Page 24


REPRINTED FROM MATT WUERKER’S 500 YEARS OF THE NEW WORLD ORDER CALENDAR, WITH PERMISSION FROM SOUTH END PRESS BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN COLUMBUS AND THE AGE OF DISCOVERY Executive Producer Zvi Dor-Ner AT SEVEN HOURS, Columbus and the Age of Discovery, which will be broad : cast by PBS affiliates over four con secutive nights beginning Oct. 6, challenges comparison with last September’s Civil War. Ken Burns’ 11-hour epic documentary was the most popular offering in the history of public television. It created an epistolary star out of Sullivan Ballou, an anachronistic hit out of the 1982 melody Ashokan Farewell, and a national community of grief. Less than four months before the start of Operation Desert Storm, the people of the United States joined in mourning the pointless blight of war, the one fought 130 years before. Four hundred ninety-nine years ago, Christopher Columbus embarked from the Spanish harbor of Palos de la Frontera on what narrator Will Lyman calls “The voyage that changed the world.” Few would quarrel with that assessment, but, in 1991, consensus on anything else about the Columbian legacy is as elusive as the Asian Cipangu was for Spanish mariners. Christian Europe extended some of its noblest values, talents, and tools into the Western hemisphere, but it also committed genocide against the peoples who were already there. Should the Quincentary be celebrated, reviled, or simply ignored? With the brazen pluck of Columbus himself, Zvi Dor-Ner, who wrote and directed two of the seven episodes and supervised the entirety, rejects the option of ignorance. While Columbus and the Age of Discovery marvels at the progress that was the product of the European voyages, it , also takes note of the noxious products of that progress. Honest ambivalence makes Hamlet high drama, but the Columbus series packs an emotional dollop. Prepared with the advice of academics on four continents, it refuses to overwhelm with anything but information. As sad as is the story of slavery, thievery, and massacre, Columbus and the Age of Discovery will not break your heart. Nor, despite the verve of adventure, will this documentary warm it. “Everything is said about Columbus,” according to Italian scholar Paolo Taviani, who proceeds to say it. “It’s said he was a .crimi Steven Kellman teaches comparative litera ture at the University of Texas at San Antonio. nal; it’s said he was a saint; it’s said he was a womanizer; it’s said he took a vow of chastity; it’s said he was mean; it’s said he died penniless and that he died rich.” Dana Rinehart, mayor of Ohio’s capital, one of eleven cities named Columbus, marvels at the man’s courage: “Here’s a guy who gets on an 85-foot boat, has no idea where he’s going, isn’t really sure he’s going to get here, isn’t sure what he’s going to find when he gets there, has no idea how to get home, and he sets sail. Now that’s a man with some iron guts.” That’s also a colonial governor so inept he was thrown into irons and hauled back to Spain. “He was a man who knew how to sell his ideas very well,” claims Consuelo Varela, a historian at the University of Seville. Yet he was unable to sell his royal patrons on the idea of marketing Indians to Europe as slaves, when, desperate over the deterioration and demoralization of his Hispaniola settlement, he contrived a plan to justify continuing colonization by Spain. The Columbus in Dor-Ner’s series was a dreamer and a bungler, an egotist and an idealist. Finally, he is less of an enigma than a cipher, a pretext for a lesson in history, geography, navigation, agriculture, epidemiology, and the vanity of human wishes. In the tandem of Columbus and the Age of Discovery, the former is the junior partner. Columbus vanishes from the picture for much of the seven-hour broadcast. He is the absent father, and the further we look into his improbably successful and blighted life the less we can conclude about him. Lacking period photographs and refusing to indulge in reenactments, the series takes us to 27 countries that were in one way or another part of the story of the encounter between two hemispheres. We retrace Columbus’s steps through Italy, Portugal, and Spain and journey to a Ghanaian village where gold and slaves drew him and other European traders. We visit a North Dakota rodeo that would have been inconceivable without the Spanish exploration. Throughout the Americas, we gaze at the faces of la raza, a physiognomy born of the encounter between two worlds. In Mexico City, formerly Tenochtitlan, we contemplate the coincidental outbreak of smallpox that prevented the Aztecs from vanquishing a retreating Cortes and terrified them when he returned to conquer. Of the devastation of the native populations by measles, smallpox, and influenza, narrator Lyman declares: “Perhaps the greatest human catastrophe of all time; it is one for which no one, not even Christopher Columbus, can be faulted.” Fray Bartolome de las Casas, champion of the indlgenas, did fault the Spanish invaders for a systematic campaign of atrocity. In an episode called The Sword and the Cross, CO-lumbus and the Age of Discovery examines how the Church both colluded with the forces of oppression and carnage and opposed them. “In the name of all that is holy, will you stop?” thundered Antonio Montecino in a 1508 sermon, but the violence continued, often inspired by Christian rhetoric. In his rendition of the conflicting perspectives of Europeans, Afri THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21