The Legacy of Christopher Columbus in the Americas: New Nations and a Transatlantic Discourse of Empire

The Legacy of Christopher Columbus in the Americas: New Nations and a Transatlantic Discourse of Empire

by Elise Bartosik-Velez


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Why is the capital of the United States named in part after Christopher Columbus, a Genoese explorer commissioned by Spain who never set foot on what would become the nation's mainland? Why did Spanish American nationalists in 1819 name a new independent republic "Colombia," after Columbus, the first representative of the empire from which they had recently broken free? These are only two of the introductory questions explored in The Legacy of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, a fundamental recasting of Columbus as an eminently powerful tool in imperial constructs.

Bartosik-Velez seeks to explain the meaning of Christopher Columbus throughout the so-called New World, first in the British American colonies and the United States, as well as in Spanish America, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She argues that during the pre- and post-revolutionary periods, New World societies commonly imagined themselves as legitimate and powerful independent political entities by comparing themselves to the classical empires of Greece and Rome. Columbus, who had been construed as a figure of empire for centuries, fit perfectly into that framework. By adopting him as a national symbol, New World nationalists appeal to Old World notions of empire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826519542
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 03/02/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Elise Bartosik-Velez is Associate Professor of Spanish at Dickinson College.

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The Legacy of Christopher Columbus in the Americas

New Nations and a Transatlantic Discourse of Empire

By Elise Bartosik-Vélez

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2014 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1955-9


Columbus's Appropriation of Imperial Discourse

Christopher Columbus has long been the subject of disagreement among historians. The protracted debate about his origins, whether he was Genoan, Spanish, Jewish, Catalán, etc., is merely the tip of the iceberg that seems to have had a special attraction for the public at large over the years. Beneath that popular debate, there are other disagreements among historians regarding Columbus's character. Some have emphasized his ardent religious faith, others his scientific curiosity and his skill as a mariner, and still others his drive to acquire wealth and power. In nearly all historical studies, the writings of Columbus are quoted to support the argument at hand. In this book, however, I would like to start by considering how Columbus represented himself in writing over time. He left behind a large corpus of writings in which he portrayed himself and his "enterprise" in a particular and consistent manner. The earliest historiographers who wrote about Columbus, including Peter Martyr, Bartolomé de las Casas, and Columbus's son Ferdinand, all consulted the corpus of Columbus's writings. The evidence suggests that the manner in which Columbus portrayed himself in writing influenced those who wrote about him and that they continued, and enhanced, the same characterization that he himself initiated.

Columbus appears to have been very savvy in regard to the politics of self-fashioning. Given his knowledge of court practice and procedure, he was likely aware that after 17 April 1492, when the king and queen signed the Capitulaciones de Santa Fe, the document that officially sanctioned his enterprise, whatever he wrote to the Crown would be preserved in royal archives. In addition, because he was politically astute he probably realized that the manner in which he represented himself would set the tone for future representations written by others. The extant documents in the historical record believed to have been written by Columbus suggest that he employed a very conscious strategy of self-promotion, mutating his persona and the manner in which he portrayed his enterprise in response to the exigencies of the moment. While Columbus modified his rhetorical strategy according to the occasion, we observe at least one constant in his self-representations: he always appears as a loyal servant of Ferdinand and Isabel and their imperial agenda. From 1492 to the end of his career, Columbus portrayed himself and his enterprise as fundamental to Spain's drive to universal Christian empire.

