Christopher Columbus

I don’t like reading history. The reason—because reading it is basically nothing more than studying the entire, mostly boring existence of people you most likely don’t care about anyway. Now, I’m well aware that a lot of not boring history is out there (and people you would actually care about), but a small speck of gold does little to brighten a dreary pile of coal. With that said, Christopher Columbus is rated quite high on the list of historical figures I don’t care about. In fact, seeing some books on him was one of the main reasons I passed on the other Arts One group, which I suppose was a futile attempt as I still have to read him in this group. But who knows; maybe this compilation of letters is actually interesting? Maybe I’ve been missing out on the wonders of history all this time? Maybe the tale of Admiral Columbus taking his ships, going out to semi-unexplored lands, and subjugating Indians is in fact a great epic story of fascinating discovery and amazement? Maybe reading a hundred pages of his Excellency whining about how awful his life is, how selfless he is, and how subjugating Indians is a great rehabilitation method is actually a hundred pages of deep, philosophical text? Yeah…no; it was pretty boring overall. I can’t deny that I went into it with biased (and fully realized) standards, so maybe I’m just not reading it properly. Of course, this text does its job as a historical record—it shows us the viewpoint of Columbus and his questionable mental state at all stages of his journey, giving us insight into his thoughts and emotions at the time. It also shows us…no, that’s about it. Since these are letters written solely from Columbus’ point of view, we really can’t believe anything that he says. He obviously left out many crucial and potentially damning events that he may or may not have incited, and he quite overbearing tries to victimize himself whilst antagonizing everyone and everything that is against him. He is playing suck-up to the majesties throughout, and as such wouldn’t tell them anything he doesn’t think they need to know. Personally, the most irritating thing about this book for me was the incessant need to tie god to everything. Even the footnotes contained crosses or double-crosses, and the people who compiled this book are also clearly Christian. Not that I have anything against Christianity in general, but objectivity was clearly the least of anyone’s worries in the creation of this book. It certainly does reflect the historical context, but this leads to my other major problem with history—it is, and always will be, biased. The record of “objective” events will always be recorded by a subjective writer, and thus, nothing read in a history book should ever be taken as is. There is always another side.

Christopher Columbus

Value. That’s what I found the most interesting about this book. Although i’ve always had this fairly basic idea of the contrast between the new world explorers and the natives of the new world, this book is so full of the concept of value, and questions concerning value that you could, y’know, write an essay on it or something. When Columbus gets to the new world he is surprised to find that the natives are willing to hand over something that could be worth a lot of money in exchange for trinkets. Why is he surprised? Different systems assign different values in whatever way they please: worth is completely relative. I know this is no revelation, but to see it (read it) in action was fascinating. One asks which system is more ridiculous, monetary value in small gold coins or monetary value in things that are ornamental, or, useful. But it really has nothing to do with which is more ridiculous because  it’s entirely based on perception.

When it comes to Columbus and his view of the natives his values get even more convoluted. He values these natives for their use to him and their ability to be converted to Christianity. But like the rest of the book there is and undercurrent of idealism. In this case it is concerning monsters. Columbus writes “I have not found the human monsters we expected” which is great, but I got the feeling that in many ways Columbus wanted to find monsters, or wanted the local people to be monsters. It would add to the romance, the adventurism of his story. In this expedition he really wanted something foreign and different, and in a way no hostilities at the beginning may have come across as a bit of a letdown. When Columbus and his sailors meet the Caribs, the cannibals, the letters really play up their atrociousness and their monstrosity, writing about all the horrendous things they do and such. I think these types of things were largely written for the comfortable white “audience” that waited in Spain, so they could say “Ooh look at that, there’s monsters over there, how foreign and romantic.”

The funny thing is that not much has changed. Humans still like to see those who are actually very similar to them as monsters and something non-human. It makes it easier to control them, kill them, or other nasty things. That’s how wars start.

Columbus himself reminded me greatly of Medea. He’s smooth talking in a whiny sort of way, and his letters are like a phsycological study of human self justification. Again, it comes back to value. “Value me” says Columbus. “Value what i’ve done” Hmm.

There was line about one island that spoke of native people with tails. It is never spoke of again. What the heck! I want to here more about that.

Oh yes, and God is still here, shaping peoples destinies and such. I’m starting to think this guys is more trouble than he’s worth.




