A funny thing happened on the way to the quincentennial observation of America’s “discovery.” Columbus got mugged. This time the Indians were waiting for him. He comes now with an apologetic air—but not, for some, sufficiently apologetic. There are plans to blockade harbors when replicas of his caravels arrive in 1992. Statues of the man have become the sites for demonstrations. He comes to be dishonored.

This is a far cry from the Columbian Exposition of 1893—all those white buildings on Lake Michigan, defying the Mauve Decade with their classicism. Columbus was still moving westward in triumph then—on his way to the Philippines. He was at last reaching his original goal, the Orient. It was in his spirit that the French took over Laos in 1893.

When was the last time Americans could rally in an undivided way around Columbus? It was probably in January of 1961, when right and left could still shiver together at the call: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” So we took up the French cause in Indochina.

Yet it would be wrong to think of the new cynicism about Columbus as a “post-Vietnam” attitude. That casts the matter in too narrowly American terms. The point of Vietnam is that our nation intruded in the last act of the anticolonial drama without knowing what the play was all about. Chasing Communists, we ran into a shuddering great structure that had collapsed everywhere else. We arrived just in time to have the last standing section of the complex fall on our heads.

We still do not understand what hit us—which explains the naive assumptions with which the Reagan administration began the planning for the quincentennial. This is the first major Columbus observance since the collapse of European imperialism. Distracted by the cold war, Americans ignored the major historical development of our time—the reworking of a quarter of the globe’s maps, the emergence of over a hundred new nations, the rearrangement of the lives of a majority of the inhabitants of the earth. These are peoples who did not discover but were discovered; who were conquered, and colonized, and—the conquerors still believe—civilized. These people see the civilizers in a different way, all those Prosperos with their magic books and convenient religion and wonderful profits. What is happening to Columbus, at the moment, is Caliban’s revenge.

The point of this postcolonial world is not simply that what Henry Kissinger referred to as “the so-called third world” slipped away from Europe’s direct political control. The new nations did not stop at remaking their own maps. They have changed the meanings of all the words that were used to control them. They are remaking the maps of the cosmos carried in Western heads. Even the man appointed by Reagan to head the quincentennial commission is learning, belatedly, not to use the word “discover” when talking about Columbus’s intrusion into Caribbean cultures. When I interviewed John Goudie in his Florida real estate office, he spoke of the time when “Columbus discov—uh, came upon, the islands.” (Though he later spoke of the “Age of Discovery” in the same interview.)

There is a tense little dance going on over the very terms in which to speak of the “coming-upon.” “Celebrate” is the wrong word now. The Columbian “encounter” is one way to avoid fighting words.1 The commission finally decided to call its observance the Quincentenary Jubilee. “Russell Means complained about the word jubilee,” says Goudie, “but I told him it is the Jewish word for a time of remembrance when one can redress wrongs.” (Whew—close call.)

This uneasiness about what to call the what-do-you-call-it is a symptom of the profound reconceptualization going on. Caliban does not merely slip free of the influence of Prospero’s magic books. He rewrites those books as Prospero clings to them—in fact, makes Prospero rewrite them for him. The slave is not truly free until he can destroy the supposed right to enslave him in the first place.

Decolonization of the mind can be conveniently traced in the way a Western symbol like Prospero was captured and turned against its source. In the 1950s and 1960s, third world intellectuals worked out their own position in a heated dialogue over the meaning, for them, of Caliban. In 1950 the radical French historian Octave Mannoni argued that the colonizer had created a neurotic sense of inferiority in the colonized—he called it the Prospero Complex. Frantz Fanon denied the existence of such a neurosis, as a distraction from the real and physical oppression exerted by Prospero. But the Barbadian writer George Lamming argued that Caliban must not only escape Prospero but break his scepter—the hold he had over Caliban’s mind. In 1962, Philip Mason shifted the emphasis from the relation of Caliban with Prospero and considered the two forms of anticolonialism manifested by Ariel and Caliban. Thus, in 1969, when Aimé Césaire rewrote Shakespeare’s play as Une tempête, Ariel became a mulatto “house slave” and Caliban a black “field slave.”2


By this point, the third world debate had affected the first world’s way of thinking about its own artifact. In 1970 Jonathan Miller directed Shakespeare’s play for the Mermaid Theater with Mannoni’s view in mind, and since that time “some emphasis on colonialism is now expected.”3 It is customary, for instance, to use black actors for both Ariel and Caliban, as Miller did, and sometimes to make Ariel a mulatto, as in Césaire’s play. Shakespeare has been “reverse-colonized” by the Calibans of contemporary culture.