The Discourse of Empire in Late Fifteenth-Century Spain

Before discussing how empire was understood during this period in Spain, it should be noted that no official document issued during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabel refers to their territorial possessions in Europe and the New World as an "empire." Rather, the preferred term was the "Spanish Monarchy," which claimed dominion over a number of distinct "kingdoms" that together comprised the composite monarchy commonly known as "las Españas." Thus Ferdinand and Isabel were officially the "King and Queen of Castile, León, Aragon, Sicily, Granada, Toledo, Valencia [etc.]." Their kingdoms in the New World, incidentally, fell under the authority of the Crown of Castile. Notwithstanding the absence of the term "empire" in official language, the notion of empire was very much present in the Spanish imagination at the end of the fifteenth century. For example, a sonnet written by a courtier in January 1492, before Columbus left on his first voyage westward, proposed that the "I" in "Isabel" stood for "imperio," (empire). We also find evidence of the importance of empire in the Spanish worldview commonly repeated in contemporary comparisons of Spain to the Roman Empire.

The Spanish imperial tradition drew its inspiration from both the Bible and imperial Rome, and it was inexorably linked with Spain's unique crusading tradition. It is in the context of the crusading tradition in Spain, in which the Reconquista was firmly rooted, that Columbus interpreted his enterprise as a contribution to the empire of Ferdinand and Isabel. When European princes launched the Crusades to conquer Jerusalem in the eleventh century, the goal of regaining the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims, who had occupied it since the eighth century, assumed special meaning. Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) had already asserted in his Historia de regibus Gothorum, Wandalorum, et Suevorum, a book Isabel possessed, that Spaniards were an elect people inhabiting a holy land. This sentiment was pervasive when the Crusades were launched; regaining Spain was viewed as analogous to regaining the heart of Christendom. The kings who led the Iberian reconquest facilitated the conflation of Spain and Jerusalem, and Spain and Christendom itself. After Jerusalem was taken by Muslims in 638, European Christian kings, including those of Castile, became obsessed to varying degrees with its recapture.

The importance of Jerusalem in Spain and its connection to the notion of universal empire within the rhetoric of the reconquest bears repeating. As Liss notes, "Jerusalem, Christendom's core, [was] often coupled in Castilian prophecies and sermons with Spain's future greatness, even with achievement of world empire. Jerusalem, like Spain having once been destroyed, served as its analogue, the lodestar of Castilian chivalric ideals and messianic hope, the ultimate goal of reconquest. Its restoration to Christian rule was an obligation laid by God upon Castile's monarch." In Ferdinand and Isabel's day, the final goal of the reconquest was commonly viewed as regaining Jerusalem. As long as the heart of Christendom was in the hands of the infidel, many believed the Christian Empire would not be complete.

Although the concept of a universal Christian empire was just one of several understandings of empire at the end of the fifteenth century, it was of crucial importance in the dominant political discourse during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabel. The reconquest had been described for centuries in terms of Christendom's fight against the heathen for universal rule. Ferdinand and Isabel's final victory over the Moors in Granada in 1492 quickly became one of the seminal symbolic events of their reign; chroniclers declared that they were destined to expand their territory and conquer the infidel outside the peninsula. Many expressed the desire to conquer Africa. Before her death in 1504, Queen Isabel, in fact, stated in her will her desire that the Africa crusade be pursued. Pope Alexander VI had approved of an African crusade in 1494, but no action was taken for a decade, despite the prophecies and stories about it that had been circulating at court even before Granada was seized.

The idea of universal rule is complicit with both biblical and Roman traditions. Alfonso X (1221–84) contended that Spain was heir to the Roman Empire and would rule over the last world empire described in the book of Daniel. In doing so, Alfonso believed, Spain would fulfill Virgil's prophecy that Rome was destined to rule the world. Alfonso based his claim to empire on the widespread belief in the translatio imperii (literally, the transfer of empire), according to which empires move throughout history from east to west. He asserted that the imperial lineage started with Jupiter, passed through Aeneas, Alexander the Great, and the Roman Caesars to the Holy Roman Emperors, Frederick I Barbarossa, and Frederick II, and then ended with himself. Spanish humanist Antonio de Nebrija also expressed the belief in translatio imperii, claiming in 1492 that Spain was heir to an empire that had successively moved westward. In the Spanish context, added to this belief in the translatio imperii was a series of popular prophecies attributed to Merlin and the sibyls, which foretold of a final emperor who would defeat the Muslims, recapture Jerusalem, and claim world dominion.

