The admirable admiral

Back when Jules Verne published Around the World in 80 Days, that time frame was considered speedy. Today, news stories can circumvent the globe via the Internet in a matter of minutes.

Such a maelstrom swept the worldwide Web last week when an October 5 email from a Somerville, Mass., principal to her staff regarding Columbus Day went viral.

In the bare space of a paragraph, principal Anne Foley managed to combine arrogance, condescension, inaccuracy and historical revisionism, all with impressive skill:

“When we were young we might have been able to claim ignorance of the atrocities that Christopher Columbus committed against the indigenous peoples of the ‘new’ world,” she wrote.

“We can no longer do so. For many of us and our students celebrating this particular person is an insult and a slight to the people he annihilated.”

It took a couple of weeks and a national backlash for Foley to find the words of a half-hearted apology (she said she was sorry if her words offended anyone). Claiming she would have used “less inflammatory” language if her email had been intended for a public audience, Foley did not apologize for her arrogant attitude or her own professional negligence in failing to pursue even a modest scholarly study of Columbus’ voyages and experiences before slandering him.

All in all, the episode creates a good “setting-straight” opportunity for the record on Christopher Columbus, who may well be — and this is a remarkable irony — the most mistakenly maligned figure in American history.

The “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” was in fact a very admirable man by almost every standard to which we generally attribute virtue.

He was deeply religious, studious, industrious, persevering and courageous. He spoke four languages, was a supreme navigator and stood up for his beliefs when others derided him.He suffered rejections and failures but stayed true to his ambitions.

His accomplishments were and are the stuff of legends. He completed four voyages in 11 years to the islands he mistook for the East Indies, dealing along the way with mutiny on the sea, rebellion in the colonies, massacres by Spaniards and Indians alike, while also surviving a hurricane and being marooned for a year on Jamaica.

Back-pedaling in apology, Foley said she was only trying to “spark discussion” with her teaching staff.

However, her email’s wording snuffed more dialogue than it kindled. I’m no education administrator, but a more productive discourse-starter might have sounded like this:

“When we were young, many of us learned simplistic lessons about history and about Christopher Columbus. Through the centuries, and with the closing of gaps on international perspectives, there are now more views of Columbus than as the traditional discoverer of the ‘new world.’ Try to engage your students along these lines.”

Instead, Foley shut the door on dissenting opinions with her one dimensional summation, essentially saying that Columbus was a mass murderer, period. Ignorance of that fact in youth might have been an excuse, but disagree with her now at your peril.

When asked about exactly which “atrocities” she was referring to, Foley dodged — and wisely so. There is ample evidence of Spanish atrocities against the natives they encountered, but they were typically carried out in defiance of Columbus’ orders to do no harm to the friendly Indians.

Indeed, the very skills that made him an extraordinary explorer weakened Columbus as a colonizer. The truths of the stars and seas are bedrock. The administration of a colony populated with greedy malcontents, amidst a primitive and unknown people, was in contrast a pool of quicksand.

In his very first visits after first landfall, Columbus noticed that the Indians bore scars on their skin.

“When I made signs to them to find out how this happened,” he wrote in his journal, “they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can.”

Columbus experienced the full spectrum of behavior from the island tribes, who had historically killed and enslaved each other. Foley and other revisionists conveniently omit incidents like the Indian massacre of colonists left at Navidad in 1493, or of the grisly slaughter of the entire company of an envoy boat from the caravel La Capitana, including Captain Diego Tristan, during Columbus’ fourth and final voyage.

Granted, Indian violence was often in response to bad Spanish behavior. But savagery was evident on both sides; had the Indians possessed the war-making technology of the Europeans, there is scarce evidence they would have restrained themselves any more mercifully.

The Somerville mayor was closest to the core of the matter when he called history “messy.” Columbus himself acknowledged as much in 1503, when he wrote to the sovereigns who had commissioned his trips:

“Let those who are fond of blaming and finding fault, while they sit safely at home, ask: ‘Why did you not do thus and so?’ I wish they were on this voyage.”

The answer to understanding history better is always the same: broader knowledge. It’s never narrow minded agenda-driven declarations by email. Professional educators, of all people, should know that.


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