The Figure of Columbus

NEARLY a score of years ago the study of American history received a singular impetus through the series of centennial celebrations which then began. There can be no question that not only were popular conceptions of the men and events connected with the War for Independence readjusted and greatly enriched, but the scientific pursuit of American history, especially the history of institutions, received an emphatic impulse. It is easy to believe that the same sort of influence is now at work to quicken the interest of the American people in the general subject of Spanish discovery and settlement, and in the particular subject of the character and career of Columbus. If it be said that in the case of the War for Independence we were dealing with a subject more closely connected with our historic consciousness, and not so far removed but that a moderately lively imagination could compass it, and that the series of anniversaries extended over a long enough time and had a sufficiently varied character to make the impression thorough and abiding, while we are called on now to celebrate a single event, four hundred years distant, and centring about persons of another race, whose influence over our destiny has not been continuous, it will not do to be hasty in concluding that this new anniversary will have insignificant influence upon our scientific and popular historical studies. On the contrary, we are disposed to think the present opportunity one of profounder significance.

We have the very great advantage of the training which both students and the general public have received through the researches and discussions of the past twenty years. If we were to sum the results in a single sentence, we should say that Americans had been emancipated from the crude belief that American civilization was a plant of absolutely native growth, and had also come into a larger freedom of belief regarding the stability of that civilization. We are not likely to overlook the Teutonic origin of much of this civilization, and we understand far more clearly the development which has taken place upon American soil and under the impulse of civic freedom. But an intelligent perception of the relation of the United States to England and Germany, historically, is but one step in that world knowledge which this nation must apprehend if it is to rise consciously to the dignity of its great inheritance. One further step is needed, and we are on the threshold.

It may be that we shall have to reëstablish our connection with Latin Christianity in all its forms through the sharp teaching of war, but that is not a means to be sought. Whether through war or through the more amiable ways of commerce and social intercourse, it is clear to most observers that the United States is to renew with Spain on this side of the Atlantic a connection which was broken off between England and Spain on the other side of the Atlantic more than three centuries ago, largely through the discovery and settlement of this continent. The era of industrial possession of our own domain has not closed, but the era of continental relations has opened, and this nation is destined to be affected strongly in its future development, not merely by entering into relations with the rest of America, but by the extension of its relations through this medium with contemporaneous Europe, and by contact in the realm of the spirit with ideas which are neither Anglican nor Teutonic.

It is for this reason, and because the four hundredth anniversary of the landing of Columbus upon an island of the West Indies coincides with the beginnings of this enrichment of the United States, that we believe we shall see a great impetus given to historical studies having for their end, wittingly or not, the maturing of the consciousness of the American people, so that the nation will be more distinctly than it now is an integral part of Christendom, and something more than a member of Englishspeaking races. A part of the process in this slow enlargement will be found to consist in the direction of historical studies toward points heretofore somewhat neglected by American students. We look to see scholars follow the lead of Dr. Lea in an examination of ecclesiastical history. There will be a greater eagerness to comprehend the state of Europe just previous to the discovery of America. The study of antiquities as bearing upon the natives of America will not be neglected, but the same regions of Central America, Mexico, and South America which have attracted men of science searching for America before Spain wrote on the palimpsest will be sought by students of the memorials of the Spanish occupation, and little by little the veil will be lifted which now conceals much of the life led contemporaneously with that freely recorded of the English occupation of the northern country.

It is to be supposed that the first, most immediate attention will be directed toward Columbus; and it is a signal service which Dr. Winsor has rendered at the outset by his minute array of all the facts clustering about the achievement. of the great, discoverer, and his cartographic and bibliographic summaries. His book 1 is a storehouse for students and an index to the accumulated literature upon the subject, as well as a contribution to the fuller knowledge of the conditions under which Columbus wrought, and to the conception of the character of Columbus himself.

