Readings > Kirkpatrick Sale, "What Columbus Discovered"

The following article, written by Kirkpatrick Sale, appeared in The Nation on October 22, 1990. Sale has written a much longer treatment of the subject: The Conquest of Paradise: Christoper Columbus and the Columbian Legacy.

Although its official quincentennial is not to be commemorated for another two years, the hoopla over the "discovery of America" is already well under way. On the one side, with many millions of dollars and weighty governmental sanctions, are the official Quincentennial Commissions, established now in at least thirty nations on both sides of the Atlantic and planning a bewildering array of parades, pageants, fairs, regattas, conferences, monuments, publications, cruises and exhibitions, all with the general themes of celebration and self-congratulation. Seville will host a $7 billion Expo '92; the Dominican Republic is construction a $10 million lighthouse as the largest Columbus monument in the world; Columbus, Ohio, will host this nation's first international floral exhibition ("Ameriflora 1992"); and the U.S. Quincentennial Jubilee Commission will spend an estimated $80 million to coordinate events throughout the Americas that will, in the words of chief booster George Bush, "ensure that this commemoration will have the significant global impact that such a milestone deserves."

On the other side, with no resources to speak of and only a handful of activists as the troops, are a variety of protest groups, guided primarily by Native Americans, that are hoping to use what they carefully call "the encounter" to raise issues having to do with the clash of cultures, the rights of indigenous peoples, the legacy of colonialism, and ecological protection and restoration. Philip Tajitsu Nash, who speaks for the newly formed Columbus in Context Coalition, has argued that the quincentennial "provides progressives...with our best opportunity since the Viet Nam War to come together in a forward-looking, broad-based coalition."

Just what political dimensions the quincentennial events will have, and what messages will be heard by the receiving public, remain to be seen. But if the real meaning of the momentous discovery is not to be lost in all the foofaraw, it seems appropriate to start with some grounding in the actual achievement that is being celebrated, seen in the kind of historical perspective that will yield some pertinent lessons for today.

It is fitting that we begin with the night the New World first presented itself to the Old. It was October 11, and the moon was just a few days past full, the skies clear. Three small ships from the Spanish port of Palos, none of them bigger than a modern tennis court, were scudding before a brisk breeze of about ten knots, somewhere in the western part of the Ocean Sea. The mood of anticipation was high, even after thirty-two days at sea, for signs of land had come increasingly often in the previous few days.

Around 10 o'clock the captain general of the little fleet, known to his companions as Cristobal Colon -- "Columbus" was a latter-day Latinization that he himself never heard -- thought he saw from his post in the sterncastle a light on the western horizon. According to the ship's log, "it was a thing so uncertain that he did not wish to affirm that it was land," so he called the royal steward, who said he too saw the light, and the royal inspector, who said he could see nothing. The captain general kept staring. He thought he could see something out there, "like a little wax candle that was lifting and rising," but no one on either of the two other ships raised the call, so he merely told his crew to keep "a good watch on the forecastle, and to look well for the land." And he added that "to him who first said that he saw land he would give a doublet of silk," and this "besides the other rewards that the Sovereigns had promised, which were 10,000 maravedis as an annuity to whoever should first sight it."

Sometime around 2 in the morning the lookout on the foremost ship, Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, gave out the cry of "Tierra!" and the watchcrew fired a cannon as a signal to the other ships that land was ahead. And there, "at a distance of 2 leagues," was their long-awaited goal in sight. Sails were lowered, and the fleet prudently lay-to until daylight before making their landing.

Shortly after dawn the crew of the flagship broke out its official banners and pennants, including the royal standard, in a display of ceremonial grandeur. Soon, luckily for their theater, "they saw naked people" on the sands. The captain general ordered the flagship's longboat lowered, stepped to its bow and then, with the two royal observers to take notes, perhaps the official interpreter, and no doubt a few sailors armed with swords and harquebuses to act as guards, he was rowed ashore.

Ashore ... to discover America.

Of course it was not America, not yet, and he did not discover it. But those are minor matters. What counts, what is absolutely crucial, is that with this act two vastly different cultures, which had evolved on continents that had been drifting apart steadily for millions of years, were suddenly joined. Everything of importance in the succeeding 500 years stems from that momentous event: the rise of Europe, the triumph of capitalism, the creation of the nation-state, the dominance of science, the establishment of a global monoculture, the genocide of the indigenes, the slavery of people of color, the colonization of the world, the destruction of primal environments, the eradication and abuse of species and the impending catastrophe of ecocide for the planet Earth.

Some say -- it is highly doubtful, in fact -- that Cristobal Colon was sailing for China. It is a shame that he didn't find it. This landfall would then have been but a small episode in the dalliance of petty monarchs and their envoys.

Instead, it began the process by which the culture of Europe, aptly represented by this captain, implanted its diseased and dangerous seeds in the soils of the continents that represented the last best hope for humankind--and destroyed them. It is best to think of Colon as a man without place. He was a wanderer, always rootless and restless; without ever in his life a sense of family, no attachment to mother or father, very little to wife or mistress, caring for his son only as the bearer of his name; without ever a settled home, a place that he would stay in for more than a year or two at a time throughout his life; without even an established name, for it would change depending on the country he was in, until at the end it took the form of an indecipherable, cabalistic signature.

He was a man whose strongest wish was always to go somewhere else. For much of his life he was consumed by the idea of sailing westward across the ocean, but once he had done it he was not content until he had done it again, and again, and yet again, going past this island and on to the next, never knowing a one of them past its superficialities, and then ever onward.

He was a man who knew no singular and particular plot of the earth, nor was he ever concerned to know one, for his sense of himself was formed entirely by the sea, which offers no habitation for the human animal. The only place he could call his dwelling, such "home" as he eve was to know, was the wooden deck of an always moving ship, surrounded by the interminable gray waves of an ocean that forever changes.

