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The Conquest of Paradise:
Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy

by kirkpatrick sale
knopf, 453 pages, $24.95

As every schoolchild knows, Christopher Columbus, a Genoese navigator, discovered America in 1492. Or perhaps it would be better to say that every schoolchild used to think these were the facts about the European arrival in these lands. For several years now, a chorus of voices (growing larger and louder as we approach the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage in 1992) has assaulted every certainty, except the date, about the Columbus story. Some want to deemphasize Columbus preemptively by establishing that the Vikings were here first. Others would convince us that Columbus or Colon or Colombo (or whatever his name may have been) in fact was—take your pick—Spanish or Portuguese, Greek or Jewish, and far from being a navigator, before he set sail for the New World had never commanded a ship “larger than a rowboat.” Still others, by far the most numerous and ideologically strident, wish to monopolize public attention with claims that Columbus’s discovery of America is in any case nothing to celebrate.

Even the word “discovery” has been ruled out of the official celebration of the anniversary by some of the principal participants. When Spain first began planning for the commemoration of its role in the New World, it set out to defuse reactions from Native Americans and others who regard the very idea of the discovery of America as evidence of continuing cultural imperialism. In their view, the native populations had no need to be discovered. Seeking a more neutral term, therefore, Spanish officials and their New World collaborators scoured the softer side of contemporary culture and hit upon the idea of 1492 as El Encuentro, the Encounter of Two Worlds.

In itself, seeing 1492 as the meeting of two different cultures has a certain merit. At the very least, it points to something in what William Carlos Williams once called “the American Grain,” something often overlooked: the continuing presence of native cultures in our hemisphere, particularly in certain parts of Latin America. But some of the natives themselves refused to accept such a compromise. The South and Meso-American Indian Information Center (SAIIC), for example, a self-described liaison between Indian peoples of the North and of the South, and between Indians and non-Indians, recently issued “A Call to Action!” that included the following:

We ask the Spanish government, the Vatican, and all Latin American and European governments who are promoting the Quincentennial Jubilee how the steamrolling of cultures for the enrichment of a European minority can be considered an “Encounter of Two Worlds.” . . . The myths about Columbus and the “encounter” are a completely false manipulation of history.

Sympathetic persons are further requested to send contributions to the SAIIC offices in that natural seat of South and Meso-American concern, Berkeley, California, to help spread the word about the most evident consequences of Columbus’s invasion: “genocide, torture, political, ideological, and cultural submission and death through diseases brought to the continent. Our land and our resources have been and continue to be plundered. Military, ideologic, economic, and religious power are the instruments of domination in this conquest.”

As this excerpt so graphically shows, what began as an attempt to bring about a more equal appreciation of the two cultures involved in the Columbus commemoration quickly turned into the occasion for an acrimonious and moralistic assault on European and North American societies. Few major American institutions are willing to defend themselves against this kind of barrage. On the contrary, many have expressed their support for the full range of the indictments being brought here. Even the churches, who might be thought to be commanded to bring their good news to new peoples, cannot seem to find any good in the spread of Christianity to the Americas. In fact, only the American Catholic bishops to date have been willing to praise that admittedly flawed evangelization. More typically, the conquistadores and their descendants are charged with atrocities and genocide. Moreover, for many of the critics, genocide and rape—of women, of the land, of culture—continue to this day as the dark heart of both North and South.

A powerful formulation of this view has recently been offered by Kirkpatrick Sale in his book The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy. Sale, it should be noted, is not a professional historian but an environmental activist, a co-director of the E. E Schumacher Society, and a founder of the New York Green Party. His view of Columbus is likely to have a serious influence on the Quincentennial because of his stylistic and analytical skills (and it will not hurt that the book is a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club).

The true story of Columbus the man, his voyages, and his legacy has its sickening side. Here was a daring sailor and adventurer who was certainly a visionary, but at the same time a man with serious flaws. He was, moreover, the product of a culture in turmoil. His story is a tragic one, combining as it does the highest and the lowest human qualities. But there is nothing in the story so offensive as Kirkpatrick Sale’s unremitting bile in the telling of it. Though Sale writes vividly and with learning, he is also sneering and contemptuous, skeptical of anything that reflects well on Columbus and finally credulous about every evil attributed or attributable to him.