Queen Isabel possessed a compilation of these prophecies, in addition to Alfonso X's histories. She promoted the image of herself and Ferdinand as the heirs who would fulfill Spain's sacred destiny. Her doing so was not surprising; her predecessors were proclaimed to have had this role as well. Liss stresses the common belief at the end of the fifteenth century in Spain's future universal rule: "Against this extended background, the fall of Granada in 1492, along with the departure of the Jews and imperial expansion enabled by Columbus, could not but appear to confirm Spain as final world empire and ratify the messianic role of its rulers."

Liss surmises in a footnote that an Italian like Columbus "could be so attuned to providentialist aspects of Isabeline ideology and their scriptural associations" because he would have been exposed to a "common Western stockpile" of stories regarding the imperial tradition. There was no doubt a common bank of ideas, beliefs, and legends about empire, and Columbus clearly tapped into this discourse. However, as I argue at the end of this chapter, although Columbus was particularly bold in interpreting his enterprise according to the Spanish imperial tradition, he does not appear to have been knowledgeable about the translatio imperii tradition. Indeed, Columbus quotes Seneca's Medea, a text whose imperial meanings were often exploited after Columbus's death to promote imperial agendas, but he ignores the text's allusions to empire. His appropriation of the imperial tradition largely honed in on its medieval aspects as they played out on the Spanish stage. This involved a set of beliefs tied conceptually to religion and imperial Rome as read through Alfonso X and patristic thinkers like Augustine and Isidore of Seville. I do not suggest that Columbus read their works—that is unlikely—but I believe the manner in which he wrote about his enterprise confirms that he was well versed in a Spanish imperial discourse in which the notion of a universal Christian empire loomed large. To be sure, Columbus was no humanist, and there is no evidence to suggest that he saw his enterprise as it related to the translatio imperii in the manner that, for example, the Milanese humanist Peter Martyr did, as I discuss in Chapter 2.

Columbus's Appropriation of Spanish Imperial Discourse

During the approximately seven years Columbus spent in Spain lobbying the Court to support his voyage, he appears to have listened attentively to popular narratives about Ferdinand and Isabel's destiny as rulers who would, after their predicted victory over the Moors in the reconquest, lead a final crusade against Islam, win the Holy Land for Christendom, and establish a universal monarchy. Throughout his career at the Spanish court, starting with his earliest writings, Columbus consistently portrayed his enterprise as an integral part of this narrative, not as a mere commercial venture but as an extension of the victory at Granada and as a further step on the road to achieving universal Christian empire.

Columbus was likely the first to interpret his enterprise as an extension of the reconquest, although it should be noted that this interpretation quickly became common. In fact, it was sanctioned soon after Columbus's return from the first voyage by no less than Pope Alexander VI whose bull Inter caetera (3 May 1493) granted Ferdinand and Isabel ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the newly discovered Indies. Inter caetera frames Columbus's "discovery" as an extension of the Spanish reconquest. It begins by reviewing the history of Ferdinand and Isabel's crusade against the infidel. Judging the king and queen to be earnest in their previous battles against the barbarians and declaring them victorious in their seizure of Granada, the bull grants them the authority to carry Christ beyond the bounds of the peninsula to the Indies. In other words, the reconquest of the peninsula and the conquest of the Indies are interpreted in this papal document as part of the same project, the former serving as the proving ground for the latter. Perhaps the most well-known formulation of this interpretation was penned in the early 1540s by historian Francisco López de Gómara: "Conquests of the Indians began when conquests of the Moors had ended, so that Spaniards might always be at war with infidels."

