Monday, October 8, 2012

The Enduring Legacy of Christopher Columbus

The graduating class of my sixth grade year received a special gift from our teacher. It was a book of brightly colored paper held together with a faux-leather binding. We were instructed to capture the grand wisdom that only twelve year olds could impart as we headed into the unknown future of middle school.
I remember a great deal about that book. I remember the feel of the navy blue soft “pleather” cover encasing the pink, yellow and green sheets of paper; I remember that we folded each sheet once it had been written upon so that reading the words was like peeling back treasure. And I remember the gold-plated zipper that sealed the contents and protected this fount of wisdom from the elements.
But I do not remember a single entry in my graduation yearbook except for a short poem penned by a now long-forgotten classmate:
'Columbus discovered America in 1492, and I discovered a good friend when I discovered you.'
I lost my book decades ago, in one of a multitude of moves across the world, but those words have stayed with me.
What does it mean to say “Columbus discovered America in 1492”?
It suggests, for one, that it is possible to “discover” a continent of anywhere between one million to 18 million people that was continuously inhabited for 12 thousand years before Columbus. It suggests also that others had not discovered America before 1492, although researchers conclude the Vikings established a toehold in Greenland 500 years before Columbus; and, while hotly contested, some scholars maintain Africans, Portuguese and even the Chinese visited our shores well before Columbus. Most importantly, it suggests this act of discovery was Columbus’ seminal achievement – it was, in short, his legacy. But was it?
I am currently immersed in research on Columbus as I prepare to write a book, and I keep coming back to this question of legacy. Columbus seemed to believe his legacy would be his so-called discovery. In a plaintive letter to his benefactors protesting his mistreatment at the hands of the crown’s agents, Columbus rather self-righteously noted:
'For seven years was I at your royal court, where everyone to whom the enterprise was mentioned, treated it as ridiculous; but now there is not a man, down to the very tailors, who does not beg to be allowed to become a discoverer . . .' *
What I have come to understand is that even while the notion of “discovery” is highly contested, its impact on the people, history and law of the Americas is incontrovertible. We now have some idea of the impact Columbus had on the environment and people of this land, but comparatively little has been written on how the principle of discovery informed the laws of the New World. Columbus’ voyage of discovery was first and foremost a trade expedition, a business matter funded by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel. It was a private transaction with a very public objective. To achieve its aim, contracts had to be signed between the parties. The terms of those contracts would ultimately form the basis of law in the Americas.
Almost immediately after Columbus’ death, and for almost forty years thereafter, his descendants engaged in a nasty legal dispute with the monarchy. The Pleitos Colombinos – literally “the Columbus Lawsuits” – ultimately revolved around a single question:
What exactly did Columbus discover? 

The contracts Columbus signed with the crown were all contingent on discovery. He was to receive vast wealth and power should he find previously undiscovered lands on the trade path to Asia. His benefits would include: commission as admiral of the ocean seas, viceroy and governor general of the islands, which meant legal jurisdiction over the islands and also all lawsuits arising from merchandise trade with the islands, and of course, 1/10th of the profits acquired from his admiralty (more if he invested his own money in the enterprise). Moreover, these privileges and benefits would run to Columbus’ heirs in perpetuity – a provision that contravened Spanish law at the time, but which the monarchs were able to grant by invoking royal absolute power to do as they pleased.
Thus, this principle of discovery became the essential legal question for 15th century Spain. The Admiral’s descendants sought to enforce the long series of royal decrees, which together came to be known as The Book of Privileges, but the crown would question the very legitimacy of Columbus’ discovery claims. The crown’s representatives went so far as to argue that it was Martin Alonzo Pinzón, the captain of the Pinta, who was first to discover the New World.
All of the intricacies of the lawsuit aside, it is fascinating to watch the birth of this principle of discovery. Ultimately, it would solidify into the Doctrine of Discovery – a rule of public international law wresting title to the land of the Americas from the native population and granting it to the Europeans. Most famously, Chief Justice John Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court would invoke the Doctrine of Discovery in Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823):
'While the different nations of Europe respected the right of the natives, as occupants, they asserted the ultimate dominion to be in themselves; and claimed and exercised, as a consequence of this ultimate dominion, a power to grant the soil, while yet in possession of the natives. . . .  The history of America, from its discovery to the present day, proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.'
It may well be that Columbus’ enduring legacy is not so much the initial encounter between Europeans and the native peoples of the Americas.  Perhaps his enduring legacy lies in the impact he continues to have over our laws and legal institutions. As we in the United States acknowledge Columbus Day, it may be a good time to ask ourselves:
Is this a legacy we can endure?

* From the letter to the King and Queen of Spain on Columbus 4th voyage (Jamaica, July 7th 1503) Christopher Columbus Four Voyages to the New World: Letters and Selected Documents (Translated and Edited by R.H. Major).

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