Columbus and the Conquistadors

The hosts ponder a listener question – why exactly does Columbus get so much attention, while other explorers are relegated to the background?

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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re marking Columbus Day with a look back at the many makeovers Christopher Columbus has undergone throughout American history.

BRIAN: We have a question from one of our listeners that came in on our website. It’s from Shane Carter, who teaches history. And Shane says that each year his students become fascinated by the other Spanish sailors who made their way to North America after Christopher Columbus in the 1500s.

People like Cabeza de Vaca and Vasquez de Coronado. Both those guys explored vast stretches of the current day Southwest. And then of course, there was Hernando de Soto, who traveled over what’s now the Southeast, and was the first known European to cross the Mississippi.

Shane writes that– and now I’m going to quote– “In order for the US to claim any kind of connection to Columbus, we seem to need to ignore 100 plus years of history.” So what do you think, Peter, Ed? Why does Columbus loom so much larger in our national mythology than these Spanish guys? After all, they actually made it to our land mass.

ED: When you really do think about it, it is remarkable how little enduring memorialization there is of de Soto, who would’ve covered more of what’s now British North America then anybody, right? Until Lewis and Clark.

PETER: Yeah.

ED: And we have no memory of him at all! So I think that Shane’s question’s an excellent one. And I wonder if it has something to do with Columbus’s uncertain ethnic origins. The fact that he’s kind of Italian, kind of Spanish. He’s kind of pa-European.

PETER: Well, he’s Italian, but he’s for sale. [LAUGHS] And whoever would sponsor him will get the advantage of his enterprise. So that idea that he’s up for grabs makes him a kind of European, a generic European. And that’s the way he sells himself.

I mean, this is a step– we had steps on the moon for mankind. Well, this is a step into the New World for Christendom, for Europe. And so he’s the beginning of everything in this age of the penetration of the New World. And then other national traditions that become increasingly clearly national traditions build on that beginning.

ED: Well, and it’s not just a national tradition in general. And Shane’s question is, how about these guys from Spain?

PETER: They’re the ones who actually come to what becomes the United States. But they come of course, in the name of the king of Spain. And here we get into dueling imperial histories.

What is the United States’ claim to North America? It’s not based on Spanish discoveries. It’s based first on English discoveries, English settlements.

And if you acknowledge the discoverers and you say they yeah, they were there, they planted the flag, it’s theirs! No. The British insist that it’s open space. It’s terra nullius. So in a way, the mapping of the New World leads to our interpretation of its history.

I think what’s interesting is you’ll get more interest in these figures– Coronado, de Soto, de Vaca, and so forth– now as we begin to understand the multi-imperial origins of the United States. And now that there’s a large Hispanic population, then these figures become important and Columbus fades away.

ED: OK. So what we will expect now is the Hispanicization of discovery, right?

PETER: You are so right.

ED: You know, Brian, I think you’re probably on the cutting edge of historical reclamation. I think listeners to our shows know that you are proud native of Southern Florida. Was there any sense of this sort of Spanish era in your childhood?

BRIAN: You bet there was, Ed. I went to Ponce de Leon Junior High School in Coral Gables, Florida.

PETER: Oh, that’s why you’re so youthful!

BRIAN: Eternally! And even before that, in elementary school, the history curriculum emphasized de Soto far more than Christopher Columbus. We were very proud of those Spanish explorers and conquistadors. And I’m not going to tell you about my toreador pants.

PETER: Well, you wouldn’t have been proud if you were a little bit older than you are now and were born in the 19th century. It’s only in the 20th century that new regional traditions emerged in the United States to reinforce the notion of the United States as a great power. The California missions, the southwest border lands, all became Spanish in the national imagination in the 20th century, long after they really were Spanish in any sense of the word.

ED: Yeah, after we’d actually established that we owned all that.

PETER: Yeah.

ED: Sure, put an adobe house here or there, right?

PETER: That’s exactly true! It’s a tourist scam! Think of Santa Fe. It’s make believe. It’s Disneyland before its time.

ED: So it sounds like to me that Shane makes a really good point, that we do ignore this 100 years ’cause we’re not exactly sure what to do with it. Precisely because it does have historical content, it’s like, oh man, that opens up a lot of issues. Let’s just go from Columbus to the Puritans and forget all that stuff that happened in between.