The golden guess

The golden guess
Is morning-star to the full round of truth.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Columbus”


It was on his brief, Third Voyage that the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, the Christ-Bearer Colón, discovered paradise. We know it as South America.

Bartolomé de las Casas – defender of the Indians and redactor of the Journals of Columbus – paraphrases the Admiral’s more sober version of his new geographical theory:

[On August 13, 1498,] the Admiral seems to have gone about 30 or 40 leagues at most since leaving the Boca del Dragon [off Trinidad] . . . He observed that the land stretched out wider and appeared flatter and more beautiful down toward the west. . . . He therefore came to the conclusion that so great a land was not an island but a continent; and, as if addressing the Sovereigns, he speaks thus: “I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown. I am greatly supported in this view by reason of this great river [the Orinoco] and by this sea which is very fresh. . . . And if this is a continent it is a wonderful thing and will be so regarded by all men of learning.”
Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Samuel Eliot Morison, ed. and tr., Heritage, 1963

Las Casas, for all his railing against conquistadors – “men of blood,” he called them, and “Moorish barbarians” – idolized Columbus. He chose to overlook the frustrated, almost absent-minded recourse to brutality that often marked the Admiral’s interactions with the Indians. On March 24, 1495, for example, he led a force of two hundred armored foot soldiers, twenty cavalry and twenty trained mastiffs against a force of some ten thousand Taino Indians, whom he had earlier praised for their gentleness, believing them to exist in a state of grace (“in Dios,” hence – according to one theory – Indians). The Tainos were mowed down with volleys from point-blank range, ripped apart by the dogs, sliced and skewered like the cattle that the Castilians had already introduced to ravage the land. (Yes, boys and girls, the conquest was led by cowboys.)

At Columbus’s direction, a Taino leader named Caonabó was tricked into shackling himself. These polished handcuffs and leg irons are the ornaments of all, true Christian rulers, they informed this ignorant foreigner who had the impunity to dream of freely occupying an island already named for its mother country: Española (i.e. Hispaniola, now split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Once they had him shackled, of course, they dragged him off, clapped him in jail, then transferred him to a ship and sent him to Spain for proper punishment. He died on the way, wrote the chronicler Peter Martyr, “in anguish of mind.”

The tragic fate of this exiled Taino shaman – as we may confidently imagine him to have been – prefigures the Admiral’s own treatment, two years later, when he found himself “arrested and cast into a ship with my two brothers, shackled with chains and naked in body, and treated very badly, without being brought to trial or convicted.” (Morison, op.cit.) And in a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela reporting the “discoveries” of his bizarre Third Voyage, the Admiral hints at his own “anguish of mind,” as reflected in his perennially unstable mental condition:

I weighed anchor forthwith, for I was hastened by my anxiety to save the provisions which were becoming spoiled, and which I had procured and preserved with so much care and trouble, as well as to attend to my own health, which had been affected by long watching; and although on my former voyage, when I discovered terra firma, I passed thirty-three days without natural rest (sin concebir sueño), and was all that time deprived of sight, yet never were my eyes so much affected or so painful as at this period.
Select Letters of Christopher Columbus, With other Documents Relating to His Four Voyages to the New World, R. H. Major, ed. and tr., Hakluyt Society, 1847

Thirty-three days without sleep! (I went one time for a mere five days without sleeping and became seriously delusional, suffering a mental breakdown of sorts.) On this voyage, however, Columbus says only his eyesight was affected. I’m not so sure.

You remember learning in school, no doubt, that Columbus died convinced he had merely sailed to Asia – unaware that he had in fact “discovered” new continents. Ha ha, silly admiral! On the other hand, in the popular imagination Columbus is a misunderstood genius, ahead of his time in believing steadfastly that the earth was round. Both bits of received wisdom are erroneous.

We have already seen how the Admiral recognized the novelty of the South American landmass. The belief that the earth is shaped like a ball was in fact widely held by educated Europeans of the period – and it is a belief that Columbus himself came to repudiate on his fateful Third Voyage. Here’s another passage from his letter to Their Majesties:

I have come to another conclusion respecting the earth, namely that it is not round as they describe, but of the form of a pear, which is very round except where the stalk (pezón) grows, at which part it is prominent; or like a round ball, upon one part of which is a prominence like a woman’s nipple (teta de muger), this protrusion being the highest and nearest the sky.

