Columbus Day and the Discovery of “America”


In a curious turn of events Columbus Day has made strange bedfellows of several different groups. In the 19th century the Know Nothings and other anti-immigrant groups like the Ku Klux Klan 1 opposed the celebration of Columbus Day because of a Protestant based North American nativism with strong underlying anti-Catholic sentiments. The Klan and Know Nothings along with other anti-immigrant groups, wanted to end migration from Catholic countries like Ireland and Italy. This opposition was spurred by the hope of preserving their Northern European way of life from the contamination of undesirable peoples. What better way to make their point than to deny that Columbus discovered America thus taking away the credibility of that national and cultural identity.

In the 20th century, with the rise of far-left political adoption of the Pan American Native movements, various groups banded together to decry any European immigration, extending the ban to any White colonial presence. 2 If you push their argument to its limit, extreme adherents would suggest that all immigrants from the colonial times should go home to Europe, atone for their great sins, and take their culture with them. These groups often reflect back to the Early Modern view of the Noble Savage, of harmonious tribes unspoiled by civilization, living as one with nature. Indeed, settlers from European should not portray any Native cultural representations as cultural appropriation is decried as a great evil.

As part of their argument the supporters of this mindset point out that it is a racist myth that Columbus discovered the Americas and that it is only with recent secular enlightened studies that we see that America was probably discovered by the pagan (good) Vikings, rather than the Catholic (bad) explorers. A second argument is to attack Columbus as the origin of a genocide of the North American native peoples. Columbus personally created the enslavement of whole continents. We will not address this second attack except to point out that many died on both sides of this contact of civilizations. As a partial answer to this criticism it is known that mayhem is a frequent result of any contact between previously isolated groups, animal and human.

Each of these critiques of Columbus are misguided and should be addressed — maybe on another occasion. What I would like to address here is the myth that European awareness of pre-Columbian contact is only now recognized and that it is our modern secular humanism that gives us this understanding. I will point to one example from our library.

Helps
The Spanish conquest in America

Starting in 1855, and over the next decade, Sir Arthur Helps (1813-1875) published the four-volume work, The Spanish conquest in America and its relation to the history of slavery and to the government of colonies. 3 Our Library has the first two volumes from the 1855 printing and the final two volumes from the 1900 edition.

Helps was an English writer and served in numerous positions in the British government. Based on his extensive research in the Spanish archives of Madrid, consulting primary documentation, he had extensive exposure to many first-hand accounts of the period of exploration. Helps was one of the early supporters of the abolition of slavery and took a leading role in shaping public opinion against it. Given his Victorian perspective there is much to criticize as well as to praise in his works. One reviewer noted that: “… the work of Sir Arthur Helps…is so very good and so very bad, so delightful as presentation of the long-established versions of events…” etc4. Regardless of the criticisms Helps work is seen as a valuable follow on to the writing of de las Casas from centuries before. 5

Helps starts his account of the exploration of America with the following statement:

Helps Quote
Helps comment on “Rediscovery” of America 6

Here Helps cites Joshua Smith’s publication “The Discovery of America by the Northmen in the Tenth Century” 7 thus it is clear that there is a recognition that Columbus was not the first to the North American Continent. Recognition of prior exploration and contact with the Americas was in the air. While Columbus did not know of continents between Europe and Asia others knew of Greenland, Vineland and other lands that were not the Indies. Similar to the myth that the common understanding in Europe was that the earth was flat, classical scholars had determined the circumference of the word with great accuracy. Even though it was misplaced, Atlantis was suspected to be in the Atlantic Ocean.

As to Columbus’s character a good indication of Helps estimation can be seen in this passage:

Such was the hero under whose guidance we are now called to enter upon a wider sphere of the history of discovery and colonization; and also, somewhat to his shame, the mournful annals of slavery 8

From one perspective this view is more balanced than the political hyperbole that we find in today’s popular press.

