1492 and Multiculturalism - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

1492 and Multiculturalism

Despite its widespread currency, the term multiculturalism remains a murky concept. In theory, it suggests a substantive pluralism, a quintessentially modern American culture of cultures in which no voice predominates—save the voice that says no voice shall predominate. But in fact, as it is widely used on campuses and at other cultural venues, multiculturalism means promoting certain elements in the American mix—primarily black, Hispanic, feminist, and homosexual elements—while demoting what is thought of as a white male heterosexual monolith. Multiculturalism, properly understood, then, has little to do with culture or cultures, and quite a lot to do with special-interest politics.

There is perhaps no better confirmation of this analysis than some of the phenomena surrounding this year’s Columbus Quincentenary. One hundred years ago, in 1892, Columbus was celebrated as a modern man liberating himself from the theological inhibitions of Catholicism and the feudal restraints of Spain to help create Protestant and democratic America. This interpretation had gained prominence earlier in the century primarily through Washington Irving’s popular but skewed biography, which aimed at making Columbus into the embodiment of nineteenth-century American optimism and progress. This year, however, Columbus is being revised by many writers whose vested interest lies far from seeing him as a white progressive—that issue is long dead. Now he is the prototype of early white European capitalist oppression whose victims—blacks, Native Americans, women (communitarians and environmentalists all, of course)—are a veritable multicultural litany.

There is a profound historical distortion common to 1892 and 1992, however: the facile and myopic identification of Columbus with all white, more or less modern European males. Columbus may in fact have been Italian and late medieval, but for the multiculturalists, who for all their championing of other cultures care little for history and its complexities, that will do just as well as American and modern. Columbus was a European, and as one of the primary revisionists clarified for the record when accused of bias, “[My book] was written to indict not Columbus, the Spanish or the Roman Catholic nations, but the thoroughgoing evils of the culture of Europe as a whole, whose enthusiastic inheritors we Americans have been.”1

Yet the very focusing of attention on the events surrounding 1492 may cause some unintended consequences. Every school child today not only knows about Columbus, but has had drummed into his head revisionist theories about Columbus’s shadowy predecessors and the unsavory aspects of the European conquest of the Americas. By detracting from claims that Columbus was here first, and by adding to the record the negative sides of European conquest, progressive historians think they are putting things in their proper perspectives. But once we begin to look seriously into the historical record some other, unexpected discoveries may await us.

Take the situation in the Caribbean just prior to Columbus’s arrival. For much of the fifteenth century, the Taíno tribe that Columbus first encountered was being driven to the Northeast in the Caribbean Sea (out of what is now South America) because of raids by a fierce native tribe known as the Caribs. The Caribs were not only conquering territory: as one modern historian puts it, the Taínos, or Arawaks, were terrified of the Caribs because they were “then expanding across the Lesser Antilles and literally eating the Arawaks up.”2

The Taínos (Arawaks) were, by Columbus’s account, a gentle people, but they became even more hospitable when they learned that the Europeans abhorred cannibalism.3 Columbus and his men, they thought, would make vigorous allies in warding off the Caribs. Thus began a process often submerged by oversimplified contemporary readings of noble savages versus ignoble Europeans: the Indian use of Europeans for inter-Indian political and military purposes. One of the reasons that the 550 conquistadores who came ashore in Mexico with Cortés were able to conquer the Aztec Empire, for example, is that 20,000 Indians joined the Spanish in order to liberate themselves from Aztec control and tribute, including the obligation to send young men to the capital Tenochtitlán for sacrificing to the gods. The technical advantage to the Spanish of possessing clumsy rifles and a few horses against a million-person empire with a fierce warrior class pales in comparison to the support of native allies.

