It is a truth we should most definitely hold to be self-evident. Christopher Columbus did not discover America. He got pretty close – in Edinburgh, we call this 'leaving the train at Haymarket' – but he never once set foot on the land mass now known as the United States, except in effigy, and then some, for reasons to come later. Getting as far as the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola really doesn't cut the mustard, while not making that last 90 miles to Key West frankly looks like wanton gross indolence.
Worse still, Columbus was not a nice man, to put it mildly. Most proper historians would bunch him in with such masters of villainy as Vlad the Impaler, Herman Goering, or Chief Secretary Stalin. A contemporary account of his sadistic excesses discovered in Spanish archives a few years ago is not for the squeamish. Let's just say the man was a gold-crazed genocidal butcher and leave it at that.
There is no point in even trying to defend the character of Columbus. Some might claim that since he was brutal to absolutely everyone, Spanish colonists included, he was not, technically speaking, so much a racist, as an equal opportunities oppressor, but that wouldn't buy him much slack with a judge.
This begs an awkward question. Why on earth did the rebellious American colonists, as soon as they'd liberated themselves from the yoke of King George, scoop up Columbus as the putative father of a nation he'd never even troubled to visit? If you'd wanted to litter your country with votive effigies, why chose him? Amazingly, some point the finger of blame at an immoderately pious young African-American poet by the name of Phillis Wheatley who, in 1775, published A poem to his Excellency George Washington
, which opened with the lines:
Celestial choir! Enthroned in realm of light
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write
And ended with:
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side
Thy ev'ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine
At the stroke of a pen, Ms Wheatley transformed the psychotic merchant adventurer into a girl, but the reference was clear, and lo, a cult was born which would go on to spawn the names of two state capitals, several towns, a university, a sportswear range, a Hollywood studio, a printing press, a space shuttle, and a federal city district. All this for a pathological maniac who, if you saw him coming up the front path, would probably have you fleeing through the neighbours' back gardens pronto.
Washington let it be known that an allegorical female representation of the tyrant of the Ocean Blue would be a suitably feisty replacement for Britannia, and so she proved to be, at least until she was knocked off her perch by Liberty and her torch.
For a secular nation, America does deification remarkably well, and Columbus had one great virtue which instantly admitted him to the new republic's pantheon of heroes. He was not British. Better still, his failure to find Key West could be dated back to the 15th century, long before the Mayflower or the Jamestown settlement had been thought of. The founding myth industry went crazy with delight.
Much bad versification followed, while an academic imprimatur was provided in 1777 by William Robertson, Principal of Edinburgh University, in his History of America
. Robertson, a friend of philosopher David Hume, who had declared himself 'an American in my principle', was privately sympathetic to the patriot cause and had enjoyed a long friendship with Benjamin Franklin.
William Robertson didn't actually visit America, but he had access to Spanish state archives through the British ambassador and the services of his chaplain as a researcher and translator. He was also provided with information by others who were well placed to assist him, like the Portuguese ambassador to Britain, who had lived in Brazil, and two missionaries 'employed among the Indians of the Five Nations'.
One volume resulting from Robertson's extensive labours was a 140-page biography of Columbus and his exploits which was, if not quite an apologia, an emphatically Eurocentric version of events which made much of his supposedly Christian virtues (Robertson was a divinity grad) and little of a savagery which was in the Principal's view, the responsibility of others who were defying his 'prudent instructions'.
Thanks to Ms Wheatley, Principal Robertson, and sundry writers of bad verse, by 1792, the tercentenary of Columbus' first voyage, there were nationwide celebrations, with mass rallies, parades and numerous Columbus re-enactors pressing the message home – not to mention an obelisque raised in his honour in Baltimore.
The show was on the road. By 1828, Columbus-mania went into overdrive with the publication of Washington Irving's A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus
, which wasn't a history at all, but a torrid ripping yarn of derring-do and blatant nationalistic myth making, although Irving claimed somewhat disingenuously that he had 'avoided in indulging in mere speculations'.
There was certainly much informed research and plenty of background advice from Irving's father, a former sea captain from Shapinsay, in Orkney, and his friend, the explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, but the object of the exercise, first and foremost, was to consolidate a nativist foundation myth for a rising generation of young Americans which hadn't experienced the revolution at first hand.
It worked. Within a decade, Ralph Waldo Emerson was urging the 'American Scholar' to turn away from European literary culture while John O'Sullivan, the first to coin the term 'Manifest Destiny' was declaring: 'All history has to be re-written'.
Perhaps the latter sentiment had something to do with the fact that O'Sullivan's great grandfather – one of the 'Seven Men of Moidart' who landed with Prince Charles in 1745 – had devised the catastrophic plan for the Battle of Culloden. That embarrassing link, indeed, was recalled by O'Sullivan's 'Young America' colleague and sometime rival, Evert Duyckinck, who declared Culloden's 1845 anniversary 'a year of Rebellion, of protest against all shabbiness and unworthiness in literature, fighting not for Pretenders, but against them'. Ouch!
So it was that, carried aloft on a sea of nativist rhetoric and hyperbole, Christopher Columbus became fully weaponised as the embodiment of a nation which espoused such things as liberty, democracy, and the rule of law – all traits which he himself had tirelessly opposed. The fact that he had nothing to do with the United States other than the coincidence that his home town, Genoa, was the origin of the word jeans, an all-American garment suitable for work and leisurewear, clearly counted for nothing.
Things are changing, however. In our new era of turbulence and historical re-assessment, Columbus has been found out for the villain he was, and not a moment too soon. But what do do with him? The answer to that question depends on several factors, one being whether you're a Pelosian or a Cuomoist, as we'll discover soon.
Part 2 of David Black's three-part series will be published in SR next week