Where does the love and hate for Christopher Columbus come from?

The “discoverer” of America has gone from hero to villain in just a few years. His figure exemplifies the debate on how we interpret the past.

Christopher Columbus kneeling and holding a flag and sword as he made landfall on the island he would rename San Salvador in October 1492. The Age of Exploration was driven by religious doctrine that presented Christianity as a "civilising" force.

Photograph by Courtesy of Library of Congress
By Anthony Coyle
Published 12 Oct 2022, 12:06 BST

In 2020, a year after Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador demanded that Spain apologise for the abuses of the Conquest of America, the statue of Christopher Columbus was dismantled from the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.

It was a kind of preface to a wave of monument removals in honour of the Italian-born navigator which exploded with the Black Lives Matter movement.

This year, Spain celebrates its National Day on October 12. At the centre of the controversy – and object of many of the reactions – is the figure of the Italian sailor, who led the first great European expedition that set foot on American soil for the first time on October 12, 1492.

In the last decade, capitals such as Bogota in Colombia, La Paz in Bolivia and Argentina's Buenos Aires have gotten rid of their Columbus effigies; many of these countries celebrate October 12 as Columbus Day. In the United States (with more than 40 statues removed since 2018) it has been renamed Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Day and in many states no longer equates to a holiday. In Caracas, Venezuela, the statue of Columbus was pulled down in 2004 as a symbol of genocide.

Today obtaining certainties about the figure of the explorer has become an odyssey. History has long said Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World for Spain – and in so doing set in motion a chain of events that led to the brutal suppression of indigenous peoples across the Americas. Terms such as ‘presentism’, cancel culture and the so-called woke generation are making historical revisionism, with all its challenges, the norm. What certainties do we have left?

‘Presentism has always existed‘

Presentism is the phenomenon that explains the vandalised statue of slaveholder Edward Colston in Bristol, or the dismantling of the monument to secessionist General Lee in Richmond in Virginia, U.S., to cite just two examples. Understood as the analysis of past events from the moral rules of the present, presentism “is nothing new” according to Richard Kagan, Professor Emeritus of history at John Hopkins University, U.S., since, for centuries, historians have selected their topics according to contemporary issues and concerns. “In light of  the importance the current news cycle accords to issues relating to race, climate, gender, social and economic inequalities on a global scale,” Kagan says, “many of today’s historians seek to offer new perspectives on these issues in the past, whether recent or remote.”

Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, who were married for 35 years, joined forces ...

Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, who were married for 35 years, joined forces and founded the Hispanic Monarchy that was the dominant power of the 15th and 16th centuries. They subdued the last Muslim stronghold in Western Europe, culminating the religious unification of the Peninsula and laying the foundations of what centuries later would become Spain. They also initiated the age of exploration by backing Christopher Columbus, which laid the foundations of what is known in history as the Spanish Empire.

Photograph by Science History Images, Alamy

It is a fact that, outside Spain, the public image of Columbus has been degraded over the years. Also in the Spanish educational system, the subject recently caused controversy when a high school philosophy textbook asked students whether “the Spanish State should assume responsibility for colonialism”. One might ask: Has Columbus always been studied as a conquering hero?

One has to go back to the biography of Christopher Columbus published in 1828 by Washington Irving to find the first foundations that shaped the halo of heroism around Columbus. “He was presented as a progressive and forward-looking individual determined to overcome the obscurantism and backwardness represented by the professors of Salamanca who questioned – rightly, as it turned out – his calculations about the size of the globe”, notes Kagan. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that historians used a variety of new archival sources to begin to pay attention to other facets of Columbus's trajectory, “thus chipping away at the heroic image Irving did so much to create,” Kagan concludes.

Kagan believes that preserving the statues teaches students the reasons why they were erected in the first place (“it's impossible to erase the past, it's better to learn from it”), and suggests that, in California, attacks and acts of vandalism on the statues of Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque and San Junipero Serra in California “have gone too far.” It is “better to use these statues teaching as tools to learn about the past and especially about societies whose values, ideas about race and religion, and women as well, were markedly different from those of today."

Somewhere between the two extreme points of view, Israel Alvarez Moctezuma, Professor of Medieval Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the UNAM (Mexico) believes that “cancelling the past is an exercise in collective amnesia where we still do not know what consequences it will have; the statues of Columbus and the English slavers should not be in the public space, but in a museum, because they are undeniably part of our history, however painful it may be.” 

For Fernando Cervantes, Mexican historian and professor of Modern Age studies at the University of Bristol, branding Columbus as a hero means “uncritically accepting the postulates of the theory of progress... according to which Columbus was part of the rationalist and empirical trajectory that laid the foundations of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment”.