Opportunities for easy multicultural gains in other areas are likewise difficult to come by in studying 1492. In fact, some of them, such as the feminist agenda, do not get much of a boost at all. In modern multicultural alliances, women, gays, blacks, and Native Americans may align themselves against what they perceive as the dominant culture. But any attempt to show historical roots of these alliances soon trips over some rather large facts. Some relatively simple Indian tribes may have had societies in which women and men were roughly equal—in their differences. But if we turn to the pre-Columbian Caribbean again, we may also see some other elements in native cultures. The Caribs, according to mainstream scholarship, not only were cannibals but made it a habit to capture and make concubines of the women from the Arawak tribes. The women were segregated from the men to such an extent that they spoke two separate languages. Only the men spoke Carib; the women, even Carib women, spoke Arawak because of the large numbers of Arawak women captive among them.4

Furthermore, the Caribs were not an isolated instance of male domination in the New World. The modern Mexicans refer to Malinche, the Indian woman who served as Cortés’ interpreter, as “the Traitoress.” Yet her history, even by feminist standards, may give us pause. She was sold into slavery some years before the Spanish first made contact with the American mainland by a tribe allied with the Aztecs. When the Spanish arrived, she knew several Indian dialects and quickly mastered Castilian. It does not take a profound feminist hermeneutic to understand why this talented and independent woman may have felt less than full solidarity with the Aztec nobles when the conquistadores offered her a chance for liberation from their rule.

Among North American tribes, the generally simpler organization of the tribes did not allow large gaps to open up among “gender roles,” but the constant warfare among tribes and the natural division of labor between domestic tasks and hunter/warrior concerns would seem to offer little for the modern feminist agenda. Women often suffered torture and humiliations because of war, but rarely, if ever, had “combat roles” as these might be conceived in modern terms.

In any event, there can be little comfort for the feminist agenda in touting native peoples as a readily available antidote to an allegedly unique European patriarchy.

In similar fashion, an odd habit has developed of considering Native Americans as ecological models for a staggering industrialized America. The evidence for this is, to say the least, slender. Usually, all we are told as proof of this contention is that Indians believed it was necessary to ask a tree’s pardon before cutting it, or to ask an animal’s pardon before killing it. Among North American Indians, this did occur, but not quite because of identifiably environmentalist reasons. Gods and goddesses ruled over nature, were jealous of their dominions, and their acquiescence in the human taking of food or raw materials had to be gained. It might be an amusing sight if, following Indian customs, modern environmentalists prayed to a god or gods. But whatever good this might do for our secular and desacralized culture, we also have to recognize the widespread evidence that Indians often exhausted the resources of a certain area, then moved on. The difference between them and, say, a modern paper company was that they were few enough and land plentiful enough—that their actions led to no major, long-term disaster.

Higher native civilizations, however, fared far worse. The great Mayan city-states in Mesoamerica, for instance, abruptly collapsed about six hundred years before Columbus arrived in the Americas. Scholars are not sure exactly why, but the evidence seems to point to endemic warfare, deforestation, epidemics, and political turmoil.5 Similarly, about the time Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, the great Mound Builder culture of Southern Illinois simply dispersed itself, probably for similar reasons. It would not be unreasonable to speculate that the more primitive Native American tribes were ecologically benign from weakness, and the more advanced Native American civilizations showed pathologies as bad as, or worse than, those in other developed civilizations.

And these could be very bad indeed, Modern Westerners blithely invoke the idea of indigenous peoples as examples of a “harmony with nature.” Often, Christianity and Judaism are viewed as having inherited from the Bible a uniquely evil injunction to “subdue and dominate” the Earth.6 Other cultures, we are told, “live in harmony” with nature. But harmony is not an unequivocal term. The Algonquins, Iroquois, and other groups, for example, tortured and sacrificed to war gods captives from other tribes to maintain “harmony.”

