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Columbus revisited

As it was almost 500 years ago, so today controversy simmers over Columbus - not about whether he was the first to discover America, but whether his voyage was all to the good. The arguments pro and con are rife with myths and national pride.

Contrary to popular impression, Ferdinand and Isabella were not poor, but rather rich. While reluctantly supplying Columbus with three caravels, they lavishly provided an escort fleet of 130 vessels for their daughter's marriage to Philip of Austria, then agreed to a dowry of 200,000 gold crowns for their other daughter's marriage to the Prince of Wales.

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Except for outright illiterates, everyone knew the world was round. It was Columbus's math that experts questioned, charging that ''the Indies'' (China, Japan, India, and the East Indies) could not be where he claimed. They were right; by the most optimistic computations of the time, Columbus had underestimated the breadth of the Atlantic by 25 percent, and by today's reckonings, by 75 percent.

Thus, when he bumped into the Bahamas, he insisted he was in the Indies, or at least off the coast of Asia, even though the natives did not seem to have any of the riches legend ascribed to them. Perhaps, he thought, they were hiding the gold - or at least knew where it was. To win their confidence, he ''gave to some of them red caps and to some glass beads, which they hung on their necks, and many other things of slight value in which they took much pleasure.'' To be rid of him, they said gold was to be found just beyond the horizon, on the next island. Off he went.

In fact, as ''Perpetual Governor'' of all he discovered, he wanted ''the New World'' to be for Roman Catholics only, urging Ferdinand and Isabella not to ''allow any stranger, except Catholic Christians, to trade here or set foot here.'' When trinkets, island-hopping, and hopes for megagold failed, Columbus proceeded to enslave, kill, or convert the natives to Catholicism - as he had promised his royal sponsors back home.

In 1494 he introduced American native slaves to Spain, sending 500 to be sold. Later his brother Bartholomew sent another 300. A worse fate awaited those who remained.

In just the first two years of Spanish occupation of Hispaniola, one-third of the nearly 300,000 natives died. As a result, African slaves were imported to do the mining and plantation work, which King Ferdinand approved in order that ''all of these be getting gold for me.'' In subsequent years, his greed for gold increased, and he ordered larger shipments, believing that one black could easily do the work of four Indians. By 1548, only 500 natives were alive.

The magnitude of the devastation was not unnoticed by some writers of the time:

To Bartolome de Las Casas, the saintly ''Apostle of the Indies,'' the Spanish colonists ''behaved like ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days, ... killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples.''

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Peter Martyr, in the first known account of America's ''discovery,'' wrote that the natives were not accustomed to slave labor, which was ''killing them in great numbers and reducing the others to such a state of despair that many kill themselves.''

Thus, in 1492, Columbus introduced European brutality, religious triumph-alism, racial intolerance, trivial gift-giving and massive land-robbing - while his patrons back home gloated over having defeated Arabs and expelled Jews.

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