Sea of Troubles : Celebrations: The 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage is raising waves of controversy over whether the trip was for good or ill.
O ct. 11, 1492: Christopher Columbus is having the mother of all nightmares. He dreams that one day people will call him a murderer and a slaver. And those are just the names that can be repeated in polite company. Snapped awake by visions o f a world-class public relations disaster, Columbus dashes to the helm and orders his three tiny ships to turn home toward Spain. One day short of immortality, Columbus abandons the discovery of America to another day and another explorer.
If it had really happened that way, a lot of people might have a more peaceful 1992.
But it didn’t, and next year, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall, promises to be about as serene as an alley cat fight over fish heads. Or a weekend with Saddam Hussein.
From the harsh highlands of Bolivia to the post-modern jungles of Manhattan, the powerful symbolism of the anniversary is spurring assaults on the heroic image of the world’s most famous explorer. The goal of the anti-Columbus forces is to portray him as the spark for centuries of slaughter and environmental destruction that left American Indian peoples with only tatters of their rightful heritage.
Although the battle will not be fully joined for almost a year, opening shots have already been fired in the struggle over the Columbian legacy. Early skirmishes indicate that American Indians and other activists here and in Latin America will wage a sort of guerrilla war against ceremonies honoring the meeting of the Old and New Worlds. Anti-Columbus groups are planning counterdemonstrations, compiling how-to manuals for staging their own protests and drawing up lists of demands regarding reparations and land claims.
These forces will try to erase long-ingrained perceptions of Columbus as a daring mariner, a perception embedded in the education of generations of school children.
But the odds may be against the anti-Columbus forces--they will compete with a host of global government-sanctioned events marking Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. After all, the discovery is too big to ignore, say defenders of the observances. For good or ill, Columbus’ landing on a Caribbean island permanently enlarged the world and changed the course of history in one monumental stroke.
“We have a responsibility to recognize great events whether we like them or not,” says UCLA’s Norman Thrower, the geographer and cartographer heading up publication of “Reportorium Columbianum,” an ambitious 12-volume compilation and translation into English of source materials related to Columbus. In fact, the anniversary has become a magnet for almost any group that can stake a claim to the Columbian legacy, no matter how peripheral. By one count, Columbus commemorative commissions have been set up in at least 30 countries, 39 states and 100 cities.
Billions will be spent on ocean-spanning pomp and pageantry as these and other groups seek their moment in the semi-millennial spotlight. The most traveled and telegenic of these celebrations will be copies of Columbus’ three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, now under construction in Spain. Following Columbus’ route, they will sail across the Atlantic and visit several U.S. ports, including San Francisco.
Not surprisingly, the biggest backer of Columbus observances is Spain, whose rulers financed Columbus. That country will be the site of a world’s fair honoring Columbus as well as the Summer Olympics in 1992.
The Spanish government also has established the Spain ’92 Foundation in Washington, D.C., to coordinate a wide range of events in this country, including “the Honeymoon Project,” described as “a succession of visual arts projects revolving around the symbolic marriage” of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona and the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Although they may not be able to compete with such spectacles next year, some anti-Columbus forces are striving to eventually have the last word about the Columbian legacy.
“There seems to be a tremendous interest out there in rewriting history, especially among Native Americans,” says Jack Weatherford, author of “Indian Givers,” an account of the broad and deep Indian contributions to North American and Latin American culture that has sold more than 100,000 copies.
Last year Weatherford, an anthropologist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., got a taste of the support Columbus still commands when he wrote a newspaper opinion article calling for the abolition of Columbus Day. Among other things, Weatherford argued that Columbus sparked a transoceanic slave trade that was an “evil enterprise all the way around” and that the explorer “never hit the North American continent.”
“Lots of people were ticked off about that (article),” he says, recalling the angry letters that poured in, denouncing him for portraying Columbus in anything less than flattering terms.
But Weatherford also was struck by the number of anti-Columbus groups that seem to be springing up spontaneously around the country, including one in Montana that has styled itself Submuloc, or Columbus spelled backward. The group says its name symbolizes “the reversing of the Columbus impact on the indigenous way of life.”
Elsewhere, too, there are plenty of signs that disaffection with Columbus is widespread:
* Last summer about 300 Indians and allies from throughout the Americas gathered in Quito, Ecuador, for the “First Continental Meeting of Indigenous Peoples--500 Years of Resistance.”
A Guatemalan Indian at the conference declared: “These 500 years have meant nothing but misery and oppression for our people. What do we have to celebrate?”
Reports noted that the conference voted to send a 500-member delegation to Spain in 1992 to demand reparations for the Spanish Conquest.
* At another Columbus-inspired meeting in Iquitos, Peru, Indians from Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia met with representatives from such environmental groups as Greenpeace to map strategies for helping Indians regain control of Amazon lands.
* In the United States, spokesmen for Indian groups say they may try to disrupt some ceremonies, particularly when replicas of Columbus’ ships visit American ports on their voyage from Spain. The chief tactic apparently will be counterdemonstrations by Indians in canoes. Organizing meetings have been reported around the country, from Manhattan to San Francisco. In New York, Indians are publishing a magazine, Native Nations, about their ripostes to the quincentennial.