But the most terrifying example of what the bare search for a natural harmony can mean, absent other considerations, occurred among the Aztecs. Like other Mesoamerican high cultures, the Aztecs thought the universe was created from the blood of the gods. Blood—human blood—was continually needed to prevent the original energy from getting out of kilter. Jacques Soustelle, an admiring but honest historian of Aztec ritual, describes the special sacrifices made to keep the heavens revolving:

The astronomer priest made a sign: a prisoner was stretched out on the stone. With a dull sound the flint knife opened his chest and in the gaping wound they spun the firestick, the tlequauitl. The miracle took place and the flame sprang up, born from this shattered breast; and amid shouts of joy messengers lit their torches at it and ran to carry the sacred fire to the four corners of the central valley. And so the world had escaped its end once more. But how heavy and blood-drenched a task it was for the priests and the warriors and the emperors, century after century to repel the unceasing onslaughts of the void.7

This too is harmony with nature, after a fashion. Even a multiculturalist may think, however, that there are limits to modern pluralism in the face of such practices.

Black slavery is perhaps the most serious moral failure in the entire history of the Americas, but instead of being content to explore that failure, some of the revisionists feel obliged to go further. They affirm Afrocentric perspectives that the historical data cannot support. The constant warfare among African tribes, for example, was no worse than other tribal feuds. But tribal cultures cannot be recommended as much of an alternative, even to our increasingly violent urban civilization. Afrocentric curricula are unlikely to report such facts or, for example, the extent of Islamic involvement in the subjugation of black Africans. Islam is often presented in the United States as a black African alternative to white European Christianity. But this is true only in a relatively recent historical sense. North Africa in Saint Augustine’s time was pagan and Christian, and had acquired its Christianity without the military imposition of the faith often decried by contemporary writers. Islam, by contrast, arrived later, as masses of zealous Moslem crusaders conquered North Africa and much of Spain. In other words, Islam was a colonizing force in Africa, about half a millennium earlier than medieval Christianity. This earlier Islamic conquest is lost to the multicultural vulgate, however, because it has no use in contemporary partisan politics.

In addition to this early conquest, however, as any good historian knows, late medieval Islamic countries were far more active in the African slave trade than were Europeans. The comparative size of its atrocities does not absolve Europe in the slightest, since European principles should have resulted in better institutional safeguards against such sins”8 Yet recalling the unsavory facts about all parties involved serves the purpose of reminding us of the common human nature we all share. Northern “ice peoples”9 were not more inhumane than the people coming from the sun and heat of the Middle East; nor, for that matter, were they any worse than African chiefs who themselves captured and sold members of other tribes to the European and Middle Eastern slave traders. Sin and savagery are equal opportunity employers in the true sense of the terms.

One of the greatest distortions of the European record occurs because many contemporary scholars find it hard to understand how anyone ever sincerely believed in Christianity. Columbus, for example, was hardly a saint, but in him, as we might observe today among American businessmen, the religious impulse coexisted along with a drive toward wealth and glory. These three elements—God, gold, glory—contradict one another at certain points, but reinforce one another as well. Late in life, Columbus sincerely believed that he had been called by God to become an instrument of universal evangelization. Furthermore, he believed that the wealth of the New World would make it possible for Europe to mount another crusade to recapture the Holy Land, leading to the end times. By some modern lights, this may not seem a wholly laudable aim, but to understand Columbus it is necessary to understand that religion was for him not simply a justification for his other ambitions, but a motive in its own right.10

In his own time, Columbus was hardly alone in this. We know that Isabella, unlike her Machiavellian11 husband Ferdinand, took religious and moral principles seriously in regulating activities in the New World. In fact, when natives started arriving in Spain to be sold into slavery the moral outcry, and concern for her own role in an immoral practice, impelled her to forbid the trade before a decade had passed since the first New World landfall. Moral reflection on the responsibilities of Christian rulers went on continually in Spain.

In 1550, Charles V did something no other emperor in history has done: he called a halt to military action in the New World until theological and moral questions could be settled. At the famous debates in Valladolid, Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar who defended the natives, and the theologian Juan Ginés de Sepulveda argued whether Indians were sufficiently rational to govern themselves. Sepulveda believed they were not, but even he justified Spanish paternalism only as an instrument for promoting the good of the native tribes. In practical terms, these efforts had little immediate effect. In addition, many modern commentators see in this only European arrogance and blindness, but the degree of detachment from self-righteousness these Spanish debates suppose should come as the true surprise. There is probably no comparable philosophical and theological sensitivity to alien rights in any other civilization, high or low, at the time, or for long after.

