Historical facts and viewing the horizon
keep us from looking stupid down the road.
The current debate over 20th-century Confederate statues in US cities reminds me of 1991, when I helped convince authorities in my home town that it was a really bad idea to erect a 21st-century statue of Christopher Columbus on the grounds of the state Capitol.
In 1991, the United States was preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, in 1492. I had been hired by a local children’s museum to help develop a K-12 curriculum for kids about the European explorer. Learning a lot about Christopher Columbus, I was selected to deliver a historical report to a West Virginia panel that was already moving toward raising a statue of the great navigator at the state Capitol Complex, in Charleston.
I’d enjoyed the task, dubbed: “Re-Discovering Columbus.” Not just learning the newest information about the man and his deeds, but also about how his portrait had changed over time, being painted by vastly different people in different places during the previous five centuries.
Most Americans’ ideas about Columbus were established around the time of the 400th anniversary, in 1892. Back then, the most popular Columbus stories came from American writer Washington Irving and his multi-volume biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, first published in 1828.
Irving was writing about Christopher Columbus at a time when the United States itself was small and young. In the 1830s, the newest US commercial enterprises were fighting to challenge European dominance in the Western World – claiming “vital interests” for expansion farther into North America, as well as in the Caribbean and South America.
Lacking much history (or territory) of their own, Euro-Americans of that time needed heros and role models, as they pushed their settlements westward into unknown (to them) and “foreign” territory. Consciously or otherwise, Americans were working on their national identity as a single, unified group, busily pushing boundaries and challenging existing institutions — notably the Catholic Church and European monarchy. As Irving portrayed him, Columbus was a perfect figure to nourish this American self-concept.
But, factually, Irving’s mythological Columbus was flat-out wrong, in more ways than one.
Generations of US students have learned, for example, that Christopher Columbus “proved the earth was round” — that authorities of his time tried to prevent him from sailing west to Asia, warning that he would sail off the edge of the planet. We now know that this was not true (perhaps stemming from Irving’s mis-translation of original Spanish documents).
Even mathematicians and navigators in ancient Greece knew the planet was round. Size, not shape, was the issue separating Columbus from his critics. A panel of scientific (and religious) authorities of his time listened to Columbus’s “new theory” that he would find Asia by sailing only 3,000-some miles west of Spain. They knew he was in error, and (appropriately) recommended against funding his voyages. Only after Columbus made his case personally to Spain’s monarchs did they relent and send him off in search of Asia. His first voyage in 1492 was made famous after he ran into the islands of the Caribbean.
Another popular myth of Irving’s time: That Columbus “discovered” the land that is now the United States. Actually, Columbus never set foot in what is now the US of A. He made four trips — including one to what is now Costa Rica and Panama. He died in 1506 always insisting, wrongly, that he had been to Asia. Subsequent generations continued his practice of calling the people he met in the Caribbean and Central America “Indians.”
Finally, it is clear that Christopher Columbus’s work to claim territory and riches for Spain enslaved and eventually wiped out the entire native Taíno population of Hispaniola, now Haiti/Dominican Republic. When he arrived, the island had been home to hundreds of thousands of Taíno. Columbus ruled the island for all of 1495, consenting to severe oppression and forced labor among the natives. He also got into the slave trade. In 1500, Columbus and his two brothers were sent back to Spain in chains to stand trial for their oppression of Hispaniola. In 1503, the colony began importing African slaves to do the labor refused by the rebellious (and dying) native population. Just 14,000 Taínos survived in 1517.
So, in 1991 or so, I was saddled with the unenviable task of reading the most current research about Christopher Columbus, to a group of state officials who were determined to raise a statue to him. In the minds of some there, the project was already a “done deal.” I was unable to finish reading my report, the chair cutting me off with something like, “Yes-yes, we know all this….”
(In the years since then, I’ve had several other jobs remarkably like this: Hired on temporary contracts, just to accept the risk of delivering news identified as challenging or “bad.”)
I don’t know whether my reporting had anything to do with the panel’s decision to abandon its Columbus statue project in West Virginia. I like to think, however, that the public officials of that time spared themselves — and all of us — an eventual and necessarily more open discussion about memorials in our public spaces.
What I’ve learned from this is that each generation interprets history a little differently. Each one of us has our own different, temporal heros. More often than not, each hero-candidate’s advocates have agendas of their own. (The many Confederate statues of the early 1900s were erected, for example, to placate influential Southern white men — mostly Democrats back then. Like many right-wing extremists today, those Confederate veterans were eager to re-interpret their participation in secession from the United States as a ‘just cause.’ Their opponents of that time — including freed slaves — were still too powerless to offer much resistance. This has been true ever since for national politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike.
Before we raise a public monument to anyone — and, in tearing them down — we should assure an open process for identifying the contributions of that person’s life and work as reflecting values that endure. An active, persistent defense of human slavery and racism should eliminate any contenders.
Getting through this process takes bigger thinkers than we’ve seen among today’s powerful and highly politicized players, seemingly unequipped to identify and agree upon an honoree’s motivations as lasting and universal across geography, across ideology, and over time.