* American Indians have a major supporter in the National Council of Churches. The council has condemned the discovery as an “invasion” and voted that a celebration of the quincentennial is “not an appropriate observation of this anniversary.” The council, which includes most of the leading Protestant churches in the United States, is planning counterdemonstrations to the Catholic Church’s 1992 celebration of 500 years of Christianity in the Western hemisphere.
* “huracan,” the publication of the Minneapolis-based Alliance for Cultural Democracy, a loose-knit group with about 400 artist and activist members nationwide, recently headlined a story: “U.S. government and corporations unveil plans to honor slaver Columbus.”
The story denounced nearly all activities honoring Columbus except one. The writer argued that the U.S. Navy’s plans to name a nuclear attack submarine after the explorer would be the only politically correct gesture made in this country toward the Columbian legacy.
As its symbol, the alliance has chosen a picture of Columbus’ ships imprisoned within a circle diagonally bisected by a slash, the international symbol for designating forbidden behavior, like smoking. It is available on T-shirts. (Huracan, by the way, is the Taino Indian name from which hurricane is derived, according to the alliance. The image of the hurricane is apt for the effect of colonialism on America, the alliance asserts.)
* A major early literary broadside was unleashed by environmentalist Kirkpatrick Sale, whose “The Conquest of Paradise” portrays Columbus’ landing and subsequent behavior as the model for later explorers who plundered the New World for gold and set in place a civilization that committed genocide and “ecocide” against the natives and their environment.
If there is a manifesto for the anti-Columbus movement, Sale’s book probably is it. Aside from blaming Columbus for fathering exploitative, enslaving colonialism, Sale paints the navigator as a man to be loathed for his personal qualities--ignorance, superstition, insensitivity, greed, dishonesty and authoritarianism. Sale’s Columbus took little interest in the natural marvels he found, merely describing “big and little birds of all sorts” and noting that he saw “many trees very different from ours.”
Published last fall to mixed reviews, the book has gone through three printings and has put him in demand on the lecture circuit, Sale says.
But although it does much to debunk Columbus, “The Conquest of Paradise” also reminds that Columbus’ historic importance cannot be denied.
For centuries that historic moment and the man who made it were celebrated lavishly and adored uncritically, Sale notes. Columbus the intrepid explorer was lionized in countless histories, biographies, novels, movies, paintings, school pageants and expositions. His name went on streets, buildings, holidays and historical periods.
According to Sale’s account, Columbus’ reputation may have reached its zenith with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. Anton Dvorak composed his “New World Symphony” to honor the discovery. An intersection in Manhattan was renamed Columbus Circle.
A crowd of 300,000 turned out for the opening of the grandly titled and grandly financed World Columbian Exposition on a 664-acre stretch of park along Lake Michigan in Chicago. President Grover Cleveland opened the $30-million exposition by pressing a gold telegraph key with an inlaid ivory button, starting the torrential flow of fountains, the grinding of huge electric motors and popping the tops on flagpoles to reveal gilded models of Columbus’ ships.
By exposition’s end, about 24 million people had visited its exhibits, becoming the largest crowd for any single event in the history of the world up to that time.
In today’s more critical world--where heroes seldom remain untarnished and colonialism is reviled--it seems unlikely that even the most unrestrained events of 1992 will equal the enthusiasm in Chicago.
Even so, some American Indians wonder if they will be able to make their own case next year.
For instance, Jamie Brant of the American Indian program at Cornell University says that American Indian attitudes toward the quincentennial are divided. “Some people say, ‘Hey, this is a celebration and it’s our celebration because we’re the host folks,’ ” she explains. “There are a lot of protest ideas, too.”
Brant, who presides over a comprehensive listing of North and Latin American Indian activities related to the quincentennial, says that at least 350 native individuals and groups on the two continents are working on projects ranging from land claims to combatting deforestation.
Richard Hill, a Tuscarora Indian who directs the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., agrees that there is no consensus among Indians on dealing with the quincentennial. But he added: “A lot of Indians are boycotting anything to do with the quincentenary. We were here before Columbus and we’re here after Columbus. . . . The question now is: Are Indian nations going to survive the next 500 years?”
It is ironic, Hill says, that the quincentennial has inspired some 20 to 25 movies about Indians for release on television and in theaters in 1992 but that “none are being produced or written by Indians.”
One all-Indian creative effort does seem assured of widespread attention, though. In May, Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich, the celebrated American Indian writers who are married to each other, will publish their jointly written novel, “The Crown of Columbus.” Touted by the publisher as a book about an “obsession with the true nature of the historical Christopher Columbus,” the novel will have a 150,000-copy first printing and a $200,000 marketing campaign.
But both Hill and Brant, a member of the Mohawk tribe, agreed that the effectiveness of Indian group efforts is in doubt, largely because of a lack of resources.
“Even a good protest costs a lot of money these days,” Hill says.
Nonetheless, the anti-Columbus forces can already claim some victories.
UCLA’s Thrower notes that quincentennial organizers have already changed their vocabularies, using “encounter” rather than “discovery” and “commemoration” rather than “celebration.” Such concessions, he says, may “disarm” those who scorn Columbus.
In a proclamation issued by Spain’s King Juan Carlos, the monarch delicately acknowledged that all the world does not love the quincentennial.
“We are preparing to celebrate this anniversary as a source of hope for the future, which through mutual cooperation can surmount the disappointments of the past and lead to common ventures ahead,” the king wrote.