Portrait of Christopher Columbus

How Columbus, Of All People, Became a National Symbol

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Christopher Columbus was a narcissist. He believed he was personally chosen by God for a mission that no one else could achieve. After 1493, he signed his name “xpo ferens” – “the Christbearer.” His stated goal was to accumulate enough wealth to recapture Jerusalem. His arrogance led to his downfall, that of millions of Native Americans – and eventually fostered his resurrection as the most enduring icon of the Americas.

Columbus in chains

In 1496, Columbus was the governor of a colony based at Santo Domingo, in what is now the modern Dominican Republic – a job he hated. He could not convince the other “colonists,” especially those with noble titles, to follow his leadership.

They were not colonists in the traditional sense of the word. They had gone to the Indies to get rich quick. Because Columbus was unable to temper their lust, the Crown viewed him as an incompetent administrator . The colony was largely a social and economic failure. The wealth that Columbus promised the Spanish monarchs failed to materialize, and he made continuous requests for additional financial support, which the monarchs reluctantly provided.

By 1500, conditions in Hispaniola were so dire that the Crown sent Francisco de Bobadilla to investigate. Bobadilla’s first sight, at the mouth of the Ozama River, was four Spanish “mutineers” hanging from gallows. Under authority from the king, Bobadilla arrested Columbus and his brothers for malfeasance and sent them to Spain in chains. Columbus waited seven months for an audience at the court. He refused to have his chains removed until the meeting, and even asked in his will to be buried with the chains.

Although the Spanish rulers wanted Columbus to disappear, he was allowed one final voyage from 1502 to 1504. He died in 1506, and went virtually unmentioned by historians until he was resurrected as a symbol of the United States.

Christopher Columbus in chains

Christopher Columbus in chains ( public domain )

Inventing Columbus

In the mid-18th century, scholars brought to light long-forgotten documents about Columbus and the early history of the New World.

One of the most important was Bartolome de las Casas’ three-volume “Historia de las Indias.” This book was suppressed in Spain because it documented Spain’s harsh treatment of the native peoples. His depiction of Spanish mistreatment of the Indians provided the foundation for the “ Black Legend .” His account “blackened” Spanish character by depicting it as repressive, brutal, intolerant and intellectually and artistically backward. Whatever Spain’s motives, the conquest of the Americas destroyed native cultures and ushered in centuries of African enslavement.

"They would cut an Indian's hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin ... [and] they would test their swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or cutting of bodies in half with one blow. ... [One] cruel captain traveled over many leagues, capturing all the Indians he could find. Since the Indians would not tell him who their new lord was, he cut off the hands of some and threw others to the dogs, and thus they were torn to pieces." Included in ‘Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias’, 1552 by Bartolomé de las Casas

"They would cut an Indian's hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin ... [and] they would test their swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or cutting of bodies in half with one blow. ... [One] cruel captain traveled over many leagues, capturing all the Indians he could find. Since the Indians would not tell him who their new lord was, he cut off the hands of some and threw others to the dogs, and thus they were torn to pieces." Included in ‘Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias’, 1552 by Bartolomé de las Casas ( public domain )

Another was the personal journal of Christopher Columbus from his first voyage, published in 1880. The journal captured the attention of Gustavus Fox, Abraham Lincoln’s assistant secretary of the Navy, who made the first attempt to reconstruct the route of Columbus’s first voyage.

Renewed scholarly interest in Columbus coincided with political motives to deny Spain any remaining claims in the Americas. Spain’s American colonies declared independence, one by one, from the beginning of the 19th century. Simón Bolivar, and other Creole revolutionary leaders, embraced a classical philosophy that highlighted their Roman ancestry to a degree that “Spanish America” was converted to Latin America. The final assault came with the U.S. invasion of Cuba and the six-month Spanish-American War in 1898. Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of the purchase of the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark.

Columbus likely would have slipped back into obscurity if not for American hubris.

The Columbian Exposition

In 1889, France put on what reviewers described as the most spectacular World’s Fair possible. Held on the Champs de Mars in Paris, its crowning achievement was the Eiffel Tower .

Looking West From Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Looking West From Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views of The World's Columbian Exposition

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