Excuse me for noticing, but haven’t we been commemorating Columbus’s quincentennial in the wrong year? I know that dates and math aren’t America’s strong suit right now, but it doesn’t take advanced calculus to figure that 1492 plus 500 equals 1992.
What is it about Columbus that makes for botched commemoration? The Quatercentennial Columbian Exposition opened a year late, in 1893, delayed by the enormous scale of the show and by the protesting groups (yes, even then) who saw themselves more as victims than as beneficiaries of 1492. A century later, in a culture notorious for its brutally short attention span, the clock has been advanced a year. The predictable events—the PBS series, the special issue of Newsweek, an enormous autumnal harvest of biographies, the museum exhibitions—have all come and nearly gone, making it virtually impossible to avoid a feeling of anticlimax when October 12, 1992, finally rolls around.
There is the possibility, of course, that fooling around with the date may represent some learned allusion to the replacement of the Julian calendar by the Gregorian calendar, but perhaps not. More likely, advancing the timetable of commemoration was the impulse of publishers, producers, and curators who worried that they would be overtaken by a jaded public and a short shelf life for Columbiana. Then again, with the multicultural wind blowing strong offshore, there is certainly some nervousness about focusing too precisely on a particular date, a particular person, a particular historical moment; a nagging anxiety that bothersome ghosts might be disturbed. Better to take refuge in cosily inclusive generalizations.
For anniversaries can be risky business. In 1688 the centenary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada helped to crystallize hostility to the Catholic Stuart King James II, and legitimized an appeal to Dutch William in the name of imperiled English liberties. A century later the centennial of that Glorious Revolution in 1788 seemed to Friends of Liberty on both sides of the English Channel to herald a new crisis for absolutism. And in 1989, Chinese students erected a Goddess of Liberty in Tiananmen Square modeled on both French and American iconographic types.
There may indeed be Some Unpleasantness in the offing. On the First day of 1992, for example, a lineal descendent of the Admiral of the Ocean Seas is to act as marshal at the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena; but angry Native American activists have already ensured that there are likely to be thorns among the petals. So was it a sense of pre-emptive prudence that moved the National Gallery to call its megashow “Circa 1492” and to exhibit it circa 1991? In am case, the notion of simultaneously specifying a date and generalizing it is self-defeating, rather as if one made an appointment for approximately 3:21 p.m.
What we have at the National Gallery, in fact, is the Blockbuster That Lost Its Nerve: an exhibition that manages to be both astonishingly bold and depressingly pusillanimous, not least in its studied refusal to consider head-on the phenomenon of Columbus himself and the historical experience of his four voyages. Only one of the 569 objects in the exhibition relates directly to the Admiral. It is the woodcut-illustrated Basel edition of his famous letter written on the homeward journey and published just fifty-four days after his return, one of the most astonishing moments in the history of Renaissance publishing and heroic self-promotion. Not that one would know this from the dry caption on the wall; but then Columbus appears only twice in the wall captions (once as Columbus, Ohio).
He does a little better in the extraordinary catalog, which is a major contribution to the historical literature of the European encounter with other cultures, especially in the cartographic articles by David Woodward and Francis Maddison. But even in the book Columbus features more prominently as a counterfactual case. Thus, dense articles on Asian art and culture, in keeping with the considerable space given to them in the show, present what Columbus would have seen had he actually made landfall in Japan, or in Korea, or in China, or in India.
Not only has the Admiral gone missing, so has 1492. For it is precisely the Iberian cultures that had their most traumatic moments in that year—the cultures of Moorish Granada and Hispanic Judaism—that are most scantily represented. There are a score or more objects (all of stunning quality) from Ottoman Turkey, Mamluk Egypt, and Iran, but only two items, including the so-called sword of Boabdil, the last ruler of the shrunken Moorish state, from Granada. Jewish Spain is also represented by just two objects, a Passover dish and the exquisitely illuminated Lisbon Bible from the British Library, inexplicably opened (in its reproduction in the catalog, too) to a sampling of the laws of leprosy.
Still, if there are glaring absences in “Circa 1492,” there are also extraordinary presences. By globally contextualizing the Columbian moment, the show has succeeded in suggesting, through thoughtfully chosen and ravishingly beautiful examples, alternative cultural encounters to the one that actually took place on Guanahani on October 12. Chinese figures carrying Ming blue and white porcelain appear in an Iranian silk scroll. A spectacular Bini ivory saltcellar carved in West Africa for the export trade to Europe features figures of the fearsomely whiskery Portuguese. Christopher Weiditz’s sympathetic drawings of the Aztecs, brought back to Spain by Hernán Cortés, depict the natives playing their wonderful version of tlachtli, or buttockball, in which the solid rubber ball could only be struck with the elbow or the rump.
Frederick Mote’s fine essay on Ming China, moreover, draws attention to the ambitious western voyages of the imperial eunuch-admiral (a wonderful concept, unlikely to win favor at Annapolis) Zheng-he. The comparison with European exploration is indeed instructive. For although the Chinese preferred a massive display of authority (hundreds of junks, and 20,000 or more soldiers and sailors) to conversion by fire and sword, they were hardly models of multicultural pluralism. Their explorers assumed that barbarian cultures would be so awed by the omnipotence of the Middle Kingdom that they would gladly submit to a tributary relationship as the price of being admitted to its imperium.
Given this extraordinary cornucopia of gorgeous items brought together from four continents, it seems rather churlish to cavil at the revisionism of the exercise. But it is precisely the superabundance of the event, the feeling of massive cultural bloat with which one leaves the show, that is so troubling. However worthily uncolonial the goals of the exhibition may have been, it is hard to go into a gallery brimming with glittering golden objects without feeling a little like the Peruvian conquistadors, who demanded that chambers be filled to the ceiling with gold as the ransom for the doomed Inca Atahualpa. The insatiable omnivorousness of the exhibition puts one in mind of what Barthes, in a famous essay about another consumer-crazed culture, the seventeenth-century Dutch, called “the empire of things.”
