Last year I asked, Should Columbus be Celebrated? It is a controversial question, since that day in 1492 meant the eventual end of many cultures in the Western Hemisphere. The other side of the sword is that new cultures arose from those escaping the Old World. In all likelihood, using Columbus as the poster child for all that did go wrong is not fair.
One has to dig deep into many studies of the man to even begin to unravel his mind. He was secretive, put himself in the middle of politics and was the target of his enemies. All of this, and the distance of time, have made any study of the explorer a difficult one.
As Carol Delaney argues in Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, acquiring wealth for the Spanish crown was not his primary goal. He sought allies and money for one more Crusade to the Holy Lands. Religious motivation has been suggested before, but by writers couching everything in esoteric conspiracies. It has also been suggested he knew the New World existed. As plausible as that is, most of what we know seems to point elsewhere. Beyond that:
…Delaney depicts her subject as a thoughtful interpreter of the native cultures that he and his men encountered, and tells the tragic story of how his initial attempts to establish good relations with the natives turned badly sour. Showing Columbus in the context of his times rather than through the prism of present-day perspectives on colonial conquests reveals a man who was neither a greedy imperialist nor a quixotic adventurer, but a man driven by an abiding religious passion.
Contrast this to the later Conquistadors who were made up of mercenaries and those looking to set up their own little kingdoms of wealth. In Kim MacQuarrie’s The Last Days of the Incas, we get the distinct impression that most of these men cared little about religion other than some unconvincing attempts to use it to justify their actions.
Columbus’ life didn’t begin and end on his first voyage to the new world. It was his fourth that would unfold like an epic film and perhaps best give insight into his motivations. Martin Dugard’s The Last Voyage chronicles mutiny, shipwreck, storms and war. A far different tale than the simple one told in schools. Only by going beyond the simple tales, do we actually begin to peel away the misconceptions and mystery. That curtain will probably never be completely pulled away and certainly Columbus is imperfect and flawed like us all. And maybe that’s the lesson this Columbus Day.
Anyone can change the world, for better, or for worse.
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