COVER

TO CELEBRATE OR REPENT?

CRITICS ASSAIL THE COLUMBUS MYTH

RAE CORELLI August 5 1991
COVER

TO CELEBRATE OR REPENT?

CRITICS ASSAIL THE COLUMBUS MYTH

RAE CORELLI August 5 1991

TO CELEBRATE OR REPENT?

COVER

CRITICS ASSAIL THE COLUMBUS MYTH

Scores of places in the Western Hemisphere, from British Columbia to Colombia, bear his name or variations of it. In the modern-day popular imagination, shaped by grade-school history, he has long dominated the centuries-old saga of global exploration and discovery. But now that the Americas and Spain are preparing lavish celebrations to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the New World in 1492, the stature of the ancient mariner has begun to suffer from a widespread and frequently critical re-examination of his deeds and character. Some scholars have attacked the heroic view of Columbus by

portraying him as a lacklustre sailor and brutal colonial administrator. Native groups insist that he despoiled their ancestral paradise and slaughtered its inhabitants. And several church leaders have proposed that 1992 be a year of repentance, not celebration. Said cartographer Edward Dahl of the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa: “If I were an Indian, I would have quite an anti-Columbus attitude.”

Aboriginal anger is only one of the unforeseen circumstances that have materialized around the bureaucrats’ planning for the yearlong Columbus quincentennial, which begins on

Oct. 12, the date on which Columbus reached the Bahamas, 70 days after leaving the Spanish port of Palos, near Cadiz. Opposing views of history have pitted the anti-Columbus ideological left against the pro-Columbus right, natives against whites and scholars against one another. The planners have even quarrelled among themselves. In September, 1989, U.S. government organizers, the Spanish government and White Plains, N.Y.-based Texaco Inc., a prospective sponsor, became involved in a dispute over the contract for financing reproductions of the three ships Columbus used.

Meanwhile, Canada’s Columbus quincentennial committee (its full name is the Special

Committee for the Fifth Centennial Celebrations of Christopher Columbus’ Discovery of America) is facing even more perplexing problems. Chairman Alexander Roncari of Hamilton, a retired McMaster University nuclearscience technician, was appointed on March 18,1984, by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Roncari said that the Liberal government asked him to submit a budget, and he estimated he would need $87,000 a year, or a total of $600,000, to the end of 1991. But Roncari says that he has received no money, although he intends to invite 24 descendants of the men

who sailed with Columbus to an Ottawa reunion in late 1992 and hopes the federal government will pay their travel expenses. Said Roncari: “If they don’t offer to pay, it will be a little embarrassing.” Roncari said that he feels justified in proceeding with the reunion because he holds a certificate of appointment as quincentennial committee chairman and a letter confirming it, both bearing Trudeau’s signature. But a spokesman for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s office said last week that he had never heard of Roncari or the committee. Said Roncari, who claims that he is a direct descendant of Columbus on his mother’s side: “This is an official committee of the government of Canada, and it will continue to operate until they tell me otherwise.”

Yet some historians contend that Canadian participation in the Columbus anniversary would be pointless because the explorer’s four voyages in the service of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella all ended in the Caribbean and were not part of the nation’s early history. Historian Olive Dickason, of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said that the earliest contact between Western Hemisphere natives and Europeans occurred when Viking sailors encountered indigenous people along the North Atlantic coast five centuries before Columbus. Said Dickason: “The Columbian factor is simply not so important to Canadians.”

^ Exploits: Some groups have taken their opposition to any celebration of Columbus’s u exploits even further. Last May, the Canadian g Council of Churches, meeting in Camrose,

2 Alta., passed a resolution declaring that the 5 500th anniversary should be marked by “redi; flection and repentance” for Columbus’s treat¿ ment of the natives. And in Ottawa, Lawrence § Courtoreille, Alberta vice-chief of the AssemI bly of First Nations, said on June 26 that a 9 group called the Indigenous 500 Committee 8 would meet in Canada next year to publicize

0 their ancestors’ sufferings during “the invasion g of the Americas.”

Î Still others said that the anniversary should

1 be used for reconciliation, not confrontation.

3 Historian Barry Gough of Wilfrid Laurier Uni3. versity in Waterloo, Ont., said that Columbus

was a symbol of the enormous religious, political and economic changes that swept Europe during the 15th century. For that reason, said Gough, and because the quincentennial provided an opportunity to explore long-standing native grievances arising from European exploitation, “it is important for Canada to take an interest in this, and I am keen to get something going.” To Roncari, the controversy over Columbus, accused by some historians of enslaving and mistreating the Carib Indians, ignores the nature of the times. “It was the custom that the conqueror always took slaves,” he said.

While plans for the quincentennial are more elaborate in the United States than anywhere else, and include scholarships for high-school students, a national essay contest and 60second network TV spots, the projects have ignited an acrimonious debate. In his 1990

book, The Conquest of Paradise, U.S. historian Kirkpatrick Sale indicts Columbus for moral bankruptcy and indifferent seamanship. And in May, American Indian Movement spokesman Russell Means said that native activists would disrupt the celebrations.

Bickering: The centrepiece of those events will be the Caribbean and North American tour of replicas of the tiny ships that took part in Columbus’s first voyage: the 117-foot Santa María and the Niña and Pinta, each about 50 feet long. The ships will be crewed by Spaniards and Americans.

Under the agreements signed by the U.S. Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission, its Spanish counterpart and Texaco, the oil company agreed to help pay the cost of the vessels in return for exclusive sponsorship, including the right to fly its corporate flag from the ships’ masts. Then, last December, Texaco, having already paid $1.4 million, told the commission that it was withholding a further payment of $625,000 on the grounds that it was unable to obtain progress reports from Madrid. The Spanish accused the commission of breaching the contract. After months of bickering, new agreements were drawn up on June 12 under which Spain undertook to pay for the ships and Texaco would get its money—and its flags— back.

The ships will leave Palos on Oct. 12 under full sail to follow as closely as possible the route Columbus took five centuries earlier. Unlike Columbus’s

ships, the modern versions are equipped with inboard engines for use in emergencies and berthing. They are scheduled to reach San Salvador Island in the Bahamas in late November and tour the Caribbean, including the coastal waters around Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo, where Columbus is said to be buried, until the end of December. From February to June,

1992, the ships will visit Miami, St. Augustine, Fla., Charleston, S.C., Norfolk, Va., Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston. They will drop anchor in New York City harbor in July and then sail through the Panama Canal, reaching San Diego in September and San Francisco in October. David Nowland, a spokesman for the Spanish government agency arranging the itinerary, said that the ships may tour Great Lakes ports in 1993, including Canadian ports.

Mystery: When the voyage and celebrations—and the protests—are over, Columbus himself will remain largely a mystery. For one thing, the 40 portraits of Columbus painted during the centuries after his death in 1506 bear little resemblance to one another. John Hébert, a Louisiana-born Latin American historian at the Library of Congress in z Washington, is co-ordinator of the liu brary’s quincentenary program, which

0 will attempt to clarify the world in which “ Columbus lived. Said Hébert: “If you g look at the existing documents relating

1 to Columbus, who he was, what he looked like, where he came from, where 8 he was bom and what motivated him,

2 it’s only a handful of material.” He § added: “But to take that man and make ~ either a saint or a devil out of him is the 8 wrong thing.” However, from now until § the end of 1992, and perhaps beyond, J, there are many people who will be I trying to achieve both those conflicting S objectives.

RAE CORELLI