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9-08-2015, 16:39

Columbus’s background and voyages

Word of Portuguese voyages drew all sorts of people to Lisbon, including Columbus, whose story provides examples of all the themes important to post-colonial scholars and whose ideas were the beginning of the “invention of America.” Columbus had grown up in the Italian port city of Genoa, where he had spent time as a boy listening to mariners and merchants and seeing the wealth that trade could bring in boxes and chests on the Genoese docks. He joined the crew of a merchant ship as a teenager, and while in his twenties settled in Lisbon with his brother, making maps to support himself. He married a woman whose father was one of Henry the Navigator’s captains and a governor of the Portuguese colony of Madeira; the couple lived on Madeira for a while, and Columbus visited many other islands and the Portuguese trading posts on the west coast of Africa. Here he saw the possibilities for wealth and trade that overseas colonies could offer. In Portugal, Columbus also got to know the group of geographers and astronomers that Henry the Navigator had brought together, but he apparently did not listen very well to what they were saying. Instead he paid more attention to what he was reading, which included works by ancient geographers and medieval travelers, both actual and armchair. He read Natural History , written by the fi rst-century Roman offi cial Pliny, which included quite accurate descriptions of the peoples, animals, and landscape of Africa and west Asia, combined with reports about cannibals, dog-faced boys, and people with feet so big they used them as umbrellas. He read the Geography of the second-century Greek scholar Ptolemy, which stated that the size of the earth was about one-quarter smaller than it actually is, and that Asia stretched out for half the circumference of the earth, when it is actually just a little more than one-third. He read the Travels of the thirteenth-century Venetian merchant Marco Polo detailing his trip to the court of Kublai Khan, which also retold the story of Prester John. He read the Imago mundi , written in 1420 by Pierre d’Ailly, the bishop of Cambrai and chancellor of the University of Paris, an encyclopedic account of the inhabitants of the world. From these books, Columbus developed his ideas of “the Indies”: full of gold and beautiful landscapes, but also of men who might be cannibals or women who might be Amazons. Figuring out what most literate early modern people may have read is purely conjectural, based on what they refer to in their own writings or what was likely to be in circulation in the places they lived. In Columbus’s case, there is much less guessing involved, for the actual copies of many of the books he carried in his sea chest have survived, with annotations and marginal notes in his own hand. We know that his copy of Pliny was in Italian, printed in Venice in 1489, his copy of Ptolemy was printed in Rome in 1478, and his copies of Marco Polo and Pierre d’Ailly were also printed versions from the 1480s. We thus have a clearer understanding of what shaped his preconceptions than we do for almost any other early modern person. Some scholars of the Protestant Reformation have wondered whether Luther’s message would have had much impact had the printing press not been available to spread it, and we can ask a similar question about Columbus – would he have left Lisbon had printing not given him access to all of these ideas? He may very well have done so, because he was also infl uenced by direct contacts with at least a few contemporaries who thought as he did. The most important of these was Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397–1482), a well-connected Florentine humanist, physician, astronomer, and mathematician. From his reading and his calculations, Toscanelli became convinced that the distance between Europe and Asia sailing westward was only about one-third of the globe. In this he was particularly infl uenced by Ptolemy, whose work was unknown in Europe before the fi fteenth century, but, given the respect Renaissance scholars felt toward the ancient world, had quickly become a classic. Toscanelli shared his opinions, and a map based on them, with a cleric friend in Lisbon, who he hoped would take them to the king; Columbus heard about this, and asked for a copy, which Toscanelli sent shortly before he died. The map has disappeared, but part of the letter, in a copy in Columbus’s own hand, has survived, and in it Toscanelli enthusiastically reports of the spices, gold, silver, and people with “great feelings of friendship for the Christians” that would greet a voyage westward. Toscanelli’s ideas had no impact at the Portuguese court; nor did Columbus’s attempts to get backing for a voyage west based on them, for the king’s council knew that almost all geographers thought the distances were much longer, so that a trip west would be far too costly. Columbus next tried the Spanish court, where for many years he got the same reaction, for the same reasons: his calculations were wrong, and it was too expensive. Their “Most Catholic Majesties” Isabella and Ferdinand grew more interested, however, once Columbus indicated he planned to use the wealth gained from his trip to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. He asserted that he was destined by God to spread Christianity, a destiny he saw as symbolized by his fi rst name, Christofero, which means “Christ carrier” in Latin. (Columbus often signed his fi rst name using the Greek symbols for Christ.) In 1492, Spanish armies conquered Granada, the last act in the centuries-long reconquista , and Spanish soldiers no longer had a mission on the Spanish mainland. Several weeks later, Columbus received the support of Queen Isabella, and later that year he left Spain with three ships and about ninety crew members. He carried Chinese silk in his sea chests along with his many books, and an Arabic-speaking Spaniard as a translator, fi guring that someone at the Chinese court certainly spoke Arabic. About fi ve weeks after setting sail from the Canary Islands, Columbus’s ships landed at an island in the Caribbean, which, as we have seen, he named San Salvador, Spanish for Holy Savior. He was certain that he had reached an island off Asia, and called the inhabitants, who were members of the Taino people, “Indians.” Looking for Japan or the Asian mainland, he explored numerous islands for several months, then set off again for Spain, taking several captured Tainos with him. Columbus was greeted in triumph, but his subsequent expeditions were not uniformly successful. The second was huge, with over a thousand men, but most of these were treasure-seekers who went home disappointed after a few weeks. Columbus and his brothers governed different island colonies, never very successfully, and on his third voyage in 1498 he could fi nd so few willing men that Ferdinand and Isabella had to release prisoners to serve as crew. On this voyage he explored what is now the coast of Venezuela, fi nding the mouth of the enormous Orinoco River, which made him realize this had to be a large land mass and not just an island. (Islands do not receive enough rainfall to allow large freshwater rivers to form.) He wrote in his journal that he had found a “very great continent … until today unknown,” and that God had made him “the messenger of the new world.” This was the fi rst time that he used the words “new world” ( mondo novo ) for what he had found, though he still believed that Asia was just