Americans played a (typically unsuspecting) part in this process. Miller was influenced not only by Mannoni’s book when he directed his 1970 production, but by the work he had done in 1964 with Robert Lowell’s play The Old Glory (at the American Place Theater). “Miller’s decision to treat the play in terms of colonialism was influenced by his own reading of accounts of the Elizabethan voyages of exploration and a production of Lowell’s The Old Glory, with its long account of Puritan sailors making Indians drunk.”4 This interpretation was linked, in Miller’s mind, with the Vietnam experience—so much so that when Miller took the third play of Lowell’s trilogy to London, it was criticized as a straight allegory of the war in Vietnam.5 America had arrived late in the anti-imperial struggle, but in time to share its guilt. In fact, we had been more deeply implicated in colonialism than our official history ever admitted. When Fidel Castro came to power, the brothers Kennedy treated that as an invasion of “our” world by international communism. But a Cuban like Roberto Fernández Retamar saw it as a revolt of Caliban against the American Prospero. His influential essay “Caliban: Notes Toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America” (1971) cast Batista as the Ariel to America’s Prospero and Fidel as Caliban.6

The decolonization of the mind that took place during the 1950s and 1960s in the third world was followed, then, by a decolonization of the European mind, the colonizing mind, in the 1970s and 1980s—a process reflected in the explosion of critical essays on Caliban written by Europeans and North Americans.7

The Tempest has been subject to these doubts, subversions, and reversals not only because its subject is colonization. The play would have been put on the defensive anyway—as all of its author’s have been—because it is an authoritative Western text, part of the literary canon, a classic. The issues that ramify out from the revolt against European imperialism are everywhere evident around us—in the feminist and minority questioning of “dead white males” as the arbiters of our culture. The battles over a standard or core curriculum are simply this same war fought on slightly different grounds. So is the political struggle over one official language for the United States—a struggle in which one hears quoted over and over Caliban’s accusation:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

Columbus does not stumble into this tangle of disputes by accident. He, unlike Prospero, is a real figure in history. He did not discover the Americas, but he is the first European that we know of to enslave any of its inhabitants, and he initiated that course of Spanish conquest that would be responsible for what Tzvetan Todorov calls “the greatest genocide in history”—the destruction of perhaps 70 million human lives.9 Indeed, much of the recent talk about Prospero was really aimed at Columbus, as one can see in Césaire’s A Tempest, where the books that Caliban fears are explorers’ charts rather than magic texts, and “Prospero” fights clerics on issues of geography rather than his Milanese brother on the matter of succession (Act I, Scene 2).

Columbus has not only been a figure of exploitation in the past, but a useful symbol of cultural imperialism ever since—a point brilliantly made in Alejo Carpentier’s 1979 novel, El Arpa y la Sombra. Carpentier begins and ends his book with the effort of Pope Pius IX to canonize Columbus as a means of spiritual domination of the Americas. 10 When he was a young Vatican diplomat, Pius had gone on a mission to Chile, which Carpentier re-creates in his opening pages with vivid scenes of cultural estrangement that the Italian cleric hopes to overcome by a spiritual reconquest.


The body of the novel is a flashback from Columbus’s own deathbed. About to make his final confession, Columbus tries to penetrate all the deceptions and self-deceptions of his life—the masking of greed in piety, the luck he turns to Providence, his affair with Isabella seen as a betrayal of his true love. But his brain and will fail him when the confessor arrives. He cannot breathe, even under the seal of confession, his own doubts, and final defeat:

Christophoros—a Christophoros who did not quote even a single verse of the Gospels [as opposed to Jewish prophecies and apocrypha] in writing his letters and journals—was, in reality, the Prince of Calamities, Prince of Blood, Prince of Tears, Prince of Plagues—one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In the final part of the novel, the historical wraith of Columbus—having left behind him the wavering moment on his deathbed—haunts the canonization hearings in Rome, shouting unheard at his accusers, discussing his past with other specters hovering at the scene. He loses his case for canonization for one wrong reason (his mistress, his one love, not his manipulation of the queen) and for one good reason (that he enslaved human beings). He fades unvindicated with this admission: “I had rent the veil of the unknown and entered a new reality that surpassed my understanding, for there are discoveries so momentous—though possible—that by their very immensity they annihilate any mortal who dares to enter them.”

The Argentinian novelist Abel Posse wrote his 1987 novel Perros del paraíso in explicit dialogue with Carpentier’s (and with many other works). When Columbus fizzes with sexual ecstasy in the presence of Queen Isabella, Posse stops to tell the reader:

Seeing the queen, in person, his flesh shrank, and he was incapable of rising to action. (That is why the great Alejo Carpentier errs when he describes a complete and uninhibited sexual union between the navigator and the sovereign. Carpentier is led to this forgivable error by an admirable proclivity for the democratic. But the scene he depicts is absolutely unrealistic. The plebe, physically, was totally intimidated. His metaphysical daring, in contrast, was absolute, hence his ability to achieve the liberation of panorgasm.)

