A Credo for the Post-Columbian World

Reviewed by Vinay Lal

Ziauddin Sardar, Ashis Nandy, Merryl Wyn Davies, and Claude Alvares. The Blinded Eye: 500 Years of Christopher Columbus. New York: The Apex Press; Goa: The Other India Press, 1993. 92 pp. Rs. 45/-.

[First published in Economic and Political Weekly 29, no. 33 (19 August 1994), pp. 2142-44.]

Five hundred years have elapsed since Christopher Columbus landed at the island of Gunahani in the Caribbean, an event more popularly rendered as his ‘discovery’ of America, and these years have not been pretty. In a work that is described as the “world’s first post-Columbian manifesto”, four distinguished writers, thinkers, and cultural critics, whose voices among others constitute the social conscience of our generation, state in plain language that the consequences of the voyages undertaken by Columbus, and subsequently by numerous other navigators, pirates, conquistadores, and colonizers, have been calamitous not only for the colonized but for the entire world. These voyages, write the authors of The Blinded Eye, “led to the imposition of a world-view and the installation of a global order through which millions of people, and thousands of other living species, simply lost their rights to exist” (p. 2). This argument is, in itself, not novel, which is scarcely to say that it does not stand quite far apart from the dominant view which locates 1492 as the beginning of the ‘modern’ era and all that which is thus ‘good’ in life, and even from the somewhat more sensitive view which admits to the horrors perpetrated — knowingly or otherwise — by Europeans but is blinded from recognizing that Europe itself became brutalized in the course of its domination over the world. As Ashis Nandy has often reminded us, victory can be more hazardous than defeat, a more onerous burden to bear; in the words of Romain Rolland, “Victory is always more catastrophic for the vanquishers than for the vanquished.”

If there appears to be a charge from which the authors of The Blinded Eye may have to be defended, it is that they have, in a reversal of roles, rendered Europe into the ‘Other’, not unlike the manner in which Europe banished the rest of the world to the domain of the ‘Other’, and thereby also illustrated the near impossibility of creating an autonomous realm of criticism not already contaminated by European epistemologies. It is only a brave and bold European who will be able to read unflinchingly the massive indictment of his civilization delivered in The Blinded Eye. In the 500 years since the voyages commenced, write Sardar et al, “the generally unhappy features of the European native, his disturbed thinking, his distorted perception and his spiritually barren cultural objectives have been replicated and duplicated mindlessly in all those places and within all those people on whom he sought to impose himself” (p. 2). But it is only an untutored and careless reader, one afflicted with “endemic blindness”, who will fail to recognize that the authors of The Blinded Eye are guided by no mean desire to calumniate the West (much less Columbus), but rather by the concern that the spiritual heirs of the perpetrators of the holocausts unleashed upon the world remain in our midst today. It is the “Columbus within” from which we have the most to fear today, and if there is any emancipation in the world, it is as much for ‘Them’ as it is for ‘Us’. The utopia of Nandy and his friends, if there is one, lies not in the past, as it does for nationalists and traditionalists for whom there is the always the golden age of antiquity, but in the future.

The subject of this work, let it clear from the outset, is not Christopher Columbus. That Genoan seaman, working for the Spanish monarchy, as though by way of providing an omen for the appropriative strategies of white multiculturalism today, is only an icon, albeit a momentous one, of the unprincipled adventurism of the West, and of the anthropology of a monstrous Otherness by means of which the West shaped its understanding of the rest of the world. A great deal has been made of Columbus as an inaugurator of the modern era, of his scientific prowess, and of the visionary impulses that led him on to new and daring quests, but the authors of The Blinded Eye put these gross misconceptions to rest. Consider, for example, the widely accepted notion that Columbus was ahead of his time in thinking of the world as round; as Cole Porter was to put it in one of his lyrics,

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
when he said the world was round.

