The mixed legacy of 1492
By James Carroll October 11, 2010
IT IS commonly observed that 1492, in addition to being the year of Christopher Columbus, was also the year of the Jews — their expulsion from Spain by the same Ferdinand and Isabella who sponsored the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. But the overlap of events (actually, Columbus set sail in the very week of the banishment) has historic significance, for it was in Iberia that ancient Christian anti-Judaism had recently morphed into genetic anti-Semitism — the idea that Jews are contemptible not because of their religion, but because of their “blood impurity.’’ This notion of a group’s innate biological inferiority tragically gripped the European imagination just as the encounter with the New World occurred. It was a decisive factor in the creation of modern racism that determined so much of what came in the wake of Christopher Columbus. Contempt for Jews was practice for contempt for aboriginal peoples.
The racist myth of European superiority still shapes the story of the colonial conquest — starting with how the Caribs, Mayans, and Aztecs are remembered as never having had a chance against Spanish steel and gun powder. But it wasn’t technological genius that led to the dominance of the newcomers, nor was it their courageous soldiering, intellectual heritage, or moral superiority — much less the favor of God.
By far, the most decisive factor in the quick establishment of European control was the accident of disease. The immune systems of Western Hemisphere indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by pathogens that accompanied the Europeans, with the result that populations of so-called Amerindians were almost instantly decimated. The population of Mexico, to take one example, fell from 25 million in 1517, when Europeans first came there, to 1.5 million a century later. Guns were an advantage for sure, but viruses made the difference.
For reasons still unknown, the immune systems of the conquistadors knew no such vulnerability to unfamiliar pathogens encountered in the New World. If Spaniards had fallen sick instead of Mayans and Aztecs, the post-Columbus narrative would be very different. In fact, the real story of what the historian Alfred W. Crosby Jr. Dubbed “the Columbian exchange’’ is that, in the massive transfer of life forms — micro and macro — that took place between the hemispheres, Europeans lucked out in almost all ways. Stupendous benefits like the potato and corn went eastward across the ocean — uniquely fertile crops which provided crucial new sources of nutrition for a burgeoning European population. Indeed, as the economic historian David S. Landes observes, the soon-ubiquitous potato accelerated that burgeoning. In exchange, in addition to viruses, the native peoples of America received, to take another bitter example, horses, which served mainly as military machines in contests they lost. America received cattle and sheep, which — another bitterness — required the fencing of vast tracts of grazing land, the European introduction of ownership.
In the three centuries after Columbus, European population increased by between 300 and 400 per cent, while the indigenous population of the Western Hemisphere fell by about 90 per cent. Multiple factors account for this disparity (and historians like Landes, Jared Diamond, and Ian Morris propose various theories), but chief among them is surely the accident that Europeans were random beneficiaries of the east-west encounter. But for a fluke of biology at the very outset, it could have gone the other way. Racial superiority had nothing to do with the triumph of people who were suddenly thinking of themselves as white.
Yet assumptions of racial superiority still undergird the way stories of this past are told. Even as I have recounted the narrative here, one might note the absence of Africans — as if the Eastern Hemisphere was only Europe. But contemporaneous Iberian intrusions into Africa were decisive for the Columbian exchange, with the new European mindset spawned by anti-Semitic racism as lethal in adventures south as west. Well into the 19th century, the vast majority of transatlantic migrants (more than 80 percent up to 1820) came from Africa — labor to replace the disease-defeated Amerindians. Africa shaped the New World as much as Europe did.
Christopher Columbus represents the knot into which all these threads are tied. A past in which the threads were woven ultimately into lynching rope cannot be undone, but how it is remembered can and must be changed.