Columbus is a convent foil for those who have an agenda. With the passage of time we are further removed from the real person of Columbus. No “modern” historian or critic has walked in his shoes, probed his good and bad characteristics. The animus of those who despise all Dead White Men, their religion and their culture, want to remove their legacy. It is never in the interest of such persons to carefully weigh the facts. The facts are: that it was known that Columbus was not the first to discover North America; that there is enough evidence that Columbus was a much more complex person than the stereotyped wanton wrecker of a whole continent; that he did not personally precipitated genocide. It is imperative that a more balanced view of the good and bad of the meeting and merging of two diverse cultural empires be communicated and to recognize that there are forces at work that are greater than any one individual or civilization. There should be room to celebrate the goodness of all the peoples: Native, Viking, European, Catholic, Protestant, Pagan, and learn from their mistakes and discard those practices that are built on hate and oppression of others. Helps, for all his faults, was appalled by slavery and the bondage of humans. He used the tools at his disposal to spread this message. Let’s build on the foundation that he and those who followed established.

Since publishing this I have received feedback from one scholar who I greatly admire. That conversation will continue here (password protected):

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DLWA Call Number: F1411 .H48 1855

Worldcat: Link

  • Title: The Spanish conquest in America and its relation to the history of slavery and to the government of colonies.
  • Author: Sir Arthur Helps
  • Language: English
  • Setting: Exploration, Slavery

DLWA Call Number: F1411 .C33 B8 1953

Worldcat: Link

  • Title: The tears of the Indians : being an historical and true account of the cruel massacres and slaughters of above twenty millions of innocent people.
  • Author: Bartolomé de las Casa
  • Language: English
  • Setting: Exploration, Slavery

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  1. Anbinder, Tyler. 1992. Nativism and slavery: the northern Know Nothings and the politics of the 1850’s. New York: Oxford University Press. P. 190.
  2. Churchill, Ward. 2006. A little matter of genocide: holocaust and denial in the Americas, 1492 to the present. San Francisco: City Lights Books. (a much discredited author).
  3. Helps, Arthur. 1855. The Spanish conquest in America and its relation to the history of slavery and to the government of colonies. London: J.W. Parker and Son.
  4. G. P. W., The Spanish Conquest in America and its Relation to the History of Slavery and to the Government of Colonies. By Sir Arthur Helps. Edited by M. Oppenheim. (New York: John Lane. 1900–1904. Four vols., pp. xxxviii, 369; x, 365; xv, 400; xi, 374, The American Historical Review, Volume 10, Issue 3, April 1905, Pages 641–642, https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/10.3. p. 641.
  5. Casas, Bartolomé de las, and John Phillips. 1953. The tears of the Indians: being an historical and true account of the cruel massacres and slaughters of above twenty millions of innocent people committed by the Spaniards in the islands of Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, etc. As also, in the continent of Mexico, Peru, and other places of the West Indies, to the total destruction of those countries. Stanford, Calif: Academic Reprints.
  6. Helps, op. cit. p. 79.
  7. Smith, Joshua Toulmin. 1842. The discovery of America by the Northmen in the tenth century: comprising translations of all the most important original narratives of this event : to which is added, an examination of the comparative merits of the Northmen and Columbus. London: William S. Orr & Co.
  8. Helps, op. cit. p.82.

–DLW

AGRICOLA – De re Metallica


One of the earliest studies of mining and mineralogy is the book “De re Metallica : On the Nature of Metals” by Georgius Agricola (1484-1555) . 1 Agricola was born at a momentous time. Columbus returned from his exploration and the Renaissance was in its early stages. Just forty years earlier Gutenberg precipitated the printing revolution. With many close colleagues, like Erasmus, Agricola was one of the central players in the sixteenth century European Humanist milieu. He had lived in what is now the Czech Republic. Eventually he became a physician and soon thereafter the mayor of Kepmnicz in the eastern German Saxon states. These regions were some of the richest mineral producing areas of Europe and, even with his duties, he maintained a deep interest in the technology of mining.

de re Metallica.
De re Metallica title page from 1556

“De re Metallica libri xii” was published in the year following Agricola’s death. Much of the delay was due to the large number of woodcut illustrations. Prior to its publication the only systematic study of mineralogy and mining was found in the writings of Roman classical writers, predominantly Pliney. Agricola wrote De re Metallica in Latin and in doing so he created many new terms in Latin where there had been no words existent to describe the process he was describing.

