36. Distant Mirrors

I did a live-talk I did today about Columbus.

Been doing those for over 3 years now, about Joan of Arc, queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, CC and an Inca princess. Fascinating historical persons. Distant mirrors.

Also good to get out and earn money, even if it is just a couple of hours, entertaining some sleepy pensioners. But I feel they were moved a bit.

I hope so.

The story of how I found the story about Columbus – my story – I have told that one before, on another blog. But it’s worth telling again:

In my last two talks – about Joan of Arc and Eleanor of Aquitaine respectively – I’ve struggled to find a compromise between

– the short time available
– keeping an exciting straightforward narrative free of too much ambiguity
– and still giving a balanced picture of who these persons really were …

(As far as we can ever know – both ladies lived a very long time ago!)

Anyway, did I give myself a challenge with Christopher Columbus!

Up until about World War II that man was a hero to many, regular folks and scholars – but as we closed in on the end of the last millennium he has become quite the opposite to many:

Accused of everything from starting slavery, to genocide to being a religious nut to just being a plain idiot for not being able to find India. Or “the Indies”, if you will.

Bottom line: It’s very easy to fall into either the ‘no, he was really a hero-story or the ‘he was definitely a villain’-story.

I don’t want to see Columbus as a ‘villain’, but he was hardly a ‘hero’ either – in modern terms.

He was a man of his time who thought slavery and subjugation of ‘lesser (non-Christian) peoples’ was all right – at least to a degree.

Oh, Columbus tried to fiddle a little bit with the criteria, such as at one point entertaining the notion that only cannibals should be enslaved.

In the end, though, Columbus’ inner urge to become rich and famous – a ‘someone’ – coupled with his need to placate the local colonists and deliver on the promises made to the Spanish crown for bringing SOME value home from the new islands …

… all of that made it extremely difficult to maintain any ideals, he may have had about treating at least some Indians with his own 15th-century idea of benevolence.

And then heads rolled.

In the end, it was almost Columbus’ own when he was ‘fired’ as administrator of Hispaniola and sent home in chains.

I thought I could try to draw attention away from Columbus’ violent actions by :

– talking about how much worse every other colonist had been …

– talking down the extent of the violence …

– or trying to divert the discussion to his religiousness and avowed goal to get gold enough to finance a new crusade (a motivation both dubious in its ‘purity’ and not particularly sympathetic in our part of the world today anyway)

But then I thought … why not just admit it?

Like …

Yes, Columbus wasn’t as bad as they came in 1492, but compared to 2015 he wasn’t particularly likable either!

I hesitated, though …

… for how could I then make an audience of children with their parents – and later seniors – see something likable about Columbus?

So they would want to listen to a story about him for 2 hours?

So (deep breath) …

I decided to try and talk about one thing I knew was an honest way to try to connect this serious, less-than-likable semi-Medieval man with people today:

I talked about Columbus’ quest to get rich and famous.

Sure, the means were different and perhaps also the definition of ‘rich and famous’ – but isn’t that drive to get rich and famous – ‘to be someone’ – still something we can very much recognize today?

Something very human?

Something we may not particularly like – but which we can at least recognize enough from our own lives?

Enough to feel a little more connected to this foreign and 5 centuries-distant man?

So far – and judging from the response of my audiences – the answer is ‘yes’.

Perhaps it’s because this drive – to be someone – (and Columbus suffered from it more than anyone else) – is not good or evil in itself.

It can get warped if you equate it with fame or money. But in and of itself the drive is just … human.

Us … at all times.