It is a peculiar irony that an exhibition so single-minded in its avoidance of the celebratory pieties of Western colonialism, a show so politically correct and diplomatically correct (and so multicultural in its corporate sponsors), should finally exemplify one of the values that it ostensibly deplores: the cultural power of metropolitan institutions. In this case, the acquisitive conqueror is not the Spanish crown, it is the National Gallery. For what we have here is nothing less than an imperial enterprise, authentically American in scale, so heroic and stupendous as to stun the beholder into critical submission—the last museological hurrah (one hopes) of the excessively gilded 1980s, the curatorial equivalent of a Malcolm Forbes party.
And the curatorial equivalent, too, of one of those multidecker Stage Deli sandwiches stuffed with brilliant and alluring ingredients that prove, after a while, to be punitively indigestible. For this megashow is not really a single exhibition at all, but multiple exhibitions, more or less under one roof. Hispano-Lusitanian art, Ottoman art, African art, Asian art, Meso-American art all enfilade into one another, with contemporaneity as their justifying connection. One of the most spectacular of the shows within the show presents a display of Renaissance paintings, drawings, and prints, ostensibly with the aim of demonstrating how scientific observation and the exploration of perspective were the necessary conditions of geographical exploration. And some of the items in these rooms, such as Leonardo’s anatomical drawings, do indeed speak to the issue, though they have nothing to do with the visionary fabulism that lay at the heart of Columbus’s own mission.
Still, even if the connection is taken, what is Cranach’s painting of the Nymph of the Sacred Well doing here? And more to the point, what does Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine—the image used as the public relations emblem for the entire enterprise—have to do with 1492, or with science, or with the history of the colonial encounter in America? If there is a compelling intellectual reason, other than the precise naturalistic rendering of a stoat, for this precious panel to have been freighted from Kraków to Washington, it is certainly lost on me. And even if the delicate and sympathetic drawing by Dürer of Katherina, a black Moorish servant to a Portuguese merchant, speaks to the problem of cross-cultural images, it is impossible to make the same case for his painted portrait of a Venetian Lady (especially since she might have been German).
In his introduction to the catalog, Jay Levenson, the curator of the exhibition, claims that “difficult choices had to be made in each of the major sections of the show, and if a particular culture is not represented then it is likely to be because it is less central to the theme of the exhibition rather than because of any shortcoming in its artistic creations.” But the immense disparity between, say, the Hispanic-Judaic representation and the Italian Renaissance drawings hardly bears this out. In fact, the criteria for inclusion and exclusion seem to have simply collapsed into a curatorial appetite beside which the procurement policy of the Pentagon looks positively cheese-paring. The guiding rule seems to have been, if it’s out there and it’s circa fifteenth century and it’s beautiful and it’s available, then go for it. It is a principle of incorporation that would have been familiar to the wunderkammer collectors of the time.
In all this transshipment there is at least some unwitting connection with Columbus, for in his Book of Prophecies, an anthology of sacred texts and fragments compiled in 1501, these verses, I Kings 10:21-22, are prominently displayed:
there was no silver nor was any account made of it in the
days of Solomon. For the King’s navy, once in three years went with
the navy of Hiram by sea to Tarshish and brought from thence gold
and silver, elephants’ teeth and apes and peacocks.
In the end, however, the whole becomes less than the sum of its parts. The glutted density of the show subverts one of its implicit purposes: to give as much careful attention to the masterpieces of non-European culture as one would to a Dürer or a Leonardo. Visitors from out of town, however, must strictly ration their time, and those steered by the gallery’s tapes will experience approximately half an hour of West Africa, fifteen minutes of India (the culture most brutally compressed), half an hour of Korea, and so on, until they arrive, their aesthetic machinery in serious overload, at the American realms of gold, by which point it becomes virtually impossible to do justice to the complicated splendor of Tupinamba feather capes, and the remarkable textiles of the Inca (peculiarly and pedantically spelled “Inka”), and the strangely wonderful “vomiting spatulas” of the Tainos—the people whom Columbus actually encountered on Guanahani and Hispaniola.
The effect is not unlikè those multicultural text-books designed around the principle of Least Offense. The claims of each ethnic and cultural constituency are judiciously weighed in so many pages and graphically represented in so many visuals, sidebars, and charts. Exquisite care is taken not to commit any act of vulgar Eurocentricity, or to cast aspersions on non-European cultures by suggesting that, like the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions, they, too, may have had their share of cruelty, narrow-mindedness, and fanaticism. But to recast the pieties of a historiographical tradition dominated by sagas of Western saintliness and native savagery into its precise opposite is simply to replace one kind of reductionism with another.
Western culture has been culpable of demonizing and patronizing its victims as primitives; but redress through idealization commits only another form of condescension quite as egregious, by robbing such cultures of their human complexity, of a plausible complement of vices as well as virtues. Perhaps this is why I was relieved (if that is the word) to see the horrific obsidian sacrificial knives of the Aztecs given proper prominence in the exhibition. For what happened at Tenochtitlán, when Cortés’s conquistadors burst into the Aztec empire, was that one cult of military fatalism and sacrificial ritual, in which blood was invested with the power of resurrection, was confronted with another. In 1487, for example, between 20,000 and 80,000 prisoners (the different sources, Nauhatl as well as Spanish, give different figures) were sacrificed at the dedication of the new Great Temple. According to the historian Friedrich Katz, they stood in four columns, stretching over two miles, before the Chief Speaker Ahuitzotl and his deputy collapsed in exhaustion from tearing out bleeding hearts, hour after hour.
It should have been possible to do justice in such an exhibition to all these terrible and fateful events without white-washing either culture, and on a scale that would have given them more historical immediacy and vividness. A historically more rigorous design for a Mother of All Blockbusters would have sufficed with the exhibits of Portuguese, Spanish, Moorish, and Jewish artifacts; the instruments and the documents of navigation (which include some of the most extraordinary items, such as the sole copy of the Martin Waldseemuller map of 1507, and the great Catalan Atlas of 1375); and the stunning art and artifacts of indigenous America. What would have been lost in encyclopedic inclusiveness would have been gained in narrative coherence.
These problems of selection and scale, though, are only symptoms of a deeper failure to understand what it means to historicize. Columbus’s conspicuous banishment from the exhibition exemplifies the kind of approach that is willing to sacrifice the consideration of historical agency to a kind of milquetoast universalism. The mere presentation of contemporaneity, after all, explains nothing. Instead, the whole invidious, conflict-ridden mess of history disappears within the embrace of synchronicity. In the weightless historical space called “Circa 1492,” no particular persons or powers actually bring about events. Indeed, there are no events; there are only phenomena hazily defined, formed and reformed and deformed with the shifting winds and tides of the zeitgeist, now medieval, now renaissance, now scientific-empirical-capitalist.
Presumably this exercise in cultural latitudinarianism is meant to pre-empt the anger and the agitation that would inevitably be directed at the commemoration of a particular historical event and its author—as if to remember is to endorse. But commemorations, when they are seriously conceived and broadly addressed, are not the same as celebrations. The original meaning of historia, of course, is “inquiry.” If inquiry is confined, however, only to reiterating the piety of forefathers, if remembering is indeed to be equated with endorsement, then Hitler and Stalin may repose undisturbed.
Such a conveniently emasculated version of historical understanding would be especially inappropriate for the encounter between Catholic Europe and the Americas. For whatever the atrocities inflicted by the conquistadors (and their fellow travelers, the European microbes), the impressive fact remains that the historians of the Spanish empire never suppressed them. Indeed, the immense chronicle of Bartolome de las Casas and his many successors recorded the honors in the most unsparing detail. Conversely, it does no service to an understanding of native American cultures to cloak them in a mantle of innocence and virtue: to pretend, for example, that the hostile relationship between the Carib and the Arawak peoples was a European fantasy, or that cults of human sacrifice were strictly Aztec and didn’t have a much older and widespread history throughout earlier Maya, Mixtec, and Diquis cultures.
This is an acute problem, obviously, for histories that are consciously designed as reparation. Thus, in his introduction to America in 1492, a collection of essays on indigenous American cultures, Alvin M. Josephy Jr. professes to discard both the myth of savagery and the myth of Eden (the latter myth completely overwhelms Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise). Yet from the start he indignantly rejects reports of cannibalism among the Caribs (and, by extension, other American societies) as a typically abusive Eurocentric fantasy, fed by medieval marvel literature like the Voyages of Sir John Mandeville. In an essay on south American cultures in the same book, however, Louis C. Faron writes that “the Tupinamba and others like the Carib and Cubeo considered the eating of human flesh a ritual act, part of their belief in consubstantiation.” In what may rank as the most startling throwaway line of quincentennial literature, Faron remarks that “a time for torturing and eating the captives was set but until then there was no harsh treatment of the prisoners.” And he switches to a Julia Child-like breeziness in describing the practices of the Mundurucu: “Long before the men’s return to the village the brains were removed and the teeth were taken out …, the head was then parboiled and dried …”
Of course one might produce, in a trice, countless instances from the European millennia of comparable horror. But the history of cultural encounters is not well served by grisliness contests, in which the most wretched atrocity is deemed the most representative social practice. In the same way, it makes no sense whatsoever for Sale to caricature European agronomy in the early modern period as based exclusively on the principle of “warring against species,” while non-Europeans idyllically harmonize with land and landscape. To clean up the history of the Americas is worse than to ignore it, or to subordinate it to Eurocentric notions of the “primitive”; it is to subject it to a crippling form of moral depletion.
“Ah … Colon, they [meaning us] … live out your legacy, your destiny, more successfully and more grandly, if more terribly, than you ever could have dreamed.” Thus Kirkpatrick Sale, to the shade of the Admiral. Sale is ready to convict Columbus for pretty much everything that has been wrong with the planet from then until now, including the extinction of the Great Auk and the Eskimo curlew, and for all I know Wonderbread and the hole in the ozone layer, too. There is a kind of puritan, brimstone astringency to Sale’s book (along with some genuinely wonderful passages of narrative), though it helps at least to cut the treacle of the surviving eulogies.
Paolo Taviani, at the opposite extreme from Sale, seeks to reclaim Columbus from the biographical tradition of the WASPified dauntless mariner invented by Washington Irving and William Prescott and perpetuated by Samuel Eliot Morison. But in so doing he characterizes Columbus not only as “an extraordinary genius,” but as an extraordinary Italian genius, one of “a host of Italian geniuses,” as a Renaissance prodigy, self-made and self-taught (the latter is certainly true), and worthy to lie in a pantheon with Leonardo and Dante. This may be an ominous sign of things to come: the breast-beating of American self-criticism in 1991 superseded by Hispano-Italian hagiography in 1992, a year already designated as opening a new epoch in European history.
Paradoxically, both the defenders and the prosecutors fight their battles on the same premise, namely that Columbus and 1492 represent, for good or ill, the advent of modernity. This assumption was emblematically expressed by the National Gallery, too, when it decided to conclude its show with a photograph of the Earth from space. And it is also the organizing concept of Harnett Litvinoff’s rather plodding book, in which he “seeks to reach down to the stirrings of modernism’s miscalculations.”
For the eulogists, Columbus was the embodiment of Renaissance empiricism, a mixture of intrepid perseverance, maritime savvy, and colonial acquisitiveness. For the critics, he was an agent of cultural and demographic annihilation. For all of them, however, he was a paradigm of the modern, brutally smashing into fatalistic or innocently traditional worlds. That, everyone seems to agree, was his accomplishment or his offense. And that, to quote Ira Gershwin, is why “they all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round.”
Now we all know that there was no one of any account in 1492 who did not know that the world was round. But the reversal of the commonplace can be taken much further. There are two documents in which Columbus reports that he was indeed laughed at, or at least smiled at. The first is an entry of his diary for December 26, as reproduced (and, as David Henige brilliantly argues, heavily edited) by Las Casas. In this text, the Admiral refers to his request to Ferdinand and Isabella: “I declared to your Majesties that all the profits of my enterprise should be spent in the conquest of Jerusalem. Your Majesties laughed and said it pleased you and even without this you had that strong desire …”
The second is a letter from the autumn of 1501, between the third and the fourth voyage, written by Columbus from the Carthusian monastery of Nuestra Señora de las Cuevas, in which he bitterly complains that “all who found out about my project denounced it with laughter and ridiculed me.” The text-book interpretation of this remark is that the visionary boldness of Columbus’s original proposal had been greeted with derision by dug-in conservatives. But the knowledge that we have gained of Columbus’s mentality, particularly from recent editions of less well-known documents such as his Book of Prophecies, which was written about the same time as his letter, forces us to stand the traditional interpretation on its head.
In fact, it was Columbus’s skeptics and inquisitors—from the Portuguese monarch Joaõr; II and his Jewish advisers to the Spanish Talavera Commission, which rejected his case in 1492—who should be called the empiricists and the cost-conscious entrepreneurs of practical colonialism, mercantile or religious. After all, what confronted them in the person of Columbus was someone who had the relative magnitude of land masses and the oceans completely wrong; who preposterously abbreviated both the estimate of the globe’s circumference and the breadth of the distance from the Canaries to “Cipango” (Japan). For all his years of practical nautical experience, as far east as Chios and as far west into the Atlantic as Ireland and possibly Iceland, Columbus’s insistence on going west to Cathay represented the subjection of the cumulative and detailed knowledge on portulan charts to the holistic spiritual vision embodied in the mappamundi tradition and the ancient maps with Jerusalem at their center. When he finally embarked in the Santa Maria at Palos, Columbus was not holding course for modernity. He was sailing away into a fabulous neo-Ptolemaic wonder-world.
A number of the quincentennial biographies recognize the messianic and mythical role that Columbus invented for himself. John Noble Wilford, in a book otherwise oddly adrift between history and historiography, gives the Book of Prophecies the full importance it deserves (as does Sale, though for him it is yet more evidence of the apocalypse to be visited on the defenseless indigenes). Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in much the sprightliest and the most acutely intelligent of all the biographies, is likewise most illuminating when he is dealing with the aspects of Columbus’s story most amenable to traditional historical analysis. As one might expect from a scholar whose first research was on the colonization of the Canary Islands (a more crucial episode than one might imagine), Fernández-Armesto is wonderfully informative on the sites of colonial preparation (Portuguese Madeira was Columbus’s home for many years), and even better on the axis of Genoese commerce and money without which Spanish imperialism would have foundered. Still, he is perhaps too Britishly inclined to make much of Columbus the social climber.
Columbus was indeed obsessed with turning himself and his family into lords, as his other eloquently strange project, The Book of Privileges, attests. From the beginning of the Atlantic project, however, there were other, even odder visions that swam in his brain. Going west to go east, Columbus imagined audiences with the “Great Khan” and contacts with the mysterious Christian prince Prester John, which might open a second front against Ottoman Islam. The enterprise of the Indies was about far more than interloping in the Portuguese-dominated spice routes. Its objective was nothing less than the fulfillment of the crusading vocation: the liberation of the Holy Places and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.
No wonder, then, that Columbus was for so long dismissed as a madman, since in some degree he was one. Indeed, it is his stubborn peculiarity, his remoteness from the self-evident nostrums of European imperialism that make Columbus so complicated and fascinating. So far from seeing his voyages as the inauguration of some expansive and illimitable age, he actually defined their success as hastening the Coming of the Last Days, in an eschatology he took from the Calabrian abbot Joachim of Fiore. His desperate sense of urgency about his enterprise was largely determined by elaborate chronological calculations, based on scriptural reckonings and on the calendar proposed in Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi, which told him that in 1492 there were just 155 days left to mankind before the Apocalypse.
“I was not aided by intelligence, by mathematics or by maps,” Columbus said in the letter of 1500 to Ferdinand and Isabella that prefaces the Book of Prophecies. “It was simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied.” So much for Columbus the proto-modern man, and so much for the kind of exploration that Ameritech declares, in its supporting publicity for the National Gallery show, “was made possible by art and science.”
This does not mean that Columbus’s mentality should be conveniently refiled under “anachronisms, medieval,” though that would be a less false description than the conventional one. For such a classification begs the large issue of what we imagine the track of modernity, of Western modernity in particular, to have been. If we assume the course of modernity to have consisted in a long march of Aristotelian objectification, accelerated now and then by Baconian induction, and continuing onward through the Enlightenment to a world governed by the insights of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, then Columbus may indeed be written off as a cultural freak, and his place in the history hooks may be judged the result of the wildest contingency: south to the Canaries, turn right, and follow your dream directly to Cathay.
But to see Columbus as owing more to Roger Bacon than to the antecedents of Francis Bacon, as pursuing a mystically charged dream of the Ideal, hoping to bump into Japan and the Terrestrial Paradise on the way, is not at all to write him off. It is to put him, instead, in the company of other neo-Platonist souls whose work we conventionally assume to have modernized our universe, but for whom, by their own lights, astrology meant as much as astronomy. Kepler and Newton in particular would have their tents pitched in the same corner of the Elysian Fields as the stargazy Admiral.
