When Ridley Scott’s 1992 movie on the voyages of Christopher Columbus starts, Columbus(Gérard Depardieu) is seen pitching his idea of a voyage to the Indies to the people of University of Salamanca. Marco Polo had traveled to and written about the gold and spices of the East. By trading and conquering the East, Columbus argues, that Spain can be an empire. But his logic of sailing West — because the land trade is controlled by the Arabs and the voyage around Africa takes too long — does not find supporters. They doubt his calculations and think he is a spoony dreamer. Also, what Columbus did not know at that time was that the Americas lay in the path between Spain and the East.
Someone asks him to meet Queen Isabella (Sigourney Weaver) and he succeeds in creating a favorable impression in her mind. To her suggestion that his voyage is an impossible one, he retorts if she thought Granada would ever fall. Isabella and her husband Ferdinand had just conquered the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula. Impressed, she overrides the concerns of her advisors and remarks that it would be quite a loss if Columbus decided to be a monk.
In the next scene, we see sailors saying farewell to their families and boarding the Santa María, Pinta and Niña. The Spain Columbus was leaving was mired with religious wars and superstition; there is a brutal scene where he witnesses Christians burning witches to death. Economically, Europe was not a major power and had nothing valuable to contribute to Asia. A few years later when Vasco da Gama reached Calicut and displayed the gifts he had bought, my ancestors in Kerala laughed.
In all, Columbus made four voyages to the New World and the movie spends time on the first three. In the first voyage, he reached Bahamas and claimed it for Spain. From there he went to Hispaniola and after leaving some people there, he returned to Spain as a hero, taking with him some of the indigenous people. As he is about to leave Hispaniola, Columbus tells the local chief that he would come back with more people. When asked why he would be back, Columbus explains, “to bring the word of God.” “But I already have a God”, the chief replies. Columbus, then says, he will bring medicines and chief replies that he has enough medicines too. This conversation continues in Spain when a curious Ferdinand asks Columbus about the God of the natives.
In the colony, the relationship between the colonizers and the indigenous people proceed like any such relation. The Spaniards had arrived expecting gold and other riches, but were shocked to find neither. So they made the indigenous people, who lived freely so far, to scavenge for gold. In one incident, when a man turns shows up without any gold, one of Columbus’ crew members chops off his arm. On hearing about this, Columbus imprisons him, but this forces a split in the camp. Soon every one is at each other’s throat. Columbus goes on a rampage — like the British in 1857 — and kills the natives as well as his mutinous compatriots.
He is unflinching in his goal: He wants to build a New World, he tells a priest who is sickened by his cruelty and wants to leave. But his New World does not last. In one storm, everything is destroyed. Complaints against him cause the Ferdinand and Isabella to send a replacement. Columbus is jailed and the credit for discovering the mainland goes to another Italian – Amerigo Vespucci. He is eventually pardoned and sent on a voyage by Isabella.
Columbus’s life was very eventful and this movie does not capture the entire drama. For example, initially, he spent quite some time wandering in various countries trying to get funding for his voyage. Towards the end, his fourth voyage turned out to be a disaster. He got caught in various storms and hurricanes and got stranded for a year. But if these were included, the movie would have been extended by a few days.
When it comes to such movies, you also have to pay attention to what is not said. Isabella was not being magnanimous by partially financing Columbus’ first voyage. She had no other option. The wars against the Moors had bankrupt the empire and they had to find new lands to plunder. In the movie, Isabella comes across as this wise motherly figure which she was not. One important event, which happened few months before Columbus’ voyage and not shown in the movie is Isabella’s expulsion of Jews from Spain by the Alhambra Decree and the forced conversion of the Muslims of Granada.
Even the portrayal of Columbus is not without issue. The movie is quite sympathetic to him and his spirit of adventure. To counter Columbus, a troubled soul by the name of Moxica is introduced. Moxica is the one who tortures the indigenous people and is greedy while Columbus acts like a statesman. What is missing is a critical look of the influence of the Papal Bull of 1493 on later voyages and what effect the Conquistadors had on these people. The movie ends with Columbus narrating the voyage of his tales to his son to redeem his name. That scene should have been interspersed with what happened to the indigenous people.