For generations the historians of North America have presented exploration of the continent as a progressive endeavor. The blank, white spaces on the early maps were slowly filled with information as a result of expeditions led by Europeans—the Spaniards, French, English—and later by the Americans themselves. A representative study was John Bartlett Brebner’s influentialThe Explorers of North America, 1492-1806 (1933), which presented the exploration of the North American continent as a quest both heroic and scientific at the same time. Exploration continues to exert a powerful attraction, and it was often dramatic. Traditional narrative accounts usually were based on a potent metaphor: the unknown, or the white spaces on the map, gradually succumbed to the exploratory expeditions, with their technical expertise and scientific curiosity, which named the new territories. A second popular metaphor was that of creation—as the explorers saw the lands “for the first time,” these were conjured into existence, it seemed from nothing. In historiography, the narratives of exploration usually merged with narratives of the creation of new states. Exploration, and independence, were two of the basic founding myths of many countries on the American continent.
Recently this entire framework for exploration, with its many assumptions, has been challenged. Christopher Columbus is a key figure in the history of almost every nation on the American continent, and the traditional interpretations and evaluations of Columbus’ role have come under increasing attack in the past decade. They have been called narrowly Eurocentric, ethnocentric, imperialist, or simply untrue.
The anniversary of the voyages by Columbus (1492-1504) has coincided with an increasing awareness that they were far from beneficial for the people who already lived on the American continent. They brought enslavement, disease, intolerance, and destruction, some say genocide. Historians have claimed they only brought a Pandora’s box of European evils, and that Columbus did not “discover” the American continent in a meaningful sense at all. During his first two voyages, he thought he had found Cathay—hence he was deluded and simply lost. When he encountered Indians, he kept asking them where the “Great Khan” was. As Columbus sailed along the coast of Cuba, he was certain that the harbors he could see were used by the Khan’s ships; he was equally convinced that the fragrances he smelled and spices he tasted were those of Cathay.
During the third voyage he changed his mind but did not do much better—he believed that he had discovered not Cathay but the “Terrestrial Paradise” marked on many of the maps of the time. In addition, the world was not round as so many people had thought, but was shaped like a pear, rising to a high, nipple-like point where the Terrestrial Paradise was located. Was this, then, a “discovery”? The term, handed down in so many textbooks and works of popular history, would seem to be unacceptably narrow and uncritical. For Native Americans and the descendants of those who greeted Columbus, it is an impertinence.
Valerie Flint, a history professor from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, is not a “revisionist” who seeks to deny the accomplishments of Columbus. She admires his basic talents; she writes in her summing-up at the end of the book that he “remains one of the most talented and, perhaps above all, one of the most imaginative human beings ever to have lived.” Her portrait is careful, well-balanced, and scrupulously researched. She does not dismiss Columbus because he did not understand the real nature of his “discovery,” nor does she indignantly condemn him because he sought wealth and self-promotion. As a man he was better than many, worse than some. He was complex, and her psychological portrait of Columbus has real depth and subtle shading. She does not believe that Columbus was the person described in portraits by some other scholars, for example Samuel Eliot Morison, who called Columbus a dualist and “scientist-mystic,” or J. L. Phelan, who described Columbus as a follower of the millennial teachings of the Franciscans. Nor, on the other hand, does she believe that Columbus was motivated by detached, objective curiosity. He was not a representative of progress, nor was he a “Renaissance man.”
Her portrait of Columbus is based on two kinds of research: an analysis of everything that Columbus read and wrote, and a thorough acquaintance with his fifteenth century background. She is the author of an earlier study on the rise of magic in early medieval Europe, and this research on the Middle Ages is in evidence in her study of Columbus.
The different interpretations of Columbus recall an earlier quarrel between two historians about the interpretation of the Renaissance. Jakob Burckhardt described the period in a famous book,The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1890), while Johan Huizinga, in an equally famous book, described the period as The Waning of the Middle Ages (1924). Like Huizinga, Flint emphasizes the medieval background of the fifteenth century; she associates Columbus more with this background than with the humanism slowly emerging in parts of Europe. She divides her book into two sections: Part 1 is entitled “The...
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