METHODS AND ANALYSIS 7 Changing views of Columbus

The fi rst recorded celebration of Columbus Day on October 12 was in New York City in 1792, though more extensive festivities began among Italian-Americans in the late nineteenth century, and the day was made a US federal holiday in 1937. The view of Columbus in these celebrations was as heroic and triumphant: Columbus was the fi rst “modern man,” who ventured into the unknown just to fi nd out what was there and stuck to his dreams despite the ridicule and scorn of his contemporaries. In the early twentieth century, several countries in Latin America began celebrating October 12 as Día de la Raza (“day of the race”), commemorating the blending of European and indigenous cultures in the formation of mestizo society. Both holidays have been sharply contested in the past several decades. Edmundo O’Gorman, the Mexican historian who fi rst coined the term “the invention of America,” resigned as the director of the Mexican Academy of History in 1987 because he objected to celebrations of cultural blending that avoided the discussion of European domination. Events in 1992 marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s fi rst voyage ranged from celebratory television specials and recreations of the voyages to funerals for indigenous cultures and protests at statues of Columbus in Europe and the Americas. Some communities and states in the United States have renamed the day “Indigenous People’s Day” or something similar, and in 2002 Venezuela renamed Día de la Raza Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). Even those who continue to sponsor parades now tend to recognize the mixed effects of Columbus’s voyages, and the less attractive qualities of his character. Neither side in this controversy disputes the enormous consequences of the connections and encounters that became more global in their scope with the European voyages. to the west, and the maps he and his brother sketched show the coasts of Central and South America – labeled mondo novo – vaguely attached to Asia. On his fourth and fi nal voyage, he sailed along the coast of Central America looking for the passage to China, and was then marooned for more than a year on Jamaica while the governors of nearby Spanish colonies refused to help him. He died in 1506, just two years after returning to Spain for the fi nal time, and two years after the death of his strongest supporter, Queen Isabella.