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Tag Archives | Christopher Columbus

The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

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.[1492: Conquest of Paradise]

By torturing and expelling people of other faiths, Isabella was simply acting on the guidelines set by Pope Gregory, who had sanctioned the Inquisition as a valid form of religious conversion technique. Now a new book God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World looks at the various Inquisitions that happened in history. Fresh Air had an interview with the author.

In the 13th century, after seeing that people were believing what they liked and not what was being preached, the Pope decided to act. Recognizing that this disobedience had political significance as well, Dominicans were asked to go out and use what Dick Cheney would have called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”, first on Cathars who lived in the South of France.

The use of torture was approved by the Pope in 1252 CE and the torturers believed that they were saving souls. Funeral pyres were lit and the heretics were asked to confess. If they did not comply, they were burned. If they confessed, they were still burned, because the soul would still go to heaven. If you have suffered through the first fifteen minutes of Season of the Witch, you can see how this works

Manuals were written and it compares with the modern army manuals. As people were tortured, their responses were recorded verbatim. And that was just the first Inquisition. By the time of the second Inquisition started by Isabella and Ferdinand, the victims included Jews and Muslims. Elaborate public spectacles were planned; diplomatic core and nobility were invited in the 15th century version of the Taliban football stadium.

The interview ends by talking about the third Inquisition which was conducted against the Protestants. By then the printing was common and book banning, burning and censhorship was added to the list. I have not read the book yet, but in the interview there was no mention of the Goan Inquisition (see Guardian of the Dawn).

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The Columbian Exchange

In 1492 Christopher Columbus made his famous voyage to the Americas which bought him fame and wealth, but death and disease to the natives. It also changed the Americas forever: they bought new plants and animals which created an ecological convulsion. In his new book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles C. Mann writes about the destruction caused by the Columbian exchange. Listen to the interview on Public Radio in which he explains how it led to slavery (bringing in Africans who had immunity to malaria), ecological damage (by earth worms from ship’s ballast) and how Chinese slaves ended in Peru (due to bird droppings).

“All of the great diseases from smallpox to measles to influenza … [did not] exist in the Americas because they didn’t have any domesticated animals,” says Mann. “When the Europeans came over, it was as if all the deaths over the millennium caused by these diseases were compressed into 150 years in the Americas. The result was to wipe out between two-thirds and 90 percent of the people in the Americas. It was the worst demographic disaster in history.”

Early accounts and diaries mentioned the epidemics in their accounts of life in the 1500s and 1600s. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that modern historians realized the scale of the human death toll in the years following Columbus’ landing, says Mann.

“When you start adding up everything that we know, it becomes apparent that there was just an enormous catastrophe that took place,” says Mann. “These diseases exploded like chains of firecrackers across the landscape.”[In ‘1493,’ Columbus Shaped A World To Be]

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16th Century Europe

In 1492 Christopher Columbus set of to Asia and reached the Americas. Six years later Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. Following these, Europeans made many such voyages, started trading companies and eventually colonized the world. But what was Europe like in those days? Movies like 1492: Conquest of Paradise and The Sea Hawk give us  some images, but they do not present the complete picture.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has posted lectures given by Prof. George L. Mosse in the Fall of 1969. One of the lectures (mp3) deals with this question and the image of Europe of that period is not pretty.

By 1500, economic conditions were severe: a price revolution was starting, but it was also a time of bad harvests. 1500 saw a total crop failure in all of Germany that resulted in peasant uprisings, looting and pillaging, to such a proportion that in 1501 Europe for the firsts time saw a paid police force to maintain order. Additional scourges were diseases and epidemics. First and foremost, the Black Death: To the populations of Europe, this seemed like a willful and arbitrary punishment. Between 1499 and 1502, whole populations were decimated. A new disease, syphilis, joined the plague. This prompted preachers to call for repentance, penance and pilgrimages. The Plague was more frightening than the syphilis, because it occurred suddenly and greatly disfigured its victims. All of this leads to a heightened religious sensibility and a search for answers by all parts of the population.

To find answers, people turned to a kind of literature that had come down from the Middle Ages and was most popular: books of prophecies. Their content was simple, promising hope for the future: darkness would be followed by light, and after the Anti-Christ would come Christ. The roots of these books lay partly in the bible (which, Mosse tells the students, he is sure they have never read), especially in the Books of the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse is written in symbolic terms. Before the book of the seven seals can be opened, “the wine must be pressed and the harvest reaped” that means, before Christ’s return there will be bloody wars and mass the conversion of the heathens, especially of the Jews, to Christianity. Man lived in the expectation that the world was coming to an end; Luther believed it, and so did all protestant reformers and many of the intellectuals. With it came astrology. The stars were now in an evil conjunction. Saturn was “the evil planet”. The Anti-Christ would come up from the darkness; for a short while the Jews would rule the world before their conversion. Then the book of seven seals would be opened. (For example, Shakespeare firmly believed in astrology).[European Cultural History 1500-1815 – Summary]

Read the whole thing: European Cultural History 1500-1815 – Summary

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Movie Review: 1492: Conquest of Paradise

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.

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