Not that the Admiral himself ever drank the milk of paradise, as it were. Such an ascent would have been impossible, he believed.

I have no doubt, that if I could pass below the equinoctial line, after reaching the highest point of which I have spoken, I should find a much milder temperature, and a variation in the stars and in the water; not that I suppose that elevated point to be navigable, nor even that there is water there; indeed, I believe it is impossible to ascend thither, because I am convinced that it is the spot of the earthly paradise, whither no one can go but by God’s permission; but this land which your Highnesses have now sent me to explore, is very extensive, and I think there are many other countries in the south, of which the world has never had any knowledge.

So while Columbus may have died believing he had found a new route to the Indies, he was hardly unaware of the novelty or potential enormity of the lands whose existence he was among the first Europeans to verify. One hesitates to use the word “discovery” here not merely out of respect for the original inhabitants, but in recognition of the fact that the existence of lands in the western ocean had been known in some form, or at least guessed at, for hundreds of years. Prior to Columbus’s first voyage, says Kirkpatrick Sale in his flawed, revisionist history The Conquest of Paradise (Penguin, 1990), the Admiral “knew of – indeed, it seems from his readings that he carefully studied – the current stories about the fabled rich islands in the western Ocean (Antilla, Brasil, Ymana, St. Brendan’s Isle, Ventura, Satanazes, and on and on).” The extent to which Columbus and the conquistadors who followed were on a quest for an earthly paradise cannot be overemphasized.

The problem with postulating an entirely new landmass in 1498 is that it would have contradicted all his previously advertised claims that the Caribbean islands were located in the South China Sea and that Cuba was a peninsular extension of the Asian mainland. So Columbus fell back on a 15th-century version of New Ageism that seemed to suggest a natural connection between this new continent and the Holy Land – and incidentally provided for the plunder of gold as part of a millenarian mission:

Gold is the most precious of all commodities; gold constitutes treasure, and he who possesses it has all he needs in the world, as also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory, and restoring them to the enjoyment of paradise. They say that when one of the nobles of Veragua dies, they bury all the gold he possessed with his body. There were brought to Solomon at one journey six hundred and sixty-six quintals of gold, besides what the merchants and sailors brought, and that which was paid in Arabia. . . . This is related by Josephus in his Chronicle de “Antiquitatibus”; mention is also made of it in the Chronicles and in the Book of Kings. Josephus thinks that this gold was found in the Aurea; if it were so, I contend that these mines of the Aurea are identical with those of Veragua, which, as I have said before, extends westward twenty days’ journey, at an equal distance from the Pole and the Line. Solomon bought all of it, – gold, precious stones, and silver, – but your Majesties need only send to seek them to have them at your pleasure. David, in his will, left three thousand quintals of Indian gold to Solomon, to assist in building the Temple; and, according to Josephus, it came from these lands. Jerusalem and Mount Sion are to be rebuilt by the hands of Christians, as God has declared by the mouth of his prophet in the fourteenth Psalm. The Abbé Joaquim has said that he who should do this was to come from Spain . . .

. . . a prophesy Columbus repeated more than once in the course of this strange, public hallucination of a letter. For in that patriotic fantasy, at least, he knew he could find a receptive audience in the king and queen of Spain, for whom Reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, culminating in the forced conversion or expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492, merged with the ideology of the crusades and the popular mythology of the knight errant. Christian Spain seemed divinely ordained to hasten the return of Christ in glory – to end history.

For untold millions of people living in the path of conquest, stubborn in their insistence that Antilla, Brasil, El Dorado, or the Fountain of Youth lay elsewhere, history indeed came to a sudden end. Columbus’s own end, in a rented room in Valladolid, beset as ever by his personal demons, was scarcely less traumatic. Walt Whitman, in “Prayer of Columbus,” imagined the Admiral’s dying delerium, a sad mix of misgiving and ecstasy:

. . . Is it the prophet’s thought I speak, or am I raving?
What do I know of life? what of myself?
I know not even my own work past or present,
Dim ever-shifting guesses of it spread before me,
Of newer better worlds, their mighty parturition,
Mocking, perplexing me.

And these things I see suddenly, what mean they?
As if some miracle, some hand divine unseal’d my eyes,
Shadowy vast shapes smile through the air and sky,
And on the distant waves sail countless ships,
And anthems in new tongues I hear saluting me.


For a Native view on Columbus Day, see this editorial in Indian Country Today.

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