Thursday, May 8, 2014

1492: The Conquest of Paradise

There have been a lot of American films about Columbus' voyage of discovery, but too many have been based on Washington Irving' 1828 novel called A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. One of the first written accounts of the event in English, Irving's version of the story still influences how Columbus is taught in schools. Namely, that Irving paints Columbus as a just and noble hero not just to the world, but specifically, somehow, to the United States of America.

Costumes were consistently inaccurate, but not enough to matter

Columbus Was No Angel

Ridley Scott's 1992 film 1492: Conquest of Paradise  paints a different, but equally flawed, picture. The film continues to portray Columbus as a hero, albeit an imperfect one. He is just and gentle with the natives in the film, though actual records of the man prove him to have been anything but. The most telling example of the difference between Columbus the man and Columbus the film character can be found here:
In the movie, Columbus' journal of 12 October states that if the natives are to be converted it will be with persuasion, not force, and that they should be treated with honor, respected and that pillaging and rape will be punished.
Conversely, the real Columbus' journal of 12 October reads "they ought to make skilled servants, for they repeat whatever we tell them" -- Columbus wrote this after discovering that the Lucayans were often attacked by the mainland to be taken as slaves. In the same entry he writes "they can be very easily made Christians, for they seem to have no religion," and noted their lack of advanced metallurgy, writing "I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern as I pleased."
In his journal, Columbus described the natives as being
completely naked, with short hair in the front but long in the back.
Like mullets, maybe?
 Still, there is definitely historical value to be found in the film. Here's a quick run down of the main stuff you can get a picture of from the film:

What You Can Learn

  • credited to Queen Isabella I and her husband Ferdinand, the Spanish had just beaten the Moors at their greatest stronghold of Granada and reclaimed the Iberian peninsula as a fully Christian/Catholic stronghold
  • the infamous Spanish Inquisition was ongoing at this time, a period during which all Jews and Muslims were made to convert to Catholicism or leave or die. Torture and burning were common at this time in order to "convince" people to convert.
  • the film does a great job of showing how very long voyages could be conducted and navigated
  • the dangers of disease in meeting new peoples
  • Cuba and Haiti were indeed among Columbus' original landing locations. Though some of the smaller islands are still disputed, they were probably members of the modern-day Bahamas.
  • The film shows the mistreatment of the natives mainly by the films antagonist. Whoever the culprit, the native people's of the Caribbean were indeed used by Columbus and his men as servants and slaves. The worst stories can be found in the report that ended in Columbus' arrest, recorded by Bartolome las Casas.

A map showing Columbus' probably route through the Caribbean
during his first voyage.

The Stuff That's Way Wrong:

  • Columbus was far less charitable toward the natives than is shown in the film
  • Columbus was devoutly religious. He cites in his journal many times that his key reason for the expedition is to show the natives of India the light of Christianity.
  • The movie hints at some kind of strange romance between Columbus and Isabella. There is no basis for this in real life.
  • Most even moderately educated Europeans knew the world was round but thought it far big to travel. The film even shows this attitude in the court scene, but Columbus the character earlier and later seems to think everyone says the world is flat. Bad writing, at best.

For more information about Columbus' first journey, check these great sources:

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