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The real Columbus: There’s hard evidence that the modern recast of the great explorer is a myth

2013 1014 Christopher Columbus

Is Christopher Columbus getting a bum rap? Has he finally been bought, packaged and sold to captive audiences as a greedy, murdering brute? Can a case be made — a convincing and well-documented case at that — proving that this now trendy, revised history of Columbus is where the myth really lies?

Columbus Day 2018, is the first where one East End board of education — the Southampton school district — has dropped Columbus’ name from the holiday altogether in their school calendar. Actually, they dropped his name three years ago, referring to the national holiday up till now simply as “no school.” This past February, however, the Southampton Board of Education voted to ignore the national holiday and rename it “Indigenous People’s Day.” In all the other East End school district calendars, the second Monday of October remains “Columbus Day.”

Southampton’s school trustees followed this path at the behest of protesting students and members of the Shinnecock Nation, branding Columbus a “criminal and a murderer” when he arrived in the New World in 1492. They insisted that the history taught in schools “to children and kids across the country” is “completely untrue.” One Shinnecock tribal member is further quoted: “To have a day honoring him after he murdered our people is unacceptable.”

One of the Southampton school board’s trustees countered that the school should not arbitrarily alter the name of a national holiday, but by way of compromise, retain the name of Columbus Day and set another day to honor indigenous people. No one dared agree, and with no interest in the facts, the school board meekly decided to go with the flow. Columbus, along with the named holiday, in honor of the mariner and explorer, went unceremoniously over the side. For this the Southampton BOE won the praise of one in the audience for “an accurate telling of history….”

But is it accurate at all?

Enter the scholarly work of a professor emerita at Stanford University, Carol Delaney, a cultural anthropologist with degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago. She is also a research fellow at Brown University. Her riveting book, “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem,” was actually published in 2012, but has gained little in the way of promotion even by its publisher, Simon & Schuster, who are as politically correct about the issue as some school boards. The book’s impeccable scholarship is rarely cited. Why would that be?

Given the now-popular debunking of the historical narrative of Columbus as a hero, is it possible no one wants to acknowledge contrary evidence from solid sources — so solid that it debunks the debunking?

Delaney offers a provocative, central point: she found in her research something of a surprise, what most if not all historians have up till now virtually ignored: Columbus left behind a considerable volume of his own writings, right down to orders he issued to his crews, letters to the then Pope, Alexander VI, a lengthy diary and just before he died, his “Book of Prophecies.” Delaney also recounts the informative writings of his contemporaries, including those who wrote objectively of his voyages, commenting on his failings as well as his achievements.

So the book is hard if not impossible to dispute, and that is one of several reasons it was named among the “top 100 books of the year” by the Times Literary Review. Perhaps it too convincingly (and uncomfortably) challenges the belief that Columbus is the reason for almost everything that went wrong in the New World, that he was an avaricious gold and glory hunter, and that he murdered and enslaved Native Americans.

Here we find the true purpose of his voyages, still widely unknown, which rested on the then-widely held belief that the world was in its final days – that it would end in the next hundred or so years – a belief known as “Apocalyptic Millenarianism.”

The intensity of Columbus’ belief in a world with its days numbered attracted the support of Spain’s Queen Isabella. To them both, the holy city of Jerusalem had to be freed from its Muslim occupation and restored as a center of Christianity. In Christian hands, Jerusalem would then be able to welcome the Second Coming of Jesus, according to Scripture. To that end, Columbus and Isabella envisioned another crusade to free Jerusalem from the brutal Muslim conquest.

Delaney writes of a Europe already much alarmed at the Muslim conquest of another center of Western culture, Constantinople. Calls arose to revive the Christian Crusades of centuries before, when Muslim armies had conquered two-thirds of the Christian world and were poised to take even more, before western civilization finally got its act together to push back. Keep that in mind when we are scolded today to hang our heads in shame about the Crusades.

This brings us to the outright lie that Columbus was greedy for gold. The gold he actually sought was to finance Jerusalem’s freedom. The plan for his voyages was to reach the Grand Khan of China, then known as Cathay — and not India, or the Indies. He would find a trade route to China, win the Grand Khan’s support, and set up a trading center. Delaney proves the key component of this plan: goods from Europe would earn the gold to set up a two-front Crusade, from the east with paid armies from China as well as the west, to restore Jerusalem as a Christian city in time for the Apocalypse.

When Columbus took this bold voyage, contrary to the myth that smears him today, he befriended the native people, traded with them, respectfully interacted with them and led his crews to do the same. He also formed a close relationship with their chief, whose son became their interpreter. Columbus later took the chief’s son and five other tribe members as guests — not slaves in chains as some would have us believe — on his emergency return back to Spain to replace his lost ships. Those lost ships caused him to leave 46 of his crew behind on the island of Hispaniola with clear written, recorded orders: continue to treat the indigenous people well.

It was his crew who disobeyed Columbus’s strict orders, who pillaged and raped their way around the island in his absence, sealing their own fate. Meanwhile, Columbus spent considerable time in Spain, replacing his lost ships. He proudly introduced the six members of the tribe at court to Isabella and King Ferdinand, who proclaimed themselves the godparents of the chief’s son, a significant honor.

Upon his anxious return to the New World, Columbus found all his marooned crew dead, killed for their misdeeds at the hands of their intended Native American victims. The chief and his tribe welcomed Columbus back, and Columbus wrote with palpable remorse of what the chief reported of the crew members’ atrocities.

Professor Delaney’s book is not an apologist’s take, but a thought-provoking and compelling reappraisal of Columbus and his legacy, as several distinguished book reviews describe it. His writings reveal a thoughtful interpretation of the native cultures that he encountered. He was sensitive and respectful in this regard in a way that was ahead of his time. While the reconquest of Jerusalem was his life’s passion, his views are today ignored or downplayed. They get in the way of the now commonly accepted, distorted opinion of a great man. Delaney’s magnificent tome, by its content and total effect, admirably defines the real Columbus, and will correctly inform the public, its opinions and policymakers, such as the Southampton school board.

One final thought: Is the precipitous decline of the teaching of American history opening the door to a new generation’s complete misunderstanding of not only Columbus, but also of Washington, Lincoln, MacArthur and other giants of America’s seriously flawed, but still exceptional and proud story?

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg