How might Columbus have seen the New World he "discovered"? Ideas of Paradise figure largely in much of our early literature. What questions should we raise?...

How might Columbus have seen the New World he "discovered"? Ideas of Paradise figure largely in much of our early literature. What questions should we raise?

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caledon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ultimately, if we go by Columbus's accounts, he saw the New World as one series of wonders after another, all of them personally discovered and conquered by himself, and attesting to God's glory. In contrast, the Natives were a bounty for Christian mercy; they were quaint and naive, almost like children or pets. All of his discoveries were, in Columbus's perceptions, the fulfillment of Christian prophecy, which was nevertheless sufficient reason for him to demand monetary rewards.

One of the questions we should immediately raise is the reliability and quality of Columbus's motivations and claims.

It might be argued that Columbus's first priority was his own reputation. For example, whether it was by error or by hubris, he vastly underestimated the sailing distance between Europe and the Orient, which would have lent his plans an appetizing schedule and profit margin but which were clearly wrong to anyone with a critical eye. This led Portugal to refuse Columbus (along with his proposed title of "Grand Admiral of the Oceans") before he moved on to Spain. This is just a small taste of Columbus's lifelong fascination with himself; he would go on to claim, demand or steal titles and rewards frequently. If his voyages were a work of literature, I would consider him an unreliable narrator. This casts doubt on how we interpret Columbus's statements.

Columbus is an enigmatic and mercurial character, and it seems contradictory that some of his accounts and letters will describe peaceful and friendly Indians living harmoniously in an earthly paradise, and then conclude that they would make fine slaves. At least part of this stems from Columbus's lifelong fascination with the Bible and Biblical mythology, as well as his personal and the general Catholic zeal for forcible conversion of heathens to Christianity. In scholarly terms it appears uncertain, but likely, that Columbus believed until his death that he had succeeded in reaching Asia, and that his discovery of South America during his third voyage was in fact the discovery of the Garden of Eden. However, given Columbus's nature it may be uncertain whether this was his genuine belief, or another self-aggrandizing hyperbole.

The idea of "Paradise" is closely linked to the Biblical Garden of Eden (the two are often synonymous) because it was believed that the Garden was a real physical place, and various mystics had determined or divined that it was located somewhere in the Orient. This seems to be another odd contradiction in Columbus's perceptions; how could a savage and ungodly people live in proximity to the place of humanity's creation and closest contact with God?

While the video that you linked is clearly sympathetic to the Native American point of view (and within rights, too, since Columbus certainly visited a lot of suffering on the peoples that he encountered) the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Some of the questions that we can raise from all of this include;

  • What elements led to Columbus's success? Were his "discoveries" inevitable at this time period, and Columbus just got lucky?
  • How did Biblical mythology inform treatment of Native Americans? How did this different between Protestant and Catholic nations, if at all?
  • Was Columbus crazy, a salesman, or a little of both? Was he personally successful at advertising his discoveries?
  • How did Columbus become the largely whitewashed public figure he was depicted as throughout much of American education and public awareness?
  • What are the elements or qualities that define "earthly paradise"? Why were these perceived in the New World?

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