Columbus-bashing Gains Ground

On The Eve Of The Quincentenary, Mariner Is Reviled In Some Quarters

October 13, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

Christopher Columbus doesn't get the respect he used to.

While buyers may flock to stores in search of Columbus Day bargains tomorrow,the navigator's landing in the Western Hemisphere could go unmarked in county high schools.

American Indian groups across the nation have complained that elaborate plans to celebrate the 500th anniversary next year insult the memory of the indigenous people who were enslaved and killed by Columbus and those who followed.

Poet Mollee Kruger, a Bel Air native, has added to the fray by publishing a book, "Admiral of the Mosquitoes," whose title mocks the mariner's failure to find the elusive westward passage to India.

One section of the book, "The Entropy of Success," features Maryland artist Yolanda Frederikse's Renaissance-style drawing of a stern, dignified Columbus holding a huge mosquito, which many of his contemporaries said was all he had to show for his four voyages.

The wave of criticism is intended to correct the American tendency to celebrate the triumph of the New World without an appreciation of the sacrifices of those who made it possible, said Kruger, who was editor of the old Bel Air High Bellarion newspaper in the mid-1940s.

She remembers a marked anti-Hispanic and anti-Indian cast in poetry she wrote for a "Problems in Democracy" class that focused on South America.

"I cringe now when I remember," said Kruger, aMontgomery County resident. "It was basically the sort of thing a 16-year-old would write after being fed the importance of the North American colonial settlements and nothing else."

Her slim volume includes a gentle lament for Columbus' misadventures and harsher indictments of the rule of Queen Isabella, including the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews, whose seized property helped the explorations.

County schools also are striving to achieve a sense of balance in teaching the age of discovery, said Paul Tracy, supervisor of social studies for the school system.

"We look at Columbus as we study him as bringing Europe to the New World," he said. "We don't teach he's some evil person who destroyed a continent. We don't think he's a saint, either."

Elementary students will celebrate the discovery -- or the encounter, as some term it -- with plays and study of the meaning of the holiday.

"In the secondary schools, it may well go --sorry to say -- with no mention at all," Tracy said.

That omission is mostly a function of limited time and state curriculum requirements, which mandate study of the period from Columbus to the Civil Warin the seventh grade.

What those students learn in the required early American history class is different from what earlier generations learned.

"When I first started teaching, you could describe our curriculum as Eurocentric," said Tracy, 54. "When you studied world history, it was essentially European history, and the word "world" shouldn't have even been in the title."

Over the past 10 years, he said students have been given more instruction in other cultures and perspectives, including the fate of American Indians.

At Harford Community College, history professor John E. Brown said the goal is to teach the age of discovery from different perspectives, focusing separately on the European political and economic milieu that produced Columbus and the changes that his discoveries produced in the Western Hemisphere.

"The American public is not going to accept a negativistic celebration," he said, "but they certainly do need a more balancedperspective."

He said college texts have balanced both Columbus' positive and negative legacies for decades, and high school texts have also shown improvement.

Don Avery, HCC's history depatment chairman, said his school has managed to avoid the intense national debatefeaturing charges and countercharges of tyranny by white European scholars and minorities.

But he warned against concentrating too much on criticism of Columbus and other European explorers.

"The problem with the new-left position -- which is the group that focuses on gender and race -- is that you have to condition people to see the world in a different light that Western Civilization has been a destructive influence and you have to go to the extreme to show that," he said.

Brown said the new-left position has value because it exploreshistory through the eyes of the common people, "from the bottom up."

"If there is a problem, it comes from the fact that students havebeen accustomed for years to learning a romanticized version of historical events," he said.

Tracy said the school system is trying toachieve balance in instruction.

"We may never get it right. Who knows? And if we do, somebody will probably change it."

WHO HAS THE LAST COUGH NOW?

To win the natives over,

the Spaniards dangled beads,

brass rings and green and yellow glass,

what every heathenneeds.

Along with sorry presents,

the sailors brought disease,

the pox, tubercular bouquets,

kind offerings like these.

Bedazzling folks with mirrors,

the white man made them slaves,

exported them as specimens

to die in Spanish graves.

Before they were extinguished,

deleted from the scene,

the Indians sought sweet revenge,

My Lady Nicotine.

Gratuity for pillage

and booze that made them wacko,

the natives evened up the score:

they hooked us on tobacco.

From: "Admiral of the Mosquitoes, Columbus and America in Light and Dark Verse," by Mollee Kruger, illustrated byYolanda Frederikse

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