Cervantes strikes down as a “blatant myth” the idea that Columbus was a character ahead of his time and fighting against obscurantist and superstitious views of the world, as well as the idea (“still widely accepted”) that Columbus's contemporaries opposed his plans because they thought the world was flat.

Deadly impact

Despite the fact that Columbus never set foot in North America, in July 2020, the speaker of the California Assembly ordered the removal of the monument erected in 1883 to Christopher Columbus and Isabella the Catholic arguing that it was “a deeply polarising historical figure given the deadly impact his arrival in this hemisphere [the West] had on indigenous populations.” Is historical revisionism more topical than ever or has it always been present in one form or another?

For Matthew Restall, ethnohistorian and professor of Latin American history and anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University (USA), the nuance is very subtle. “Historical writing has always been revisionist, especially the best historical scholarship. However, the awareness of History's revisionist nature waxes and wanes, and I do agree that today there is more awareness of it. The key to understanding the real Columbus is to separate him from the many Columbuses that were invented after his death, and continue to be invented. Hero and villain are just two of those inventions,” Restall says via e-mail.

“The more Columbus is made a symbol of momentous historical events, the more he is going to attract passionate defenders and detractors... Thus, the battles over statues, monuments, and day names are not really about Columbus, but about myriad other issues.”

Matthew Restall

In the late 1990s, moved by the accumulation of misunderstandings he found in the beliefs of his students, Restall wrote the book Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest: “I realised that most of them had picked up misconceptions about the larger topic, from Columbus to the Aztecs and conquistadors to the larger history of European imperialism in the Americas, and that those misconceptions – or myths as I came to call them – were rooted in what historians had written during the previous century, which was in turn rooted in what Spaniards and other Europeans had written during the imperial centuries [16th to 19th]”. In his work, Restall elaborates on the idea that the villain is not the person, but the concept: “the idea, embraced by millions of people, that it is justifiable for one group of people to invade, massacre, exploit and enslave another group.”

He also sheds light on the (at the time) non-existent Spanish nationality, the belief that the conquest was executed under the orders of Ferdinand II of Aragon, the fundamental help of indigenous allies in the expansion of the empire – and the fact that there were territories that were never conquered, amongst other topics. “The more Columbus is made a symbol of momentous historical events, the more he is going to attract passionate defenders and detractors. Thus, the battles over statues, monuments, and day names – Columbus vs Indigenous Peoples – are not really about Columbus, but about myriad other issues”, he states.

Using history as a weapon

Restall puts the spotlight on the fine line that, once crossed, turns historical revisionism (“which strictly follows the rules of evidence”), into distorted manipulation of the historical method in the service of presentist political objectives: “Although there are many others, the most egregious example is Holocaust denial.”

Historical revisionism “is not only positive, but also necessary,” says Emilio Redondo, professor of American History at the Complutense University of Madrid. “There is no definitive historical truth, it is always provisional”, says Redondo, also stressing the importance of nuance: “The fact that there is now a greater sensitivity to unedifying behaviours that a century ago were overlooked in great historical figures should not be censured or disqualified as mere presentism. Just as they should not be exposed to public scorn or thrown into the sink of oblivion”.

Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 from the port of Palos de la Frontera (Huelva) with a fleet of three caravels: the Pinta, the Niña and the Santa María. Although he sought a western passage to Asia, Columbus made landfall in the Americas, initiating an era of European exploration and colonisation.

Photograph by Color lithograph via Bridgean Images

Redondo highlights how in Spain the concept of historical revisionism has been tainted with certain pejorative connotations, especially in the biased study of the Second Republic, the Civil War and Francoism.

In this sense, Redondo places the discovery of America (and the “publishing boom related to the Hispanic imperial past”) as another example of instrumentalised narratives: “It is very significant that here the revisionist phenomenon has been produced in a double aspect: on the one hand, the uncritical glorification of that imperial past; on the other, its unmitigated condemnation from a presentist vision. It is in this scheme where the game between imperiophilias and imperiophobias that we suffer today fits, and that generally does not start from the honest will to understand the past, but from the justification of ideological positions in the present”.

Proof of this is, for example, the existence of symposiums organised by dozens of researchers who claim that Columbus was in fact Catalan or at least spoke it – according to Estelle Irizarry, a researcher at Georgetown University, U.S.

