Christopher Columbus was a narcissist.
He believed he was personally chosen by God for a mission that no one else could achieve.
His stated goal was to accumulate enough wealth to recapture Jerusalem. His arrogance led to his downfall, that of millions of Native Americans — and eventually fostered his resurrection as the most enduring icon of the Americas.
In 1496, Columbus was the governor of a colony based at Santo Domingo, in what is now the modern Dominican Republic — a job he hated. He could not convince the other “colonists,” especially those with noble titles, to follow his leadership.
They were not colonists in the traditional sense of the word. They had gone to the Indies to get rich quick. Because Columbus was unable to temper their lust, the Crown viewed him as an incompetent administrator.
By 1500, conditions in Hispaniola were so dire that the Crown sent Francisco de Bobadilla to investigate. Bobadilla’s first sight, at the mouth of the Ozama River, was four Spanish “mutineers” hanging from gallows.
Under authority from the king, Bobadilla arrested Columbus and his brothers for malfeasance and sent them to Spain in chains. Columbus waited seven months for an audience at the court. He refused to have his chains removed until the meeting, and even asked in his will to be buried with the chains.
Although the Spanish rulers wanted Columbus to disappear, he was allowed one final voyage from 1502 to 1504. He died in 1506, and went virtually unmentioned by historians until he was resurrected as a symbol of the United States.
In the mid-18th century, scholars brought to light long-forgotten documents about Columbus and the early history of the New World.
One of the most important was Bartolome de las Casas’ three-volume “Historia de las Indias.” This book was suppressed in Spain because it documented Spain’s harsh treatment of the native peoples.
His depiction of Spanish mistreatment of the Indians provided the foundation for the “Black Legend.” His account “blackened” Spanish character by depicting it as repressive, brutal, intolerant and intellectually and artistically backward.
Whatever Spain’s motives, the conquest of the Americas destroyed native cultures and ushered in centuries of African enslavement.
Renewed scholarly interest in Columbus coincided with political motives to deny Spain any remaining claims in the Americas. Spain’s American colonies declared independence, one by one, from the beginning of the 19th century.
Columbus likely would have slipped back into obscurity if not for American hubris.
The Columbian Exposition
In 1889, France put on what reviewers described as the most spectacular World’s Fair possible. Held on the Champs de Mars in Paris, its crowning achievement was the Eiffel Tower.
After Paris, the United States set out to prove to the world it was the equal of Europe by staging its own World’s Fair.
No one has claimed credit for the theme of the Exposition, but the stage was set when American writer and author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving, attempted to revive his flagging career by writing the first biography of Christopher Columbus in English, published in 1828.
His embellishments created the great hero whose legend the fair celebrated: “He was one of those men of strong natural genius, who appear to form themselves; who, from having to contend at their very outset with privations and impediments, acquire an intrepidity in braving and a facility in vanquishing difficulties.”
The Columbian Exposition and World’s Fair was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. During the exposition, Columbus became the darling of 19th-century mass media.
Seventy-one portraits of Columbus, all posthumous, hung in a Grand Gallery.
Following Irving’s descriptions, Columbus became the embodiment of the American Dream. The son of simple wool weavers and someone who had a great dream challenged the greatest scholars of his day, and boldly went where no man had gone before.
President Harrison declared a national holiday to coincide with opening of the Columbian Exposition — Columbus Day. It was officially recognized by Congress in 1937.
In 1992, as the United States prepared for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, the pendulum swung again.
The devastating impact of his “discovery” on native peoples throughout the Americas led protesters to decry Columbus as a “terrorist.”
Columbus the man died more than 500 years ago. Columbus the legend is still being dismantled.
His story illustrates the blurred borders between myth and history — how an architect of destruction was turned into a national symbol.
William Francis Keegan is curator of Caribbean archaeology at the University of Florida.