Rethinking the Columbus Legend

September 18, 1992

Around the world, preparations are under way for the 500th anniversary celebration of Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of America. We use the word "discover" advisedly, since the significance of Columbus' role is one of this year's hottest topics of dispute.

Was the man American school children are taught to revere from childhood a prototypical romantic adventurer or a scoundrel?

Five hundred years ago, Columbus came upon a New World with hundreds of languages, thousands of cultures and at least 40 million people. Within 50 years, 80 percent to 90 percent of the native populace had died, victims of war, oppression and European diseases. Ancient religions, cultures and entire nations vanished.

A benign portrayal of the explorer has come down to us in traditional history books and popular entertainment. Now a new generation of scholars influenced by multi-culturalism, feminism and other 20th-century critical approaches is leading an assault on the Columbus of legend. In the coming years, Americans may be revising many cherished beliefs about the past.

Yet the revisionists' efforts are unlikely to displace Columbus from the honored place he holds in affections of most Americans. Most people recognize that judging historical figures by present day standards carries its dangers and that there is plenty of room to enlarge our understanding of the consequences of Columbus' achievement, for good and evil, without rewriting history to conform to today's politically correct agenda.

Over the next year, the argument over Columbus will be reflected in museum exhibits, in scholarly books and articles, in demonstrations supporting and denouncing the great discoverer. In death as in life, Christopher Columbus retains a remarkable ability to fascinate. If all the shouting leads to a more truthful view of history, his place in it as well as our own, the debate will have been well worth the trouble.

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