In Sale’s account, Columbus comes upon a gentle tribe during his first landing. These innocents he brutalizes and infects with diseases brought from Europe. Within a short while the entire Spanish project resembles in the large what Columbus had begun in small.

Sale then turns to North America and finds the English doing precisely the same things as the Spanish, but without even the occasionally saving antislavery activities of someone like the Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas and without the Spaniards’ relatively progressive willingness to intermarry with the Indians. The British were not only brutal but racist to boot.

The opposition of noble savages (NS) to savage Western Civilization (SWC) is by now a commonplace of our culture. The basic path to this opposition was originally laid down by Montesquieu, and later perfected by Rousseau, about two and a half centuries ago, and has since branched out in several directions, pitting East Indians, Black Africans, Communist Chinese, revolutionary Cubans, Sandinista Nicaraguans, and Native Americans against evil Westerners. But Kirkpatrick Sale achieves a new high water mark in the purity of his NS and the utter blackness of his SWC.

For example, the NS at the time of Columbus’s landing not only, according to him, lived in social harmony amidst a natural abundance of food and other necessities, but it appears that they inhabited a kind of prelapsarian garden where disease itself was virtually unknown.

One reason that the Indian populations, in the Caribbean as elsewhere, were so vulnerable to diseases of any kind is that, to an extraordinary extent, the Americas were free of any serious pathogens. The presumed passage of the original populations across the Bering Strait tens of thousands of years before served to freeze to death most human disease carriers except a few intestinal ones, it is thought, and there were apparently none established on the continents previously, so in general the Indians enjoyed remarkably good health, free of both endemic and epidemic scourges. As Henry Dobyns says in his examination of aboriginal North American populations. Their Numbers Became Thinned, “People simply did not very often die of illnesses” before the Europeans came.

As for these Europeans, they are portrayed by Sale—leaning heavily on the engraving tool—as the carriers of a culture of death. Some innocents nowadays might think of the early sixteenth century as the time of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Renaissance, and a march toward fuller humanism, but in Sale’s view they would be deceived. Further, where such people might see complexity or ambiguity. Sale finds no more than a monolith that has survived basically unchanged through the intervening centuries, “a Europe that in thought and deed was estranged from its natural environment and had for several thousand years [!] been engaged in depleting and destroying the land and waters it depended on, and justifying that with one or another creed or conviction.” Thus Sale lays much of the blame for Western ecocide on biblical impulses, but he is willing to be ecumenical, after a fashion. Western civilization was deeply ill, in his view, even before the advent of the anti-natural spiritual movements derived from the Bible.

For Sale, Europe’s divorce from nature made it rootless and restless, sick and unstable, powerful but hollow. His Columbus is the very incarnation of all of these qualities—not a daring seaman with a vision of which even he himself was not fully conscious, but a man without family or community ties, ready to sail anywhere because nothing constrained him or moved him to loyalty. His motives, insofar as identifiable motives drive such a deeply disturbed man, involved early capitalist greed and late Renaissance ambition for power and status. Sale finds his evidence for this in Columbus’s meager descriptions of the flora and fauna of the New World, in which it becomes clear that he has no idea of—let alone any interest in—what he is looking at.

Nor did the Europe of Columbus’s time react to his discovery with curiosity and wonder: “Certainly there was no intellectual explosion, nothing that ‘caused Europe to realize that the perimeters of their world were changing’ and ‘to reevaluate their concept of the world’ (as a recent study has put it).” Insofar as they looked up at all from their constant preoccupation with evil and death, the Europeans saw the new lands merely as wealth to be exploited. The right to colonization was assumed by Christian intruders who missed

an opportunity for a dispirited and melancholy Europe to have learned something about fecundity and regeneration, about social comeliness and amity, about harmony with the natural world. The appropriate architecture for Colon to have envisioned along these shores might have been a forum, or an amphitheater, or an academy, perhaps an auditorium or a tabernacle; instead, a fortress.