Thus, in keeping with the neo-Platonist cult of sublime disclosure and revelation, we should perhaps take more seriously Columbus’s preoccupation with his own name, and especially with the cryptic way that he encoded it in the mystic triangle that, from 1498 onward, he commanded would be the only way his heirs should sign themselves. Though the precise meaning of the symbol remains obscure, we do know that the Admiral meditated, before his third voyage, on the marvel by which his name appeared to prophesy his life: a perfect neo-Platonist conceit. It was preordained, he believed, that he should be Christoferens, or the Christ-bearer, the carrier of the evangel to the nations of the world. In Spanish, moreover, he was Colon, the populator, not merely with new men but also indigenes who would be made new by their conversion to the true faith. And the name Columbus, most miraculously of all, echoes the apparition of the Holy Spirit, who had appeared to him in the form of a Dove to announce his mission and to declare that his name—that is, interchangeably the dove of the Holy Ghost and the dove Columbus—would resound around the world.
Until quite recently, these mystical and messianic aspects of Columbus’s career have been shunted to the margins of the story. From the conventional perspective of colonial history, Columbus’s fixation on gold was seen as symptomatic of the conquistadors’ self-evident lust for enrichment. What often went overlooked was that Columbus’s quest was a product of his celestially revealed certainty that he would locate not just any lode, but the very Mines of King Solomon. Similarly, his hunt for the Terrestrial Paradise, and his conviction during the third voyage in 1498 that he would see it in the form of a nipple raised on the swelling breast of the imperfectly spherical world, has been an embarrassment to historians determined to represent him as the unstoppable force of colonial conquest and enslavement.
A common feature of many histories (including the PBS television series, “Columbus and the Age of Discovery”) is to present the development of the journeys from the first to the fourth as a voyage from clear-sighted, empirically informed navigation (even if sailing the wrong way) toward a dark and turbid delirium. Accordingly, with the exception of the Caribbean historian Michael Paiewonsky’s fascinating and beautifully produced Conquest of Eden: 1491-1515, less attention is paid to the third and fourth voyages, even though it was on the former that Columbus discovered the south American continent and on the latter that he accomplished his most amazing feats of endurance and navigation. In the conventional view, the measure of Columbus’s tragedy is the degree to which he comes unhinged, that is, out of time with the lockstep of the proto-modern spirit of the age. It is safe to say that the Admiral did not see things this way.
Summarily removed from the governorship of Hispaniola in 1500 by Francisco de Bobadilla, who had been sent from Spain at the behest of disaffected colonists, Columbus was manacled and sent home in disgrace. But when the captain of the returning ship offered to remove the chains, Columbus refused, glorying in the fetters that he took to be the attributes of his martyrdom. Brought low in the eyes of the world, he was closer than ever to the apostolic and evangelic consummation that he craved. (In their entertaining and imaginative novel The Crown of Columbus, Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich are exactly on the mark when they turn that golden treasure into a crown of thorns.)
For the most part, though, the Libro de las Profecias has until the past few years been dismissed as eccentric gibberish, as the disordered ravings of a defeated mind, as a document of Columbus’s declining years. (Catholic propagandists, especially France in the last century, were alone in finding comfort in its wild-eyed ecumenism.) Only the scholarly work of Pauline Moffatt Watts has taken the text and the other aspects of Columbus’s religiosity as seriously as they deserve. Delno C. West and August Kling, the editors of the first English translation of the Libro, in an understandably missionary introduction to a superb text, recall that when they went to work on the Spanish version in Princeton, they found the pages of that copy still uncut. It is not too much to say, I think, that the publication of their devoted and impeccable research (not to mention the act of faith of the University of Florida Press in giving it such handsome form) is one of the major events of the quincentennial.
The other concentrated act of textual criticism and reconstruction appears in David Henige’s In Search of Columbus, in which he subjects assumptions about the “Diary” of the first voyage to searching scrutiny. After Henige, that text can no longer be described with any accuracy as a “log,” and its authorship ought more properly he given to Las Casas. The original of the Diary is lost, and all we have had to go on is what Las Casas chose to transcribe. But the doubtful reliability of the Diary only serves to heighten the importance of the Book of Prophecies as a source for Columbus’s convictions. Together with the Book of Privileges, the antiquarian and genealogical work by which he endeavored to make good his claim to a succession of entailed titles and possessions for his heirs, the Libro may now be the best guide to Columbus’s mental world that we have.
It, too, was largely transcribed, but by his 13-year-old elder son Diego, and then it was reviewed by the Carthusian Father Gorricio; and the prefatory letter containing so many powerful reflections of the Admiral’s sense of spiritual invincibility was, Kling and West believe, written in his own hand. Moreover, the objection that the Book of Prophecies represents only the Columbus of 1501 may now be set aside, in light of the discovery that in 1481 he wrote four postilles or annotations on scriptural sources in blank pages at the end of his copy of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’s Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum, a work that, along with d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi, meant at least as much to him as his famously marked-up copy of Marco Polo or his copy of the Toscanelli-Martins letter on the narrowness of the Atlantic passage. These postilles so exactly anticipate the themes of the Book of Prophecies that West and Kling seem quite justified in describing the two documents together as “the bookends around his mind and his discovery.”
Nobody in search of Columbus the pioneer of the Renaissance and the vanguard imperialist need repair to this document of 1481, for what they will find there are scraps of biblical authorities from Isaiah and other prophets, the apocryphal Book of Esdras, passages of Flavius Josephus, and an intricate chronology of the Earth. Together, they reveal the true Columbian fixations: the location of a “saving work” in “the middle land of promise”; the mission to extend the evangel among all the peoples of the earth, thus accelerating the desired Last Days; the longing for what Josephus described, in his account of the Solomonic voyages, as “the place called Ophir which is now called Gold Country which is in India,” where “precious stones and timbers” could be found to build and to ornament the Temple.
In the Libro, as well as in his later correspondence, Columbus was evidently persuaded that Ferdinand was the new David, the Expected King under whose reign the prophecies would be fulfilled, with himself as the designated instrument of providential design. Did he not, after all, bear the crusading title of King of Jerusalem, acquired first through his Aragonese forbears, and later reinforced by acquisition of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II’s Kingdom of Naples? And within such an eschatological mind, as Richard Kagan points out in his exemplary essay in the Circa 1492 catalog, the other major events of that year—the conquest of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain—were not simply accidents of chronology. They were linked strategic elements in the building of the new Zion, and therefore of a piece with Columbus’s maritime enterprise.
