On Reading Christopher Columbus

In fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-two, we’re taught, Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean blue. (There’s apparently a longer poem behind that, and I consider it an unfortunate example of literary work. I have no idea who wrote it, and I think it is objectively bad.) I have never been quite what one might call a fan of Columbus’s, but I also never really thought about him, at least in the (not exactly) halcyon days of my youth. 1492 was a hell of a long time ago, after all, and my world revolves largely around Illinois and Wisconsin, with occasional forays to Minnesota, Vermont, and New York; Columbus, of course, never made his way this far north, and wouldn’t have known what to do if he had. He wasn’t my problem—except, of course, he is, literally and figuratively, every American’s problem.

Columbus—in his Cristóbal Colón guise, one of many names he adopted throughout his life and the one under which he gained the most glory—became very much my problem when I started graduate school in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Spanish Department. My advisor, a genius whose mind goes laps around most of us mere mortals, loved Columbus. By which I do not mean that she thought he was a great guy, the sort of dude you’d have a drink with, or, more importantly, trust to watch your drink while you went to the bathroom at the bar. You would expressly not trust him within a fifty-foot radius of your drink, as I’m pretty sure he’d be spiking the hell out of it, or at least being the lookout for the guy who was spiking it. (And he’d say he was doing it in the name of God, too, and definitely for your own good, that being very much his style.) I mean that she thought he was a terrible and contradictory mess and she loved to analyze his work. (I have my own awful people whose works I love to analyze, so I do understand that.)

I read, in the first class I had under my advisor, everything Columbus ever wrote (as Colón), or all of it contained within Cuatro viajes. Testamento, a strangely titled little book containing letters, journals, and a testament from Columbus’s voyages. I’ve written, some, about Columbus’s antics in the so-called “New World”: about the rapes, the pillaging, the destruction in his wake. I have written somewhat less about what I thought of Columbus (or Colón) the man. Not the colonizer, nor the Italian hero; not the circumnavigator nor the proselytizer: just the man from Genoa, who managed to secure funding from two powerful monarchs in the flush of a brutal conquest and went west to go east. As a librarian I’ve long argued for increasing our own personal information literacy, for ensuring that we actually know what we’re saying rather than parroting words that sound good, and so, today, I’m going to talk about Colón—Corombo—Colombo—Columbus, whose words I read in graduate school and whose words will forever color what I think of him and of everything he did.

Columbus wandered around the Iberian Peninsula for rather a while, trying to get funding for his westward-ho trek to India. Nobody would bite, because, as it turned out, Iberians had learned navigation from the Moors, and knew that going west to go east was bunk. His funding came from Spain less because they thought he had good ideas—they didn’t—than because they’d just finished slaughtering and robbing their way through their Moorish and Jewish citizens, and, flush with other peoples’ money, they were ready to spend. They figured Columbus would probably stumble across, well, something, and lo, he did. Although it was by accident.

I remember my professor beating her well-worn copy of the Quatro Viajes and Testamento against her desk, telling us that in Columbus’s descriptions of the Caribbean, there was the wonder and awe of newness. Of seeing something no other white dude had ever seen. I can’t say I really remember the awe, because it wasn’t the part of Columbus that impressed me the most. That, instead, was a mix: the religious fundamentalism. The lack of critical thinking. The amazing manipulation skills. The ways in which hate and inhumanity crept into his words, almost from the very first. Columbus was not a nice guy, and his violence seeped through everything he wrote.

Hernán Cortés, the vicious mastermind behind the divide and conquer strategy that won Spain a large chunk of a continent, wrote with some approval of the valor of Méxica warriors, and of their genius urban planning, their cities greater than anything in Europe. (He also trashed their cities, building Mexico City from the rubble of Tenochtitlán.) Columbus, however, wrote about how much money he (and the Spanish Crown, since he remembered who’d funded him) could make if he enslaved a whole lot of the Taíno people who had greeted him with kindness and hospitality. His crews (who, incidentally, hated him) went wild, raping and slaughtering their way across islands, torturing and maiming until lands ran red with the blood of innocents. Columbus didn’t care. He wanted gold for Spain, sure, but mostly he wanted gold because he really, really wanted to “retake” the Holy Land. Columbus existed within circles of colonialism and Orientalism, see, and he was trying to do it all, in the worst ways possible.

I remember being startled not just by the incredible viciousness of Columbus’s texts—the guy was an awful person—but by the complete lack, shall we say, of critical thinking skills. Columbus was, without a doubt, not the sharpest tool in the shed. But he was really really REALLY religious. A fanatic, a True Believer™, the sort of guy who will absolutely go to war (read: turn to terrorism) in the name of his God. He’s been dead for hundreds of years and I still find him terrifying. Since he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, it never seemed to occur to him that people, you know, talk. He was absolutely shocked—SHOCKED, I tell you!—when the Taíno got the word out, and people on other islands met his ships with barrages of arrows. Those were pretty great sections, in a way: I might have missed his earlier wonder, but I sure didn’t miss his SHOCK and HORROR that these people were fighting back.

As it turned out, Columbus and his kin weren’t just monstrous to the Indigenous people of the Americas. They were just generally shitty to everyone. In fact, they were so shitty to the people in the “colonies” they oversaw that, in the end, Columbus and his bros were brought back to Spain in chains to stand trial for mismanagement. Isabel and Fernando weren’t nice people, but they sure did believe in God and good management, and Columbus couldn’t manage for shit. (Cutting off tongues and branding people and parading women around settlements naked isn’t a great way of boosting morale.) The Testamento, which is pretty damn out there, was written on that return journey. I’m not the ideal audience, because I’d already reached my conclusions on Columbus the first time he wrote about enslaving people. But I guess the Testamento probably did its job, at least for someone. Columbus has managed to go down in history as a hero for absolutely no discernible reason.

I’ll be blunt: I really hated reading Columbus, and I’m truly glad I did. He gets trotted out by every new generation of white supremacists, waved around as some sort of conquering hero who comes, and nobody ever seems to realize just how blunt a tool he was, or just how openly vile. Columbus wasn’t a nice guy, but he was a terrorist, and he was a racist, and he was really set on world domination. He sucked. He doesn’t deserve a day to himself.

Our heroes are always flawed, to be sure. Thomas Jefferson might have written a cool document, but he was a rapist and a jackass. Benjamin Franklin was a trashfire with a lot of great ideas. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose words drove me forward, was gifted an enslaved woman and took her to the convent. But, even in this catalog of flawed and sometimes outright terrible heroes, Columbus stands alone. Because, you see, Columbus was never a hero. He was only a fanatic who got lost at sea, and fell into history.

This is based almost entirely on lecture notes from Fabrício Prado (when he taught at Roosevelt University) and Mariselle Meléndez (at UIUC), as well as readings in colonial Latin America and medieval and Siglo de Oro Spain and Iberia.