Columbus and intellectual certainty

It’s widely known that Columbus made a lot of mistakes.  Not just moral mistakes, but practical ones.  He was not, for example, in the east Indies as he believed.  What I find myself interested in on the reading we did this week of Bartholomew de Las Casas’s description of Columbus’s third voyage is a not the explorer’s errors, but rather his (apparent) openness to multiple forms of information.  Las Casas revealed this aspect of Columbus’s perspective in a document that is, as it happens, also a painstaking reconstruction of “the Admiral’s” travels and an almost apologetic retelling of why Columbus “came to believe” he was in the “earthly paradise.”  Las Casas listed a variety of reasons for Columbus’s conclusions about the Garden of Eden: the temperate weather, the skin color of the people who lived there, his perception that “the sea was rising and the ships were being lifted up gently to heaven.”  There was superabundant fresh water.  In other words, accounts of natural phenomena compared against expectations.  But Las Casas also noted that Columbus’s conclusions (specifically that the western hemisphere was not round but pear-shaped) went “against all the common knowledge of astrologers and philosophers.”  One hears the doubt in Las Casas’s writing, and also in Columbus’s striving to understand what he found around him.  A lot of doubt, not a lot of certainty.

Inevitably, we asked what Columbus believed?  (About the earth, its creation, and the telling of that in the Bible)  What would it have meant for Columbus to have found evidence that might have verified or falsified whatever it was he believed?  These are the questions that a twenty-first century sensibility wants to know about Columbus and religion.  As historians, we’re left with the perennial dilemma of teaching the past: do we make this moment more or less familiar to the students?  Is the past foreign country or are all humans the same?  Do we emphasize that doubt and questioning are a part of the human condition?  Do we draw on intellectual history to point out that doubt itself has a history?  Or, do we note the parallel between our own endeavor in using the document and Columbus’s project?  That his uncertainty, his casting about for fractured pieces of information, is a pretty good description of the effort to read, through Las Casas-on-Columbus, anything about the native peoples he encountered.  We know the information is bad, but it’s what we’ve got.  One could go very meta here and point out we’re all just looking for verification of our truths.  Better, I think, to stay in the moment of the past.  Columbus drew on a lot of different intellectual resources at a moment of uncertainty.

Next week we try again to recover something of the historically-specific, intercultural history of early modern religion, this time with New England and Demos’s Unredeemed Captive.

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