New World Disorder At The 500th Anniversary Of Columbus' Landfall Approaches, Detractors And Supporters Sail Into A Sea Of Debate

October 13, 1991|By A. M. Chaplin

Barry Richardson put it right out there on the table.

It was at the very first meeting of the governor's commission for Maryland 1992, a group appointed to decide how the state is going to mark next year's 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival on American shores. And as Ann Hartman, the commission's executive director remembers it, Barry Richardson knocked the socks off his fellow commissioners with an eloquent and moving speech about the great man's significance for Americans.

Columbus brought much of importance to the American people 500 years ago, Mr. Richardson said: He brought them slavery, intolerance and death. Historians estimate the population of the two American continents was between 20 million and 100 million at the time of Columbus' arrival in 1492 -- but within a few generations that population had been reduced by 90 percent, as Native Americans fell victim in massive numbers to slavery, conquest and, most of all, European diseases. Those who were left had their land stolen, and often their religions suppressed and their cultures destroyed.

Barry Richardson is executive director of the Baltimore American Indian Center, and he is himself descended from the Americans who already inhabited this land when Columbus "discovered" it. It's no wonder he says, "There's no way we can view Columbus as a hero."

In fact, what he would like to see on Oct. 12, 1992, is not a day of national celebration, but a day of mourning. MR. RICHARDSON IS NOT alone. The de-heroification of Christopher Columbus is proceeding apace, and not only among Native Americans.

The National Council of Churches, for example, came out in May 1990 with a resolution that "a celebration is not an appropriate observation of this anniversary," since 1492 marked the beginning of "invasion, genocide, slavery, 'ecocide' and exploitation of the wealth of the land." The resolution calls for 1992 "to be a year of reflection and repentance."

Kirkpatrick Sale's book "The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy," is another example of the new thinking. It indicts not only Columbus, but all European culture and technology, which Mr. Sale presents as uniquely devoted to the despoliation of the environment.

Thus Columbus' arrival on America's shores signaled not only the destruction of the native inhabitants but also the destruction of the pristine "paradise" they lived in. As for Columbus, he emerges from Mr. Sale's pages as a greedy, brutal lout who would have done us all a big favor if he'd stayed home and founded Greenpeace instead of sailing the ocean blue.

This is a long way from the beliefs about Columbus many present-day Americans grew up with -- what you might call the parade-ready version of the man, which presents him as an exemplar of the all-American virtues of pluck, vision, persistence and progress.

It's a fine, inspiring version of old Christopher, just the thing for a fine fall day and a long line of marching bands, and many Americans cling to it as though their lives depended on it. And in a way their lives do depend on it: We're not talking here about a real man, but a symbol, an icon, an idea. So it's not the facts about Christopher Columbus that are in question, but what he stands for.

Which happens to be nothing less than America's vision of itself.

So it seems there are two visions of America in the land 500 years after its "discovery." On the one hand is the old, heroic vision of America -- the land of triumphal progress, with its flags flying, its horizons blue, its values democratic. And on the other hand is the new, anti-heroic vision of America -- the land of destructive conquest, with its flags burning, its horizons polluted, its values racist.

In the first vision, Columbus counts as a hero. In the second he's a horror.

THE HEROIC COLUMBUS, THE Columbus of parades and unblinking patriotism, first sailed into view about the same time the United States did -- in 1792, not 1492, says eminent historian William H. McNeill, who taught at the University of Chicago before retiring.

At that time the republic was very new, its recent rebellion against England was still very fresh, and it needed a hero who was not contaminated with Englishness. Voila! Christopher Columbus.

Columbus' conversion from just another explorer (there were plenty of others sailing the ocean blue around 1492) into a revered icon closely associated with American identity was furthered by a biography written early in the 19th century by Washington Irving, the author of "Rip Van Winkle" and other tales. And the icon was cemented into place when Italian immigrants later in the century took Columbus to their collective bosom and made him into an affirmation of their Americanness. These symbolic appropriations were helped along by the dearth of hard knowledge about the real Christopher Columbus.

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