“Columbus Week” at Powell History comes to a close. Of course, its been quite a bit longer than a week, but in my view, Columbus deserves the extra attention.
To close off the series, I decided it would be nice, in the spirit of Powell History Recommends, to point out one writer who has done reasonably well in his assessment of Columbus, and thus to empower my readers to investigate the matter further for themselves.
The book I’ve chosen to highlight is The Age of Exploration by John R. Hale, which provides a notable counterpoint to the typical bilge that passes for the history of this time.
One of the nice things to that one finds in the Age of Exploration is a context in which to place Columbus’s work. As the title of the work suggests, it is the story of a period, not a single man or moment. As such, it helps the reader place the story of Columbus within a broader progression that includes the story of Marco Polo, the prior efforts of Prince Henry of Portugal, and the subsequent projects of Cabot and others. To see Columbus this way is to understand his participation in a larger trend, and thus to more fully appreciate his special place within it.
When it comes to the man himself, one of the nice things one finds in Hale’s telling is an antidote to one of the lies that is gaining currency–that Columbus was a bad navigator. Hale’s take is refreshing:
“The ease with which he crossed an unexplored ocean and hit his target near the center time after time, and his ability not only as an instinctive deep-sea navigator but as a master of the shoals and reefs of inshore sailing–these stamp him as the greatest mariner of his day. The boldness with which he put into practice his idea that mariners could sail straight across the sea to Asia marks him as the most resolute theorist of his age, for while others had agreed in principle, no one else had dared attempt the feat.”
This is the kind of evaluation that derives from a properly detailed investigation of the facts, and objective evaluation of those facts, which some modern historians are still capable of. However, it’s not surprising to see that Hale, despite being aware of the wider context of Columbus’s story, fails to see, in a more philosophical way, how Columbus exceeded it:
“When, for example, he decided that the enormous volume of the Orinoco River could only issue from a continent, he was pursuing straightforward cause-and-effect reasoning of the kind that might be expected from a “Renaissance mind.” But his subsequent declaration that the river flowed from the Earthly Paradise was far from empirical.”
The key to the failure of this passage is to assume the Renaissance, and then accuse Columbus of injecting mystical premises into it. The correct interpretation is exactly the reverse. Columbus, like all people around him, inherited a debilitating context of mysticism. Any disability he had in this regard was congenital, not self-inflicted. He, like precious few other intellectual heroes such as Copernicus and Gutenberg, found a way to favor reason in that essential kernel of their work.
It would make far more sense to say:
“Columbus, retaining certain aspects of the handicap of medieval mysticism, was hard-pressed to appreciate the nature of his continental discovery, characterizing it as the Earthly Paradise. Still, as is fitting, given that he was a leading exemplar of that independent, empirical thinking which is the essence of the Renaissance, he was able to identify that the enormous volume of the Orinoco River could only issue from a continent.”
Of course, that one can’t find everything one wants in a modern history book is perhaps to be expected. One can’t be too hard on Hale, especially because in a final, redeeming passage, he concludes with truths that are too often underemphasized:
“…it is a fact that if Columbus had not existed…the whole of American history would be different. Not only the language in which this book is read, but the sentiments of its readers, the quality of life they lead owes something to Columbus. This makes him…one of the most influential men who have ever lived. It may make him the most influential man of all…”
Well, thanks for tuning in to “Columbus Week” at Powell History!