Dr. Winsor’s historical habit is that of the man of science, who subjects all his material to a close scrutiny, that he may reach definite and well-authenticated results. He is a student at first hand, but he has also the constructive faculty, and is not content unless he can see his subject in its relations. Mr. John Fiske, as we have more than once had occasion to remark, has his distinction in a power of correlating facts after they have for the most part been collected by others. He is by no means without the power of original research ; he shows this by his admirable insight, and his almost instinctive sense of what is to be relied upon in his authorities ; but his strength lies in his synthetic power, in his broad yet not vague generalizations, in the skill with which he puts two and two together and always makes the sum four. In his new work 2 he has had a large field for the display of the sweep of his pen; for there is no one fact in modern history so momentous as the opening of a new world to human endeavor. In Mr. Fiske’s book the voyages of Columbus form an incident in a whole drama; in Dr. Winsor’s plan the narrative centres upon the personal history of Columbus: yet in the former case Columbus is treated as the central figure in the drama; in the latter he is regarded, one might, almost say, as an accident.

The same authorities are used by both writers, and each is armed with the caution which leads them to avoid reading the nineteenth into the fifteenth century. Yet there is a marked difference in the outcome of their studies as regards the person of Columbus. An acute thinker once observed: “ If I have so much difficulty in understanding myself, how can I expect satisfactorily to account for other people ? ” And if, in addition to other difficulties, one is obliged to take into account conditions of another age, another nationality, and another religious belief, the task of apprehending a strange personality may well seem at first glance impossible. On the other hand, the judgment of men upon historic characters of whatever age is based upon the assumption of common elements in humanity. The face which looks upon us from a portrait by Velasquez is intelligible to us because of the likeness which it bears to the faces of men we meet on Broadway; the humanity which is enshrined in the statue of a Greek divinity is the key to our understanding of the god for which it stands.

It cannot be wholly impossible to reconstruct the figure of Columbus out of the material furnished in these two books, and that material is to be found in the words of Columbus himself, in the estimates of his contemporaries, — after we have first determined roughly the character and credibility of these witnesses, — in the deeds recorded of him, and, finally, — for this is the crucial test, — in the controlling ideas of the man.

Columbus was a visionary, and this temper of mind makes one a target for ridicule to his contemporaries, and throws an air of unreality over his actions when viewed by posterity. He was no less a visionary that his dreams looked for their fulfillment in the conquest of nature, and promised him great personal wealth and honor. His whole career witnesses to this element in his character. His unshaken belief in the verity of his notions; his readiness to jeopardize all his venture rather than abate a jot of his pretensions; his intoxication at apparent success ; his inability to cope with practical men ; his very meanness when he seeks to use the weapons of ordinary mortals; his miserable failure to help himself to the results of the fulfillment of his dreams; his dignity in the hour of his fall; and, finally, the blur which gathers over his eyes in the last days, so that he now sees visions only, and sees everything distorted, — all these things explain and are explained by this fundamental characteristic of the man. The saving quality which forbade the visionary to be a mere crank — to use the expressive modern term which his neighbors would have applied to Columbus, if they had spoken American - English — lay in the concentration of purpose which solidified ideas, notions, dreams, into action. It is not at all difficult to show that many more than Columbus, in his age, perceived a priori the evidence of a Cathay lying to the westward, to be reached by sailing in that direction. But Columbus put the evidence to the test; and the very obstacles which he overcame, both by his lofty assurance, in which his enemies could see only the arrogance of an overweening vanity, and by his persistence until his faith had overcome mountains, raise him above the ranks of common men. Granting all that one may assert of the selfishness or meanness of Columbus in his dealing with men, this lower nature was not the power which prompted the man in the one great act of his life, — an act which was the incarnation of an idea held in common with others, but carried to its practical consummation only by himself.

It is in the light of this controlling idea that we must measure many of the recorded acts of Columbus. The deceptions which he practiced on the voyage were the devices of a man who had gone too far in the achievement of a lifelong purpose to see that achievement thwarted by ignorant men. He was as ready to resort to a manœuvre like two reckonings as the general of an army is to keep his camp-fires burning while his troops are silently retreating before the deceived enemy. It would have read finely in the history of this great enterprise if Columbus had waived his claim to the king’s reward for the first sight of land in favor of the sailor who had seen the solid earth a few hours after the admiral had seen, or thought he had seen, a light moving on the land ; but magnanimity of that sort belongs to another order of heroes. Columbus was not a self-renunciatory hero ; he was not bred to a sense of chivalry; he was of the imperial order, a man who, from brooding over a great idea, identifies himself with it, and, so far from renouncing anything, grasps at whatever comes within the reach of his purpose. He died without the knowledge that his discoveries had opened the way to a new continent. Had he known this, it is safe to predict that he would have gone stark, staring mad over such an aggrandizement of his name.