“Responsible historical revisionism would be that which seeks to tell the story and the experience of the greatest possible number of people, groups and collectives, offering a plurality of perspectives on a given moment in our past, without giving preeminence to any of them”

Olivia Muñoz-Rojas

Although the role of the Internet and social networks in the pursuit of freedom of expression is unquestionable, Redondo highlights the “paradox that these same social networks that have opened up public debate are the ones that provoke censorship or – at the very least, vituperation of different opinions – under the protection of anonymity and gregariousness that characterise these digital mass media”.

Cancel culture and the woke generation

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (which added the term into its 2017 edition), the adjective ‘woke’ alludes to a person who is ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.’ The word, paradoxically, came with the inclusion of another no less sensitive term: post-truth.

Used pejoratively by, among others, former U.S. President Donald Trump (to mock the captain of the U.S. women's soccer team), the word woke has become a weapon of choice for conservatism or a title to be proud of. It was coined by The New York Times in 1962, and in recent times we have seen it associated with the outbreak of social movements related to race, gender and sexual orientation, among other issues.

Pilar García Jordán, professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Barcelona, believes that historical revisionism is more present in today's society “due to the spread of the woke culture in Europe and, with it, the progressive imposition of a uniform and unique thought.”

Garcia Jordán adds the matrix of this thought is “found in North American society; a culture that has built a theoretical framework, alien to European culture, which has been imported by some sectors of a certain [political] left”. García Jordán believes that, by assigning a political configuration based on people's identities, "the class struggle is becoming a struggle of identities".

The professor claims that the woke culture has fostered the so-called cancel culture, which “based on a supposed idea of the common good, promotes not only the suppression of the individual or the need for individual actors, representatives of public and private institutions to ask forgiveness for events and processes that took place hundreds of years ago,” she says, adding: “but also, in the name of the so-called political correctness, is intended to annul dissenting voices that are subjected to scorn and harassment.” She cites as an example  the British philosopher Kathleen Stock who, after being accused of transphobia, left teaching at the University of Sussex in 2021.

For Dr. Kelly Elizabeth Wright, experimental sociolinguist in Language Sciences at Virginia Tech, U.S., change is innate to people, language and life (“there will never be a world with certainties”) and the only thing we can do is “take actions that tend towards kindness”, and then make it clear that “leaving statues of individuals known to have caused discrete harm to communities seeking relief from that harm is not something that tends towards kindness”. Wright is convinced that nothing is immutable and draws a parallel between the evolution of language and its use to explain realities.

Wright asserts that all so-called non-normative individuals, whether LGBTQ, disabled or homeless, have been kept out of all official meaning-making processes for the entire history of print until about 200 years ago: “White people named the heavens. They named all the parts of the body. They named all the places and the things and the stuff in their own image and not that of the people's necks they stood upon, whose lands they spoiled (…) Historical revisionism is almost all there has ever been. When you ask me why are we seeing people pulling statues down and refusing to celebrate those who slaughter, if these acts are coherent? I must ask you: what are you called to do when you learn that you have been lied to?”

A child sits on a monument dedicated to Christopher Columbus. The building commemorates the landing of this sailor in the coastal town of Aquadilla, Puerto Rico.

Photograph by Charles Martin, National Geographic Creative

So, are we condemned to live a perpetual revision of past events to help us better understand the present? Have we entered a revisionist spiral that will feed back on itself until the end of time?

Alejandro de la Fuente, Professor of Latin American History and Economics at Harvard University in the U.S. believes that such a spiral has always existed, and that the current situation, both in academia and in the media, is that realities “have to compete with other narratives that also circulate in the public space; there are more opportunities to think about history from other experiences and from other political projects”.

In the opinion of Olivia Muñoz-Rojas, PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics (United Kingdom), “responsible historical revisionism would be that which seeks to tell the story and the experience of the greatest possible number of people, groups and collectives, offering a plurality of perspectives on a given moment in our past, without giving preeminence to any of them”.

According to the researcher, human beings tend to develop “a feeling of exceptionality” according to which each generation tends to overestimate the importance of its historical moment and to see it to some extent as a culmination of the past.

Columbus' voyages and the subsequent European conquest and colonisation of America is one of the historical processes that most changed the history of mankind. “The process that Columbus initiated in America was plagued by a brand of violence that has been perpetuated over time, reaching our days in the form of structural racism and inequality suffered by millions of people in American countries,” explains Muñoz-Rojas. What we are witnessing “is a vindication of the vanquished, the oppressed, the silenced.”

But, he points out, not all the conquests of the past have these consequences in the present: “I don't see many groups demanding recognition of the crimes of Pharaonic Egypt, for example, or the Roman Empire – because their consequences are less palpable in the present”.

This story was originally published in Spanish on nationalgeographic.es


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