Writing from the relative security of the Empire State, Sale is prodigal in his advice to the Spanish explorers. To make his case, however, he has to tiptoe carefully around several rather large facts. Columbus may have found a relatively pacific people, the Tainos, scattered thinly around the island where he first made landfall. Even the idyllic portrait of this tribe, however, is suspect since, as Sale admits, they had “displaced” an earlier people, the Guanahacabibes. (Perhaps “displacing” is different from conquering in a way that Sale does not feel obliged to make absolutely clear.)

After a brief survey of Columbus’ sins against these and other tribes, and some highly speculative psychobiography that leaves the navigator a malignant psychopath, however. Sale hurries off to chronicle the outrages of the British and the French in North America.

It is not entirely by chance, one suspects, that Sale drops the Spanish story where he does; otherwise, we might find out some inconvenient facts about the native cultures encountered by the first Spaniards in the New World. Indeed, it is crucial to his method that he restricts himself to comparing selected portions of the entire European culture—like any human culture a foul rag and bone shop—with isolated pockets of American native life. If we take a comparable slice of one of the larger and higher cultures of America, though, the easy identifications of the devils and the angels fall to pieces. And we may be inclined to think that for all their faults, maybe the Spaniards had reasons to build fortresses rather than amphitheaters.

A large body of archaeological material has appeared recently that is gradually confuting idealized attempts to portray the tribes of native Americans as innocents in harmony with nature. The peaceful and colorful murals of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, for example, which are enjoying a renewed appreciation as the anniversary approaches, may be pleasing art, but they are bad history. Rivera’s paintings portray exactly what many people would like to believe was pre-Columbian America: vistas of fertile plains standing between breathtaking mountains; gaily dressed Indian peasants bending over neatly arranged plots of corn; community life steeped in the rhythm of the seasons, religious festivals, and songs. In short, an America before machines and automobiles, cities and suburbs, with their alleged alienation and cultural vacuity. Now, nostalgia for earlier, supposedly simpler, times is a perennial theme in human thought, but in few cases has this nostalgia for what never was sailed wider from reality than in that of the Americas.

The Nobel-prize-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz has written some of the most lucid and accessible essays on pre-Columbian civilization in Mexico. Paz is not only an intelligent and graceful writer but has great affection for both parts of his dual heritage as a Mexican: the Spanish and the Indian. The town he grew up in consisted of the usual seventeenth-century Spanish Baroque convents and nineteenth-century buildings. But these stirred his imagination far less than the small Indian pyramid he and friends discovered while on a picnic one day. Thus he is able to bring pre-Columbian culture genuinely alive.

Paz describes the Mesoamerican Indian culture as a world of city-states perpetually at war with one another under the leadership of kings who proclaimed themselves divine. War, in such circumstances, was important for several reasons, not least because it provided prisoners who might be sacrificed either on the altar or in a ritual ball game. Kirkpatrick Sale may write glibly of a European culture of death, but some high Indian cultures, like the Aztecs and Mayans, were far more openly cults of blood and death than anything the Old World ever had to offer:

The religious foundation common to all the Mesoamerican peoples is a basic myth: the gods sacrificed themselves to create the world; the mission of the human being is to preserve the universal life, including his own, feeding the gods with the divine substance: blood. This myth explains the central place of sacrifice in Mesoamerican civilization. Thus, war is not only a political and economic dimension of the city-state but a religious dimension.

As divinities of some kind themselves, the king and his queen were also expected to shed their own blood for cyclical renewal of the cosmos and the harvest. An elaborate system of rituals grew up in which the king practiced bloodletting on himself—among the Maya this was often from his penis—and the queen also shed blood into a basin, usually from her tongue (which was pierced and a rope passed through it). In war, one of the principal aims was to capture enemies who might be sacrificed later, their hearts cut out and offered to the gods of war and fertility. The Indians thought that without blood offerings, the balance of nature would be upset and monstrous beings would emerge from the darkness and tear the cosmos apart. Amidst the various changes in style and personalities over the centuries, the underlying cyclical pattern of cosmic order remained pretty much the same.