“Metaphysical daring” is the mark of Posse’s Columbus, who is mystically called by the sea in his youth. The tone is that of comic epic, surreal and verging on the slapstick:

Only a man who knows that the earth is flat—even though the world is round—has the courage to sail toward the Indies! Once it had been tailors who persecuted him; now it was the Holy Brotherhood….

He knew the frustration of the scientist who faces the impenetrable wall of ignorance.

Posse wittily inverts, here, the myth that Columbus had to contend with clerics who believed the world is flat—a myth popularized in Washington Irving’s immensely successful Columbus biography of 1828. In fact, both Columbus and his opponents knew the globe is round; but Columbus thought it was much smaller than his better-informed critics did. It was he who adduced scripture and theology to buttress his weak geography. In effect, he prevailed because of his superstitions—or, as Posse puts it, he was the flat-earther.

Posse does not see Columbus as an entire stranger to the world he intrudes upon. Called there by a metaphysical uneasiness in his own sphere, he is a kind of wandering Jew—Posse adopts the claim popularized by Salvador Madariaga for Columbus’s Jewish antecedents—who wants to escape the “disease of doing” and achieve a rest in simple being:

Unconsciously, whether as self-punishment or self-acclaim, he had been transformed into the first complete South American. Although he had not been born of carnal union between races, he was the first mestizo. A mestizo without an umbilicus. Like Adam.

Though these novelists use the license of fiction in matters like Columbus’s relations with Isabella and his access to secret maps, they present a figure as challenging and complex as their historical model. Columbus was more a mystic than the shrewd Yankee navigator Samuel Eliot Morison made of him. A believer in eschatological prophecies, he thought his discoveries would bring on the end time already initiated by the defeat of the Moors and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Gold from his “New World” would arm an expedition to retake the Holy Land, completing history. As Todorov argues, “There is nothing of the modern empiricist about Columbus…. Paradoxically, it will be a feature of Columbus’s medieval mentality that leads him to discover America and inaugurate the modern era.”11

For Kirkpatrick Sale, Columbus is less a mystic than a madman, driven only by his craziness and cruelty. If we wonder how he could have accomplished what he did, the answer is that he was borne on by a Europe just as crazy, but equipped with technological powers as irresistible as they are mindless.

Sale’s book has a comic-epic audacity of its own. He is on to something when he makes Columbus the deadest whitest male now offered for our detestation. If any historical figure can appropriately be loaded up with all the heresies of our time—Eurocentrism, phallocentrism, imperialism, elitism, and all-bad-things-generally-ism—Columbus is the man. But in pursuit of this dead-male white whale, Sale has developed fixations of an Ahab dimension. It is not enough to say that Columbus initiated genocide for Tainos and Aztecs and Incas; he infected the entire world. He stands guilty of lèse-nature. He raped the globe. He brought to the idyllic world outside Europe’s dread itch for control “an ancient phobia against the forces of nature and the earth goddesses.” He had an “ecohybris” to which we can trace all the disturbances of our time. Like all Europeans, he hated forests and mountains.12 He is the best example of European man’s “obsessive will to try ‘subduing nature.”‘

This description of Europe, though given new vehemence by recent developments, is oddly familiar. Though Sale ranges far and wide in his hunt for ammunition in this take-no-prisoners assault on the imprisoning of the earth by Europe, he neglects the author he most resembles. It was Spengler, after all, who called European culture Faustian, and used Columbus as a symbol of its desire to reduce even space to a function of the will, of our “spiritual will-to-power.” 13

The bent of the Faustian Culture, therefore, was overpoweringly towards extension, political, economic or spiritual. It overrode all geographical-material bounds. It sought—without any practical object, merely for the Symbol’s own sake—to reach the North Pole and South Pole.14

In short, it raped the globe.

The Faustian culture has an “adamantine will to overcome and break all resistances of the visible.”15 And Spengler, like Sale, connects this desire for control to the norms and methods of modern capitalism—to reductive accounting procedures and the substitution of money for value.16

There is a striking resemblance between Spengler’s “Magian culture” and the animistic world of earth-goddesses Sale finds in the pre-Columbian Americas. The Magian culture is healing, uniting, and at rest, as opposed to the driving and dividing restlessness of Faustian man. It incloses and includes as in a womb-cavern. “The Magian man, with his spiritual kind of being, is only a part of a pneumatic ‘We’ that, descending from above, is at one and the same in all believers.”17 So, in Sale’s rosy reconstruction of Native Americans’ “pre-contact” life, people coaxed food from a cooperating nature, rather than compelling it from a resisting soil. They tickled crops from the earth with a planting stick rather than wounding their mother with the trenches of a plow. This loving treatment was actually more efficient since

they had learned [how? by wounding experiments on their own?] that opening up and turning over whole fields would only decrease nutrients and increase erosion, or because their thought-world would not have allowed such disregardful violence.