The fall of Boabdil’s Moorish citadel on the second day of 1492 was hailed as announcing an annus mirabilis. So it must have been of overwhelming significance to Columbus that he was received by the king and the queen at their encampment of Santa Fe, and probably rode into the liberated city in their retinue; and indeed that it was Luis de Santangel, the royal treasurer and convert from Judaism, who finally rescued him from yet another rejection. No wonder, too, that he included another converso, Luis de Torres, in his company: Torres was someone who could speak Hebrew and Arabic. He was not (as some have suggested) a poor substitute for someone fluent in Chinese or Japanese, he was an essential companion, because the Admiral may well have expected to end up in some part of the sacred “Middle Land.”
In the 1930s Salvador de Madariaga, the Spanish writer and critic, notoriously misinterpreted all these messianic, millennial, and Joachite impulses, these visions of Jerusalem the Golden, as a code for Columbus’s own Jewish identity. And following his evidence, Simon Wiesenthal even imagined Columbus’s journey to a New Land as a kind of vanguard Zionism for the victims of the Inquisition. All this is preposterous. Though he was unquestionably saturated in scriptural and apocryphal lore, and though his own spiritual personality was built out of the cultural criss-crossings between the Jewish and Christian traditions that characterized much of the mystical and redemptive creeds of the late Middle Ages, including the Observantine Franciscans with whom he was closely associated, there is no doubt that Columbus’s zeal was exclusively Christian, and profoundly evangelical in nature.
Nor can there be any question that the literalism of this vision deeply colored both the deeds and the records of his voyages. The texts that may best approximate his self-perception—the famous Barcelona letter of 1493, speedily published as De Insulis Inventis just fifty-four days later; passages from Ferdinand’s biography (despite being published seventy years after his death); and for all the heavy freight of its editor’s Dominican passion, Las Casas’s version of the Diary—all structure their narratives as if they were reporting pilgrimages. The maritime peregrination is punctuated by stations, illuminated by signs and apparitions, animated by miracles, exalted by trials and ordeals. The vast ocean becomes a wilderness; and the Admiral compares himself to Moses, destined to lead a fractious and increasingly unbelieving tribe across its face toward “that land of middle promised for salvation.” When he attempts to quiet the unbelievers in the nearmutinous second week of October 1492, he scans the waters, like Noah, for signs of growing things, and for birds, especially for his namesakes the doves; and he is rewarded by the appearance of birds with sprigs in their beak—a sign, if ever there was one, to persevere.
When land is finally sighted, Columbus pre-empts the sailor who claimed the reward for it by insisting that he had first seen the mysterious blue light on the horizon that announced its presence. When the Santa Maria is grounded off Hispaniola on Christmas Eve, he recovers from the shock by determining that this, too, must be a divinely expedited message that he should establish a settlement at the exact spot, whence the illfated la Navidad, the nativity simultaneously of Christ and of Spanish America. Naming, as Stephen Greenblatt points out in his brilliant and riveting book, was of essential and formative significance for Columbus. San Salvador, the name that he gave to the Taino island of Guanahani on which he made first landfall, declared from the outset the redemptive purpose of the Enterprise of the Indies. And thereafter his names always performed a baptismal or conversionary rite, altering pagan space to sacred space. So the innumerable verdant islands of the western Antilles through which he threaded his way on the second voyage were named the Virgins, for the 11,000 virgins who had been martyred with St. Ursula; and on the third voyage, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, Columbus had a vision of three hills on an island near the mouth of the Orinoco, which he promptly named Trinidad.
The turbulence of the elements was likewise seen as a trial or a punishment. During the fourth voyage, a hurricane from which Columbus’s little flotilla narrowly escaped proceeded to devour a great homeward fleet together with his old enemy Bobadilla, who had put him in chains. (The Admiral had advised not to set sail.) It is unlikely that the moral symmetry of the history would have been lost on him. On the violent home journey of the first voyage, Columbus was said (perhaps apocryphally) to have exorcised a waterspout that then passed harmlessly between the Nina and the Pinta. His response to the terrible storms of February 1493 was to have the crew of the Nina, three times on February 14 and once again three weeks later, draw lots of chickpeas, not to cast a propitiatory Jonah into the sea, but to have the fated person swear to perform a pilgrimage to an important shrine should the company survive the ordeal. A single chickpea had been marked with a cross, and three times out of four Columbus drew the pea: an eventuality that Henige has calculated (he is this kind of assiduous scholar, and no mean humorist) as carrying odds of 11,000-to-1. Gadzooks, could this itself have been a prophecy of the isles of the 11,000 virgins?
True or not, the drawing of the holy garbanzos became part of the Columbus lore, and it was used by the Admiral even further to reinforce his faith that he was the specially appointed agent of God’s design for the world. In the Barcelona letter he asked, as the most appropriate form of celebration of the first discovery, that “religious letters be solemnized, sacred festivals be held, let churches be covered with festive garlands.” For “the Eternal God our Lord gives to all those who walk in his way victory over things which appear impossible, and this was notably one,” he wrote to Santangel; and later he characterized his whole career as guided directly by the dove-Spirit “who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from His Sacred Holy Scriptures.”
No wonder, then, that the officially stated object of the second voyage in 1493, equipped with six priests along with 1,200 other men in seventeen vessels, was:
to strive by all means to win over the inhabitants of the said
islands and mainlands to our Holy Catholic Faith … to treat
the said Indians very well and lovingly and abstain from doing them
any injury … to arrange that both people have much
conversation and intimacy each serving the others to the best of their ability …
Notoriously, of course, the “conversation and intimacy” that the conquistador hidalgos had with the Tainos and the Caribs was loving only in the carnal sense, and the lofty spiritual charge of the enterprise dissolved into a horrific succession of slaughter, servitude, and the increasingly frantic search for the elusive gold mines of Hispaniola. Columbus should certainly not be exonerated for his contribution to this wretched fiasco. If he was a crusader, his crusading personality certainly conformed to its early medieval antecedents, by seeing personal ennoblement and enrichment as the proper reward for courage and risk.
The low point of Columbus’s career was certainly his willingness to sanction slavery in Hispaniola. If he attempted, at the beginning, to make a distinction between the bellicose and (as he thought) flesh-eating Caribs, whom he deemed fit for slavery, and the Tainos, whom he wished to make into peaceful converts, this distinction rapidly collapsed with the all-consuming need to have natives produce gold, food, and sex on demand. And Columbus also has been held responsible for the introduction of the encomienda, or the tribute service by which drafts of native labor were allotted to the conquerors. But Fernández-Armesto stresses the radical novelty of the institution, unknown in both the Spanish Reconquista and the settlement of the Canaries, and argues that it was likely to have come, paradoxically, from the Spanish superimposing their own labor needs, however brutal and unrealistic, on tribute patterns already established in the islands. That there was no single colonial policy or practice that one could properly characterize as purely Spanish was eloquently demonstrated by the shocked Isabella immediately liberating all the slaves who were landed in Spain at the end of the second voyage.
By far the most intellectually gripping and penetrating discussion of the relationship between intruders and natives is provided by Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions. Nothing else in the entire literature of the quincentennial remotely approaches his vivid engagement with the crucial issue of cross-cultural perceptions. Though Greenblatt addresses himself to works like Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, he is mercifully free of the kind of dogmatic critical theory that insists that the essential instrument of conquest was the European possession of written language—an ostensibly anti-colonial view that in fact “privileges” European forms of communication over indigenous hieroglyphs and other systems of signs and utterances. Against this narrow view of the discrepancy between the two kinds of culture, Greenblatt wants to substitute the notion of “marvel” or “wonder” inherited from, but not identical with, the fabulous imaginings of medieval Mandevillean travel literature.
Greenblatt’s title is well chosen, for he argues rather paradoxically that it was precisely the sense of wonder that is exemplified by Columbus’s description of the first voyage that predisposed the Admiral and the conquistadors to possess these human and topographical treasures. In this respect, they are held to be different from Mandeville, who could produce a literature of gossipy astonishment at, or reluctant admiration of, the natives without any assumption that they were there to be taken. Thus, for Greenblatt, the elaborate rituals of possession—the unfurling of the flag, the leading of the absurd requerimiento by which uncomprehending natives were asked if they accepted the true faith—are simply the formulas of covetousness. In one of two brilliant chapters on the Columbian encounter, he shrewdly proposes an ambiguity in the concept of convertibility: it may be applied both to souls and to gold, so that the one in effect could be traded into the other. This, for Greenblatt, was the perfect expression of the peculiar European Christian emphasis on monopolies of faith, land, and belief. “The whole achievement of the discourse of Christian imperialism,” he writes, “is to represent desires as convertible and in a constant process of exchange.”
Greenblatt, of course, is a founding father of the New Historicism in literary studies, and it may be that this interesting notion of conversion and convertibility suits the New Historicist marriage between economic forms and moral forms a little too well. Still, it is very persuasive, especially when Greenblatt cuts loose of obligations to nod deferentially to colleagues and protagonists in his literary community, and relaxes his vigilance against the “moves,” “tactics,” and “swerves” that are always said in this kind of work to be behind the construction of narratives. For someone so sensitive to the play of language, though, Greenblatt is occasionally not above playing around with it a little too adroitly himself. Thus, he quotes Columbus in the Diary describing the Taino as “good and intelligent servants for I see that they say everything that is said to them …,” and later in the same passage remarking that “no animals did I see on this island except parrots.” For Greenblatt, this is equivalent to Columbus equating natives with parrots, even though he nowhere says anything about the birds’ capacity for mimicry.
Nine pages later we are told that it was a European characteristic to dismiss the natives as “parrots,” but we are then referred to a note featuring an account of a sympathetic advocate of the Indians who reports, no doubt angrily, the reaction of a cardinal who does indeed make the parrot comparison. Thus subtle differences and distinctions that point up the differences in European responses—there was not one European response, there were many—are slid together into one cunning but naughty generalization. Still, the need to keep one’s wits sharpened when reading Greenblatt is a mark of the shrewdness, the intelligence, and the energy of the arguments that fill every page.
And yet this marvelous book leaves me wondering about marvels. For where Greenblatt sees Columbus full of a kind of trembling stupefaction, “wonder-thrilling, potentially dangerous, momentarily immobilizing, charged at once with desire, ignorance, fear,” I read these same signals as expressions not of disorientation, but quite literally as signs of orientation, or Orientation: of the Admiral’s unshakable conviction that he has arrived in the East. In the Barcelona letter to Santangel, for example, his description of the topography and the ethnography of the islands (as J. H. Elliott, who contributes a characteristically elegant and powerful conclusion to the National Gallery catalog, pointed out some years ago in The Old World and the New) invoked nothing so much as the terrestrial paradise. So the song of the nightingale, not a species native to America, could be heard “singing in the month of November,” and “a great variety of trees stretch up to the stars, the leaves of which I believe are never shed for I saw them as green and flowering as they usually are in Spain in the month of May.”
This description is not just an intuitive report from a thunderstruck seaman. It is a text in sacred geography. For in such a paradise, October becomes May, and autumn becomes spring; and spring in Christian metaphor is Easter, the season of resurrection, and green is the color of eternal Hope. And the seven or eight new species of palm tree that Columbus encountered also had numinous meaning: since at least the fifth century, the palm tree, as a tree that was believed to replenish its own leaves, had symbolized not just the Easter victory of Christ over his own death, but also the etymological and metaphorical equivalent of the phoenix.
