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As I mentioned in my last post, the traditional Columbus narrative that most Americans learn focuses almost entirely on his first voyage to the New World and the supposed obstacles leading up to that voyage. But 1492: The Conquest of Paradise (1992, dir. Ridley Scott) covers that material in only about 40 minutes or so. The remaining two thirds of the film are devoted to what came after Columbus arrived on the Bahamian island (probably) now known as San Salvador. The fact that Scott devoted a majority of the film to what came after the discovery of the New World is definitely to his credit; this is a portion of Columbus’ story that is largely unknown to the average American. Unfortunately, what is less to Scott’s credit is the systematic effort the film makes to exonerate Columbus from some of the things he did after he discovered San Salvador.

(And to be clear, Columbus discovered the “New World” the same way hipsters discover new bands. It’s new to them, but that doesn’t mean that no one else knew about it before them. They just want to pretend that.)

In an unintentionally accurate metaphor, Columbus is apparently going to stab the surf.

In an unintentionally accurate metaphor, Columbus is apparently going to stab the surf.

The film depicts Columbus (Gerard Depardieu) as experiencing a deep sense of wonder about the lush jungle environment of San Salvador. In a voice-over narration by Columbus, he says that he has found a new Eden, a theme the film reinforces with shots of snakes (one of whom kills a crew member, in a foreshadowing that this Eden is not all smiles and fluffy bunnies). Throughout the rest of the film, Columbus is shown as idealistically longing for this promised land, envisioning Spaniards and native peoples living together harmoniously. He wants to convert them to Christianity, but he wants to achieve this peacefully.

They discover the native Arawak people and build a tentative relationship with them. Columbus expresses interest in the gold artifacts they possess, and the Arawak chieftain gives him some. Parts of the film are here drawing directly off of Columbus’ journal, but what the film leaves out here is that Columbus took a number of Arawaks captive and tried to force them to show him where the gold came from. He leaves 39 men behind to build a fort and then returns to Spain with gold, parrots, and native men (which the film again conveniently forgets to explain were his prisoners). The film also falsely represents him as introducing tobacco to the Spanish court.

The Second Voyage of Gerard Depardieu

The film then collapses Columbus’ second and third voyage into one long sequence. He prepares a second expedition, but it is clear that his rise to prominence is resented by the Spanish nobility, who emerge as the bad guys of the second half of the film, especially Adrian de Moxica (Michael Winscott), a surly trouble-making noble whose hair and make-up are styled to make him look creepy. Over the course of the film Moxica emerges as the real snake in Eden. He repeatedly wants to kill natives and has to be talked down by Columbus, who just wants peace. It is implied that he helps one of his men rape a native woman. He resents Columbus’ demands that he engage in physical labor. When the natives begin bringing gold dust to the settlement, he chops the hand off a man who hasn’t found any. Columbus arrests him for this, but then a local tribe stages an ambush and Columbus has to take men to suppress it. While he is gone, Moxica is released from prison, burns Columbus’ house and leads a rebellion. When Columbus finally defeats and corners him, Moxica jumps off a cliff rather than surrender.

With a face like that, you know Moxica eats babies for breakfast

With a face like that, you know Moxica eats babies for breakfast

The minor problem in this narrative is that Moxica was not the leader of the rebellion; he was only a participant in Francisco Roldán’s rebellion. He was captured and hanged, while Roldán successfully negotiated with Columbus for peace. It’s possible to reconcile much of the film’s version of events with the actual events, but Moxica’s role in the whole matter is exaggerated.

The bigger problem is that Scott is leaving out the fact that Columbus himself was guilty of most of the things the film shows Moxica doing. When Columbus arrived back on San Salvador, he discovered the Taino people had destroyed the fort and killed the men who had stayed behind. In retaliation, Columbus forced the Taino to provide gold dust on a regular basis and cut the hands off those who failed to deliver the tribute. He began enslaving native peoples and may have participated in the rape of at least one of them. He resisted the conversion of the native peoples because it was illegal under Spanish law to enslave Christians. In other words, Columbus showed comparatively little interest in peacefully co-existing with the natives and instead violently exploited and enslaved them.

The subtitle “The Conquest of Paradise” is clearly meant to convey Ridley Scott’s sense that the Spanish mistreated the Carib peoples. The opening credits play over wood-block scenes of Spaniards massacring natives. Depardieu’s Columbus wants to treat them well, while the Spaniards around him want to abuse and exploit them. It’s laudable that Scott wanted to present this side of the story to an American population that is still today largely unaware of these issues, but his insistence on treating Columbus as the hero of the story prevents him from admitting that Columbus was in fact the driving force behind much of this ‘Conquest of Paradise’. So once again, the film’s insistence on a heroic Columbus turns the facts upside down. The hero is shown opposing the evils he himself enacted.

Columbus making some new friends

Columbus making some new friends

Nor does the film want to admit that Columbus and his brothers were largely incompetent governors. The film depicts Moxica rebelling because Columbus is preventing him from abusing the natives, because he resents a commoner having authority over him, and because he is unhappy that he is being forced to labor like a commoner. One colonist accuses him of treating the natives better than the Spaniards. So Columbus’ problem is that he’s too good to the natives. Here the typical American film’s prejudice against aristocrats comes through. Moxica is a noble and therefore a bad guy, while Columbus is a commoner and therefore a good guy. Never mind the fact that Columbus had been ennobled by the Spanish government; Columbus remembers his roots.

