- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

By William Least Heat-Moon
John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, 182 pages

This Columbus Day in Washington D.C. was not unlike other such celebrations of recent years. Protesters were arrested; someone threw red paint on the stern-visaged white marble statue of the great navigator that stands outside Union Station. The word "murderer" was once again in the air and applied to Columbus.
William Least Heat-Moon has written "Columbus in America," a slight and condemnatory revisionist history of Christopher Columbus in which the objective is balance. Balance, at least in Mr. Heat-Moon's eyes, puts the great explorer and navigator's mighty accomplishments against the damage he did to the locals.
In accord with current historical fashion, Columbus' story, in this telling, is a story of greed and domination and the ruin of native cultures which, according to the theories expounded here, might well have continued undisturbed until today if only crude and grasping Europeans had not broken into paradise America.
Of course that is an impossible dream. Considering the state of seamanship at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th Centuries, it was only a matter of time before the active and energetic trading nations of Europe sailed west to the unknown shore. It was only a matter of time too, before the men who had iron and gunpowder faced those who did not have these things, with the predictable result.
Revisionists presume that it might have been different, or that the Spaniards might have chosen the Sermon on the Mount rather than more draconian passages in the Testaments as their text in dealing with Stone Age Indians.
But they didn't. They came and forgot gentle scruples; they easily brushed aside the local peoples in their quest for gold or other riches to return to their king and queen. If the natives were mild and acquiescent, the Europeans used and infected them with various diseases and bad habits. If they were obstreperous, the Europeans threatened or killed them.
Columbus' initial voyage to America (actually the islands of the Carribean basin) brought little but grief in its wake for the inhabitants, subsistance Indians. But in this telling, even for Columbus the whole thing was a mistake, adding insult to injury. The admiral of the Spanish fleet, depicted here as a single-minded and rigid xenophobe of low cunning, kept insisting that what he had found was indeed Cathay, the fabled shortcut to the Orient; and that the Grand Khan was just around the next sand dune.
Mr. Heat-Moon is a travel writer best known for "Blue Highways," a first-person book which became a cult classic. But such an approach is not really applicable to history, unless tedious months of research are done, as in the case of Samuel Eliot Morison, author of "Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A life of Christopher Columbus." Morison actually sailed most of Columbus' new world courses in his own sailboat, gaining many insights. Mr. Heat-Moon, who does not supply an index to his book, and lists only a few others (Morison prominent among them) as his sources, has not done the research.
Without personal anecdotes to enliven his writing, Mr. Heat-Moon's narrative shrivels into polemic and dubious argument.
Instead of fresh history based on newly discovered evidence, he takes the available documents, such as the extant logbooks and journals ascribed to Columbus, and searches them for sinister signs that signal the oppressor is at work. And when he can't find any such signs, he makes them up, as in the ominous scene he paints picturing the approach of Columbus' tiny fleet of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria to the Carribean Island shore:
"The night wore on, the spectral sails full under the moon, prows slicing through the black swells, sailors tiring and reluctantly giving in to sleep. Those who dozed off were to wake in not just the New World of the Americas but into a new world of concepts and commodities, politics and possibilities, genes and genocide."
Novelistic description aside, one would imagine that the sailors who "dozed off" while on watch near an unknown shore under a hard-handed captain like Columbus would wake rather abruptly to a bucket of cold water or a rope's end rather than to phiosophical musings.
Yet the author is not willing to make the outright assault on Columbus, who gets credit at least for being a fairly competent navigator, he simply keeps sniping: We learn early on that Columbus and his sailors set out with "highly materialistic motives." And that they were leaving a Europe "exhausted by war and bigotries, religious corruption and intolerance."
Columbus' first thoughts after arriving and befriending the Tainos Indian tribe (who, Mr. Heat-Moon admits were bloodily at war with their eternal enemies, the Caribs) were to convince his patrons that the Indians would make good servants because they are quick on the uptake, and that, "They would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion. Our Lord pleasing at the time of my departure I will take six of them from here to your Highnesses in order that they may learn to speak."
Genocide, in fact, is what Columbus brought with him in the little ships, Mr. Least Heat-Moon claims. "Judgment of Columbus cannot ignore the forces his actions set in motion in his 'other world' that would lead to the greatest genocide humanity has ever witnessed." It's assumed that "greatest genocide" refers to the conquest, slaughter, and eventual marginalization of the North American Indian tribes but that's never made clear.
Nor is it ever made clear that Columbus was directly responsible for atrocities or, even large-scale cruelties, against the native peoples he met during his four voyages to the Carribean Sea from 1492 until 1504; rather his system of dealing with the natives seems to have followed a familiar pattern. It's a pattern that makes him an easy target in our blame-seeking age.
At first the explorer tried to discover the threat the natives posed, if any. Then he would try to win favor with them by barter or gifts of insignificant, but novel items such as beads, trinkets, mirrors, knives, etc. Then he either would coerce or bribe them into assisting with the eternal tasks of the sailing fleet finding fresh food and fresh water, and the means for repair. When and if this met resistance, the Spanish would use force, take hostages or make threats. If they met too much resistance, they would simply leave.
That the Spaniards had a disastrous effect on the Tainos seems doubtless. Morison accounts how their numbers dropped precipitously after 1492 from an estimated 300,000 to the point where it is now questionable whether any exist at all.
In all Columbus' commerce with the natives, Mr. Least Heat-Moon seems to miss one vital point: to a voyager, then as now, the local people are simply another condition of the voyage, favorable or unfavorable, useful or useless as the case may be, but always to be dealt with in a way which doesn't threaten the voyage or those who make it.
For Columbus' mission, after all, was not to establish diplomatic relations with the inhabitants, if any, but to gain knowledge first, gold second, and a distant third, to spread Christianity.
Though he succeded mightly in the first and only indirectly in the second and third aim, it's Mr. Heat-Moon's argument that Columbus' failures (to discover the continent of America or to recognize the location of the Pacific Ocean) added to his "establishing practices and reinforcing attitudes that would lead to the extermination of cultures and peoples, perhaps as many as forty million" cancel much of his achievement.
Columbus never really gave up his theory that there was a shortcut to the Orient hidden somewhere in the western ocean. Ironic that he came close touching at the isthmus of Panama to discovering on his last voyage that only a relatively thin strip of land separated the Pacific from the western ocean (or Atlantic). But whatever evil this famous sailor set in motion, and what blame may accrue to him it will take more than the revision industry to take him down from history's pedestal.

Duncan Spencer is a writer in Washington.

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