These well-known facts are unlikely to cause any ideological recalibrations in places like Berkeley. But we can imagine what a modern “hermeneutic of suspicion” would say if the Spanish kings of the period had required human sacrifice to preserve their world and rule, as all evidence shows the Aztec and Mayan kings did. But odd double standards are brought to bear on these issues even in such useful and lucid historical accounts as David Carrasco’s recently published Religions of Mesoamerica, where the astronomy, art, and other cultural achievements of native culture are heavily emphasized while its darker aspects are treated as some sort of odd aberration. Carrasco goes so far as to rebuke the Spaniards, even the best of them, for thinking that they needed to convert the natives from their traditional religions. The Spaniards saw human beings dismembered, decapitated, and sacrificed amidst sacred serpents and drew the conclusion that the Indians were worshipping demons in a fashion similar to the abominations denounced in the Old Testament. The modern reader may judge what under the circumstances his or her own reactions might have been, over and above any explanation of the Indian belief in the need to preserve natural cycles by such practices.

Mircea Eliade has shown with some force that this cyclic pattern is common to most archaic societies. Those of us who live in the “historical” time of the West that is the direct result of the unfinished story of the Bible have great difficulty believing that history proper does not exist among most other peoples. There are chronicles, primarily of the cycles of creation-destruction-creation bound up with war and bloodshed, i.e., with both reality and myth. But of history proper, such a system knows nothing in theory or in practical life.

For Paz and other scholars, isolation from outside influences not only created stagnant social forms in Mesoamerica, but doomed the Native Americans whom the Spaniards encountered. Beyond their technical advantages, the Spaniards had cultural advantages in that they quickly understood the Indian religious, political, and social systems. Cortés and his men were liberators from political tyranny and tribute exacted in human lives. Several thousand Indians joined the conquistadores in their assault on Mexico City precisely for such reasons. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in God’s Providence, these highly unworthy Spanish vessels also became the bearers of a sort of liberation theology.

By contrast, the Aztecs had no way to conceptualize who and what the Spaniards were. As is well known, Montezuma was terrified by an ancient prophecy that predicted the empire would be conquered by gods coming from where the sun rises (by an odd historical coincidence, the prophecy also specified the exact year the Spaniards landed on the Mexican coast). Native thought only allowed two categories of beings: gods and men. And the men were divided only between those belonging to their sedentary civilization and those outside, the barbarians. The Spaniards did not fit entirely into either category, with the result that the Native American tradition was of little help in confronting them.

Even before the arrival of Cortés, however, the lack of contact with fresh influences had crippled Indian culture. While some remarkable art and architecture was produced over more than a millennium of Indian civilization, there were no fresh impulses, such as had occurred elsewhere on the globe, that would lead to the development of metals and the wheel, or the training of animals for agricultural work. Whatever evils the Spaniards eventually introduced—and they were many and varied—they at least cracked the age-old shell of a culture admirable in many ways but pervaded by atrocities and petrification that should be repugnant to any modern person. Anyone who wishes to defend the rights of surviving Indian tribes and help preserve their cultures—two noble undertakings—must nevertheless be aware of what should and should not be retained from their heritage. A sentimental belief in the equal validity of all cultures leads necessarily to defense of such practices as sacrificial murder.

For Octavio Paz, the encounter between these two worlds has an element of fatal tragedy. “For two thousand years, the cultures of Mesoamerica lived and grew by themselves; their encounter with the other was too late and in conditions of terrible inequality. For that reason, they were demolished.” As much as we may regret many of the subsequent events that occurred, it would have taken some sort of superhuman prescience and virtue on the part of the Spaniards to help the natives evolve peacefully toward a culture integrated with their own. This happened neither in North nor South America, in British India nor French Vietnam. The encounter of two civilizations—especially when they are of widely differing cultural character—may involve more complexities than mere human intelligence and good will can control.

The record clearly shows as much. The most vivid eyewitness document of the first encounters is Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s remarkably vigorous Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain). Diaz del Castillo was one of the conquistadores who came ashore with Cortés and is, therefore, approached with suspicion by a certain type of historian. Why his account of events should be approached with greater skepticism than those of others, however, is not clear: Diaz del Castillo may not be a completely reliable source, but he is far less biased than many of his detractors. He was moved to write initially, he says, by the false accounts of the earliest historians. As he says about the heroic chronicle of the Conquest by one uncritical enthusiast, “When I had read it, I found that the whole was a misrepresentation, and also that in his extraordinary exaggerations of the numbers of the natives, and of those who were killed in the different battles, his account was utterly unworthy of belief. We never much exceeded four hundred men, and if we found such numbers bound hand and foot, we could not have put them to death.” Instead, he tries to describe accurately Cortés’s real strengths as well as his many weaknesses as these appeared to a simple but shrewd member of the Spanish conquerors.