When (rarely) the precontact natives had to kill something, they did it with nonpolluting bow and arrow, “far easier, faster, and safer than the musket.” Their healthy regime and holistic medicine preserved themselves as well as the environment—so successfully that

There is only one way to live in America, and there can be only one way, and that is as Americans—the original Americans—for that is what the earth of America demands. We have tried for five centuries to resist that simple truth….

Spengler’s views are treated with a merited disdain these days. His mental schemata fit imperfectly if at all the cultures he tried to force them down on; but at least he knew that historical cultures have limits, and did not think one could be called up again at will, to replace its own replacement. Nor did he judge all other cultures by the standard of any one of the four he invented. Sale is as guilty of “precontactism” as are his enemies of Eurocentrism—with the additional disadvantage that his precontact culture is so heavily the product of wishful thinking.

Sale’s book is regrettable because it may tempt some to see in the coming controversies over Columbus a mere hatred for “the West,” a kind of catch-all leftist grumbling. But there are grave doubts and fears to be entertained when we call to mind what Columbus has meant for our past. It is not a simplistic, or even a left-wing, reaction to take these matters seriously. In fact, one of the great questioners of Columbus’s value to his descendants was that pious Tory Samuel Johnson. Sale mentions other critics of Columbus, but neglects the sustained polemic of Dr. Johnson against the European conquest of the Americas.

One would expect an ardent Christian like Johnson to praise the taking of the gospel to a new part of the globe. But he sees the conquest more as opportunities for Christians to sin against their own religion than to share it with others. Writing in 1759 of the explorers encouraged by King Henry the Navigator, he said:

Much knowledge has been acquired, and much cruelty been committed; the belief of religion has been very little propagated, and its laws have been outrageously and enormously violated. The Europeans have scarcely visited any coast but to gratify avarice, and extend corruption; to arrogate dominion without right, and practise cruelty without incentive. Happy had it then been for the oppressed if the designs of Henry had slept in his bosom, and surely more happy for the oppressors.18

In just this way Saint Augustine, after noting the blessings of empire (principally the communication encouraged between different peoples), says they are not worth the sins involved in expansion by conquest—“not when provided by the slaughter of human beings, the effusion of their blood.”19

Johnson wrote about Henry the Navigator during his country’s war with the French and Indians for their North American colony. He ridiculed England’s “right” to the country taken from its original inhabitants. He called his nation’s presence there a usurpation, “the dispossession of the natural lords and original inhabitants,” more despicable when it made pretense of treaties:

And indeed what but false hope, or resistless terror can prevail upon a weaker nation to invite a stronger into their country, to give their lands to strangers whom no affinity of manners, or similitude of opinion can be said to recommend, to permit them to build towns from which the natives are excluded, to raise fortresses by which they are intimidated, to settle themselves with such strength, that they cannot afterwards be expelled, but are for ever to remain the masters of the original inhabitants, the dictators of their conduct, and the arbiters of their fate?…It cannot be said, that the Indians originally invited us to their coasts; we went uncalled and unexpected to nations who had no imagination that the earth contained any inhabitants so distant and so different from themselves. We astonished them with our ships…. To this influence, and to this only, are to be attributed all the cessions and submissions of the Indian princes, if indeed any such cessions were ever made, of which we have no witness but those who claim from them, and there is no great malignity in suspecting, that those who have robbed have also lied.20

Almost twenty years after writing that passage, Johnson connected the conquest of the Americas with its original conqueror, Columbus, who was

under the necessity of travelling from court to court, scorned and repulsed as a wild projector, an idle promiser of kingdoms in the clouds: nor has any part of the world yet had reason to rejoice that he found at last reception and employment.

In the same year [1498], in a year hitherto disastrous to mankind, by the Portuguese was discovered the passage of the Indies, and by the Spaniards the [mainland] coast of America.21

So the National Council of Churches is in good company when it officially deplores the sinful conquests by which Europe came to these shores. Whatever the wilder claims of people like Kirkpatrick Sale, it is hard to impeach the moral witness of Dr. Johnson. He was an anti-imperialist when the Empire was young and growing, when he had to strain very hard to find an ally:

I love the University of Salamanca; for when the Spaniards were in doubt as to the lawfulness of their conquering America, the University of Salamanca gave it as their opinion that it was unlawful.22

This Issue

November 22, 1990