Columbus and the legacy of 1492; A review

I am reading Kirkpatrick Sales‘ ‘Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise’ at the moment. This could be called a ‘revisionist’ interpretation of the the famous 1492 voyage of discovery of the Caribbean (and subsequently of the Americas) by Columbus. Its revisionist because the author writes about the ecological destruction of the Caribbean islands, the effect it had on the native Tainos, who were initially praised by Columbus as of being a peaceful race and who later became chastised and murdered in their thousands, and the fundamental effect of an New World being ravaged and destroyed by an Old World, all dating from the last decade of the fifteenth century. Essentially, Modern America is the product of Late Medieval European Civilisation and, more importantly, of a deformed and twisted religion which transplanted a belief of nature being all good and respected into something that should be feared and treated only for the benefit of humankind; a mechanistic, materialist self-serving outlook rather than a natural one. Nature should serve humankind and be treated indiscriminately and as Marx said “Man opposes himself to nature….in order to appropriate nature’s products”.

This resulted in the ecological misuse, which even Columbus noted on his third voyage so soon after the initial discovery (1498/9), of the native habitat of Cuba whereby the forests were cut down and the land laid to waste from the attempted transplanting of European plants and animals and the building of forts and towns (to protect themselves from the, umm, ‘peaceful’ natives). The effect from this and not only this but also the introduction of European disease would be catastrophic to the indigenous natives and their eco-system, which saw the eventual extinction of both the Tainos and much indigenous habitat and animals, of which none of it was recorded by Columbus or his protégées. What is worse is that this was no innocent voyage of ‘discovery’ or an adventuring voyage to discover new lands just for the ‘purpose’ of discovery, but rather a voyage based around the discovery of new lands for the purpose of exploitation and increase in material wealth; an early case of classic colonialism with the sole intent of the pursuit of the magic word of ‘Gold’. “Gold is most excellent”, wrote Columbus “and whoever has it may do as he wishes in the world”. This, and this only argues Sale, was the overriding factor of this period of discovery. The discovery of gold (which took till 1499 to find a good source) would later make Spain a strong power in Europe (but would later stunt its capitalist development).

I remember in 1992 that there were a lot of activities surrounding the celebrations of the 500th year since the discovery of the ‘New World’. This also was a time in my life that I was beginning to become interested in politics so I do remember it well. All the celebrations though were primarily geared towards a celebration of Columbus, rather than any critique of his legacy, or at least any alternative visions of the, in all effect, rape and despoliation of ‘paradise’ and the eventual transplantation of European culture which lead to slavery and severe exploitation of man and nature. It’s an interesting read, and extremely well written and researched.

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