From the Left



Rethinking Columbus and 1492 in and Out of the Classroom, Part II

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

While they were born within three years of each other in Italian cities separated by fewer than 150 miles, Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci were worlds apart. They represent the profound transitions that impacted parts of Europe circa 1492. Columbus was a man of the past, a medieval explorer who reached conclusions deductively using the Bible and the works of philosophical authorities. Vespucci was a man of the future. Willing to challenge and reject such authorities, he embodied the empiricism and inductive reasoning of the Renaissance.i

Many things are hard to unsee. Take a map of the world, for example. Most people -- I hope I am right -- can place the continents that surround the Atlantic Ocean; others can even locate the Caribbean. But to fully understand the philosophical duel between Columbus and Vespucci (and by extension, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance), one should try to unsee the world's known geographical layout, place oneself circa 1492, imagine the world as contemporaries knew it and trace the gradual unveiling of the Americas.

A useful exercise is to create a succession of maps, the first one without any trace of the Americas, and the rest showing how the New World unfolded gradually. With each new voyage, Columbus, Vespucci, Peter Martyr d'Anghiera and other cosmographers adjusted their hypotheses and theories about the identities of newly encountered islands and continental coasts. Columbus, who from the beginning believed that Cuba and nearby islands were part of Asia, reluctantly accepted in 1500 that while those islands belonged to Asia, South America was a "New Continent." Vespucci, for his part, was not yet convinced that anything new had been found, so he proceeded as scientists do: He searched for further evidence.

Upon the conclusion of Vespucci's second voyage (1501-1502) and Columbus' fourth (1502-1504), the navigators inverted their theories. It was Vespucci who, to use Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman's term, "invented" America. Cartographer Martin Waldseemuller celebrated that "intellectual discovery" by drawing Vespucci's (not Columbus') image facing the connected continents of North and South America in his 1507 World map.

While the term "first encounters" is increasingly preferred over "discovery," early narratives of those encounters were exclusively produced by European colonizers the likes of Bartolome de las Casas, Fray Ramon Pane, and Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo. Voices coming from the other side of the encounter were lost forever because the Indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean lacked a system of writing. At best, even from the quills of the most sympathetic Spanish chroniclers, we have inherited translated (often mistranslated), muffled echoes of the Indigenous voice.

But we can combine what we know from the early chronicles, archaeological evidence and a bit of imagination to recreate the natives' views of circa 1492. When they saw European vessels approaching their coasts for the first time, they must have struggled to make sense of those strange floating structures. Were these oversized canoes with large cotton sheets blown by the deity of the winds and waves Guabancex? And those pale-skinned, bearded beings clad in metal armor with guns that fired thunderbolts -- were they men or gods? Had Guatauba, Taino deity of thunder, formed an alliance with those gold-adoring, uninvited guests?


Yet another approach to circa 1492 is what historian Alfred W. Crosby called the "Columbian exchange." His book, with the same title, though published almost 50 years ago, offers another stimulating alternative for teaching 1492. A pioneering work of environmental history, the book focuses on the impact of the bidirectional migration of organisms across the Atlantic: animals like the horse; fruits and vegetables like the tomato and potato; and microbes like smallpox.

These and other creative approaches to 1492 and Columbus extend the historical drama's chronological and geographical scope and expand the cast of characters beyond the maligned Genoese navigator. They bring the added benefit of pushing us beyond the increasingly popular black-and-white characterization of 1492 to a better understanding of the origins of globalization. Charges of ecoterrorism and genocide leveled against Columbus have no merit, to use a legal term. But we can blame him (or thank him) for opening the doors to a process that allowed French painter Paul Gauguin to escape to the Fiji Islands and American consumers to drink bottled water mined from aquifers in those remote islands.


Luis Martinez-Fernandez is author of "Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba." Readers can reach him at To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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