The Conquest of Paradise

With the worldwide celebration of the quincentennial of Columbus’ voyage only a few months away, we all need to read at least one book that takes the wind out of our sails—that demythologizes the heroic figure of Columbus and debunks his achievements. THE CONQUEST OF PARADISE is definitely that book.

The title expresses Sale’s thesis: The world Columbus discovered was a real Paradise of beautiful, gentle human beings who lived in peace with each other and in harmony with nature. One day Columbus stumbled into Paradise and arrogantly took possession of all he could see. This conquest brought death to the people of Paradise, and the European attitudes toward nature which the conquerors brought with them set in motion the destruction of Paradise itself. Thus the Columbian legacy is largely ironic: not a gift of noble achievement but the massacre of the native Americans and ecological disaster.

The greatest irony of all is that the story could have been radically different if only Columbus had been able to learn from his encounter with the New World. He had discovered a genuine Paradise whose inhabitants could have taught the Europeans how to live properly in the natural world. Sale says it passionately: “The salvation there, had the Europeans known where and how to look for it, was obviously in the integrative tribal ways, the nurturant communitarian values, the rich interplay with nature that made up the Indian cultures.” Alas, the Europeans didn’t know where and how to look; the rest is our unhappy history.

THE CONQUEST OF PARADISE is a fascinating, often irritating read—the perfect preparation for thoughtful commemoration of the quincentennial of Columbus and his complex legacy to the world.