The film shows natives being sent to Spain as slaves, as a punishment for their rebellion, but never explains who took the decision to impose this punishment, even though it obviously has to be Columbus, since he’s the guy in charge. Then a (fictitious) hurricane strikes San Salvador, badly damaging everything. This provides the opening his opponents need, and they orchestrate his recall to Spain and the loss of his office and much of his property, with the film suggesting that he was left quite poor.

In reality, Columbus made numerous mistakes as governor. He sent Isabella 500 slaves, which angered her, because she objected to the enslavement of Spanish subjects, so she sent them back with a stern rebuke. The colony struggled not because of a hurricane but because of Columbus’ poor decisions. What drove Roldán’s rebellion was apparently a sense that Columbus and his brothers were mismanaging the colony, because the Spaniards wanted the right to exploit the natives for their own profit instead of just for Columbus’ profit. Ultimately, Columbus capitulated and signed a deal with Roldán that established the encomienda system that permitted the virtual enslavement of natives.

Columbus recognized that he was losing control of the situation and asked the Spanish Crown for assistance. Instead, Isabella sent Francisco de Bobadilla to conduct an investigation. Ultimately Bobadilla removed Columbus from office, sent him back to Spain as a prisoner, and assumed the governorship for two years until he was replaced.

In 2006, a scholar in Spain discovered Bobadilla’s report about the accusations against Columbus. The report, which names 23 witnesses, including both supporters and opponents of Columbus, describes him as a tyrant who sought to maintain his authority through violence and intimidation. It claims that Columbus regularly employed torture, mutilation, and slavery as punishment to keep control of the colony. He punished a native rebellion by dismembering the rebels and parading their body parts around. We must be cautious about simply trusting Bobadilla’s report; since he took over Columbus’ office, we can see a motive for exaggerating Columbus’ misdeeds.

But other sources confirm the general picture of the report. One Spanish priest, Bartolemé de las Casas, claimed that between 3 and 4 million native people died under Columbus’ rule. This may well be an exaggeration; an incomplete census taken by Columbus’ brother found 1.13 million people on Hispaniola, but if even a tenth of de las Casas’ figure is accurate, it’s still pretty horrible. By 1540, the Taino people had become extinct; in 1514, the native population of Hispaniola had been reduced to around 22,000. In 1542, de las Casas’ report about the Spanish treatment of the natives shocked Charles V into abolishing the encomienda system, although the system that replaced it wasn’t much better.

However, in fairness to Columbus, not all of the death toll was intentional; the natives were particularly vulnerable to Old World diseases that had inadvertently been brought along. Claims that Columbus presided over a virtual holocaust of natives are a conflation of his actual misdeeds with a death toll from disease that Columbus could not have anticipated or prevented.

Bobadilla’s report wasn’t rediscovered until more than a decade after 1492 was released, so Scott couldn’t have included these specific charges, but much of Columbus’ brutality against the natives and the charges of mismanagement were well known to scholars when he made the film. So while Scott wants to be honest with the audience about how poorly the Spanish treated the native peoples, he is also engaging in misdirection, trying to shift the blame for Columbus’ actions onto Moxica. He’s trying to eat his cake and have it too, and the result is a film that obscures the past as much as it reveals it.

A Few Other Things

Two other elements of the high school textbook narrative need to be briefly addressed. The first is that Columbus never realized what he had found. In the film, when he is removed from office (which happened in 1500), Bobadilla tells him that Amerigo Vespucci has discovered the mainland just beyond the Caribbean Islands. There is some uncertainty about how many voyages Vespucci made (at least one, and possibly two fabricated letters supposedly by Vespucci have muddied the waters), but he definitely sailed along the Brazilian coastline in 1501 and may have made a voyage in 1499. So the film suggests that it was Vespucci who finally located South America.

Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci

However, in 1498, at least one year before Vespucci, Columbus found the mouth of the Orinoco river and correctly recognized that he had to have found a continent and not just another island. In 1502, during his fourth and last voyage, he found Honduras and Panama, and was told by the natives of another ocean. Thus he probably figured out that he had not found China or India, although we cannot be certain.

Also, the film implies that Columbus died poor. When he returns to Seville after being released from a Spanish prison, he is reunited with his mistress Beatriz (whom the film allows us to think is actually his wife) and she tells him that “they” took everything from their house. It’s true that the Spanish Crown stripped him of most of his titles and refused to pay him the 10% of all profits from the colonies as they had earlier agreed to do, but he was not left penniless. He died in relative comfort and his son was eventually able to reclaim some of the rights that had been granted to him. His descendants today still hold his title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, as an epilogue text to 1492 tells us.

Want To Know More?

1492: Conquest of Paradiseis available on Amazon.

Columbus’ writings are available from Penguin as The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus (Classics)

Marvin Lunenfeld’s 1492: Discovery, Invasion, Encounter: Sources and Interpretations (Sources in Modern History Series)would be a good place to start learning about the impact of Columbus on the ‘new world’ he found. Another good book is William D. and Carla Rahn Philip’s The Worlds of Christopher Columbus.