The Worlds Of Christopher Columbus

There are few historical figures as controversial as Christopher Columbus. If public debate since the five hundredth anniversary of his first voyage is an accurate indication, how one sees Columbus is not a matter of historical analysis but rather one’s personal political views.

It is already difficult enough to piece together the details of Columbus’ life given his lost original journal, the biases of early biographers, and the absence of documents, but when you interject contemporary political posturing into the historical debate, it becomes impossible. One side wants to blame Columbus for all the horrors of the modern world, and the other side wants to give Columbus the credit for all of the advances of the modern world.

Was Columbus a hero or a villain? One can not even begin to answer that question without an understanding of Columbus’ historical period. That is probably why William and Carla Phillips title their book The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. It is as much a biography of an age as it is of a man with Columbus being really just a case study of the age.

The Phillips never come out and directly answer the question as to Columbus’ status as a hero or villain. However, after reading the book, one gets the sense that if they were asked directly they would reply that he was neither; he was human with both strengths and weaknesses, and as such he was neither a mythic hero nor an evil villain.

Columbus had perseverance, but he was stubborn. Unlike the mythic Columbus the human Columbus was not the first to conceive of reaching the East from the West, nor was he the only one to believe the Earth was round- most people did. However, as the Phillips write he “was the first, not to conceive the plan, but to persevere until he found backing for it” (p.104).

Perseverance in Columbus sometimes went too far, though, and it turned into stubbornness. This hurt him at times and was almost fatal at others. For example, Columbus was convinced that Asia was closer than it was. Even when more educated geographers disagreed, he stubbornly refused to change his view; this could have been fatal. If there had been no land between Europe and Asia, Columbus and his crew would have died. It was his error that inspired him to proceed with his plan (p.100).

This error also demonstrates another of Columbus’ flaws- his lack of judgment. This lack of judgment shows itself in several ways. One example was when Columbus was faced with the rebellion led by Roldan. In settling with Roldan, Columbus granted the labor services of chiefs to his men. This far exceeded his authority to grant land grants according to merit (p.223).

This is also connected to Columbus’ lack of judgment with slavery. He consistently displeased the crown by taking slaves or proposing to take them and sell them. This contributed to his fall from grace as it angered Queen Isabella (p. 239).

Columbus may have lacked judgment at times, but the other side of that coin is he was intelligent. He was not intelligent like Thomas Jefferson, though, more like Abraham Lincoln in that he learned what he needed to know in order to do what he dreamed of doing. Psychologists today recognize several different types of intelligence: abstract, rhythmic, artistic, mechanical, physical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. It seems that Columbus was at least intelligent mechanically, physically, and interpersonally.

That he had interpersonal intelligence leads directly to another pair of Columbus’ traits; he was a good salesman but overly ambitious. That he was a good salesman seems obvious. He convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to back him and to continue to back him. He was also able to convince many ordinary men (not fleeing criminals) to sail with him, and he was able to sell the idea of developing the New World, although not always honestly, but more on that later.

Also the way he used the eclipse to gain the cooperation of the Jamaicans can best be described by a word associated with salesmen (and politicians if there is a difference), and that is slick. On the other hand he hungered for wealth and status. The Phillips suggest it was this drive that prevented him from writing about his early life as his family was of humble origin (p.87). It also kept him from marrying Beatriz and thereby legitimizing his son Hernando.

It was this drive that acted as a catalyst for one of Columbus’ most serious flaws- his deceitfulness, of himself and others. He constantly mislead the crown as to the resources and profitability of the New World. The Phillips describe one of his letters as “a tissue of exaggerations, misconceptions, and outright lies” (p. 185). He played up all the good and downplayed the bad (accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative as the old Johnny Mercer song goes).

He used evidence to suit his purposes, and if there was no evidence, he made it up. It was this deceit combined with his ambition that caused him to set up unfulfillable expectations that eventually caused him a great deal of trouble.

The Phillips’ view of Columbus can be summed up by saying that Columbus was a good sailor (sailsman if you will pardon the pun) but a terrible administrator. All of the traits that made him a good explorer (perseverance, intelligence, salesmanship, optimism, and religious belief) made him a bad administrator (poor judgment, stubborn, egotistical, deceitful and ambitious).

The Phillips write that “when reality intervened, Columbus needed the practical skills of a manager and administrator; not only did he lack those skills, but he seemed to lack the temperament to develop them” (p.186). They also, after giving a list of Columbus’ strengths, write that “Columbus was always more interested in continued exploration than in the humdrum satisfactions of careful administration, and the new tasks constituted a challenge that he was unwilling or unable to meet”(p.194).

The Phillips’ account of Columbus is not like most of the information I have read about him. They do not try to use historical evidence to shore up their own ideological view. Instead they try to see Columbus and his times as clearly as possible as he and they really were.

It is hard to disagree with them. I found it interesting that while they discussed slavery and disease they only discussed it as it occurred at a particular time without trying to make any broad generalizations about it. Why? Because it is pointless and misguided.

No one can take the blame or the credit for all that has been laid at Columbus’ feet, and rather than credit or blame one man, it is much more interesting and exciting to try to see the big picture of the times and how so many advances seemed to converge at the same time to facilitate Columbus’ voyages. It’s like trying to put together a difficult jigsaw puzzle without seeing the picture.

If you accomplish the task of completing a historical jigsaw puzzle, it’s much more rewarding and information yielding than just asserting a position because it supports your personal political agenda. The Phillips put together a good puzzle, and I think they hit the nail on the head.

Columbus was like most people. He had strengths and weaknesses, and when he was doing a job that utilized his gifts he did a good job, but when he attempted to do the things he had no aptitude for, he failed miserably.

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