On the 500th Anniversary of
Columbus' "Discovery" of America

By Ken Ficara and Robert J. Howe
October, 1992

We would be celebrating the anniversary of the discovery of the New World this year except that we can't place it very well on the calendar. We don't have a day, a month, a year, or for that matter, even a century. In fact, the decimillenial celebration could have been held pretty much any time between now and the foundation of the City of New York and be equally on target.

What we do know is that sometime between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago, the first humans walked onto North American soil from Northern Asia, via the Bering land bridge. Driven into this new world by other expanding tribes, or following the patterns of large animal migrations, the first colonists continued to move further south and east over the millennia as the migrations continued.

Maybe they were following the mammoths. Maybe they were forced out by other, invading tribes. What they most certainly were not doing was searching for slaves, prospecting for gold or trying to convert the natives -- there weren't any -- to Christianity.

This (im)migration, in fact, predated Christianity by at least 8,000 years. In fact, it predates Judaism, and monotheism. The ascendant mode of worship of the time was probably some type of animism.

Unlike every subsequent venture into the Americas, this movement was almost certainly not ideological. Ideology had probably not been invented yet except in the most general sense of tribal power struggles and differing world views. People clashed over food and living space, not the nature of their gods or how they distributed what little goods they had.

By the time an Italian navigator named Christopher Columbus showed up--eight thousand years or so later--complex civilizations had risen and fallen on this continent. The Olmecs, the Mayans, Aztecs and Incans all preceded or were contemporaries of European civilization. Elsewhere in the world, other civilizations had come and gone: the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Celts.

About 900 BCE, the Mayans were developing sophisticated water management systems for agriculture; 300 years later, Athens introduced its first water supply system -- with a total of nine pipes leading to a main well.

How did the lost and confused Columbus's arrival on the shores of a continent that had been the site of civilizations for millennia come to be regarded as a "discovery"? It was the European talent for warfare, not civilization or culture, that enabled them to destroy the original Americans and enforce the primacy of their claim to the New World.

When Columbus made his landfall on the island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, European nationalism was erupting regularly into open warfare. National armies were driven by the twin engines of gold and ideology. Columbus brought the latter to the New World seeking the former.

It's a vast understatement to call Columbus a man of his times -- he was almost a throwback to the Middle Ages. Two hundred years after the last Crusade, Columbus was still obsessed with retaking Jerusalem from its Islamic occupiers, vowing to Ferdinand and Isabella that his personal profits from the first voyage would be used for that purpose. Yearning for an earlier time when men were men and infidels were infidels, he was the Ronald Reagan of navigators.

And his arrival boded about as well for the inhabitants of America as his Reagan's election did for poor people and minorities 500 years later. Columbus's interest in the Americas was simple: gold and tractable slaves with which to extract it.

On the first Columbus Day, October 12, 1492, he speculated in his journal about the sources of natives' gold ornaments and wrote that the natives "are good to be ordered about, to work and sow, and do all that may be necessary."

His rigidity of belief extended well beyond ideology and racism. A talented navigator, he nonetheless refused to surrender his preconceptions about the shape of the world, even when faced with overwhelming evidence.

Columbus, thinking he had fetched up in India, proposed in his diary to sail in one day to Japan--Cipangu as it was then known. Well, it's almost 4,500 miles from the Sea of Japan to the Bay of Bengal by the most direct route. Between them lie Korea, the easternmost bulge of China, all of Indochina, the Maylay peninsula and Sumatra. More significantly, there are only two passages from the Indies to the Sea of Japan: the long, narrow Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Sumatra, and the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra. The distance of Columbus's 36-day voyage from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola is about 3,200 miles--1,300 miles less than the distance he thought to sail in one day to reach Japan.

This isn't just a mistake of arithmetic. It's a very instructive error, and gives us the measure of the man. Educated Europeans had known for years that the world was round; the debate with Columbus was over how big it was. Columbus, having sailed much further than expected to in order to find land, still hung on to his worldview that the continents were so crowded together that he could sail from India to Japan in one day.

Columbus insisted that Cuba was mainland China, swearing his navigators to the idea even after his own cartographer had clearly delineated it as an island. To the end of his life he maintained that he had reached India, despite the open scoffing of his contemporaries.

Here in the latter half of the twentieth century, on the eve of the quincentennial of his "discovery," we are still grappling with closed minds and rigid worldviews.

