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Columbus: for better or worse

Five hundred years after one of the most incredible feats of daring and navigation in the history of the world, Christopher Columbus can't get a proper celebration.

Like never before, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea is being nagged by the character issue. A consummate sailor he may have been, say the critics, who include leaders of major Christian denominations, but his voyages ushered in unimaginable horrors for inhabitants of the "New World."

In the run-up to the quincentennial of the 1492 event, the critics have relentlessly pointed out that the Spanish conquest brought widespread death by disease and warfare, religious persecution and destruction of entire cultures.

It's a little late to be dredging up those issues, say his supporters. Bad things can happen when cultures collide. But don't blame it all on Columbus.

With Monday the official observance date in this political year, one almost expects a general election, or at least an opinion poll, on the question: Was Columbus a hero or a villain?

But expectations that a 15th-century figure can be held accountable to 20th-century measurements are at the heart of the problem, say the Columbus boosters. After all, in his milieu, conquest and domination were considered consonant with the work of God.

"The man's warts are old hat," said Dr. Bruce Steiner, chairman of the history department at Ohio University. "You can't have it both ways. You can't maintain a missionary imperative and lament the effect of that imperative in changing a culture.

"Any Christianity that retains any missionary impulse is necessarily going to have some modifying effect on non-Christian cultures."

Even where a degree of lament is justified, Steiner feels Columbus' critics often overdo it. Notions of "the peaceful, ecologically correct nature of indigenous cultures" are easily overdone, he said, evoking images of "the snake in the person of Columbus" entering the Garden of Eden.

Indigenous people "displayed all of the constant frailties of human beings," including practice of human sacrifice and warfare, he said.

The Columbus-bashing is not coming just from the ultraliberal side.

Several years ago, during a national meeting of U.S. Catholic bishops, Native American and Hispanic bishops asked that the word "observance" be substituted for "celebration" in references to the quincentennial.

That preference is shared widely throughout the Americas. Plans for celebrations generate plans for "counter-celebrations," reminders that descendants of indigenous peoples might have a different perspective than those of European ancestry.

Church groups have led the way in reminding the world that Columbus' voyages opened an era of devastating human rights abuses. Their efforts have led to some significant alterations of the traditional image.

Even Virgil Dechant, head of the Knights of Columbus, an influential Roman Catholic fraternal organization, has conceded some points to those who want to balance the explorer's centuries-old heroic status.

In a prepared news release, Dechant writes: "I realize full well that the story of these 500 years has been mixed _ a record with much to celebrate, much to regret and much that even today stands in need of correcting."

The concessions, however, go only so far before Dechant turns the tables. He argues that the critics themselves are indebted to Columbus, for it was he who brought to the Americas the Judeo-Christian value system upon which their negative judgments are based.

If there is much to regret, Dechant writes, "let us recognize that such judgments .

.

. are themselves products of the value system carried here by Columbus and the explorers and missionaries who came after him."

Dr. Michael Gannon, director of the University of Florida's Institute for Early Contact Period Studies, takes a position that is provocative while approaching the middle of the road.

There was little benign about the discoveries, he says. "It was a collision of cultures, of technologies and of disease with the absence of immunization, leading to the deaths of enormous numbers of indigenous peoples."

The Spanish, of course, had no idea they were carrying a microbial invasion force; the last thing they would have wanted was destruction of a newfound labor force, said Gannon.

And the voyages, he says, viewed from the distance of centuries, can be seen as a kind of "reuniting of the human family and of the continents" signaling "the beginning of the global history of humankind."

"To that extent, I would call it a very fine thing for humankind and for human history," he said.

Still, 500 years ago, it was a messy and destructive undertaking. And the revisionist scholarship is giving indigenous groups the space they deserve for the first time in the hemisphere's history, Gannon said.

Writing earlier in the Wilson Quarterly, Gannon listed the enormous range of intellectual activity that has anticipated the 500th anniversary. It includes archival discoveries, archaeological excavations, exhibitions and publications.

"On the twin principles that cerebration is more valuable than celebration and that correcting one paragraph in our children's schoolbooks is worth more than a half-million dollars' worth of fireworks exploded over Biscayne Bay, 1992 should be the best 1492 anniversary ever," he wrote.

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