There was a close connection between a temperament of this idealistic sort and a religious fervor. It must be remembered that at this time the notion of religion which was uppermost was not that of service, but of rule, and that the church militant was closely connected with the church regnant. Christendom was confronted by Islamism, and there was not yet a sense of confident supremacy, though the external foe had done much to weld into a mass the opposing forces of the church. The church stood for whatever was worth holding in this world and in the world to come, and a nature like that of Columbus, who saw as in a vision the subjugation of the pagan East to the dominant West, could not possibly separate the church idea from the imperial idea. The day had not yet come for the growth of individualism in religion, and though there were never wanting witnesses to the truth of a life hid with Christ in God, as the wonderful phrase has it, the hieratic interpretation of the gospel was the prevailing one, and the loyalty of Columbus to the church was a far more masterful sentiment than his loyalty to the sovereign lord and lady. With them he was, as it were, on a level, as a son of the church. When, therefore, he dreamed of being a viceroy, he dreamed equally of honor through his power to enlarge the domain of the church. The avenue to greatness lay this way, also.

It is by no means impossible that a spirit like that of Columbus should be ill adapted to deal with those affairs of life which call for sagacity, prudence, patience, and that power of control which springs from self-control. The restless desire for further conquest impelled Columbus far more than the desire to hold what he had gained. The enlargement of his domain, not the government of his possessions, inspired him, and he brought to the task of ruling dusky natives an experience which was born of dealing with mutinous sailors. Did he know men as a born ruler knows them ? It is doubtful. His solitary life, when brooding over his ideas, had developed a strength of will and a belief in himself which carried him against the resistance of others through self-assertion, not through a diplomatic undermining of his adversaries. Yet it must be remembered that the nature of Columbus was eminently adapted to the cultivation of enemies. He had been laughed at, and now he had set Europe agog with his discoveries. The realities which those saw who followed eagerly in his footsteps to avail themselves of his good luck were not the realities he saw. They found a barbarous, mild-mannered, and physically weak race, living indolently in a region which smiled to the eye, but yielded very little in the way of portable property. Columbus transmuted every petty chieftain into a king of Cathay, and every grain of gold was to him the symbol of vast wealth. He was forever obeying his illusions ; they were forever suffering disenchantment.

But a man must be known by his friends, not by his enemies. That Las Casas believed in Columbus and was his firm friend ; that, with his gentle nature, he looked up in admiration at the figure which was close enough for inspection, and gave in his hearty witness to the admiral’s character, is more in the court of public opinion than the hatred borne toward Columbus by the malignant Fonseca ; yet only more, for the tortuous persecution aimed at the explorer becomes an exposition of the nature of the enmity, and by so much a vindication of the man persecuted.

It is no doubt true that the vast results which have flowed from the momentous first voyage of Columbus have served to obscure the real character of the man. The connection of a deed with a name is pretty sure to enlarge the notion of a name, and convey to it not only the greatness of the deed, but the greatness of the consequences. Nor is the common acceptation of a man’s personality dependent upon a very subtle analysis. The law by which reputations are established de minimis non curat. Nevertheless, in process of time a closer inspection brings out with greater precision the actual facts upon which reputation rests. The loose statement, “ Columbus discovered America,” becomes resolved into a more exact statement as to the relation which the deeds of Columbus bore to that discovery. As the student is driven out of loose notions into more precise intelligence, the figure of Columbus becomes more sharply outlined. Some of the nobility, as the sensitive man conceives nobility, disappears; a glamour vanishes. But this figure is set against a background of another age, another faith. Studied in relation to its times and viewed in the light of its actual achievement, its greatness does not pass off in vapor; it becomes more real because conceived more truthfully. It is by the aid of these fearless and searching studies of Dr. Winsor and Mr. Fiske that the public will be instructed in the facts of the life of Columbus, and gradually construct a figure in stone when before they had one in clay.

  1. Christopher Columbus, and how he Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery. By JUSTIN WINSOR, Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1891.
  2. The Discovery of America. With some Account of Ancient America and the Spanish Conquest. By JOHN FISKE. In two volumes. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1892.