Facts such as these should return us all to a much higher appreciation for the culture of Europe, despite its many terrible misdeeds in the New World. But much of the historical record has so far gone unreported or been willfully misread. Multiculturalist accounts of these events constantly contradict themselves for ideological reasons. For example, first we are told that European “culture was not higher” than Native-American or African cultures, which had a richness and justification of their own. In a sense, of course, this is true because different cultures are not strictly comparable. But almost in the same set of arguments in favor of the indigenous Americas and Africa, European culture is usually denigrated because Medieval Islam and China were supposedly higher cultures than Europe. The National Gallery of Art’s exhibit “Circa 1492,” for example, strives in the best multicultural fashion to show the high artistic level of all parts of the globe around 1492. But, in an unexplained non-sequitur, it announces in its descriptive materials that Cathay and the other civilizations of eastern Asia were “among the world’s oldest, wealthiest, and most advanced.”

A similar process takes place when trade is discussed. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Europe had to seek new routes to the East. The Portuguese began to work their way down the African coast to find a direct water route; Columbus, sailing under the banner of Castile, proposed that a shorter route lay directly West. In either case, however, the revisionist historian looks upon this European desire for trade as a disreputable money lust, reflecting further Europe’s appreciation of the superiority of Eastern luxuries. Yet one of the very defenses of other civilizations, often by the same revisionists, are their extensive trade routes. North American tribes in the Great Lakes region, we are told, participated in trade networks extending to Central Mexico. The Incas are praised for the extensive road network they created to conduct the business of empire and of trade. The principle behind this double standard seems to be this: when Europeans sought to expand trade, it was out of greed, but indigenous peoples elsewhere developed trade because of their high degree of civilization.

One undeniable impulse behind the promotion of Indian culture under the aegis of redefining 1492 is a perceived lack of spirituality in modern life. Joseph Epes Brown, for example, describes the difference between our lives and those of Native Americans in which “religion:”

is not a separate category of activity or experience [but] is in complex interrelationships with all aspects of the peoples’ life-ways. Shared principles underlie sacred concepts that are specific to each of nature’s manifestations and also to what could be called sacred geography. In addition, a special understanding of language in which words constitute distinct units of sacred power. Sacred forms extend to architectural styles so that each dwelling . . . is an image of the cosmos. Mysticism, in its original and thus deepest sense, is an experiential reality within Native American spiritual traditions.

As is clear from this quotation, however, the interest in Native American spirituality actually reflects a Western sense of discontinuity with our own cultural background. The ideal describes something close to a Holy Roman Empire and its sacred art and architecture.

In fact, much of the current revisionist agenda, properly understood, comes dangerously close to endorsing the mainstream European culture that the multiculturalists abhor. When Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler were criticized for not including masterpieces from the East in their Great Books series, they argued that they had to draw a limit to the volumes somewhere. But then they pointed out that the works that many people suggested for inclusion (out of a kind of proto-multiculturalism) were far more similar to ancient and medieval European literature than their modern proponents might have suspected. The same is, mutatis mutandis, true of the promotion of certain indigenous, or supposedly indigenous, cultural elements against the modern Western world.

Native-American culture may not have much to say directly to our current crises, but it may teach us something. It would be far better for us, physically and spiritually, to do Corn Dances or Rain Dances on Saturdays or Sundays instead of spending so much time at shopping malls, for instance. A certain exuberance about nature and about the spiritual, properly understood, would open some windows in our climate controlled world.