In New York City, Spanish artist Antoni Miralda is masterminding a campy "wedding" between the Statue of Liberty, a figure representing an enlightened view of other peoples and cultures, and the Barcelona monument to Columbus, symbolizing a considerably more brutal history. The project will culminate in a "wedding procession" down Fifth Avenue in October of this year.

Liberty's 280-foot wedding gown was on display for several months in the World Financial Center, yet another monument -- to the profits of western capitalism built on four hundred years of exploitation.

What a mismatch. How big a shotgun will be needed to get these two to the altar? A bloody-handed tyrant, inflexible and stubborn, marrying a symbol of tolerance, of the Enlightenment, and of pride in the diversity of this country. The Statue of Liberty, given by one fledgling democracy to another, both of whom were celebrating their release from colonial domination and oppressive governments, is about to be handed off to the king of the colonialists. If there's anything we can take comfort in, it's that Columbus will have a hard time maintaining a man-on-top missionary position: Liberty, 305 feet tall, towers over her 33-foot groom.

Meanwhile, it's a wedding to which only some of the family will be invited. Native Americans, blacks, Hispanics and other historical victims of the oppression represented by Columbus won't be welcome at the ceremony and probably wouldn't enjoy it -- or the reception to follow.

And the honeymoon? Patrick Buchanan, Japan-bashing and "Buy American" jingoism, the rising sentiment against bilingualism, and the Bush Administration's plan to prevent the rise of other superpowers -- isolationism is back in fashion. The Know-Nothings are alive and well. Columbus probably would have approved of the deportment of Hatian refugees back to their exploited homeland -- we can't have the labor sneaking off the plantation, now can we?

The honeymoon is almost a trip back into the past -- back to robber barons, Manifest Destiny, and the days of George Armstrong Custer. Or perhaps even further, to the Golden Triangle of the slave and sugar trade, and to the natural superiority of white Westerners over the people of the southern hemisphere.

It's a return to what the Enlightenment rejected, a betrayal of our own Revolution against imperialism and colonialism. It's not Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite any more, it's back to Gold, God and Glory -- the three G's that the proud conquistadors in our high school history books sailed in search of.

How do Europeans celebrate their heritage without trumpeting the destruction of native peoples? Perhaps by recognizing how much their own history is about struggle against imperialism: the Irish history of resistance against English domination; the struggles of peoples in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for recognition of the homelands that were coerced into an empire years ago; Basque separatism; Cypriots' struggle for control of their own island.

Maybe the key to all this is to see these events as the breaking away of former colonies, rather than the dissolving of nation states. The difference may merely be one of viewpoint. When one looks at the history of Ireland, for instance, one sees the same events that occurred in European colonies in Africa: destruction of the native language and religion, the best parts of the country reserved for the conquerors and their proxies, and eventual economic subjugation. The only difference is that Ireland was colonized hundreds of years before the Europeans knew Africa existed.

The lesson that our government could take from Columbus's diary, and one that George Bush seems to be lacking, is courage, initiative and determination. The offspring of the Enlightenment is a curious hybrid; its leaders are chosen not so much for their vision, as for their inoffensiveness. Politicians in the United States get elected not by speaking truths they hold, but by avoiding electoral self-incrimination.

Perhaps it's fortuitous that the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World falls on a presidential election year. Maybe it will serve as a warning against rigid clinging to failed ideologies and the inability or refusal to make the leap required to a new worldview in the face of changing times.

Our patrician president came of age during World War II. The events of the past year have twisted the world kaleidoscope, bringing into focus a new global perspective. What kind of leader do we need now: one who clings to an outdated superpower-oriented worldview, or one for whom the new world order is vision rather than rhetoric?

The anniversary of Columbus's landfall in the New World is a fitting opportunity to ask ourselves what kind of world we want. We can't take back the genocide of Native American populations, and we can't ever sufficiently compensate the scattered survivors. But we might take from our intertwined histories a new sense of who we are and who we hope to be.

Perhaps you think the Creator sent you here to dispose of us as you see fit. If I thought you were sent by the creator I might be induced to think you had a right to dispose of me. Do not misunderstand me, but understand me fully with reference to my affection for the land. I never said this land was mine to do with as I chose. The one who has the right to dispose of it is the one who created it. I claim a right to live on my land, and accord you the privilege to live on yours.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces