Columbus - Hero or Villain?

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto weighs up the case for and against the Genovese explorer, finding a Columbus for all seasons.

Columbus before the Queen, as imagined by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1843In 1992, five centuries later, his statue in Barcelona exchanged symbolic rings with the Statue of Liberty in New York; meanwhile, the descendants of slaves and peons will burn his effigy. In a dream-painting by Salvador Dali, Columbus takes a great step for mankind, toga-clad and cross-bearing – while a sail in the middle distance drips with blood. The Columbus of tradition shares a single canvas with the Columbus of fashion, the culture-hero of the western world with the bogey who exploited his fellow-man and despoiled his environment. Both versions are false and, if historians had their way, the quincentennial celebrations ought to stimulate enough educational work and research to destroy them, Instead, the polemical atmosphere seems to be reinforcing a parti pris positions.

It is commonly said that the traditional Columbus myth – which awards him personal credit for anything good that ever came out of America since 1492 – originated in the War of Independence, when the founding fathers, in search of an American hero, pitched on the Genoese weaver as the improbable progenitor of all-American virtues. Joel Barlow's poem, The Vision of Columbus, appeared in 1787, Columbus remained a model for nineteenth-century Americans, engaged in a project for taming their own wilderness. Washington Irving's perniciously influential History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus of 1828 – which spread a lot of nonsense including the ever-popular folly that Columbus was derided for claiming that the world was round – appealed unashamedly to Americans' self-image as promoters of civilisation.

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