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A nation must think before it acts.
Christopher Columbus was a figure of controversy from the outset—the present fuss is as nothing compared with what he had to put up with during his lifetime. The travails of navigation, which included shipwreck off Portugal in 1476 and mutinous sailors on his voyage to the Bahamas in 1492, paled in comparison to the brutal politics of the Spanish New World. In his case, they did not lead to murder or execution, but in 1500, he was removed from office and sent back to Spain in chains.
Controversy followed him in death. Dying in Valladolid in 1506, his remains were moved to Seville, then Hispaniola, then Havana, then back to Seville, being repatriated as an effect of the loss of Spanish control of Cuba to American invaders in the Spanish–American War of 1898. An impressive tomb in Seville cathedral is his alleged final resting place, except that it is also claimed that the remains sent from Santo Domingo to Havana in 1795 were not the correct ones, and that he rests in the Dominican Republic.
The late nineteenth century was a period of particular memorialization. Aside from the monument to Columbus in Seville Cathedral, a monument originally intended for the gloomier one in Havana, there is the prominent Mirador de Cólon opened in 1888 during the Universal Exhibition, at the foot of the Ramblas in the center of Barcelona, which commemorates Columbus’ visit to the city and reception there by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1493. Copies of the monument can be found elsewhere.
At any rate, the cosmopolitan Columbus (in Spanish Cristóbal Colón), born in Genoa around 1451, who took part in Portuguese trading missions before entering the service of Spain, is currently a figure of controversy as part of America’s ridiculous “culture wars.” In 1992, there was a storm with disagreement over how best to commemorate the anniversary of his crossing the Atlantic in 1492, and, in particular, whether it should be presented as a background to expropriation, slavery, and genocide. The controversy has rumbled on since. In 2017, it led to the NYPD providing round-the-clock protection for the impressive monument in Columbus Circle, as if it had to be protected like one of Stalin in a post-Communist town square. Baltimore’s Columbus monument has been vandalized as well. Elsewhere in America, there has been a rewriting of the past. In Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors and the City Council has decided to replace Columbus Day with “Indigenous People’s Day,” allegedly because Columbus was oppressive.
Controversy draws on a number of potent strands of anger and expression, and notably so as America’s identity is contested in a cacophony of competing multiculturalisms. Columbus is criticised for enslaving the native population and for exposing them to diseases that led to a form of genocide. Indeed, the term holocaust has been used, one of the many uses of a word that should be employed with precision in order to avoid what is in effect Holocaust-diminishment.
In turn, the debate has been both politicised and become an aspect of the contentious nature of a “melting pot” society, with claims by some that their heritage is being trashed while others regard the celebration of Columbus Day, which became a national holiday in 1937, as an offensive step.
Certainly, there is no fixed or single account of the past. Indeed, the honoring of Columbus in 1937 was in part a rejection by the Democrats of the 1920s-era Republican emphasis on a WASP identity for the United States, with an accompanying limitation of immigration. Thus, Columbus Day originally struck a blow for precisely the kind of American pluralism that allegedly motivates those who want to eliminate it today.
As so often with history, events and attitudes are open to multiple interpretations. For example, the emphasis in the 1920s on the British basis of American culture inspired John D. Rockefeller’s attractive presentation of the colonial period in the shape of Colonial Williamsburg, which was not only a reaffirmation of an account of the origins of the United States, but also designed to provide an incorporating model for new immigrants. The presentation of a nation-state in this fashion was seen as necessary not only in response to immigration, but also as a result of the challenge posed by the Communist Revolution.
Explanation and contextualization do not prevent grievance, but the latter is a bottomless pit of anger, spite, malice, and confusion. For example, on January 1, 2014, the formal inauguration of Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, as mayor of New York was conducted using a Bible once owned by Franklin Roosevelt. He is at once an iconic Democratic President, a link with the idea of a new start in the shape of the New Deal, and also a figure of suspicion, if not hatred, to others. Columbus also is capable of bearing these multiple interpretations. In historical terms, much that he stood for appears anachronistic. Whereas a mercantilist, and essentially secular, account of the “Age of Discovery” had long dominated the discussion, more recent works consider figures such as Henry the Navigator, Columbus, and Vasco da Gama in terms of the beliefs that motivated them in their own time. There has been emphasis, for example, on their wish to secure money and allies not only for immediate practical purposes, but to further the reconquest of Jerusalem, which they regarded as a crucial preliminary to the Second Coming of Christ. Thus, time, as well as space, was at issue and exploration was a form of theology. In his Book of Prophecies, compiled before his fourth voyage to the Caribbean, in 1502, Columbus argued that the end of the world would occur in 155 years, and that his own discoveries had been foretold in the Bible.
Does this mean that Columbus should be cast aside? No. Figures from the past will always attract both sympathy and a lack of it. It is best to judge them in the context of their age. Hitler and Stalin were regarded as monsters by contemporaries, whereas Columbus and the Spanish rulers he served were taking part in activities that were normal across the world. Conquest and enslavement were sadly not uncommon in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, as well as in the European/Western world. To commemorate figures from the past does not mean that we would respect them if they were on offer as leaders or models today. That leap is not too difficult to make.
To try to get my first-year students to see the point, I ask them to consider that their grandchildren may “know” meat-eating is wrong for reasons for environmentalism and cruelty (I make clear I am a meat-eater), and suggest that as we film our first-year lectures for use as an online teaching tool, that they all get up and reassure their grandchildren-to-be by apologizing for their current carnivore behavior.
The legacy of the past can be troubling. It requires a degree of trust between generations—trust that we will try to understand our predecessors as we hope to be understood. Descending to polemic to pursue the matter does not work well in a world or a country composed of people with contrasting and often competing views and legacies.
Jeremy Black, a Senior Fellow at FPRI, is Professor of History at the University of Exeter, and is the author of many books, most recently of Clio’s Battles and Contesting History.