The Christopher Columbus Question

Historians and critics around the globe are squabbling about Christopher Columbus. Was he a saint or a sinner?

–Haitian sculptor Albert Mangones with his famous work Le Marron Negre in Port-au-PrinceReplicas of Columbus’ three ships arrive in Miami escorted by hundreds of welcoming vesselsThe anchor of the Santa Maria, one of Columbus’s caravels that sank off the north coast of Haiti on December 24, 1492, now displayed in the Musée du Panthéon National, Haiti

How should the Caribbean deal with Christopher Columbus, who set foot in the New World 500 years ago this October? Was he a hero, a momentous explorer, or a villain whose coming led to centuries of suffering and the destruction of the Caribbean’s early settlers? For a Caribbean view, we put the question to the Trinidadian economist and political scientist Lloyd Best.

It would be petty and pointless, above all counter-productive, for us not to join Spain and the maritime countries of western Europe in marking the Quincentennial of that momentous incursion into Carib waters.

Alexander the Spanish Pope had duly divided the world afresh. Inevitably he had awarded the bigger half to Spain. But at sunrise on this October 11, who are these autochthones standing here on the Guanahani seashore? Who are these West Indians espying three caravels wilfully interloping and violating our seaspace? Are they not our CARICOM cousins?

AIbert Mangones is the renowned sculptor whose great oeuvre, Le Marron Nègre, presides knowingly over the national palace on the Champ de Mars in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Architect-in chief of UNESCO’s project to restore the Citadelle, Christophe’s improbable colossus, itself standing guard over le Cap du Nord he has for a long time now harboured an alluring passion: to recreate those poignant moments when, on the mountain across from King Henri Christophe’s ancient capital, Guarionex and Mayobanex gazed down upon the northern coastline to discover the Santa Maria riding ominously in the roadstead.

What perhaps we ought to mark the Quincentennial with is a tracing – on film too, as Albert dearly wishes – of the career of this discovery. Of that other view, the one from inland, from atop the hill of Caribbean anxiety and Caribbean possibility, of that fateful encounter with the interloper’s world.

What a fateful moment! It triggered repeated confrontations between sundry Admirals of the Ocean Sea and successive lords of the fowl and the brute whose right, alas, they had come to dispute. The Northmen could well have been making the crossing via the Arctic Circle since the year 985, more than 500 years earlier. The Egyptians might have by-passed the Iberian portals from the blue Mediterranean to the fearful-green Atlantic before alighting on the Peninsula of the Yucatan. But had one or the other traced a Middle Passage!?

Nor had either succeeded in squaring Galileo’s circle by joining the continents and establishing the triangle of trade and commerce. It took this vital new contact to accomplish an October Revolution, as it were, once Rodrigo de Triana from his Finland Station way up in the forecastle had sounded the alert to land ahead; had claimed the prize of one silk doublet and 10,000 maravedis from the Queen of Castille, unwittingly calling into existence thereby a gold world to negate the promise of the new.

“I hope, in our Lord, that it will be a great benefit to Christianity,” wrote Don Cristoval with no sense of irony whatever, to their Highnesses Isabella and Ferdinand in his summary of his first voyage. He had been astonished to see “so many lofty islands”. He had found “the smell of the trees and flowers so delicious that it seemed the pleasantest thing in the world.” Cool and high, the lands were in all Castille beyond compare “for beauty and fertility … so good and fertile, especially those of the island of Española, that there is no one who . . . could believe if he had not seen them.”

At the end of his fourth and final voyage, Columbus would confirm the judgement: all these islands are beautiful, “admirable for tillage, for pasture and for habitation.”

Even if that irony could be missed by some, it was not lost on Dr Eric Williams. The historian meticulously documented the foundations laid during the Spanish period, lasting effectively until the British appropriation of Jamaica in 1655: planks of the political system, of the social structure, of “West Indian character and psychology.”

Williams details the relations of metropolitan countries with weaker races. He notices the metropolitan monopoly of trade and production. He points to the organisation and structure of the sugar industry – large capital investment, the latifundia and the plantocracy, production for export, and slavery. He emphasises the establishment of the West Indian class and race structure, white capital exploiting coloured labour – the high market value of the white skin, the conspicuous consumption, the social climbing, the insatiable individual ambition, all passed on in time from the dispossessors to the dispossessed, setting “a pattern still constituting one of the principal obstacles to rational social development…”
How can we – how dare we – disavow it now, we who are in so many ways the creatures of the Enterprise of the Indies, much as we are also the due inheritors of the landscape, daughters and sons of Hatuey and Enriquillo!

In his novel The Jamaicans, Vic Reid dramatises the decision maroon society was compelled to make as to whether it would opt to fight with Spain or with England in 1655. He is at pains to underline what a fine calculation the Afro-Arawak runaways had to make even in their choice of coloniser, as the imperial regime underwent internal competition and the Atlantic once again replaced one master by another.

The better to widen options from below, over and over we needed to weigh and choose our affiliations to and our alignments with Hapsburgs, Bourbons, Tudors, Bonapartists: constantly straddling religions, languages, ideologies, cultures, dispensations; weaving endless patterns of ambiguity, equivocation and role-reversal in the ultimate quest for wholeness and for selfhood.

Why then should we discover inhibition now at the commemoration of the coming of the very first tourist who discovered and thereby created his own enduring third world? Ought we not to be singing hosannas to the city we have so assiduously been building over the dilapidated plantation — the legacy notwithstanding? The Barbadian poet has long since invited us to:

Turn sideways now and let them see
what loveliness escapes the schools
then turn again and smile and be
the perfect answer to those fools
who always prate of Greece and Rome
the face that launched a thousand ships
and suchlike things but keep tight lips
for burnished beauty nearer home

Peter Minshall, from his stage in Barcelona, now goes further. He invites the whole of the Atlantic to join with Guarionex and Mayobanex on the hilltop in discovering our First World of the Caribbean, as we make mas with history by simply playing weself.