Let's Remember Some Guys
July 28, 2021 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Historian and podcaster Patrick Wyman (previously) considers the legacy of Christopher Columbus: "Rather than casting Columbus as either the hero or the villain in an epic story about the emergence of a recognizably modern world, we should understand him as a replacement-level historical figure: not among the elite, a Clayton Kershaw or prime Carmelo Anthony; not in the mid-to-upper tier of his profession, like Nelson Cruz, Joe Flacco, or CJ McCollum. He was a notable step below that."
posted by Cash4Lead (24 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Are we actually gonna remember some guys?

René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle.
posted by hwyengr at 12:22 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


(For the benefit of those like myself who don't recognize the cultural referents, Clayton Kershaw, Carmelo Anthony, Nelson Cruz, Joe Flacco and CJ McCollum are all professional sports players.)
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:24 PM on July 28 [21 favorites]


I think that Columbus does deserve historical villainy status due to one thing in particular: his evangelical enthusiasm for slaves and slave-taking, which was so rapacious as to be genocidal to the Taino and Carib peoples.

To put him in the contrast of his times: Ferdinand and Isabella didn't fund Columbus because they wanted slaves; it's because they wanted spices without the premium for trading through the Ottoman empire.
The Portuguese and pre-Elizabethan English looked at the new world and though "good fishing banks". Cortes and Pizarro mostly though "I want to be a governor, but I can't be governor of Cuba.". It was Columbus that was the slaving enthusiast. A person who looked at a land of abundance and plenty and thought "hey what's best about this place is all the people I can rape, kill, and enslave."

So even in the context of his time, Columbus was more exceptionally bad than the other conquistadors and explorators. They were also genocidal, psychopathic enslavers. But the slavery, to them, was just a side aspect of the real goals (expanding Christianity/ acquiring noble title/ expanding the Empire); but for Columbus, slavery was the main thing.

Columbus set the tone for the entire conquista, and he set it as a saga of slavery and genocide.

If he was not a greater monster, then it wasn't for lack of ambition, but only due to lack of material support in his endeavors.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 12:33 PM on July 28 [23 favorites]


Interesting, LeRoi — I wasn’t aware of that element of Columbus’ character being so much more pronounced than fellow conquistadors/explorers. The genocide of the Aztecs, for example, always struck me as especially heinous. I’ll have to do some deeper reading.
posted by darkstar at 12:50 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


The article says the opposite - that Columbus' level of enthusiasm for slavery was ordinary for his particular time and class. Western Europeans were already enslaving West Africans and were pretty much okay with that.

The conclusion of the article:

He was Just Some Guy, the product of a knowable world that produced many such people, and not a particularly outstanding figure at that. Ironically, that label would offend Columbus far more than even villainy. For someone who was always convinced that he was destined for great things, reducing him to just one among a crowd of replacement-level figures would be the most intolerable fate of all. He deserves nothing more, or less.

posted by echo target at 12:55 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


Also, for non sports fans, you can understand the article's references perfectly well from context without having the faintest idea who any of those people are. Don't let it scare you away from reading the whole thing.
posted by echo target at 12:57 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


There are so many American Males who simply cannot see or experience the world except through sports.

I'm surprised Wyman didn't say that the Taino couldn't deal with the threat posed by Columbus and the Europeans because they outkicked their coverage and couldn't defend against the deep ball.
posted by jamjam at 1:01 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


"Evil is more likely to come from random assholes doing what they perceive to be their job—to pay the mortgage, generate returns for investors, or in Columbus’s case, climb into the nobility—than some virtuosic psychopath single-handedly inflicting terror on the world"

Amen, brother.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:01 PM on July 28 [10 favorites]


echo target: I'd say the distinction with West African slavery is that, much like slavery in Canada, it was exploiting and expanding pre-existing cultural practices in the area. For the most part, West African slaves were captured and imported from rival tribes, and then sold for manufactured goods from Westerners.

By contrast, the initial Spanish slavery was a direct enslavement of peoples by the Spaniards, and it was so murderous that African slaves were introduced in a desperate attempt by Jesuits to prevent the total extinction of the indigenous peoples.

For more on this subject, I particularly recommend John K Thornton's Africa and African's in the Making of the Atlantic World, which covers West African slavery, and also Brett Rushforth's Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, which explores the differences between the slavery practice in Quebec/ Great Lakes first nations and the practices of Caribbean chattel slavery in Haiti.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 1:09 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


"(For the benefit of those like myself who don't recognize the cultural referents, Clayton Kershaw, Carmelo Anthony, Nelson Cruz, Joe Flacco and CJ McCollum are all professional sports players.)"

Going further, Clayton Kershaw and Carmelo Anthony are/were truly outstanding professional athletes. Nelson Cruz, Joe Flacco, and CJ McCollumn are/were above average but not spectacular professional athletes.

"Evil is more likely to come from random assholes doing what they perceive to be their job"

AKA the banality of evil.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:17 PM on July 28 [7 favorites]


So Columbus tried again for gold, but this time he and his men didn’t go looking for it. They ordered all Taíno people 14 and older to deliver a certain amount of gold dust every three months. If they didn’t, their hands would be cut off.

