Good/Bad Columbus: Was the European explorer a hero or menace?
This undated portrait of Christopher Columbus, attributed to Rodolfo Ghirlandaia, is in the Naval Museum of Pegli in Genoa, Italy, Columbus' birthplace.
Laurence Bergreen, author of "Columbus: The Four Voyages"
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Christopher Columbus has been both celebrated and reviled since he made his four earth-changing voyages between 1492 and 1504.
He is either a hero of exploration or a brutal colonizer, a pious Christianizer or a repressive slave master.
And the thing is, judging from Laurence Bergreen's "Columbus" and Charles C. Mann's "1493," the critics and enthusiasts alike have strong cases to make.
Early in "Columbus," Mr. Bergreen relates one of the first encounters between Europeans and the natives of the Caribbean and notes:
"The image of a bewildered Columbus both entreating and frightening the indigenous people of the Caribbean is at odds with the storehouse of conventionally heroic images of the Admiral as divinely inspired, supremely confident, bringing Christianity and Spanish rule to untutored peoples."
But the scene, Mr. Bergreen writes, is also "at odds with the argument that he planned to exploit, enslave, degrade or slaughter the timid, mostly unarmed Indians whose language he tried to learn, and whose seamanship he admired, one professional to another."
In that moment, the historian insists, Columbus was, simply, "an earnest, fearless and misguided navigator (and self-serving chronicler) who had difficulty impressing his sense of mission and self-importance on others, beginning with his own crew."
The repercussions of Columbus' four voyages to the New World also remain contentious down to this day. Was Columbus a harbinger of death -- and in some cases, annihilation -- and therefore a force for evil? Or was he the first exponent of what we'd call today "globalization" and therefore an instrument of progress?
Mr. Mann's short answer to both questions is, Yes.
Of course, things are more complicated even than that.
"The transport of useful species out of their home environments has been a boon to humankind," he writes unequivocally. "The huge benefits of moving species outweigh the huge harms, though the balance can be closer than free-exchange advocates tend to admit."
What Columbus wrought has come to be known as the Columbian Exchange, the movement of plants, animals, disease, culture and ideas between the Old and the New worlds, between the Western and the Eastern hemispheres.
The Columbian Exchange created the world we live in today, the geological epoch Homogenocene, which describes the globe's steady march away from diversity toward homogenization.
For his part, Columbus wasn't really interested in any sort of "exchange," at least not in any sort of fair exchange. Sure, he was willing to exchange modest trinkets for gold. Who wouldn't be?
But he never considered the Taino any sort of trading partners. He had traveled to India, or so he maintained even after the overwhelming evidence of his voyages argued otherwise, to trade with the great Khan. The lesser peoples he encountered on the way were just an obstacle to be overcome or ignored.
Or, as Mr. Bergreen puts it in describing the aftermath of an Indian slaughter of Columbus' men at La Navidad on what is now the island of Haiti: "A leader who valued gold above the security of his men could be counted on to aspire to great accomplishments at great cost."
The story of Columbus' voyages is one of both wonder and tragedy, of bravery and savagery. It is also the story of dogged, almost insane determination and endurance.
Spurned by the monarch of Portugal, Columbus turned to Isabella I and Ferdinand II of Spain to finance his exploration. To ensure a return journey, Columbus conveniently stranded two dozen of his men in the Caribbean so that the king and queen would be forced to "rescue" them.
Sea travel at the end of the 15th century was rudimentary and perilous in the extreme. The fact that Columbus not only made his way across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and what is now South America is close to a miracle.
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Though Mr. Bergreen's book is exciting, Mr. Mann's is the more interesting, delving as it does deep into the science behind the collision of the Old World with the New.
What a tantalizing sentence the reader finds in Mr. Mann's prologue, "I close (Part I) with malaria's role in the creation of the United States."
Who knew that the South's system of plantation slavery was determined not by economics (slavery was actually more expensive than the alternative) but by genetics?
"The peoples of west and central Africa have more (resistance to malaria) than anyone else," Mr. Mann writes. "Biology enters history when one realizes that almost all of the slaves ferried to the Americas came from west and central Africa. In vivax-ridden Virginia and Carolina, they were more likely to survive and produce children than English colonists."
The exchange of plants is equally fascinating, overturning preconceived notions. The tomato, synonymous today with Italian cuisine, did not arrive in Italy until the mid-1500s. Ditto the potato and Ireland.
As we observe yet another Columbus Day, the debate over the explorer will carry on. Messrs. Bergreen and Mann would likely argue that each side has a claim on the truth.
"Columbus held up a mirror to the Old World," Mr. Bergreen writes, "revealing and magnifying its inhumanity and greed along with its piety, curiosity and exuberance."
In any case, he concludes, "It is too late to undo the consequences of these voyages. Their crimson thread is now woven deeply into the fabric of European and global history."
First Published October 9, 2011 12:00 am