Christopher Columbus: A different sort of narrative
SAN JOSE, Calif., Oct. 12, 2015 – The voyages of Christopher Columbus have traditionally been acknowledged by many Americans as they celebrate Columbus Day mid-October. However, though millions know of the exploits of Columbus, over the last 40 or 50 years, numerous groups have disparaged celebrations of Columbus Day with growing contempt. Some of this has stemmed from an overt academic effort aimed at “rectifying” his place in history to counter earlier historians, who viewed Columbus with greater reverence than he may have deserved.
Progressive-revisionist historians, seemingly hell-bent on “revealing” all the evils Columbus generated during the tragic clash between Western European and Native American cultures, have taken pains to denigrate Columbus in recent years. Certainly, the Genovese explorer has lost the elevated status he once enjoyed in the United States, even during the dark days of the Great Depression when Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Oct. 12 to be Columbus Day. It seems that the pendulum of political correctness has swung far to the left and away from the respect Columbus once enjoyed.
The irony of the revisionist view, however, is that the charges they level at Columbus were leveled long, long ago in a land across the sea. The revisionist narrative neglects a fundamental reality that Columbus lived during a time in which kings ruled earth. Monarchs in his day were all powerful. Unfortunately, it is difficult for Americans looking through contemporary lenses to comprehend this reality and all that it entails, unless immigrants had fled from tyranny to America. Especially, Americans have a hard time fathoming tyranny due to the luxury of living in a free society and being able to speak freely, assemble peaceably, and worship the deity of choice – or worship no deity whatsoever.
Neither Columbus nor any of his contemporaries living in Spain enjoyed the kind of freedoms taken for granted by Americans today. Europeans often lived under the absolute rule of monarchs of one sort or another. It should be remembered that the Spanish Inquisition was generated in 1478 by Ferdinand II, king of Aragon, and Isabella I, queen of Castile. The ostensible purpose was to maintain the purity of religious worship in the Roman Catholic Church and the fundamental adherence to the traditional Catholic orthodoxy.
Although there already existed a Medieval Inquisition in this time, which was under papal control and was intended to maintain the purity of the church, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella wanted to have direct control placed under their government. After their marriage, the other kingdoms united on the Iberian Peninsula, and the monarchs managed to combine forces to drive the Moors from their land. Not surprisingly, after the Reconquista, the recovery of Spain from the Moors, royal decrees issued in 1492 and 1501 ordered Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave the country (dead or alive was irrelevant).
One may ask: If Ferdinand and Isabella were willing to permit severe torture and death upon their own citizens, what could they be expected to do to some primitive heathens from the Caribbean? This perspective is an essential component in a realistic comprehension of Columbus and his mission on behalf of this government. Yet, it is often lost because there are many Americans with no substantial reference point when contemplating a monarchy. Long gone are the days of King George III, who was clearly viewed as a tyrant by the Founding Fathers. Although it is a good thing that the United States has not suffered under tyranny since that day, we lose perspective on what it was actually like.
It is understood (with a sprinkling of myth) that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agreed to back Columbus with whatever means they were willing to muster for his support, which meant that they ordered their subjects to provide him the ships needed and the supplies required for the perilous journey. The monarchs even opened their prisons to fill out the rest of the crew the admiral needed for his journey. The minimal initial investment would require repayment from the sailor, and for most Americans, who have never lived under a despot, it is hard to fully comprehend the vulnerability of Columbus when he made his deal with the Spanish monarchs.
His desire to find a new route to Cathay and obtain status, power and wealth impelled Columbus to contract his services to any government which would provide the means to pursue his dreams, but his demands were perceived as unreasonable. His basic request was to have the title of “Admiral of the Ocean Seas” and to become governor of any land he could claim, but negotiations with Ferdinand initially broke down over money because Columbus demanded a guarantee that he receive a percentage of any wealth resulting from his endeavor. Such demands required courage, and only the royal treasurer managed to reverse the initial rejection of Columbus’s proposal.