Christopher Columbus

Even though I don’t find Christopher Columbus to be a likeable character at all, one thing that I found interesting about this book The Four Voyages was being able to see things from Columbus’ perspective. In high school, we were taught how Spain, Britain and France’s quest for colonization brought down much suffering on the First Nations people who originally lived where the European nations later colonized. In this book, you get to see things from the perspective of the first European who “found” America. And of course, Columbus conveniently omitted how the Indigenous people were actually treated, focusing on how he would convert them into Christians. In fact, he doesn’t seem to show any remorse about the way he was treating the Aboriginals. He talks about how he traded with them, but he calls his business trade. A far better word to call his conduct would be how he cheated the Indigenous people.

Many wars have been waged over religion. The feuds over whose religion was “true” and “better” have existed for centuries and continues to this day. Perhaps this is why I find the topic of religion rather intriguing. I doubt Isabella of Castile would have approved of Columbus’ actions if she knew the extent of the Natives’ suffering. She’s obviously a very religious woman, but religious doesn’t always equate to being a good person. Most of the Europeans in The Four Voyages are so-called devout Christians, devoted to converting the heathens to embracing Christianity. But sometimes you wonder if this conquest for colonization is really about religion, or whether it’s really a quest to make a financial profit. Does religion = quest for riches? Does religion = power and domination? The questions are answered to a certain extent in The Four Voyages.

I think one should take into account that Columbus has a dual personality in this book. One side to Columbus is that he’s a God-loving, religious man. He has no other desire in exploring other than to convert heathens into religious people and devoted to serving the monarchs of Spain. The other side is the selfish Columbus, who wants money and fame. This would be the interweaving of religion and desire for wealth.

And notice how desire for wealth later subsumes religion. Columbus rather reminds me of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He just lacks Kurtz’s epiphany at the end, because I don’t remember him showing any regret or guilt for his actions.

Christopher Columbus: Spain’s Most Successful Screw-up

So after reading all of Columbus’ various letters through his travels, I have come to the conclusion that his autobiographical accounts are actually literary pieces of work. This is not due to any form of artistic flare, or use of sudden poetry. It’s because he has a bias reflection of his own experiences.
When we retell any story from our memories do we tell it how it was, or how we perceived it? Our own opinions and desire to be seen in a positive light constantly embellish our own memories to the point of notable distortion. Columbus seems to be an expert at constructing an image of himself to that of a devote Christian and a selfless explorer. Whenever things seem to run a muck on his voyages he is portrays himself as a victim of circumstance.
When writing a letter to the Governess of Don Juan Columbus moans of the cruelty of the world around him “If it is new for me to complain against the world, its habits of ill-treating me is an old one. It has made many attacks on me, many of which I have resisted until now…” He goes on to say that he is wrongly accused in his arrest and that his accusers have cited his “false crimes” in the Indies out of sheer spite and a selfish desire for wealth. He fails to acknowledge that over 23 individuals are confirming his crimes as a corrupt Governor of the Indies, and have testimonial evidence of his cruelties. Any modern historian will tell you of Columbus’ brutal treatment of the indigenous people of the Indies and his immoral tactics to pay off his investors in Spain.

One example of this is when Columbus’ actions on the Cicaoan Islands. In order to meet the needs of his gold quota, he ordered that all native inhabitants give tribute of gold every three months. Those who met this quota were granted a cooper token to worn around their necks. Those who were found lacking these tokens suffered the punishment of arm mutilation. I don’t remember him making mention of this in any of his letters.

Aside from omission of his brutal treatment of the indigenous people of the Indies, the most prevalent message Columbus is trying to report is that he is always just around the corner from hitting the sweepstakes. In his eight years of his voyages he has yet to find a substantial amount of goods to meet the investment costs of his ventures. Spain wasn’t financing his voyages for simply exploration and cartography. They demanded he bring riches and exotic goods from his travels. His first two voyages appear fruitless (apart from some acquisition of slaves and small examples of gold), but he goes on to lead Queen Isabella of Spain to the imaginative possibility that the New World may contain the “Earthly Paradise” as described in Genesis. When he is arrested on his Third Voyage he asserts that if the Hispanolia people had not revolted against him he would of brought back fathoms of pearls and gold, but his selfless nature allowed them to keep their treasures as a means to maintain the peace.

Columbus constantly comes up with excuses for his shortcomings. Despite evidence from Ptolemy’s calculation Columbus firmly believes he has discovered China, and refuses to think differently. He failed to find a Western trade route to India. He failed to bring back any gold, pissing off the Spanish monarchy and his investors. He fails as his role of Governor of the Indies and is mutinied by his people. And finally he fails as a navigator and has to call home for help on his Fourth Voyage because he shipwrecked himself and his crew.
Why do we have a day to celebrate this man?