Yesterday’s Heroes, Today’s Villains

Dr. Syed Amir on the case of Columbus in an era when European narratives about the past are being reexamined

Yesterday’s Heroes, Today’s Villains
As the fifteenth century was drawing to a close and the curtain was about to fall on the last Muslim enclave of Granada in Spain, a new play was being enacted in Andalucía, potentially with colossal consequences. A little-known adventurer of Italian descent, Christopher Columbus, was seeking support for his far-fetched project of crossing the vast Atlantic Ocean, known as the ocean of darkness, to discover a new route to the orient and spice islands. By that time, most scholars had already concluded that the earth was round, but no one had dared either to cross the Atlantic or knew what lay beyond it. Some believed the lands beyond were inhabited by demons and evil monsters. Others feared that any travelers would drop off the edge of the earth into void of space.

Columbus first presented his proposal in 1485 to King John II of Portugal, asking for three well-equipped ships to cross the estimated 2,400 miles of the ocean. His demands, in case of success, were not modest. They included conferment of the august title Great Admiral of the Ocean, his appointment as Governor of any territories he discovered, and a ten percent share of all revenues derived from these lands.

King John ordered a committee to study the proposal, and they unanimously recommended rejection, concluding that the voyage was too dangerous to be undertaken. Columbus temporarily retreated in disappointment. A second appeal to the Portuguese King also similarly failed. Meanwhile, some luster from Columbus’ project had faded as a Portuguese nobleman and sailor, Bartolomeu Dias, had just returned in 1488 after completing a successful trip around the southern tip of Africa, and potentially opening a sea route to India and spice islands of in the Indonesian archipelago.

A Christian and a Muslim play chess, Spain

At the time, two powerful monarchs in Spain, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, both devoted Catholics, were best able to help Columbus in his endeavors. However, they were engaged in an pivotal struggle to liquidate the last remaining Muslim enclave in Southern Iberia, the Kingdom of Granada. Debilitated by the dynastic and inheritance fights among the father, King Abul Hasan, his son Abu Abdullah (‘Boabdil’ in the West) and his brother, El Zagal, the Muslim bastion was already moribund and eventually was forced to surrendered on January 2, 1492, to Ferdinand II and Isabella. Abu Abdullah, the last King of the Nasrid dynasty, handed over the keys of the Alhambra Palace to Ferdinand. In a glittering ceremony, attended by the queen and surrounded by a large coteries of religious and military elite, all resplendent in dazzling Moorish attire, Ferdinand accepted the surrender.
According to legend, shortly after their triumphal entry into the Alhambra Palace, Columbus was received at the magnificent ambassador’s hall by Queen Isabella and invited to make his pitch

Among those intently watching the surrender ceremony was Christopher Columbus; the fate of his proposal was tied to a successful outcome of the mission of the Christian monarchs. According to legend, shortly after their triumphal entry into the Alhambra Palace, Columbus was received at the magnificent ambassador’s hall by Queen Isabella and invited to make his pitch. However, success again eluded him, as the royal advisors counselled against the proposal. Disappointed and dejected, he mounted his donkey and started to plod away, when apparently the queen, on the intervention of her husband, changed her mind and sent a royal guard to bring him back.

Some three months after their conquest of Granada, the two rulers of Spain agreed to support Columbus’ expedition to the Indies. Columbus departed on August 3, 1492, with three armed ships sailing westward into the unknown, powered entirely by wind and human energy. He had included in his staff an Arabic-speaking sailor, Luis de Torres, surmising that he would find Arabic speaking people in the Indies. The sea travel was horrendous; the seafarers suffered from starvation, malnutrition and scurvy, and the crew even threatened mutiny. The bedraggled fleet sighted land on October 12, 1492, two months after leaving Spain. The exact location of where they landed remains uncertain but is generally believed to be on present-day El Salvador in the Bahamas. However, Columbus, until his dying day, believed that he had landed on some unspecified remote part of Asia, never realizing that he had stumbled upon a hitherto undiscovered landmass.

For over two centuries, Christopher Columbus has remained an admired figure in America, hailed as the indefatigable explorer of a new continent. To commemorate his achievements, a day in October was designated Columbus Day and declared a national holiday in 1937 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Furthermore, statues and monuments were erected in his honor throughout the US and many countries across the world. Paradoxically, all this adoration is heaped on Columbus, the self-declared Admiral of the Seas, even though he never set foot on American soil.

Columbus’s discovery of a new continent opened doors for Europeans nations to discover and exploit the resources of two vast continents. Alas, it proved disastrous for the indigenous people who were mistakenly labelled as Red Indians. One of the motivations of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for supporting Columbus’s venture, besides procurement of riches, was the conversion of the natives to Catholicism. Columbus fervently followed the mission. On October 12, 1492, he wrote in his journal about the native people: “They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”

Map of the Emirate of Granada in the final stages of Muslim rule in Spain

Columbus instituted slavery in the Caribbean, as the people were too weak to resist. Even worse, indigenous people were exposed to new deadly diseases, such as smallpox and measles, brought by Europeans, to which they had no resistance. Their populations were decimated. For a long time, the details about the calamities suffered by the native population brought on by Columbus and Europeans remained unacknowledged. However, the recent florescence of the Black Lives Matter Movement launched by African-Americans has spotlighted the injustices suffered by them for centuries. Its success has inspired an honest discussion of Columbus’ brutal legacy and unspeakable atrocities that he directly or indirectly inflicted on the native population.

The realization has spawned a major reassessment of Columbus’s status worldwide.  A number of states in the US have moved to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honour and celebrate the native people of this land. There were at least 150 statues of Columbus in various locations in the US, standing on pedestals; now many of them have been taken down under pressure from people and consigned to museums. After more than five centuries, Columbus has lost the exalted position that was wrongfully assigned to him in the first place.

The writer is a former assistant professor, Harvard Medical School and retired health scientist administrator, US National Institutes of Health