the three ships were “pitifully small” and that the voyage was “arduous” – again, sources disagree (Columbus’ journal says the weather was fine), but it’s harmless padding to keep children listening. Especially children whose hopes of worldly success are pitifully small. The mythographers also invented the near-mutiny by the crew, to give the story a little more dramatic spice, but here we should be wary of accepting the story: first of all, if these experienced sailors really thought they were going to sail over the edge of the earth – how did he get them on the ships in the first place? A coloring-book author might say the idea of the superstitious, cowardly crew harmlessly shines a more favorable light on their visionary captain, but a sociologist might argue it denigrates labor while exalting management.
We want the Columbus story to have some drama. It’s not a story about a man against the sea (which would be even more boring since the Ocean was even less interested in him than I am). It’s a story about a visionary against cowardly investors and cowardly workers. It’s a story about capitalism. It’s a mythical story about a low-born visionary with a great idea about a new way to gain wealth – but first he must contend with dim-witted investors who slow him down, then he must contend with dim-witted lazy workers. But through his perseverance…gold! Gold! Enough gold to put a cap on every tooth in the entire medieval world. Apparently that’s not what they did with it but it wouldn’t have been a bad idea. There’s a Christian expression, “Let go and let God,” and that was the state of dentistry in Medieval Europe.
…But wait a minute, what’s this? The fairy tale ends with our brave little sailor dying poor and forgotten… Nonsense. We know he was appreciated because the Spaniards immediately sent him back with more ships, he hit the mother-lode of Gold in 1499 and died rich with a magnificent title, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” that he handed down to his son. If the historical Columbus died wealthy, why must the mythological Columbus die in obscurity?
Here again, it’s a myth in support Capitalism. And if Capitalism knows anything, it’s that not every good idea will be accepted, not every innovation will be adopted, and definitely not every determined dreamer who perseveres to his last breath will get rich. The myth needs Columbus to die poor, because Capitalism needs most hard-workers to die poor and unknown.
The myth might also be a little uncomfortable with how Columbus got his fabulous wealth. Certainly he was paid handsomely by Isabella, but she gave him only a tiny fraction of what he got for Spain. And the way he got it, enslaving the friendly natives and forcing them to mine gold, cutting off their hands when they failed to meet their quotas and punishing insubordination by burning natives alive or crucifying them in rows of thirteen (in honor of Jesus and the disciples. Was Jesus in Heaven saying “Isn’t that thoughtful? Wow, thanks Chris.”). This is why we see so much discord on the subject of Columbus day – which, by the way, they don’t celebrate Columbus Day in Mexico, even though Mexico is a lot more Spanish than North America. Columbus never even set foot in North America!
But we need Columbus. Or at least the high priests of Capitalist American Nationalism need the myth of Christopher Columbus. Because his mythical biography tells us to dream big, work hard, persevere against cowardly investors and lazy laborers, forge ahead toward our golden ambitions, and if we completely fail to get rich…it doesn’t mean we were wrong, maybe we were ahead of our time. It tells us to keep our great expectations in check. I actually like that myth. Because I am a firm believer that you cannot measure success in recognition or gold – for goodness sake, I’m an adjunct professor! And for my dream I must contend with fastidious bureaucrats and dead-beat college students, and then probably wind up broke and forgotten. Unlike the real Christopher Columbus, but like the mythical hero we celebrate in October…
And that would be a really crummy ending for this sermon. It’s the major challenge of speaking about Christopher Columbus, the only suspense is – is this guy going to stop talking now? …Maybe now? Yes, Columbus finally landed, we must be getting close to the end of the story. Well I have a confession to make. I enjoy a good biography, but my heart belongs truly to economic history. And so let’s take a look at fourteen hundred and ninety three, when metals crossed the deep green sea.
The Spanish raped and pillaged and enslaved the natives to mine for gold, but they did not settle America. Spain passed on the chance to remake the New World in their own image because they had bigger plans – to remake the old world in their own image through wars of conquest. And thus, much of the stolen Spanish gold accumulated in the hands of arms merchants. The “Arms Race” of the time was naval, and so Spain’s stolen gold went to a small island known for its ship-building: England. The same English who developed superior warships for themselves, eventually trashed the Spanish fleet and took control of the high seas. So much for Spain.
