The “Other” 1492 – a world in turmoil

This is a report of a presentation by Barb McAtee, at a “Cultural Conversations” program at the Plaza Library on October 14, 2010:

The standard American story of 1492 is a social myth* that has been taught to most grade-school children in the United Sates for many generations.   [*Ed.note: A myth is defined as a story embodying cultural history in a cultural context, which is intrinsic to that culture.  (Joseph Campbell, in “The Power of Myth” with Bill Moyers, says “Every mythology has to do with the wisdom of life as related to a specific culture at a specific time.”)  Such a myth conveys a culture’s “truth”– no particular social myth is necessarily “right” or “wrong” but is commonly interpreted solely through the lens of a cultural context.]  That mythology is peopled by several standard characters of American lore: the “fearless explorer” or the “primitive Indian” or the “freedom-seeking Pilgrim” – among other and later figures (like the “romantic cowboy” of the late 19th Century, a figure still portrayed in film today).    The people of 1492 and our subsequent history were not so two-dimensional, however, nor was the historical climate so simple as these cultural myths would indicate.

In her presentation, Barb McAtee stressed the complex social environment of the late 15th Century, its root causes and long-lasting effects, and the importance of such elements to the standard myth of 1492.  The historical context of Columbus’ voyage of 1492 was inextricably affected by the tumultuous events of the times.  Europe was just emerging from the Black Plague, the deadliest pandemnic in history, which claimed 30-60% of the population of Europe and created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals: labor shortages led to higher wages and the rise of the middle class, fear of “the stranger” (fueled by the introduction of the Plague into Europe from the Crimea and the introduction of leprosy by returning Crusaders) led to persecution and riots against Jews and foreigners and, eventually, in 1478, to Papal approval of the Inquisition.  Constant wars had depleted royal treasuries and gold and silver were in short supply.  Before Columbus’ first voyage, Europe had about $200 million worth of silver and gold (or about $2 per person); by 1600 C.E., there was eight times that amount in circulation and money superceded land in providing power & prestige.  The invention of the printing press provided for the spread of new ideas.  In Spain, the Moors were defeated, ending a period of relative security for the large Jewish population.  The ascent of Ferdinand and Isabella began the period the so-called “Spanish Expulsion” during which Spain’s large Jewish population were forced to either convert or be expelled.

The effect on Europe of Columbus’ landing in the Americas was probably more profound than a quicker route to the Orient (the original intent) would have been. Notwithstanding the many myths regarding the primitive nature of indigenous society, the Native Americans actually had achieved sustainable agriculture and the Europeans took many of those hitherto-unknown items back to Europe.  The cultivation of crops in the New World caused a food revolution in Europe.  In fact, eventually, three-fifths of the world’s crops came from New World, with 300 major foods being introduced into the European diet: potato, tomato, cultivated rice, coffee, chocolate, beans, squash, maize (corn), numerous fruits, berries and nuts, and spices unknown in the Orient.   The availability of these foods, following the devastation of the wars and plagues of the 14th and 15th Centuries, created a new (and healthier) diet for the European population.

Early stories/myths about the native population of the New World are now known to have been incomplete: that the natives were hunter-gatherers without civilization or agriculture or that there was a sparse population.  In fact, the native population had complex agriculture and civilizations.  Early estimates were from 1 to 1.5 million people on the North American continent, but we now know that the population of Central Mexico shrank from 25 million to less than 2 million in the first century after Columbus.   There was an estimated 90% decline of native populations over entire continent of North America.  In most cases, because of the extensive trade networks of the native populations, European disease reached many tribes before the explorers made direct contact.

Throughout her presentation, Ms. McAtee provided handouts with a wealth of statistics and suggested a variety of books on the subject.  (See box below this article.)   She also raised questions for the participants to ponder and led a discussion among the participants, in which people shared their knowledge of the subject, their viewpoints, and suggested further reading.

Some of the probing questions she raised are:  Can Columbus’ voyage really be considered a “discovery” since there were people here – and since he was not the first non-American to reach North America?  Who were the real savages and who were the civilized people?  Who should write history?  How should history be portrayed in school books? The presentation and the discussion among the participants did not presume to find final answers to these questions, but all agreed that it is necessary for us to look beyond our cultural myths and find a more balanced interpretation.


Barb McAtee  suggests double-checking dates which appear in any particular published “timetables of history” and she also added to her presentation with a recommended reading list on the subject, which  includes the following.

Axtell, James, Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America

Finkelstein, Norman H., The Other 1492 – Jewish Settlement in the New World

Jennings, Francis, Invasions of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest

Weatherford, Jack, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World

Weatherford, Jack, Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America

In addition, one of the program participants brought and recommended this book:

Menzies, Gavin, 1421 – The Year China Discovered America

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