Mon, May 15, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Revising the legacy of Columbus

The contribution of the man attributed with discovering the Americas is coming under scrutiny from political activists and historians. For a growing number of people, including many with the US Latino population, Columbus is now more villian than path-breaking explorer


For centuries Christopher Columbus was celebrated for "discovering" the New World. But in recent decades revisionist historians and activists for the rights of indigenous people have been more and more successful in recasting this view.

According to them Columbus is more villain than hero -- a man who did not discover the new world but rather planted the seeds of its destruction.

Some facts are clearly beyond controversy. Columbus, who was born in 1451 and died on May 20, 1506, was an explorer and trader, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and reached the Americas on Oct. 12, 1492.

Today, he is no longer credited with being the first one to discover the "New World."

At least one group of Europeans had already reached America -- Viking mariners are believed to have established a colony in Newfoundland at around 1000. Some historians also claim that African traders had managed to cross the Atlantic centuries before Columbus.

But once on the shores of the new world, Columbus unleashed a devastating series of economic catastrophes and health disasters that condemned the indigenous populations to hundreds of years of suffering.

Columbus himself plundered large amounts of gold and took slaves back to Spain. But it was the explorers, traders and conquistadors who followed in his footsteps that wrought the real holocaust.

They subjugated the natives with superior technology, plundered all their wealth and brought with them smallpox and other diseases which decimated the population.

By some estimates there were 100 million people living in the Americas when Columbus first landed in 1492 -- a third more than that of Europe at the time. A century later an estimated 90 percent of the population had been eradicated.

For centuries there was little recognition of this injustice. Controversy gained pace, however, in the run-up to the 1992 celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing on Hispaniola. Ridley Scott's movie 1492: Conquest of Paradise contributed to the popular debate.

The US National Council of Churches also announced it was a time not for celebration but for "repentance" over a great historical crime.

"Columbus has become a symbol for the European domination of the Americas," says social historian Eduardo Rojaz. "For radical Hispanics in the US it symbolizes what they see as Anglo-racism."

In this context, the indigenous rights group the Mexica movement, which "supports a total end to European domination of our continent" is also a strong supporter of the rights of undocumented immigrants into the US.

After centuries of this perceived "domination," indigenous peoples and Hispanics seem to have demographics on their side now. A new study in the US pegs the number of Hispanics at over 42 million, making them the largest minority in the country.

According to many demographers the high Hispanic rate of birth and immigration could make them the largest population group in the US within 100 years.

"Latinos ... are the wave of the future," demographer William Frey, told the Washington Post.

Indigenous people account for an estimated 56 percent to 70 percent of the total populations in Bolivia and nearly half of the populations in Guatemala and Peru.

In Venezuela, populist President Hugo Chavez has ridden to power with the support of indigenous people and he continues to use their position to express his country's fierce independence from the US.

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