If we accept a portrait of Columbus not as an embodiment of Renaissance man, but in most ways as the very opposite of Renaissance man, then his manifest incompetence as a colonialist, his arrogance and obtuseness in virtually all aspects of stewardship and government become not only less surprising, but wholly predictable. He could no more govern his staging post to Jerusalem in the Caribbean than the Frankish Kings could govern theirs in Antioch and Edessa. And in this sense it would indeed be better, as the loyal citizens of Palos insist to this day, to acclaim or to execrate Martin Alonso Pinzon as the true inaugurator of the Spanish empire. Certainly Pinzon was the more representative type, as were many who followed in subsequent voyages, including men like Bobadilla, Fonseca, and Roldan, who rapidly became exasperated and alienated by what they took to be the Admiral’s disingenuous dithering—by his mercurial swings from sentimentality to brutal rage, his fantastic optimism about Solomon’s gold, and the tantalizing closeness of Ophir and Cipango, the arbitrary power he vested in his insufferable brothers, and above all by his will ingness to inflict violent, even capital penalties on Spanish Christians.
Still, for all his editorial license, it is supremely appropriate that it is Las Casas, the conquistador turned holy man and historian, the epitome of passionate indignation at the miseries committed by Europeans against Indians, who nonetheless had no doubt whatever of the significance of Columbus’s life and career. For Las Casas, it was not the aggrandizement of the Spanish crown, still less the creation of the colonial class whom he detested, that was the hallmark of Columbus’s work. It was rather the ecumenical effect, however tragic, of bringing diverse multitudes within the realm of Christian grace:
Many times have I wished that God would inspire me again and that I
had the eloquence of Cicero to extol the indescribable service to
God and to the world which Christopher Columbus rendered at the cost
of such pain and dangers when he so courageously discovered the New
World with skill and expertise. Is there anything in the world
comparable to the opening of the tightly shut doors of an ocean that
no one dared enter before?… He showed the way to discoveries
of Immense territories … whose peoples form wealthy and
illustrious nations of diverse peoples and languages … and of
all the sons of Adam they are now prepared to be brought to the
knowledge of their Creator and the faith.
Five hundred years later we may not wish to genuflect before this spiritual hyperbole, though perhaps the cause of understanding Columbus is just as poorly served by turning a deaf ear to its plainsong, as if the conflicts and the passions that sound within it will conveniently go away and spare everyone further embarrassment.
Many of the contemporary anxieties about the Admiral and his accomplishments turn on the assumption that there was an impossibly incommensurable distance between the parties in this cultural encounter. When they faced each other, to be sure, they were as utterly different as any human societies could be, and their mutual incomprehension was indeed a crucial factor in the tragedy that unfolded. Yet the more we know about the wild and wonder-full Columbus, and also about Ponce de Leon and Balboa, the more hidden consonances there seem to be between European and American cosmologies. A truly open-minded cultural pluralism can hardly avoid these intriguing analogies. The Taino vomiting ritual, for example, was the kind of strict ritual practice that devotees of extreme Franciscan forms of mortification might have understood.
It goes against the grain of historical writing to linger unduly on these haunting peculiarities. Most historians of the Renaissance world are attuned more to discussions of cartography or Spanish imperial policy than to daydreams about the proximity of Ophir and the night-mares of Joachim of Fiore. And perhaps it is this quality of the fantastic that is missing from the pages of most of the books of the quincentennial. Even Greenblatt’s book, so eloquently concerned with exactly this issue, delivers a discussion rather than an impression of its strange, slightly grotesque quality.
To dive into those realms of wonder, to see the parrots in great dazzling viridian flocks as Columbus did, the quincentennialist in search of the heroically crazed and relentless Admiral needs to see Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God again; or better still, to pick up some of the superb novels about the time. Nothing captures the smoke and the horror of 1492, the year of the Jewish catastrophe as well as the Columbian epic, better than Homero Aridjis’s overwhelmingly moving novel. And for the experience of a Spaniard possessed by dreams but lost in the rain forest, nothing is more brilliantly textured than Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s magnificent (and preposterously overlooked) novel, Sea of Lentils:
So there you are, Anton Babtista, feeling like a duke from the vantage
of your lousy hammock, your feet moldering with sores and chiggers,
your loins festooned with pustules that all the arboreal waters of
the guayacan will never cure; there you are shooting mosquitoes and
sweating out the midday fever, underneath the pallium of the branches
that you’ve improvised to overhang your miserable pomp; there you are
Anton Babtista, lord and master of unhappy Indians, lord of fear,
lord of iron and bad dreams, master of death.
Though John Hemming has given us superb narratives of this experience, of the catastrophe that engulfed the Inca and other Amerindian societies, and though we have more subtle and more penetrating scholarship than ever before, the terrible story of Tenochtitlán in 1519 still awaits its new Prescott. In that terrible and magnificent place, one bellicose and sacrificial culture faced another, one despotism of tribute and service was annihilated by another. Aztec cosmology, trapped within its fifty-two-year fatal cycle, assumed an impending apocalypse when the sun would cease to create new life unless nourished by blood. Christian eschatology, in its most radically millenarian form, assumed a linear destiny in which the whole world would be consumed by fire and sword before a celestial age could dawn.
It is a commonplace now that in Central and South America these cults—the primitive Christian and the native American—have survived the very worst that microbes, social oppression, and economic brutality could have done. Though the cultures of the Taino and the other Arawak are extinct, many other syncretic societies have somehow managed to mutate into forms that reflect the possibility of a shared historical evolution. The outcome of this development, of this mingling of destinies, certainly has many chapters of tragedy ahead of it, most obviously in the Andes, where among the ranks of the Sendero Luminoso a cult of renewal through blood has taken, fresh and ominous life. Facing this disaster, however, is a Peruvian president who is an ethnic Japanese: Cipango transported, after all, to the south Atlantic. Columbus had hoped to find the fabled offshore island further to the north, so that in his reckoning America and Japan were the same place. No one, in 1992, is likely to suffer from the same confusion. But the mingling of the destinies continues, and the Admiral’s mistaken calculations should not lessen our admiration for the rich bravery of his craziness.