But this flood of New World gold and silver changed Europe in another unforeseen way – in feudal Europe, the basis of wealth was land. But land could only be traded locally, and transporting the goods of agriculture and livestock for foreign trade was a bulky, cumbersome enterprise. The arrival of precious metals from the New World tripled the Europe’s supply of gold and silver in just fifty years, giving rise to a new measure of wealth: capital. Mass-produced silver coins induced a whole new era of world trade. The flood of silver quickly destabilized the value of African gold and middle-Eastern silver, breaking the economic power of Africa and the Middle East. Almost overnight, primitive feudal Europe became the nouveau riche, snubbing the educated, refined Middle East to the point that our culture has forgotten that the early centuries of Islam were an intellectual renaissance. And the Muslim nations, disgusted by tacky European sensualist commercialism, responded by becoming the restrictive, conservative cultures we associate with Middle-Eastern Islam today. It’s a historical irony that Christopher Columbus was looking for a sea-route to trade around the Middle East and Africa, and his voyage inadvertently crippled their economies. The African gold-trade was hurt so bad that some African nations chose to stay in the world-trade game by selling human beings.
This era of World Trade, gold and silver and human slaves packed in boats, capital on the move, required whole new systems – this was not the peasant market of bartered goods and services, this was a complex global economy. Within two centuries of Columbus we see the first multinational corporations, world-banks in Amsterdam and England, the first stock exchange opened in 1602. Karl Marx commented “the discovery of gold in America [and] turning Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”
Christopher Columbus wrote that “all of this Christendom should feel joyful and make great celebrations and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity [first for] the salvation of so many peoples to our holy faith and, secondly, for the material benefits which will bring refreshment and profit.” Whether Columbus saved any souls is debatable – he certainly sent God a lot of souls to sort out. But there’s no arguing about the material benefits – Christendom entered the age of Capitalism, and Capitalism has shaped our mythological narrative of Christopher Columbus. Capitalism remade Columbus in its own image.
I don’t know who Christopher Columbus really was. I never said I was going to reveal something shocking about the “real” Christopher Columbus. I should have. I should have lied. But I didn’t. That’s why I’m wearing a dead man’s shirt, 99 cents at the Salvation Army. And someday when the shirt goes back to the Salvation Army, having been owned by two dead men, that’s what it’ll say on my tombstone: he should have lied.
But there’s a great quote from Columbus, something he may have said when his eyes first fell on the coast of the New World: “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which He spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah, and he showed me where to find it.” I’d like to think that his first thought was of the re-creation…spoiler-alert: the Bible doesn’t just end with destruction, it ends with God re-creating the world, starting over. And world 2.0 is a cube. Maybe Columbus, weary of the nipple-search on a breast-shaped world, longed for a flat earth where God had smoothed all the rough edges and pulverized all the jerks. Maybe he really believed the world could be new again. And when he then didn’t see that dramatic revelation-change, maybe all that gold was just a consolation prize.
The first thing Columbus did when he saw the friendly natives was to give a prepared speech, in Spanish, to let them know that they had to become Christians and that neither he nor Spain were legally responsible for any harm they did to the natives if they refused. Columbus could have discovered a “new world” of minds untainted by old greed, but he didn’t because as soon as he saw someone different from himself, he started talking, speech-ifying. If he could have shut up and listened to someone different, he could have discovered something far more valuable than gold. The real “treasure” of the New World is the beautiful and practical wisdom of its natives, something some of us are just beginning to acknowledge, appreciate, five hundred years after first contact.
And yet we live in a time when everybody wants to shout, nobody wants to listen. We’re still being taught, and our children are being taught by the people on TV – when you see someone who looks or thinks differently from you, cover your ears and start shouting. You don’t even have to think about what you’re going to say, it doesn’t even need to make any sense, just for God’s sake keep shouting. The one who interrupts the most times is the winner.
I want this sermon to end with a joke, so here it is: A guy in a tie stood up and talked for twenty-two straight minutes, and at the end of it he said, “We as a culture, before we launch into long diatribes, we need, first to learn how to listen.” Because if history has taught us anything we can learn more by listening than by talking. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow.
Main sources consulted:
Loewen, James Lies my Teacher Told Me (New Press, New York 1995)
Weatherford, Jack Indian Givers (Fawcett Columbine, New York 1988)