Modern scholars have continued to emphasize the connection between the reconquest and the conquest of the Indies—and the sanctioning of Columbus's voyage in particular. The venerable John Elliott, for example, writes: "The close coincidence between the fall of Granada and the authorization of Columbus's expedition would suggest that the latter was at once a thank-offering and an act of renewed dedication by Castile to the still unfinished task of war against the infidel." As James Muldoon and Luis Weckmann have argued, there are more continuities between the medieval and early modern periods than are generally recognized. Spain's conquest of the Americas is most accurately understood in relation to, not separate from, its recent (and not so recent) historical experience. The invasion of the New World was, in Elliott's words, a "natural culmination of a dynamic and expansionist period in Castilian history which had begun long before."

We would do well, however, to remember that in the first moments of the Columbian project—that is, before Columbus set sail in August 1492—there was no explicit or natural connection between it and the reconquest. If we assume that this connection existed since the very beginning of the venture, we risk missing the fact that it was Columbus who first rhetorically hitched his enterprise to the reconquest narrative. While it might have been an obvious association to make, the sovereigns clearly had not made it in 1492. That Columbus managed so skillfully to craft this association when, as Elliott observes, he "himself did not belong to the tradition of the Reconquista," points to his savvy as an observer of the Spanish political and rhetorical landscape. That he did so by emphasizing the contributions of his enterprise to the medieval notion of universal Christian empire illustrates Columbus's medieval mindset. It was left to others, as I shall argue, to reinterpret Columbus's connection to empire in a manner that revealed the sensibilities of the early modern era.

The Crown did not at first incorporate the Columbian enterprise within its overall strategy and political discourse about universal Christian empire. In fact, it likely rejected Columbus's interpretation, which did incorporate the enterprise in this manner when he first suggested it. According to the Capitulaciones signed by the king and queen in April 1492, Columbus's enterprise was strictly a commercial venture that had nothing to do with either religious matters or territorial expansion. Although the formulaic introductory sentence of the Capitulaciones mentions "the help of God," there is no further mention of God or religious matters in the text that follows. Zamora is puzzled by this omission in light of the religious charge of the dominant political discourse generated by the Crown: "Such silence," she writes, "is quite perplexing given that these were the official documents by which the Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs) authorized an embassy to foreign lands. For according to medieval kingship theory, Christian kings were expected to be missionaries and crusaders on behalf of the Church, and this was precisely how Ferdinand and Isabella conceived and justified their actions in the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors."

Based on the prediscovery documents generated by the Crown, it would appear that the sovereigns viewed Columbus's venture as separate from their greater imperial strategy. Although the economic and the religious were never separate spheres—indeed, the quest for profit was justified by religious arguments—Castile, Aragon, and Portugal had all been focusing on trade-building ventures before 1492. This is not to say that there was a lack of "missionary purpose" in Ferdinand and Isabel's sanctioning of maritime expansion, yet early on in the process of the conquest and colonization of the Indies, the desire to evangelize was not backed up in practice. The material interests of both Spain and Portugal appear to have outweighed their desire to promote the spiritual. As J. R. S. Phillips concludes, Spanish "missionary efforts lacked organization and vigor, and their expansion was essentially opportunistic; they looked for whatever might be found that would be profitable."

In April 1492, when the sovereigns agreed to support Columbus, no one could have predicted the scope of Columbus's discoveries or their importance in Ferdinand and Isabel's reign. If this had been possible, the Capitulaciones surely would have been a different document. But let us not permit our reading of the past to be influenced by our knowledge of the outcome. The Crown had no reason to consider Columbus's proposed voyage as integral to its overall mission. While it would be a mistake to conclude that the Crown considered Columbus's project to be unimportant in April 1492, we can conclude that it was not integral to royal strategy or ideology, as had been the campaign to conquer Granada.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Columbus's Appropriation of Imperial Discourse 15

Chapter 2 The Incorporation of Columbus into the Story of Western Empire 44

Chapter 3 Columbus and the Republican Empire of the United States 66

Chapter 4 Colombia: Discourses of Empire in Spanish America 106

Conclusion: The Meaning of Empire in Nationalist Discourses of the United States and Spanish America 145

Notes 153

Works Cited 179

Index 195

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