Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Redemption of Christopher Columbus: oh, what might have been


A week or so ago, I was sailing around on the internet & happened upon a wonderful book titled “Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus” by Orson Scott Card, and thought I’d share my discovery with the world! 

What’s that?  The book’s been out there for years already as it was published in 1997?  Doesn’t matter—let the record show that I discovered it.  No one would’ve known of it’s existence until I came along & wrote about it here, save for a few hundred thousand science fiction readers, but what do they know?  They’re not like us, they don’t count!  In fact, let’s just enslave those damn nerds & ship ‘em off to Parts Unknown! 

Okay, you can see where I’m going here (and I’m not alone in my feelings about the man who is responsible for the extinction of the Taino Indians and a slave trade that lasted for centuries—ask any Native American what he thinks of Columbus).  But I have to admit that because of this remarkable ‘what-if’ tale, I’m able to see things a bit more in their historical perspective.

Set sometime in the near future, the story goes back & forth from historical drama in the 15th century (where we learn of Columbus’ origins) to the present, where there is an academic organization known as ‘Pastwatch’.  Technology has developed where computer monitors (called Tru-Sites) are used to look back thru time, for the study of past civilizations and their origins.  

There are people who devote their entire lives to studying one ancient society, or even one historical figure.  (A Muslim named Kemal is a celebrity Pastwatcher, an expert of ancient weather patterns who ascertained not only the origins & sinking of Atlantis, but that Noah--known by his people as Noag, and his ark existed.) 

But this book focuses on a Pastwatcher named Tagiri, an African woman who has made it her life’s work to understand the origins of slavery.  Years of careful study have led her to one man:  Christopher Columbus, who was ultimately responsible for the African & American continents colonization by Europe, and the death and enslavement of millions of their native peoples for several centuries.

So when it’s discovered that scientists may be able to do more than just observe past events, and actually travel backwards in time, Tagiri wants to devise a way to prevent Columbus’ “discovery”.  Her colleagues are shocked; aren’t you afraid of how it will alter our present?

Tagiri says “History is not our prelude; we can’t justify the pain & suffering of people in the past because everything turned out well by the time we came along.  When we believed we could not go back in time & make changes, we could be excused for shedding a tear for them & going on with our happy lives.  But once we know we can go back & help, if we let their suffering go on, this is no golden age we live in.”  

She makes a good argument.  And as the story progresses, Tagiri wonders two things:  what really compelled Columbus to make that historical voyage in the first place, and why is Pastwatch allowing her to proceed with her plans?  The answers to both are startling.  

.         .         .

I don’t know what they teach about Columbus in classrooms today;  I’m from the generation that learned he was a great explorer, looking only for a faster route to the Far East for gold & spices when he discovered the “New World” instead.  In fact, when he arrived & the Tainos befriended him, Columbus wrote this about them in his report to Queen Isabella:  "So tractable, so peaceable, are these people, that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy."

He then declared them the property of Spain, ordered their enslavement & began shipping them back to Europe.  The ones who were allowed to remain were forced to mine for gold—and tortured & murdered if they resisted.  In 4 years, a hundred thousand Tainos were dead.

Where was I going with this?  I was wanting to say something in his defense, but it’s lost on me.


  1. Doug, I feel the same way about Columbus and vent my frustrations about how he's venerated whenever I can. As you did in your post, pointing some hard truths is always the best way. Although not everyone wants to hear it. I'm a stanch supporter of Native rights here in Canada and try to follow current events as best I can.

    I've always enjoyed this quote by Lisa Simpson to her mother:

    "You're like Christopher Columbus. You discovered something millions of people did before you."

    Brilliant post and man, you sure do find interesting things to read and ponder. Awesome. :)

  2. Thank you Chelly, your feedback always means a lot to me! I know it's not easy to express opinions that aren't seen by everyone the same way, so I admire your honesty here... (and I loved that Lisa Simpson quote, haha!) Thanks again :)

  3. This post made me giggle, even though it hit upon a touchy subject (slavery.) I, too, came from the old school generation that taught us how wonderful CC was for discovering America (my mother insists that she once read that the POLISH actually discovered America several years before Columbus did and that it's a little known historical fact.) Yeah right, mom!

    I'm curious about the book now; I'm not traditionally a sci-fi fan but I may just have to check it out to see if history gets changed, so thanks for writing about it. On the topic of time travel, I think it's no secret that I want to travel back in time to the mid-60s and bang the brains out of Steve McQueen. this a family oriented blog? Oh, well...

  4. Pam, you just made my jaw drop! First of all, I'm not a big sci-fi fan either, but I love a good time travel story--this one uses a LOT of history, but it spins a good tale.

    Secondly, I wouldn't doubt your mom one bit; it's a known fact that British fishermen fished at Canadian borders YEARS before Columbus came 'round, and thirdly you and your thing for Steve McQueen is crackin' me up good :) Thanks for sharing, Pam!

  5. Yeah, that wasn't very ladylike of me. Probably should have said I'd like to go back in time and give Steve McQueen a night to remember!

    And I think I heard that about British fishermen. It's also plausible that Scandanavians traveled to North America before Columbus did.

  6. Haha--Pam, you're fine! We all know you're Steve McQueen's biggest fan, though I think it's a riot how we went from Columbus to Bullitt :)

  7. Mmmmm...Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair!


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