1492 was a Hell of a year. We still celebrate, or at least commemorate, the launching of Christopher Columbus’ ships on a mission intended to bring fame and wealth to the captain of this tiny convoy. Columbus succeeded beyond all expectations, and in so doing assured himself an unenviable place in European and American history. Over the years, he has been hailed as a fearless explorer and a heartless exploiter. There can be no argument regarding his abilities as a sailor, but there is considerable doubt regarding any claim he may have made regarding his humanity. He was a monster in an era when greatness was measured according to an individual’s capacity for cruelty. He was personally responsible for the unspeakable treatment of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Native Americans. He stumbled upon a land populated by millions of people and saw limitless opportunities for his own advancement and enrichment.
In 1492, Spain was trashing decades of social and scientific advancement with a program glibly referred to as the Inquisition. The Monarchy supported measures to cleanse the nation of heretics. A heretic was anyone who did not agree with the positions of the Inquisition. The Jews were expelled en masse and without redress. Muslims were robbed, raped, murdered and forced to convert to Christianity while the alleged guardians of civilization watched with indifference. Even the conversion of the non-Christians was subsequently viewed as insincere, and these newly minted “believers” were tortured and killed in exercises designed to test their faith. The last Muslim stronghold, Granada, on the Iberian Peninsula was overwhelmed by the standard bearers of the Inquisition in January 1492. Cordoba, the largely Muslim and arguably the most cosmopolitan city in all of Europe, was ruined as Islamophobia ruled supreme and all cities tolerating “infidels” came under attack. The Moors were driven into North Africa. The Jews were shipped off to the Ottoman Empire in the east, and Christians who voiced philosophical differences with the Inquisition were murdered. It was not the first or last attempt at ethnic cleansing, but like all prior and subsequent efforts to homogenize society, it provided fertile ground for evil men, like Columbus, to flourish.
I attended public schools for the first 13 years of my education, and I never heard a disparaging word or read a disparaging passage about Columbus. He was portrayed as the intrepid explorer who dismissed the superstitions of his age and boldly sailed where no man had sailed before. His courage and wisdom were rewarded by grateful monarchs, and his morality helped to fashion the civilization we currently enjoy. One of my teachers may have said that he also invented the hamburger, but I always doubted that. In fact, most of what I learned about Columbus from those who found him faultless was false.
Centuries before Chris got financing to put three ships to sea and sail west, it was generally accepted that the Earth was a sphere and that you could get to the Orient [Asia] by trekking east overland or west across the Atlantic. In fact, sailors from northern Europe had long before made landfall on North America, but the placement of this inconvenient landmass between Europe and Asia was largely unappreciated by sailors starting out from Mediterranean ports. In any case, Columbus had no reason to fear falling off the edge of the Earth. A more realistic concern for him and his crews was the risk of starvation. Columbus underestimated the circumference of the Earth. If he had not bumped into the Americas, he probably would have starved to death. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands, he found food and good-natured inhabitants who would soon learn the European axiom that no good deed goes unpunished.
Without rehashing the horrors inflicted on Native Americans by Columbus and those Europeans who came after him, suffice it to say that these “explorers” were comfortable enslaving, torturing, murdering, raping and robbing their newly found hosts. These men came looking for wealth and the inhabitants of the Americas were tools they found along the way to extract the riches to which they believed they were entitled.
The absurdity and arrogance of Columbus’ behavior is best appreciated if it is viewed in a modern context. Imagine if a raiding party landed on Staten Island tomorrow and started spewing gibberish and planting flags to denote that they were claiming this land for their government. Having been to Staten Island, I know this exercise in rudeness would be cut short by several of the less courteous, local inhabitants unaccustomed to such territorial disputes. One must imagine that the Native Americans first encountering these men from abroad, brandishing lethal military equipment and intruding on their longstanding and extensive homelands, viewed them as bizarre, if not actually comical. Obviously, the humor of the situation evaporated as the locals found their homes raided, and their neighbors murdered or enslaved.
Columbus did not land on an empty shore, devoid of inhabitants and available for squatting rights to any vagabond emerging from the sea. He set foot on land that had been inhabited for thousands of years by hundreds of different cultures. The only thing he discovered was that he was lost and that there was gold somewhere on this land upon which he had stumbled. The native Americans made jewelry and musical instruments out of the shiny metal. The Europeans used gold to finance wars. Columbus apparently was not musically inclined but recognized the position and prestige he could command by providing European monarchs with the means to slaughter each other’s subjects.
Many argue that our celebration of Columbus’ voyage is merely a recognition of the contribution people from Italy have made to our nation. Of the millions of Italians who built lives in America and helped build our nation, there are certainly many more worthy of recognition than this befuddled sailor/murderer. Before building monuments to and creating holidays for men like Columbus, we would be wise to look closely at what they actually did, rather than what we wished they had done.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.