The authors of The Blinded Eye note that Columbus did not have to convince anyone that the world was round, as “no self-respecting medieval scholar believed anything else.” Medieval European scholarship knew the world as round; the Mappa Mundi or World Map of Hereford, which dates to about 1280, is “decidedly circular” (p. 10). But it was not only medieval scholars who had, by the fifteenth century, rejected the ‘flat earth’ theory, for as one scholar has shown convincingly in a recent work, even people lacking in education believed in nothing but a round earth. The earth was, as it were, “flattened” in the nineteenth century by American polemicists and scholars who, alarmed at the attack upon Darwin’s Origin of Species by creationists and theologians, set to establishing that religion had always been an impediment to science. The views of a few believers in the flat-earth theory were construed as being typical of the ‘dark ages’, and against this backdrop of superstition, medievalism, and presumed hostility to science, Columbus was made to appear as an enlightened man standing at the frontiers of knowledge. Our authors note that Columbus, despite his years of nautical experience, was merely a believer in a small earth, with some preposterous ideas about the size of the oceans and the land mass, and he thus labored under the illusion that the shortest way to India from Europe was by way of proceeding westward.

Columbus was even less a herald of the modern. Unlike Francis Bacon, for whom the experiment provided the only grounds for truth, Columbus was prone to trust, in the manner of the schoolmen whom Bacon denounced so vehemently, the authority of texts a great deal more than than his eyes; and as Todorov has shown so eloquently, Columbus was to construe everything that happened as that which had already been foretold by the prophets. The point need not be belabored; Columbus was essentially a neo-Platonist, and what is most striking and ironical is that the advent of modernity should owe something to a man who could not belong to the modern world. It was “old ideas [making] new departures” when Columbus, carrying with him a “mental geography that included an anthropology of barbarism”, set sail for the Indies (pp. 18, 20).

Western Christendom, of whose “cultural and ideological personality” Columbus was as good a specimen as any, had one might say specialized in the production of images of Otherness. The Israelites, as even a cursory reading of the Old Testament suggests, “unambiguously saw the earth as hostile”, and they “had an almost murderous conception of it.” The hostile attitude to nature, as well as to other cultures, whose gods were perforce to be destroyed, “was incorporated in Judaic monotheism” and “passed on to Christianity as well” (pp. 19-20). As for that other great fount of Western civilization, classical Greece, it was predicated on “the separateness of the Greeks from other peoples”; all those who could not speak Greek were reduced to being barbarians. The Greeks also furnished a large part of what was to become the “medieval iconography of Otherness”: they introduced the pygmies; the kynokepohaloi or dog-headed people whom Columbus thought he would encounter in India; the Akepheloi, the people with no head and with their eyes on their chest; and the cyclops, the people with only one eye. The Greek world was inhabited with numerous centaurs, minotaurs, satyrs, and hybrid races, all representations of people whom the Greeks saw as essentially different from them. As the authors of The Blinded Eye go on to argue, Roman literature is likewise replete with images of barbarous Otherness, which eventually found their way into the medieval imagination (pp. 19-27). With the shift from the original teaching of Christianity, which focussed on the divinity that dwells within, to the emphasis on the historical figure of Jesus himself, Christian history had become “a steadily lengthening chronicle of mass neurosis” (p. 28). The drive, initiated by Augustine, for “orthodox uniformity”, which the authors of The Blinded Eye mark as a “major social and political problematique of the West”, the “actual idea from which it goes manic and demented”, was to render western Christendom into “the most successful totalitarian society known to man” (p. 28). Ironically, it was the Christianity of the Inquisition, which visited untold horrors among millions of people, that was to wage a relentless war against the ‘barbarous Muslims’ as well, and that too at a time when “Muslim Spain was the only multicultural society of European history” (p. 31). Let us not forget that Dante, the poet of Christendom, consigned the Prophet Muhammad to the Inferno.