He also speaks credibly of the natives. Like many of his companions, Diaz del Castillo marvels at the achievements of the Aztecs and regrets that, as he writes, many had been destroyed. But he also shows other elements to be present. Though some of the picture is unflattering to groups now weakened by centuries of mistreatment and neglect, we should not let this lead us to lose sight of the reaction any Spaniard, or any of us now, would have had to some elements of Indian civilization. Even in the small villages they enter, human sacrifice is widespread. When Cortés is offered gifts of friendship by one tribe, for example, he asks sincerely that they first give up worshipping idols by these sacrifices. Diaz del Castillo adds: “For every day our sight was offended by the repetition of four or five of these horrid murders, the unfortunate victims being cut up and their limbs sold in the public markets, as beef is in the towns of Old Castille.” Each time the Spaniards conquer a new town and the inhabitants flee, they come upon, with the same regularity that they report on architecture or food or weapons, the blood and bones of young men recently sacrificed.

The Indians were not much easier on their women. Diaz del Castillo reports, clearly with some titillation, on how batches of young ladies, some of them the nieces and daughters of Indian leaders, are presented to the conquerors as gifts. (The Spaniards usually require these ladies to undergo baptism before they accept them, a bizarre but not entirely cynical practice.) To be sure, women did occupy important posts in Aztec society; they were also at times treated like chattel. The Spaniards may have collaborated in practices of the latter sort for less than savory reasons. It is clear that they would not have treated their own wives and daughters in Spain in the same way.

All of which is not simply to say that the Europeans were superior to the natives, but to point out that each of the two cultures in this “encounter” had a very mixed record. If the Indians showed certain cultural strengths, the Spaniards and English and French did bring to them some universal ethical principles, like the ending of human sacrifice. Both Indians and Europeans practiced slavery, and any serious reflection on the relations between Native Americans and Europeans shows that, like much in the history of the human race, deep tragedy marches apace with great glory.

The Columbus celebration, however, seems destined to be observed in some quarters by the telling of simpleminded morality tales. The obvious intellectual power and graceful prose of a Kirkpatrick Sale, for example, is wasted on vapid conclusions like this:

There is only one way to live in America, and there can be only one way, and that is as Americans—the original Americans—for that is what the earth of America demands. We have tried for five centuries to resist that simple truth. We resist it further only at the risk of the imperilment—worse, the likely destruction—of the earth.

From ample evidence, we know that the various tribes of American natives did not all live the same way. Some tribes are attractive to us, others are not. Nor were all of them equally successful ecologists. Recent surveys of a Mayan site, for example, have shown signs of something probably often repeated in native society: deforestation, soil erosion, disease, and the consequent dispersal of a once flourishing urban ceremonial center. We may admire the natives’ feelings about nature, but as G. K. Chesterton once remarked (and native history proves), worship of nature quickly leads to what is unnatural.

Life at the end of the twentieth century is in some ways hard, and sources of light seem few. Since the future is unknowable, it is natural that we all turn to the civilizations of the past for enlightenment. When we do so, however, we must be ready to look honestly at the record. With respect to the Native Americans, to do anything less is to practice the final imperialism: a redefinition of the historical facts to fit our own categories. There are no perfect societies in America’s or any other region’s past. Any attempt to return to such a fiction, therefore, is a flight both from truth and from responsibility.

But the most ominous feature of such flights is the sharp alienation from our common American culture that they reflect. If Columbus was a wicked and rootless wanderer because he found no home in late fifteenth-century Spain, what are we to say of his modern detractors, who can find absolutely nothing good in their own science, technology, religion, social arrangements, and industry? Or to adapt an observation made by one of the primary creators of that bad Old World culture, if the critics cannot love their neighbors, whom they have seen, how can we rely on their love of the noble savage, whom they have not seen?

Robert Royal is John M. Olin Fellow in Religion and Society and Vice President for Research at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.