It is best to think of the cultures that Colon brought under European might as, until the conquest he initiated, rooted in place. There were differences among them, of course, and some of the statist ones of Mesoamerica were becoming less and less respectful of their ancient traditions intertwined with the sacralization of nature. But by and large they lived, as they had to live for long-term survival, with an exquisite sense of, and care for, the bioregions in which they were established, knowing the local soils and waters and flowers and animals with such intimacy that children were brought up knowing ten different words for different kinds of waterways, and elders could predict with exactitude when the roses or the buttercups would bloom.

Take, for example, the Taino, our name for the people whom Colon first encountered in the "Islands of the Indies." They were a populous society that had been on those islands for some 1,500 years before the Europeans' arrival and that had developed lifeways precisely adapted to the environment. Their houses were large and spacious, perfect for the tropical climate, and made to be especially resistant to hurricanes, with circular walls of deep-set cane poles placed very close together, and conical roofs of branches and vines tightly woven on a frame of smaller poles. Their transportation was based primarily on canoes of all kinds and lengths--the word "canoe" comes from the Taino canoa--which they created from local silk-cotton trees by firing and carving and which were maneuvered, sometimes with as many as a hundred paddlers, with great dexterity and skill. Best of all, their agriculture was centered around fields of knee-high mounds called conucos, planted with yuca (sometimes called manioc), batata (sweet potatoes) and various squashes and beans grown all together in multicrop harmony. The root crops were excellent for discouraging erosion and producing minerals and potash, the leaf crops were effective in providing shade and moisture, and the mound configurations were largely resistant to erosion and flooding and adaptable to almost all topographical conditions, including steep hillsides. Not only was the system ecologically well balanced and protective but it was also marvelously productive, surpassing anything known in Europe at the time, and with labor that amounted to hardly more than two or three hours a week.

And with a similar genius, similarly rooted in the precise conditions of place, the Taino had developed a social system that had refined the arts of civility and harmony to a degree that was remarkable (and remarked upon continually by the Europeans). So little a role did violence play in their life that they seem to have had a society without war (at least with no known war music or artifacts) and essentially even without individual violence (at least according to the reports of the Spanish who settled among them). So large a role did the social arts play that all those who first met them commented unfailingly on their friendliness, their warmth, their openness and especially their generosity. "In all the world," Colon was moved to say, "there is no better people nor better country. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and are always laughing."

As with the Taino, so with most other cultures of these two vast continents: people who lived in harmony--with one another, with other species, with the land--for the greatest part of their long tenure. They knew, somehow across thousands of miles and despite great cultural differences, that they were living in a bountiful world with a multitude of treasures: buffalo herds that stretched from horizon to horizon, birds that darkened the sky in their flight, fish that were so numerous they could be caught by hand, forests in which grew every needed plant. They knew, too, that it was sacred.

Many of these aboriginal peoples had myths of Paradise. It was not, however, of Paradise Lost, humans thrust out of an abundant land into a harsh and hostile world. It was a Paradise Found, the wonderful world they inhabited, having ascended from some darker depths, and it was precious and holy and to be protected. Creation myths, of course, have consequences.

Do not ask, by the way, what happened to those gentle Taino. The story is too painful. Suffice it to say that on the large island that Colon thought so like Spain he named it Espanola there were probably close to 8 million people in 1492; twenty-two years later there were, by Spanish record, only about 28,000; by mid- century they were extinct.

Out of this history I would suggest some lessons for the present. And the future, if there is to be one.

The only political vision that offers any hope of salvation is one based on an understanding of, a rootedness in, a deep commitment to, and a resacralization of, place. Here is where any strategy of resistance to the industrial monolith and its merchants of death must begin; here is where any program of restoration and revitalization must be grounded. It is the only way we can effectively counterpose ourselves to the state and the ridiculous forms of acquiescence and cooptation that it calls politics. It is the only way we can build a politics that can spread the message that Western civilization itself, shot through with a denial of place and a utilitarian concept of nature, must be transformed. By making an awareness of, and attachment to, locality the centerpiece of our philosophy and practice, we can directly and decisively challenge that civilization and its monstrosities, can specifically and creatively offer an alternative.

Such a politics, based, as the original peoples of the Americas had it, upon love of place, also implies the place of love. For ultimately love is the true cradle of politics, the love of the earth and its systems, the love of the particular bioregion we inhabit, the love of those who share it with us in our communities, and the love of that unnameable essence that binds us together with the earth, and provides the water for the roots we sink.

Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, lookout of the Pinta, did not collect the 10,000 maravedi reward or the silk doublet promised by the captain general. Although that amount represented only a little less than a seaman's annual wages, Colon, despite now being on his way to great wealth, kept all of it to himself, on the ground that, after all, he must have seen the lights of that landfall earlier in the evening, and wasn't there the royal steward who agreed with him? In 1493, upon his explicit petition, Ferdinand and Isabella dutifully assigned him this legacy, supposedly raising the money from a special tax on butcher shops in Seville, or possibly from a confiscation of valuables in the possession of suspect Jewish conversos.

Not so surprising that the enterprise of Europe's conquest of Paradise should have begun, as it was to continue, with deceit, robbery and ill-gotten gains. Surprising that we have heard so little about that all these centuries. We may redress that error now, in these months before the celebrations, and thus provide the opportunity for a serious and careful reassessment that just might allow us to look with new eyes at the discovery itself and the processes it unfolded so as to reflect, with the wisdom of hindsight, upon the values and attitudes inherent in that conquering culture and in the industrial civilization it has fostered.

Copyright 1990 The Nation Company, Inc.