The Blinded Eye goes on to delineate the manner in which the “anthropology of barbarism” was brought into the service of European colonialism and imperialism. In the last decade of the fifteenth century, Europeans set into motion three critical features that were henceforth to constitute the epistemological apparatus of colonialism. Before Columbus even set sail, Spain and Portugal had already decided to carve up the world between themselves: the sole right to possession had been staked. An obliging Pope was to confirm this arrangement in 1493. In the year that Columbus set forth into the unknown, the Jews were expelled from Spain, and European civilization had once again show that it was to be characterized by exclusivity. The circle of those who were to be included with the realm of the human, or at least the fully human, could only shrink, not expand. And, finally, having sailed and stumbled upon the Caribbean islands, the Europeans at once assumed the unilateral prerogative to name. The islands were re-christened; lands deemed to be “empty” and “barren” were, in fulfillment of the divine command, peopled with the children of Christ. God had ordained that “waste” was inoffensive to His designs, and as the indigenous people stood in the way of productivity (pp. 73-76), their destruction was wrought as much with ingenuous arguments and invocations to biblical teachings as with superior technologies. The stage had been set for the appropriation of the world.

The Americas (and later other parts of the world, such as Australia) no doubt furnished many peopled celebrated as pioneers, and pioneer they did in inventing new modes of pillage and in rendering the native population extinct. Europe had been speculating about barbarians and strange races for some time; the encounter with the Native American was to render this writing into an ‘actuality’. Thus the numerous marvels of the East found in early maps, such as the dog-headed people of India, were transposed to the Americas, as in Mercator’s world map of 1538 (p. 39). The best minds of Europe were now to be devoted to deliberating upon such questions as whether the Amerindians were natural slaves. How could they, a people without faith, living outside the law, be otherwise? Although at least one prominent jurist, Francisco de Vitoria, was inclined against categorizing Amerindians as natural slaves, he had no difficulties with slavery as such, and was emphatically of the view that Africans were better as “slaves among Christians than free in their own lands” (p. 50). That great chronicler of the atrocities perpetrated upon the Amerindians by the Spaniards, Bartoleme de Las Casas, whose name is routinely and unthinkingly cited as an indication of the West’s purportedly unique capacity for self-criticism, and of the quest for ‘truth’ that has guided the West in its intellectual and political endeavors, nonetheless had a virulent hatred for the “Turks and Moors, the veritable barbarian outcasts of the nation.” Las Casas, not surprisingly, had a radical ‘Other’ too, and indeed even his defence of the Amerindians appears quite something else when we consider that he desired the annexation of Indians to be effected by priests rather than soldiers. Similarly Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most enlightened of the American ‘founding fathers’ (though it is easier to catalog what they destroyed than what they founded), could not think of the American Indians as anything but children, and “transcendent necessity” drove him and his followers to incorporating the Indians into their world-view. The view of Jefferson was still somewhat benign, for most of his fellow Europeans, more inclined to think of American Indians (and the residents of Polynesia, Melanesia, and other places) as ‘barbarous savages’ rather than ‘noble savages’, had already invented cannibalism. No greater sanction was needed to subjugate or eliminate indigenous populations. Once a few images of something that purported to be cannibalism had been generated, they were endlessly circulated, and iteration would now perform the work of colonialism.

Much of the terrain covered in The Blinded Eye will be familiar to critics of colonialism and others who are in the habit of serious reading, but it is the particular inflection which the authors furnish to their reading that gives their work a political edge beyond the ordinary. On the subject of cannibalism, for instance, the critical question is scarcely whether the case for cannibalism has been proved or not; rather, the European obsession with cannibalism serves as “a pointer to the power of the European mind to overwrite the world” (p. 49). As they argue, “the invention of the Other was a vital tool for European self consciousness”, and when the “unitary framework that united European self-consciousness was under stress”, the need to redefine what was European led to the perpetration of greater horrors without (p. 42). Carrying the story onward into the era of British and French imperialism, one could certainly state that the English began to gain some understanding of themselves as English only after they had acquired their colonies overseas; and although the authors of The Blinded Eye do not say so, it is also certainly arguable that a great deal of British colonial discourse has as its real subject the Englishness of the English. Europe has never been able to do without its Others; and though that may well be true of some or all other civilizations as well, nowhere was this Other so unfailingly, thoroughly, and violently marked as irremediably, radically different. It would be a mistake, moreover, to presume that Otherness was more marked when clearly inflected with race; “no design the English attempted to impose on India or North America or Africa was not first attempted on their own countrymen and later, with greater violence, on the Irish and Welsh as well” (p. 2). One has only to read Marx’s account of the Highland Clearances to understand what violence the English were capable of against the Scots.