The new Spanish government made a minimal investment in the endeavor, as the nation had depleted the royal treasury in the extensive battles to drive out the Moors. While the king eventually conceded the main requests of this bold Italian, it is possible that he did not truly expect to see him again. Unfortunately, when Columbus surprisingly returned from his journey in 1493 with wild and glittering promises to the monarchs regarding his discovery of gold in the foreign lands, it changed the paradigm. King Ferdinand became a believer, and many of the nobles in the court were struck with gold fever. The gold rush of 1493 was on!
Gold became one of the prime motivators in mounting the second voyage because to a recently established nation with depleted treasuries, gold would have provided a powerful incentive to remedy the impoverished Spanish state. The ensuing quest for gold also captivated the nobles, who were determined to get a piece of the action, and many of those who ventured with Columbus must have harbored their own visions of enhanced wealth. Sadly, the rush for gold did not pan out well, and the quest for wealth shifted to real estate when little gold could be extracted from the islands.
Other questions one may ask about this is whether the Spanish nobles would have easily adapted to having an Italian in charge of the islands because the disappointment over little gold may have become a sore point among them. Some returned to Spain with nothing substantial to show for their venture. Additionally, it may have been quite embarrassing to King Ferdinand to have a Genovese governor in charge of the conquest of these lands in the name of Spain. It is hard to believe English kings would have trusted a Spaniard or an Italian as governor in the British colonies, And, the Spanish nobles who ventured with Columbus would have been better connected to the king than the foreign explorer. It may have been a demeaning experience for many because it did change.
As exploration developed into colonization and settlement, records indicate that Columbus was on the receiving end of the increasing dissatisfaction and outright animosity of the colonists. Rising malice toward Columbus lingered possibly because nobles may have felt deceived by his exaggerated accounts of the abundance of gold. As early as 1495, the Spanish Crown attempted to get a better handle on its investment by sending a royal commission to report on the Spanish colony and to judge the governing capabilities of Columbus. However, returning to Spain in 1496, Columbus managed to appease the royals, but the king waited two years before sponsoring a third voyage.
Though Columbus had been in Spain during this time, he found that the tensions had not died when he returned in 1498. and he was eventually accused by his detractors. Their complaints to King Ferdinand are essentially the same crimes repeated by revisionist historians and their adherents today. Interestingly, while in Spain, the king required that Columbus be a better governor; to help the sailor, the king appointed Francisco de Bobadilla as an “administrator.” Bobadilla, a Spanish nobleman and a loyal knight who fought in the wars against the Moors, was familiar with court politics and very capable.
In reality, after Columbus had returned to the Caribbean, King Ferdinand appointed Bobadilla as the replacement for the admiral as governor and chief justice of Hispaniola in May of 1499. He was given all that the government had bestowed upon Columbus, but with even more authority and power. And, when Bobadilla arrived in Hispaniola in August of 1500, he briefly investigated the charges of incompetent governance against Columbus and his brothers. Then, by October, he had them all arrested, and shipped back to Spain in irons. The monarchs left them in prison until December 1500, when Columbus was allowed to defend himself. Ironically, the result of the trial was that the outrageous charges against Columbus were dropped.
Although criminal charges were dismissed, the King had already permanently removed Columbus as governor. Essentially by 1500, the bold Italian sailor was out of the loop. The trial seemed to be merely a convenient method for allowing the Spanish crown a reason to break the original decree designating Columbus as governor. Students of Columbus and all Americans should grasp that the King of Spain had always been in charge of Columbus’ expeditions\ and definitely made sure the monarchy of Spain was in charge of the Caribbean islands and the lands beyond.
It is important for people to recognize Columbus for what he truly was, a sailor and not a governor, a commoner and not a noble, yet a man of conviction with the determination to fulfill his dream. And, like many men he sought fame, fortune and power. Sadly in the end, his power was removed as easily as it was given; and while he may be known to millions, his fame is no longer favorable; and he died a commoner. His family spent years in Spanish courts fighting over the money he had been promised. He was essentially a pawn used by a king to obtain more fame and fortune and power.