Part 1

INTRODUCTION – „Polemics“ around 1992 – Negative images today and in the past – Possession of paradise – Historical tradition under taboo



In 1985 I found an anonymous speech manuscript in a Spanish library, dating back to the forties or fifties of last century. In this document, old chroniclers were quoted and their accounts compared with the statements of Columbus son Hernando Colón (1488–1539). I began to realize, that Columbus was a sailor, who – more than posterity liked – was involved in the wars of succession of his époque.

I searched in archives and libraries for more information, looked through sources and found aspects which were obviously successfully suppressed in the course of historical tradition. The religious conceptions of Columbus and the rather chaotic historical backgrounds of his days seemed too absurd and too bizarre. I’ve become more and more aware how much later times have shaped history writing – from the enlightenment through the period of nationalism, and up to the present time.


“Polemics” around 1992

The author of the anonymous speech manuscript I mentioned was most likely the noted Madrilenian historian, Antonio Rumeu de Armas. As a recognised expert on the subject, he would have been able to revise the image of the discoverer in the late 20th century. Instead, he warned expressly against the research of the earlier years of Columbus’ biography and claimed years later (1991) that this part of his life must be considered as an “insoluble mystery”. He argued that some of the sources would subsequently lead to “polemics” (Rumeu 1991, S. 17). But what sorts of polemics did he mean, and how is it possible that the statements of chroniclers are found threatening in our own age?

Protest-Graffiti 1992, Baskenland: „Kann ein Genozid gefeiert werden? Nein zur 500-Jahr-Feier“

The position of Rumeu de Armas is understandable, if one considers the political background in Spain before the 500th centenary of the discovery of the Americas (1992). In those days, a moderate view of the past was advisable, at least out of consideration for the descendants of the famous discoverer still living in Madrid. The family Colón had lost through attempted murder two descendants with the (symbolic) name Cristóbal Colón: the first in 1936 during the Spanish civil war, the second in February 1986, during a NATO-summit in Madrid. The latter victim was vice admiral of the Spanish fleet and titular duke of Panama. A few months before the attempt he had joined the committee for the preparation of the 500 year anniversary ceremony as its president - and became the goal of anti-imperialistic aggression. In the context of this attempted murder, it is understandable that the historian had to black out all details of Columbus life that could be interpreted negatively. The Basque E.T.A. was officially accused of having committed the assassination in 1986, but the crime could also have been committed by the secret service of Panama. Manuel Noriega, military dictator at the time, tangled with the Spanish aristocracy in Panama (to whom the Colón family belonged); he was on the payroll of the U.S. during the Iran-Contra-Affair but also in touch with Cuba, as well as with the Columbian guerrillas.


Negative imagines today and in the past

This campaign was strongly inspired by ancient claims and images about the brutal actions of the Spanish conquistadores, originally stated by the Dominican monk Bartolomé de Las Casas (?1566) in his famous “Short account of the destructions of the West Indies” (Breévissima relacción de la destrucción de las Indias occidentals). He called the Spaniards “tyrans”, “most cruel wolves” as well as “tigers” and “lions”, who have committed “uncountable cruelties” against these most innocent Indians (whom he generally calls “sheep”). His radical and militant writing was published in 1552 and later, during the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, it became a very efficient instrument of propaganda against Philipps II’s fast expanding “empire of the never setting sun” and his successors. Until our times, many Spanish historians speak about a “black legend” (leyenda negra), begun by the radical Dominican monk.

Portrait von Bartolomé de Las Casas,
B.N. Paris

Frontspiz „Brévissima relación…“ (1552)

In May 2006, on the 500th memorial of Columbus’ death, journalists found it hard to form a sober judgement about the discoverer. They asked whether he was a “villain” who slaughtered and enslaved Indians or whether, quite the opposite, he was doing good for them. This question cannot be answered without again referring to Las Casas. Paradoxically, the monk was himself a follower of Christopher Columbus. Although las Casas questioned the conquista (including Columbus) fundamentally, he described the discoverer as a man of much more credibility and integrity than the succeeding governors – Las Casas even designated the Genovese sailor and discoverer a prophet, chosen by God to rule overseas.