This narrative of the European production of Otherness is necessarily cryptic, liable to be contested at every turn, and the forays into the “anthropology of barbarism” are bold; some readers may get the impression, which would be wholly erroneous, that violence and colonialism were a monopoly of the West. In the preceding five hundred years, however, colonialism has largely been a matter of the imposition of the West upon the rest of the world. From the point of view of the victim, there may not be much to choose between different forms of violence, but it is the contention of the authors of The Blinded Eye that the violence of European conquest, colonialism, and subsequently fascism is altogether of a different kind than the violence associated with ‘traditional’ societies. In their words, the “violence born of anger or hatred”, often tinged with “moral fervor, however distasteful”, or the ritualized violence which did not completely render the victim into an Other, “were both gradually substituted by dispassionate, amoral ‘banal’ violence based on mechanical, fully secular cost calculations” (p. 80). The world-view of the master has had no room for the slave except as someone who was not fully human, and often no better than a thing, but the slave’s cognition never rendered the master into someone other than a human, though no doubt a debased one.

As I have argued, Davies, Alvares, Sardar, and Nandy look to the future, and accordingly they turn their attention, in the concluding pages, to the “Columbus within”. If Europe’s imposition of itself on the ‘New World’, Asia, and Africa first came in the form of colonialism and imperialism, now it is in the name of ‘development’. Every non-Western regime “operating within the European concept of the nation-state” has committed itself to a “gargantuan exercise in social engineering” (p. 82), and numberless crimes continue to take place in order to prod supposedly slumbering peoples into becoming active participants in the project of modernity, in the massacre of their own civilized selves. In the earlier stage of the domination of European knowledge systems, the past of Europe was conceived as the present of non-European societies; in the script that is being written now, the future of the non-European world is only Europe’s present. In this nightmarish scenario, the destiny of the non-European world is to live in the quagmire of backwardness and envious and emasculated emulation a world that will never be within its grasp.

Columbus is now firmly installed within each of us, and his dislodging will require more than the affirmation of ‘universal rights’ and what is called identity politics. Proclamations from podiums will not carry us very far. From the vantage point of today, as we look back on the manner in which the West has been able to retain the management of even dissent, so that dissent has to appear in those forms which the West has construed as being legitimate, it becomes frighteningly clear that the “real achievement of the blinded gaze of oculus mundi is that even today all negotiation with Western civilization must be carried out through the West’s conventions. To secure amendment or concession, real people have to act either as if they were the Other invented by Europe or as if they have become part of the West” (p. 87). As with the American Indians, so once again the choice being offered the rest of the world is either enslavement or conversion. But perhaps one need not despair altogether, for if at one time only the West had its theory of the Other, today the Other too is developing its theories of the West (p. 85). That may lead the West to a different understanding of itself; it may also lead to the resuscitation of those submerged and dissenting traditions of the West which, marginalized by the homogenizing drive of colonialism, today are to be found largely in the non-West. We should read The Blinded Eye as a clarion call for emancipation from the blindness with which the West is afflicted and for the recovery of “our plural pasts, and through them our plural futures” (90). As the authors put it in their final words, that is the “only means to reclaim the debates silenced by Columbus’ success. And to survive.”