Oct 17, 11
Read in October, 2011
Insanely interesting read. A multilayered book because Columbus' original diary went missing. We have only Bartolome De Las Casas' abstraction, which alternates, between first, second, and third person, which sometimes seems to copy line-for-line what Columbus wrote, but sometimes obviously summarizes, and sometimes comments on Columbus' errors, inabilities, and idiocies. Das Casas copied the diary as part of his own history of the West Indies, at a time when he was making a transition from being a conquistador himself, to being a fierce defender of Native rights. The editors of this edition try to sort out Columbus' errors and Das Casas' errors, and inevitably add their own opinions to the mix. In addition, in almost every copy you can find will be littered with great student marganalia, offering a forth voice to the work.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Diario follows the arc of the literary hero's journey, through a captivating adventure full of human drama, foils, and intrigue, and it resolves with shocking character growth for the protagonist. Of course, Columbus is the anti-hero in many ways. His negative traits are clearly on display at the beginning of the Diario. His letter to the king explaining the reasons for his journey is fairly shocking for anyone who went to grade school in the United States. The spice trade is never mentioned, and while we all heard that he wanted to convert souls to Christianity, this always felt like a secondary motivation, even a justification for his intention to conquer the world. But his letter to the king focuses almost entirely on converting souls to Christianity, which in itself makes readers with my sensibilities uneasy, but in this letter it is even more disturbing. It turns out Columbus was specifically interested in converting Muslims, and he puts the mission to do so in a context of conversions, which sounds deeply racist and violent, and makes the Spanish seem like fanatical Xenophobes. “In this year, of January of 1492, you, dear king, have performed the noble goal of removing all Jews from all of your vast kingdoms, in the name of the one true religion, Catholic Christiandom. You have brought the moors to their knees and made their king kiss your hand, and now in that same month of January, you have detected an even greater threat than the jews or the moors, that of the Muslims, and you have set about to convert them to our one true religion. In this pursuit, you have sent me to find a faster route to these heathens who are worshipping false idols, not to the east, but across the oceans to the west” (Dunn and Kelley, 17). So it turns out that the very discovery of the America's was founded on a fear of Muslims.
Columbus' status as an anti-hero becomes even more clear as his journey begins and his true intentions become clear. He is on this voyage for one reason above all else, which he does not mention to his king in his long letter detailing his purposes: gold. He meets plenty of people, and doesn't attempt to convert any of them to Christianity, but he does ask every single one of them where he can find gold.
Columbus is also quite comical on his journey, especially in his pursuit of gold. He makes three shockingly stupid errors while crossing the Atlantic. First, when he is only about a third of the way across the Atlantic, he believes that he sees land and he refuses to admit that it is not land even after sailing toward it for more than a week! Second, he seems to have almost no capacity to judge distance. He guesses how far they go in a unit of measurement he admits he does not know, because he knows how to convert it to a unit of measurement he does know, but which he obviously cannot estimate in, or he would have just estimated how far they had gone in Roman Miles to being with: “I was not quite sure how many palms were in a mile, but that is the unit I decided to estimate our daily travels in, then I would divide by four because I thought this would give me a rough distance in leagues, then multiply by five-sixths to get the Roman Miles my crew and I would understand” (Dunn and Kelley, 29) Lastly, he could not judge how much time passed very well, and he couldn't read the stars well enough to accurately keep track of the time. One night, he thought 11 hours had passed, and Das Casas confirms that at the time he traveled in the year he did so, it was only 9 hours, and proves it with Columbus' misreading of the stars!
His quest for gold and interactions with the natives are perfect examples of dramatic irony. Columbus was continuously duped and he was the only one who couldn't see it. Every time he stopped, he asked every native he talked to where to find gold. And every native, no matter how much gold they had, on every island, no matter how much gold littered the beaches, told him that there wass more gold on the next island. And he fell for it every time! Some natives got elaborate and told him there were whole islands made of gold, houses made of gold, kings with so much gold they slept on it. At this, Columbus got extremely excited and I can just see the natives laughing after he rushed to sail off.
But everywhere he went the natives treated him extremely well. He constantly praised them for being the most generous, honest, trust-worthy, and christian-like people he has ever met. They gave him everything he wanted from them, including their gold. They fed him from their bountiful cultivated fields, made him the most delicious drinks he has ever tasted, and gave him and his men lodging in every port. They never resisted the Europeans or tried to fight them, in fact Columbus always notes that they had no weapons and seemed to have never fought each other or anyone else. The only time Columbus' men tried to harm the natives is when they refused to trade with them, which only happened once. Meanwhile, Martin Alonso, captain of the Pinta, stole said ship, abandoned Columbus, tried to find the largest stash of gold and keep it for himself. He abused the natives, who tried to turn him in to Columbus, continued on his rampage despite direct orders, and returned to Columbus only after he wrecked the Pinta and needed help. To his credit, Columbus does help him. At this point, Columbus felt like he had enough gold, so he headed back to the new world.
On the return voyage, I sympathize with Columbus for the first time in the whole diary, which is why I say the diary follows the arc of the hero's journey. Columbus goes through a great journey and grows as a character, emerging with new knowledge of the world. When he was nearly back to Europe, he encountered the worst storm of his trip. The seas rocked him and his men for more than 14 days. He was sure everyone was going to die, including himself. He made a list of all the reasons god might want him to die, and a list of all the reasons he wanted to live. He mentioned his wife and children for the first time in the diary. He also said something which resonates with the reasons I want to live. He wanted to live because he felt that he had discovered something beautiful that he desperately yearned to share with the world, something he knew the world desperately needed to learn. As much as he was focused on gold while he was in the new world, I don't think he was talking about the gold. I think he was talking about the beautiful people, and cultures, and land he had discovered, and all the lessons his experiences with them had taught him.
Upon arrival, instead of receiving the hero's welcome I imagined he had received, the Portugese kidnap all of his men and try to kill him. They refuse to return his men until he threatens to have the Catilian army come and kill them all. When his men were finally returned, he found the right port, and marched across land for more than two weeks to reach the court. Then the King and the Queen kept him waiting for days before they spoke to him. Despite all of this, Columbus finishes his diary praising Spain and the Spanish and is determined to convert all the Indians to Christianity and bring them under Spanish rule. I almost feel bad for him for being too dense to see what was so obvious. Even though he was a complete stranger to the natives, they treated him like a brother and lived at peace with him and one another in what he described as paradise. Meanwhile, his first mate stole his boat and staged a mutiny, his own countrymen kidnapped his men and tried to kill him until he threatened violence, and his King and Queen showed him little to no hospitality. He should have abandoned his so-called civilization and moved to the West Indies, as Das Casas must have felt intensely while reading and abstracting this Diary.