Debunking Columbus

Against the Current, No. 131, November/December 2007

Jennifer Jopp

Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest
By Matthew Restall
Oxford University Press, 2004,
218 pages, $16.95 paper.

“I KNEW IT couldn’t be true!” exclaimed my then eleven-year-old daughter when I explained the premise of Restall’s book. “The Ancients knew that the earth was round,” she continued, “so Columbus could not have been the only one.”

Most of us do know, when we stop to think about it, that what passes for the true story of the “discovery” of the Americas is just so much claptrap. Yet, how did the story — so implausible, really — become so entrenched in our childhood training?

Furthermore, as my daughters like to point out, the persistence of the story leads to no end of misconceptions: both report primary school classmates who envision Columbus pulling up at the Statue of Liberty.

How is it, then, that our mostly Protestant, northern American, democratic nation serves up its lessons in patriotism to our young in the form of the story of a Catholic adventurer who served the Spanish Crown and brought slavery and destruction in his wake?

It’s an interesting tale, and Matthew Restall’s book rewards the reader with a deeper understanding of what might likely to have happened, as well as a deeper understanding of the processes of the creation of historical myth.

In Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest Restall sets out to dissect seven of the most persistent myths regarding the conquest of the Americas. Moreover, he explains the origins of those myths. The result is a readable and extremely fascinating account, which might have been subtitled “The True and Remarkable Tale of How a Third-Rate Adventurer Became the National Hero of Someone Else’s Country!”

Myth of “Discovery”

He begins with perhaps the greatest myth of all: of the “discovery” of the Americas. Discovery implies forethought, planning, and the end of a great quest. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Restall, for the historical event in question actually involved a great deal more serendipity (more on that idea below) than befits such a heroic figure.

One of the most persistent themes in historical literature over the past five centuries is the notion that the European arrival in the Americas was one “of the two greatest events in human history.”

Serendipity (lucky accident) has little role in the telling of such a dramatic tale. Rather, in all its incarnations (compared variously to everything from the birth of Christ to aeronautic achievements) the “discovery and conquest” are regarded as the work of a handful of exceptional men.

Restall shows us that this idea of a small group of men accomplishing great things shaped historical writing, art and literature. He opens his discussion with a 19th-century painting of Columbus. José Marîa Obregón’s 1856 “The Inspiration of Christopher Columbus” depicts a lone Columbus poring over nautical charts with an astrolabe in hand, gazing pensively out to sea.

The work neatly illuminates many of the strands of myth about Columbus. The painting illustrates, as well, another of Restall’s central assertions: our Columbus is really a 19th-century man.

Among the many mythical notions that we hold about Columbus are that he alone knew that the earth was round, that he alone had some special knowledge, and that he alone had the foresight to embark on his voyages.

Exploration and the Crown

If neither foresight and planning nor special knowledge gave primacy of place, what happened?  Serendipity, Restall asserts, played a role in the achievements of Columbus: he was, quite simply, in the right place at the right time. By shifting our lens and placing Columbus within a different context, Restall begins the process of unraveling the strands of the myths woven around Columbus.

Portuguese explorers had, long before Columbus, embarked on voyages from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and to the Iberian-African coasts in the centuries before Columbus was born. By placing the appearance of Columbus within this broader framework, one examined by earlier historians (see for example Crosby, 1986), one understands that Columbus had “neither a unique plan nor a unique vision nor a unique pattern of previous experience.” (Restall, 8. Subsequent page references are from this book.)

During his lifetime, and for a considerable time thereafter, Columbus was regarded as rather unexceptional. It was, rather, Vasco de Gama who found the fabled sea route to the Indies. Columbus, discovered to have persisted in his false claims, was returned to Spain in chains and stripped of his titles.

If his “discoveries were [merely] an accidental byproduct of Portuguese expansion two centuries old, of Portuguese-Castilian competition for Atlantic control a century old, and of Portuguese-Castilian competition for a sea route to India older than Columbus himself,” why do we “remember” his as we do? (9)

Our historical memory, it turns out, is shaped by a rather narrow source base.  Columbus, and others like him, relied on the patronage of the Crown to carry out their ventures.  Few monarchs want to hear that their ventures have come to naught. Columbus obliged and, for a time, his probanzas de méritos (proofs of merit) earned him royal favor and rewards.

Written to justify royal expenditures and garner royal gratitude, the probanza encouraged self-promotion and the excising the contributions of others. All the threads of the later conquest mythology can be found in these testaments: the role of divine providence, the “invisibility of Africans and native allies,” the desire to see the conquest as complete, and the emphasis on the role of individual men. (12)

These conquering men, so conscious of their power — and perhaps so aware of the need to justify their actions — also wrote letters, diaries, and narratives of the events in which they participated.  Much of what later served as the stuff out of which the legends were crafted comes, therefore, from these men’s own pens.

The Myth Takes Root

Sixteenth-century writers crafting an ideology of imperial power turned to these voluminous reports and writings. Late 16th-century Italian poetry began to draw on a heroic image of Columbus, a theme echoed in 17th-century literature.

Interestingly, as Restall notes, it was in the young United States rather than in Spain or in any of the countries of Latin America that the first celebrations of Columbus took place. Boston, Baltimore, and New York held celebrations on October 12, 1792. (11)
By the late 19th century, Italian immigrants claimed him as their own, naming their fraternal organizations after the man they now appropriated as an emblematic Catholic immigrant.

Nineteenth-century historians, among them William Prescott, mined the works of the earlier historians and writers to “repackage…and rework [the material] into an ideology of imperial justification.”(19)

Prescott’s works remain very influential and in print a century and a half later.

For Prescott and his largely Protestant audience the narratives of the military conquests of the Europeans seemed to parallel the expansionist frame of mind so prevalent at the time. The Catholicism of the perpetrators offered a convenient explanation for the excesses of the conquest.

Armed Entrepreneurs

“The myth of the King’s Army” is Restall’s next target. In the popular imagination, “soldiers” accompanied Columbus. The vague vision is of a small force of trained, paid and uniformed men carrying out the wishes of the Crown under the direction of Columbus.
Restall concludes that the men with Columbus were not trained, not paid, not in uniform, and most certainly not in the service of the King. Many of the characteristics of a professional army, in fact, developed later. Restall prefers the term “armed entrepreneurs.”

Who, then, did accompany Columbus? In the third chapter Restall turns his attention to the warriors, fighting alongside Columbus, who have remained invisible to us. Both native and African allies assisted Columbus in the conquest.

This “myth of the white conquistador” explains the possibility of military victories otherwise attributed to divine providence. Restall finds that a close reading of the documents yields information about native allies (so numerous that they vastly outnumbered the Spanish) as well as Africans, who likewise often exceeded the Spanish.

Columbus and his men, so reliant on royal favor, filled their reports with glowing accounts of their successes. Restall calls this the myth of completion; Columbus exaggerated his accomplishments and we — and subsequent historians — have all taken him at his word. (A 16th-century version of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” if you will.)

Restall dismisses the notion of a “complete” conquest. He points, instead, to compelling evidence of a protracted conflict in the periphery, the ubiquity of everyday forms of resistance, and the persistence of native cultures. While the Spanish conquered the core areas with rapidity, the pax colonial was, in fact, rife with violence and revolt. (Sound familiar?)

Recent research supports Restall’s contentions. In his pathbreaking study The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca, Kevin Terraciano finds extensive evidence of the persistence of native language, customs, forms of social organization, and sacred relations despite centuries of colonial rule. (Terraciano, 2001) Terraciano uses extensive native-language sources and thus escapes the familiar reliance on the conquerors’ own conception of events.

Restall, too, tackles the question of language in “the myth of (mis)communication.”   Spanish accounts seldom mention the interpreters who served — however imperfectly — as a bridge between these two cultures.

Failure to mention the extremely tedious and cumbersome process of translation that took place conveyed the false impression that the Spanish were actually communicating with the native peoples and that they were actually subjugated. (85) These invisible intermediaries join the other largely invisible men and women who assisted the Spanish.

Myths of Innocence and Desolation

In my favorite chapter of the work, Restall takes on the “myth of native desolation.” There is, as Restall notes, an emphasis in the works on Columbus on depopulation, destruction, and anomie. Contemporary historians often portray native life before the arrival of the Europeans as that of innocents in a paradise.

The apotheosis myth is an important part of the myth of native desolation. After portraying natives as naïve innocents, the notion that they revered the Europeans and their gods doesn’t seem like such a stretch.

Restall demolishes this argument and presents a convincing case against the notion that the native peoples deified Cortés or Columbus.

Despite the “greatest demographic disaster” in human history, Restall concludes that there is convincing evidence of post-conquest native vitality. Restall points to festivals, communities, and the persistence of cultural patterns as evidence of native resilience.

Restall finally tackles the über myth: the myth of Spanish superiority. In every incarnation, explanations for the Spanish “victory” rest on a notion of superiority. There are, rather, some far less glamorous reasons for the turn of events. Disease, native disunity, and profoundly different cultures of war are just some of the “antimythic” explanations Restall offers the reader.

The History of the History

Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is an engaging and highly readable account of the history of the conquest of the Americas. It is not surprising, of course, that the tale of Columbus is replete with myth. We have long suspected, indeed known, that such was the case. More difficult to unravel are the processes by which such an implausible collection of tales has come to be regarded as our history, passed down to future generations as part of our national narrative.

Restall follows the thread from 15-century reports to 21st century music lyrics to convey with wit and verve this fantastic story, and it is well worth accompanying him on this venture.

Sources Cited

Alfred Crosby, 1986. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge University Press.

Kevin Terraciano, 2001. The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca: Nudzahui History, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford University Press.

from ATC 131 (November/December 2007)