So, a recent column in the Deseret News was all about Christopher Columbus, and how he’s referenced in the Book of Mormon, and how the Spirit led him to America. This article called arguments that Columbus was “motivated by ambition and materialism,” and that he was “an embodiment of rapacious greed and Western colonialism, an imperialist forerunner of genocidal oppression” mistaken, “at best, one-sided and misleading.” Because his own writings showed that he considered himself led by the Holy Spirit to the Indies. Plus he liked a lot of the same scriptures Mormons like. So: good guy, quasi-prophetic and deeply moral. That’s the narrative.
Except Columbus set a gold quota for the Indians under his charge, and any who didn’t make quota lost an arm. Columbus enslaved a shipload of Indians and took them back with him to Spain, where they all died. Columbus refused to allow his priests to baptize Indians, because Church law didn’t allow baptized Christians to be enslaved. And when his lieutenant told him about raping a native woman, Columbus didn’t so much as admonish the man.
I’m fascinated with Columbus, and Amerigo Vespucci, and that whole era. I’m particularly interested in Father Bartolome de las Casas, a Columbus contemporary who treated the native peoples with whom he interacted with kindness, compassion and respect, and who wrote letters back to Spain condemning Columbus’ treatment of them. A genuine Christian, and a heroic individual in every meaningful sense.
So I wrote a play about Columbus, and the ‘discovery’ of America; took about two years to research and write. Called Amerigo, the premise is that Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, trapped in Purgatory, have been arguing about which of them should get credit for finding America, and their fights have increasingly disrupted the repose of the truly penitent. So Nicola Macchiavelli has been asked to moderate a debate between them. And the judge will be Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun, who was also the greatest Spanish writer living in the Americas. Those four characters, in purgatory, arguing about America.
It was produced by Plan B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City in 2009. It won City Weekly’s annual award for best theatre production in Salt Lake. It got good reviews, like this one. And this one. And it’s available for purchase, in this collection.
I don’t understand this need by some Latter-day Saints to defend Columbus, though. I think it’s related to the myth of American exceptionalism. God inspired Columbus to come here, leading to more Europeans colonizing the Americas, leading to the creation of a safe haven for religious dissidents, leading to God’s favored nation, the United States of America. I’m familiar with the narrative. And I find it deeply troubling. The main reason Europeans were able to colonize the Americas is because of the greatest pandemic in human history, a terrible plague in which tens of millions died, possibly up to 95% of the human population. Of the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ that depopulated these two continents, the Germs were by far the most effective/destructive. Am I to believe, therefore, that God intended it that way, that God sent bacilli to decimate the New World? Because the other possibility, the more likely and the (slightly) less troubling narrative is that germs just happen, that God allows for pandemic just as He apparently allows for genocide, as an essential part of this testing ground on which we find ourselves.
And if it was all a test, de las Casas passes. And Columbus does not.
Let’s dispense with the borderline blasphemous intentionality model for colonization, and admit what was really going on. Accident, disease, conquest, misunderstandings, miscommunications leading to violence. Male, white privilege, cultural hegemony. And genocide.
And we know a lot about it. Amerigo Vespucci, for example, was a businessman, interested in trade. He’d been a pimp; he’d sold everything to anyone. But at least he had the grace to see how beautiful the lands were he intended to exploit.
And Columbus. And yes, he was pious, in the peculiar sense in which 15th century Catholic religious fanatics could be pious. He thought he was looking for the Garden of Eden. He thought it was the source of all spices on earth. He thought that if he found spice, he would find enough to fund a Crusade, King Ferdinand leading an army to conquer the Holy Land, leading to the Second Coming. He certainly deserves credit as a seaman–he was a tremendous sailor. But he was also, let’s face it, kind of a kook.
So that’s America today: Columbus and Amerigo. A land of religious fanaticism and extremism. And a land of rapacious capitalism. Moderated, only occasionally, by the good sense of a Sor Juana, and the moral power of Bartolome de las Casas.
That’s the America I love, and the America I’m glad to celebrate. The America of, not Columbus, but de las Casas. The America of, not Vespucci, but Sor Juana. An America of literary and artistic achievement, and progressive activism. An America build on tragedy, but also an America built around at least the possibility of positive change.
And absolutely, we should honor Columbus. But we honor him best by getting the facts about his life right. Don’t let ideology overrule history. Let’s tell the truth, about him, and about America, what it is, what it was, what it might become.