At this point, the Taíno were refusing to grow crops, and those who didn’t bleed to death after their hands were removed began to die of famine and disease. When they fled into the mountains, they were hunted down by dogs. Many killed themselves with cassava poison.
(source)

Wyman's article seems to be arguing that Columbus was basically in colonial middle management, so to speak. I'm not sure who it's written for - perhaps they feel that they are talking to historians who are already familiar with context - but most people in America aren't well served by glossing over how actively brutal, genocidal, and inhuman Columbus was.
posted by splitpeasoup at 1:43 PM on July 28 [14 favorites]


The article says the opposite - that Columbus' level of enthusiasm for slavery was ordinary for his particular time and class. Western Europeans were already enslaving West Africans and were pretty much okay with that.
It seems relevant to mention that most people of his time and class weren’t sent home in chains to face trial over the brutality of their governance. I think the author is trying a good thing in rejecting the “Great Man” trope but goes a little too far trying to make the sports metaphor work – in particular, it erases the contemporaneous people who thought he was unacceptably brutal.
posted by adamsc at 2:15 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


Goodness. I realize that this is an article written for a sports’ site, but this doesn’t travel well at all.

I’m struggling to think of an analogy for how off the tone of the piece is, the closest I can think of would be an article about how some serial killer doesn’t really compare to the ones with higher body counts.

But the reason that isn’t really an apt analogy is that the victims, or the descendants of his victims, aren’t taught about him in school as children. No one is rubbing their pain in their faces.

I mean, Columbus as a mediocrity, I can believe that, but that has no bearing on what he has come to stand for down the line, for conquest, for subjugation, for genocide, and for the celebration of those things.

Again, I can sort of see how this might play to an audience steeped in discussions about the relative merits of various baseball players, but once you take that out, the rest of the piece feels awfully glib.
posted by Kattullus at 2:19 PM on July 28 [9 favorites]


End of article in FPP: If you’d like to hear more about Columbus and some other replacement-level historical figures, along with a couple who maybe weren’t, check out Patrick’s new book The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World

Given how the author reads Columbus as "Just Some Guy, the product of a knowable world that produced many such people, and not a particularly outstanding figure at that," the book holds no appeal. Columbus was an outlier for his era in several respects; when he treated Spanish citizens, the colonists under his rule in Hispaniola, in his customary manner (torture, mutilation, rape, enslavement, and murder), he was arrested, transported in chains, and stripped of his titles. During the last of his four voyages, the captain was not permitted to set foot on the land he 'discovered' and had 'governed.'
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:42 PM on July 28 [4 favorites]


I mean, Columbus as a mediocrity, I can believe that, but that has no bearing on what he has come to stand for down the line, for conquest, for subjugation, for genocide, and for the celebration of those things.


That sounds like a better lens to view him, honestly: a mediocrity in terms of a visionary explorer, but someone who grew into arch-villainy as an exceptionally bloodthirsty, genocidal conquistador.
posted by darkstar at 2:49 PM on July 28 [6 favorites]


I just recently learned about Hernando de Soto, who seems to have taken Columbus as an example of how to behave (i.e., atrociously) in the Americas. The account of his path of murder and pillage was pretty shocking - and I had already studied a fair bit of colonial history (including books on the conquest of Mexico, the Demerara slave rebellion, etc.)
posted by jb at 4:25 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


There are so many American Males who simply cannot see or experience the world except through sports.

It's also on a sports-oriented website.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:11 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


de Soto learned the boundary line from Columbus, and got insurance when he entered a highly-strategic union with Isabel de Bobadilla (governor of Cuba in her husband's absence), the granddaughter of the man who arrested Columbus and replaced him in Hispaniola.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:16 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I’m struggling to think of an analogy for how off the tone of the piece is, the closest I can think of would be an article about how some serial killer doesn’t really compare to the ones with higher body counts.

Yeah, this excerpt really rubs me the wrong way, and even though I was pleased with the relative sanity of the Defector commentariat this morning WRT Simone Biles, there is very little pushback.

I mean i am not a PhD like Patrick and while i grasp the point of this article, i think, isnt Colubus a unique villian because he actually did the atrocities while others who could have done the atrocities didnt?

We evaluate Columbus as a villain because he was in charge and he and his men raped and murdered and stole and starved out the island of Hispaniola w/absolute brutal efficiency. Amongst other crimes against humanity.

Others might have done the same but he is the one that blazed that trail in that part of the world.



In reply to Pointless Commenter
No, you've got it backwards. He's not a unique villain; the point is that we remember his deeds because of the stories we choose to tell about him, because we choose to make him the starting point of a very specific narrative. That's not an objective judgement. Other people at the time were doing precisely the same things, on the same or larger scales, with the same or greater historical impact.
(bolding mine)

Were they? Was everyone at that time a minor or major colonizer who used terror to consolidate their power? If that's everyone, then who exactly was getting colonized? Arguing that CC wasn't a unique villain doesn't make him less of a villain. Yet I get the feeling that's what this excerpt is trying to do.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:10 PM on July 28


The article says the opposite - that Columbus' level of enthusiasm for slavery was ordinary for his particular time and class.

