Don’t Blame Columbus, Blame Spain

Columbus at rest in Seville

Today is the day of Christopher Columbus, the man who simultaneously manages to be vilified by Latinos, championed by Italian-Americans, and claimed as native son by different cities across the Mediterranean. And nobody really knows where he came from. In the U.S., and across Latin America, there is a sense that we should place blame for remembering this man.

But it was Spain that gave him to the world. And in the middle of a moment when the world’s attention is focused on Spain as it tries to avoid Catalan secession, it is worth remembering how Columbus, and the world that created him, still can define a country and society more than five centuries later.

In the run-up to his maiden voyage to the Americas, the Iberian peninsula was going through major reorganization and upheaval, culminated by the final victory over the Moorish caliphate in Granada that same year. 

Back in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Meanwhile in Valladolid…

At the apogee of its success in reclaiming its land from the Moors, Ferdinand and Isabella (Isabella, if you want to be a purist) funded Columbus’s journey to the New World. Imagine that, having reclaimed the Iberian peninsula after nearly 800 years of struggle, the Spanish crown unifies the most important regions of the peninsula and then goes off to conquer a new world. What a run!

Fer and Isa
Kissing cousins: Ferdinand and Isabella

Fast forward to the colonization of the Americas, which allowed Spain to internationalize its “reconquest” and convert Native Americans to Catholicism. After centuries of memories and a recent victory, Spain had many of the tools at its disposal to colonize and conquer new territories. It also had all the experience a country could ask for in imposing cultural, linguistic, and religious requirements on broad swathes of people.


When Spain’s winning streak ends…

While there is much to behold in the half century of glory that Isabella and Ferdinand ruled Castille and Aragon, the Catholic Kings left a nasty legacy that haunted Spain in colonial times and persists through today.

Namely, the feeling invincibility of a unified and combined Spain is deeply ingrained in the historical memory of Spaniards. Adding to the hubris, the golden age of its history came after centuries of bloody expulsion at home, and a forceful taking of the large part of a new continent. It also coincided with the Spanish Inquisition, which forced non-Catholics to convert or be subject to execution. It was a great time to be a courtesan and a bad time to be someone the crown considered “less Spanish”.

As the steam ran out of Spain’s marathon of wins, the responses to challenges at home and abroad became more repressive. All the while, Spain’s incestuous Hapsburg royal family became more and more decadent. First came the War of Spanish Succession, then a transfer to the Bourbon royal dynasty, then conflicts throughout Europe. The 18th century was a real bitch for Spain. Then, when they were almost too weak to do anything about it, independence movements erupted across Latin America, spurred by American and French revolutionary ideas. By the late 19th century, Spain only had claim on Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. And even those slipped away in 1898.

Spain’s big problem

1850 or 2017? Or 1492?

Although it is difficult to denigrate a country’s national pride when it is based in history, Spain has a big problem. Its unity is based on force, in the way it has always been based on force, and it is only able to deal with enemies by defeating them.

For the past five centuries, Spanish identity has had to reconcile its extraordinary history with its sad actuality. All the while, it maintains a strong memory of needing to protect its purity against external threats. By the beginning of the 20th century, with no invaders, apostates, or colonial enemies to contend with, it began to turn on the its historical divisions at home that have never healed.

A cataclysmic civil war and two dictatorships later, Spain’s historical grandeur has devolved into a collection of people that barely want to be part of the same country. Catalonia and the Basque Country are emblematic of this, and the reasons stretch as far back as the time of Ferdinand and Isabella.

As we spend this Columbus Day wondering if we should be remembering or forgetting one man, let’s not forget the bankruptcy of Spain’s enduring mentality of conquest and submission that made it all possible.


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