Ferdinand II. von Aragon, Kunsthist. Museum, Wien

Indeed, Columbus can hardly be held responsible. Firstly, he took it as a guiding duty to discover as much new land as possible. Then, a long lasting fever followed by mutiny and slander prevented him from governing. Las Casas’ father and uncle participated in Columbus’ discovery trips. Later, the monk felt encouraged by statements of the “old admiral” (Columbus) concerning his own positive impression of the Indios. Columbus had believed that the original inhabitants were subjects of the Great Khan of China, who a long time ago had welcomed Christians of the Eastern church to his empire. On the other hand, Columbus mistrusted his fellow passengers – they were subjects of Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516) against whom Columbus had once fought, and who Niccolò Macchiavelli (1469–1527) took as a model for his “il principe”. Both the negative assessment of Spaniards and the positive image of the Indios dates back to Columbus’ travelogue


The possesion of paradise

After the successful discovery in 1492, an atmosphere favouring setting out for new horizons began to prevail. Columbus, impressed by the mild climate and the luxuriant vegetation of the Caribbean, described an earthly paradise in his famous letter of 1493. He suggested that the legendary golden treasures of King Solomon could be found in the Indies, and that according to the Middle Age expectation of the last days, Enoch and Elias were there, in the earthily paradise, to be freed in order to fight Antichrist. There is no doubt: the foreign sailor awarded his discovery the importance of a new Relevation. But who should reign overseas, to whom should belong the heavenly lands?

Alexander VI.(Borgia), Fresko von Pinturicchio, Rom, Vatikan

Las Casas referred to the contract of Santa Fé (1492), with its wide privileges for Columbus and his descendents: The titles of an admiral and viceroy, the right to govern, and to participate financially in the profits. In this statement, Las Casas sided with the descendants of Columbus. At the same time he questioned the procedure of Pope Alexander VI (Roderigo Borgia), who had invalidated the contract of Santa Fé in order to hand it over in 1493 to Ferdinand of Aragon. Roderigo Borgias donation was legitimated by imperial documents dating back to the Crusades, which gave the Pope the powerful position of highest worldly authority. And Las Casas wasn’t the only critical voice: reforming forces disputed the right of the Spanish crown to convert the Indios to the Roman Catholic church.

The massive criticism of the disastrous conditions in the overseas possessions has to be also seen also as an argument against the controversial expansion of the Vatican’s power in the Age of Reformation. Characteristically, Las Casas was listened to by Adrian of Utrecht, later the reforming pope Hadrian VI (1522–23), and was also under the influence and protection of the powerful Jiménez de Cisneros (see Kreuzzugsmentalität, Teil 6). In 1517, this reforming Franciscan Cardinal officially appointed him as the advocate (procurador) of the Indios.

Hadrian VI., Cr. Dell’ Altissimo, Uffizien, Florenz

Kaiser Karl V.

In addition, the Habsburg Emperor Charles V, who had his difficulties taking over power in Spain, initially supported Las Casas. It was Charles who, in 1542, instructed the keen monk to write the “Short account of the destructions of the West Indies” – a document with the most serious consequences! The young Emperor intended to undermine the governorship of the Fernandistas, the followers of the deceased king in the overseas possessions.


The tabooing of records

Bartolomé de Las Casas did cause enormous damage to the image of the rising Spanish Empire. Therefore, it’s not surprising that his main work, the extensive “History of the Indies” (Historia de las Indias), was kept as an item of classified information (under lock and key) for centuries. Only in 1875, under the pressure of the breakaway Cuban colony, was a first edition was made in Spain. The chronicle of Columbus’ son Hernando Colón also reminded for a long time unpublished in Spain. Hernando finished his “true report” (vera relatione) about the life and deeds of his father shortly before his announced death in 1539. But the manuscript could only be published in Venice (1571) as a small-format book in the Italian language with the title: “Historie del S.D. Fernando Colombo”; the Spanish manuscript was subsequently lost. (see Hernando Colón, Teil 7).

During the Enlightenment and the following years of the French Revolution, historians such as the renowned William Robertson, and Fernández de Navarrete, discovered the record of Columbus’ son. As the latter was a Humanist scholar, they praised his correct and transparent methods of history writing. This positive reputation lasted only until the middle of the 19th century, however, when nationalistic viewpoints led to the emergence of another, equally valid image of Columbus. The chronicles of Las Casas and Hernando Colón have been banished from history writing since then. Some chapters caused offence because they seemingly touched the Spanish as well as the Italian national consciousness.