Our library if fortunate to have an illustrated page from Book X of a very early printing of this edition. Here Agricola illustrates a crane that is used to move the “dome” of a furnace. The text goes into great detail concerning the parts of the crane and the dimensions and use of each part. Combined with other text and illustrations, Book X focuses on the separation of silver and gold and lead from gold and silver.

De re metallica page
Crane Details

“De re Metallica” became the most influential publication on these disciplines. Being published in Latin there was soon a need of translations into other languages. The first were in German and Italian. Of the German translation it is said:

The German translation was prepared by Philip Bechius, a Basel University Professor of Medicine and Philosophy. It is a wretched work, by one who knew nothing of the science, and who more especially had no appreciation of the peculiar Latin terms coined by Agricola, most of which he rendered literally. It is a sad commentary on his countrymen that no correct German translation exists. 2

De re metallica
English translation of De re metallica

There were plans for an English translation in the seventeenth century but there is no evidence that any was produced. It was not until the early 1900’s that another translation into English was undertaken. Starting in 1912 this translation was privately published and sold only through subscription by The Mining Magazine, London. Our library has the Dover Books reprint of this version.

The translators responsible for this version were Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover, undertaking this commission while they were at Stanford University. Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer and Lou was a geologist as well as a Latin scholar. The Hoover translation is highly regarded. It was a masterful work that is undoubtedly the clearest rendition of Agricola’s text. It is also cited as a critical resource on the historical context of the progression of mineralogy and mining to the 1500’s. The Hoovers noted that the work was no longer useful for practical application as in the intervening time much progress had been made in the field of mining and mineralogy, but much of the value of this text is the accompanying scholarly research.

In the popular and simplified history of the United States, Herbert Hoover is often denigrated. It was his unfortunate responsibility to be President of the United States at the start of the Great Depression of the 19th century in 1929. He was also in the position to provide leadership in the aftermath of World War I. But in this book, there is one element of data to show that Herbert Hoover, along with Lou, had many more dimensions than they is given credit for. This is a cautionary tale – that we must not take popular opinion concerning a person and their work at face value. The Hoovers’ provided a valuable academic gift to the world on the study of ancient mineralogy and mining. What other valuable insights are we overlooking if we follow popular opinion, what might be found if, we, being careful to scrutinize our biases, learn what else they have to offer us.

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DLWA Call Number: TN617 .A25 1950

Worldcat: Link

  • Title: Georgius Agricola De re metallica : tr. from the 1st Latin ed. of 1556, with biographical introduction, annotations and appendices upon the development of mining methods, metallurgical processes, geology, mineralogy & mining law, from the earliest times to the 16th century
  • Language: English/Latin
  • Setting: Book History

DLWA Call Number: AC1 TN617 .A25 1561

Worldcat: Link

    • Title: Georgii Agricolae De re metallica libri xii, qvibu officia, instrumenta, machinae, ac omnnia deniq[ue] ad metalicam spectantia, non modo lucluentissime describuntur, sed & per effigies, sius locis insertas, aduenctis latinis, germanicisq[ue] appelationibus ita ob oculos ponuntur, et clarius tradi non possint. Evisdem De aaimantibvs svbterraneis liber, ab autore recognitus: cum indicibus deuersis quicqiuid in opere tractatum est pulchré demonstrantibus.
    • Language: Latin
    • Setting: Book History

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      1. We have used the English translation by the Hoovers, listed above, as a source for this post.
      2. ibid p.xv-xvi

–DLW