Just because he was a common sort of monster does not make him any less a monster.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:20 PM on July 28


Just because he was a common sort of monster does not make him any less a monster.

That's not Wyman's argument. He's arguing against the "Great Man" theory of history, in which major social changes were seen to be carried out by "Great Men" for good (...drawing a blank here...) or ill (i.e., Columbus). His point is that another European was very likely to have sailed west and landed in the Americas - that Columbus was the first to do so (other than, you know, the Vikings and the Basque fishermen on the Grand Banks, etc.) was just luck. There was a huge socio-economic/cultural movement of expansion, of which he was just one cog.

Was he particularly monstrous? I don't know - it's not a period I specialize in (though I did attend seminars with people who did - and they would argue for greatly different attitudes towards the Americans among Europeans). Everything I've heard suggests that he was on the more-awful side of Europeans in America, like de Soto, as opposed to Bartolomé de las Casas (whom I heard about thanks to the aforesaid seminars). But the massive death of indigenous Americans was likely an inevitability following contact with the "Old World" -- largely due to the sudden introduction of Eurasian and African diseases. Equally, if not more, brutal colonial regimes were created in Africa (google "Congo Free State"), but African populations were not decimated to the same extent because disease was not the same factor.

I've listened to Wyman's Fall of Rome podcast, which focuses on his dissertation research - and he's part of a modern movement of history that stands against the old-fashioned "Great Man" theories that tried to make history be about heroes or monsters. History is certainly often bent by single, powerful/influential people - e.g., Alexander the Great or Ghenghis Khan - but far more often what happens is the product of many different social (and often environmental) forces.
posted by jb at 8:17 PM on July 28 [9 favorites]


One soldier was doing the "precisely the same things" during the Golden Age of Exploration/Exploitation and stopped; Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's conquistador narrative takes a real swerve mid-career. A survivor of the Narváez expedition, Cabeza de Vaca spent eight years traveling through portions of now-Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico as a trader and "healer." He and his companions spent much time among nomadic Native Americans, serving as enslaved people in order to be cared for by them. When he eventually met up with the Spanish army in Mexico and re-established his government career, he would repeatedly argue for indigenous rights and protections. (Cabeza de Vaca was also a Christian proselytizer. See Wikipedia entry for a sample of his advice to the locals, "Cabeza instructed them to build a large wooden cross in each village, which would cause members of the Spanish army to pass through the village and not attack it." This strategy worked.)

"As they continued their travels towards the Southern Sea, as the Spaniards then called the Pacific Ocean, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions began to identify with the Native Americans in a way that most Europeans would or could not. This became most noticeable when, in May of 1536, Cabeza de Vaca's group and their native followers (who had taken to calling the Spaniards "Children of the Sun") finally encountered other Spaniards. The meeting took place somewhere near the modern-day Mexican city of Culiacán, in the western part of Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca, in his account written later, refers to his countrymen as 'them' and to his Native American comrades as 'us.'"

Cabeza de Vaca was appointed governor of Río de la Plata (a colony which comprised parts of modern-day Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) and lasted four years before being removed for 'malfeasance' -- historians think he was was considered too lenient toward the original inhabitants of the region. (He's also the first European to record the existence of the Iguazu Falls, the largest waterfall in the world.) Depending on the source, he's either pensioned off or penniless when he dies in obscurity decades later.

The narrative of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is the first European book devoted completely to North America; Cabeza de Vaca’s account is distinguished from later accounts by a greater level of detail about, and a greater respect for, the native inhabitants. Unlike the authors of later accounts, who sought conquest and wealth, Cabeza de Vaca spent years simply trying to survive, and as a result learned much about how the region’s inhabitants themselves lived. Like [Dominican friar Bartolomé de] Las Casas, Cabeza de Vaca urged the Spanish to exhibit greater humanity towards the Indians.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:24 PM on July 28 [6 favorites]


There are so many American Males who simply cannot see or experience the world except through sports.

It's also on a sports-oriented website.

Which underlines my point, no?

And the Cleveland (Ohio) baseball team changed its name from the "Indians" to the "Guardians" a bare week ago, so perhaps sports fans, particularly Ohio sports fans, are more aware of 400+ plus years of genocidal racism toward Native peoples than they were, and they also live in a state where the largest city and state capitol just happens to be named "Columbus."

How does the 'he was just this guy, you know' narrative about Columbus land with these sports fans? Are Wyman and the Defector editors making some larger point, here?
posted by jamjam at 8:47 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


To quote

“When Christopher Columbus left Spain he didn’t know where he was going. When he got to the new world he didn’t know where he was, and when he returned, he didn’t know where he’d been . . . and, he did it all on borrowed money.”

Less work than reading the article wasn't it.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 12:53 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


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