But perhaps the profoundest lesson we may hope to learn from contemplating 1492 is that it is important for every people to have a vigorous culture. A multiculturalist will admit this in every case save one, that of so-called Western culture. Like it or not, Western culture, with its own particularities and its openness to light from the outside, is the cultural matrix upon which the world has become, if not unified, then set on a path of something like universal mutual intercourse.

The Western tradition is debased, cut off from, or in uncertain relation with its own roots. But those roots are what make an authentic multiculturalism possible at all. At its best, the West has integrated what is good and true into itself without losing its own momentum. As we look back at the last five hundred years of world history, we should be grateful that even this poor excuse for Western culture—and not some monolithic political or theological system—presides over all of our cultural futures as we approach the second millennium.



  1. Kirkpatrick Sale in a letter to the New York Times, July 25, 1991. See his Conquest of Paradise (New York: Knopf, 1991) for the most vigorous presentation of this simple morality tale.
  2. Guillermo Céspedes, Latin America: The Early Years (New York: Knopf, 1974), 10.
  3. Actually, the Europeans were horrified at the thought of the anthropophagoi, the Greek term for man-eaters. The term “cannibal” derives from Columbus’s garbled transcription of the name of the offending tribe as Caribs or Canibs (the latter in the hope that they were subjects of the Great Khan).
  4. Though hotly contested by revisionists, no convincing evidence has emerged to discredit the general lines of this history.
  5. For a sympathetic but reliable guide to the current state of knowledge about the Maya see Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990).
  6. This way of reading Genesis is clearly tendentious, but a powerful temptation. Even as fair a man as Albert Camus, who though not a Christian, was generally fair to Christianity, argued in The Rebel, “For the Christian, as for the Marxist, nature must be subdued. The Greeks are of the opinion that it is better to obey it. The love of the ancients for the cosmos was completely unknown to the first Christians,” (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), 190. This is mistaken in several ways, but deserves some attention as an indication of how easy it is to identify incorrectly modern industrialism with the deep Judeo-Christian roots of Western culture.
  7. Jacques Soustelle, Daily Life of the Aztecs On the Eve of the Spanish Conquest (trans. by Patrick O’Brien) (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1970), 101–2.
  8. Although it took a while to develop, the respect for basic human rights that exists in international law today owes a great deal to the questions confronted by the Spanish in the face of the new discoveries. For this process see James Brown Scott, The Spanish Origin of International Law (Washington, DC: Georgetown University, 1928).
  9. Leonard Jeffries, the chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department at the City University of New York, has invented the theory of “ice people” and “sun people.” In this view, the harsh climate of northern countries causes their peoples to become violent, individualistic, xenophobic. By contrast, the sun peoples, owing to the chemical influence of melanin in their skin, are gentler, communitarian, and open to others. Jeffries’s theory does not seem to explain much about the comparative social habits of, say, Swedes and Sicilians, but has gained widespread public notoriety all the same.
  10. Of the many new books on Columbus that have appeared in anticipation of 1992, the most temperate is Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Columbus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). John Noble Wilford’s The Mysterious Christopher Columbus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991) is a sober history, but not nearly as sophisticated as Fernandez-Armesto. The Genoese historian Paolo Emilio Taviani tries, and occasionally succeeds, in giving a heroic interpretation to his material in his Columbus: The Great Adventure: His Life, His Times, and His Voyages (New York: Orion Books, 1990) and is worth reading as a now true minority position. Kirkpatrick Sale’s anti-Columbus screed The Conquest of Paradise has already been mentioned. Columbus’s growing preoccupation with apocalyptic religious motifs is explored in Delno C. West and August Kling, The ‘Libro de las profecias’ of Christopher Columbus (University of Florida Press, 1991).
  11. Actually Ferdinand was Machiavellian before the fact. Machiavelli wrote the Prince in 1513 (Ferdinand had been ruling Spain since 1492 and was to die in 1516 only a few years after Machiavelli’s text appeared). In that little work, the Florentine pointed to the Spanish King as a modern example of how a ruler who wishes to be effective must appear to be good while doing what is necessary.

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