I mentioned in my last post that we just got back from Spain. While we were there, I posted a photo of a statue of Columbus meeting with his financial backer, Queen Isabelle of Aragon, in the city of Granada. Granada was the last Moorish holdout, the site of the incredible Alhambra palace, the seat of power of Moorish Caliphates for far longer than Spain has (even still) been a country. In fact, the overthrow of Boabdil in Granada occurred in January of 1492, the same year that Isabelle and Ferdinand agreed to fund Columbus’ westward trip to India. Before that date, Spain as we know it didn’t exist as a single country; it had comprised of four different kingdoms with different rulers, cultures, and languages.

Hearing about history while in another country always adds nuance and depth that we can’t get when we only see it from the perspective of the American narrative we learned growing up. There has been a lot of public discussion in Spain about the controversial nature of Columbus, the millions of people who died as a result of his contact with the New World, whether he was a good leader or not, and how much he should be lauded or reviled.

I also posted a photo of a painting we saw in the Alcazar in Sevilla, the first painting that included Native Americans. The painting is also considered to be the most accurate rendition of blond-haired, broad shouldered Columbus. It was painted soon after his life, and his son agreed it was a good likeness of him. In the painting, the Virgin of the Navigators, the Virgin Mary oversees her subjects. Her cloak covers the seas, the continents, the Spanish royal family, the explorers (including Columbus), and the newly converted natives who huddle together behind the Europeans. The guide pointed out that whether this protection actually extended to the natives was certainly questionable, and that Columbus’ status and reputation were never recovered when his brutality against the Spanish colonists, and to a lesser extent, the natives, was revealed back in Spain. As a result, he was brought back to Spain in chains and faced charges for crimes. He was pardoned for his crimes, but also stripped of his titles, and they were never restored to him. These facts are well known in Spain, although the 48-page report detailing the original investigation into his crimes were only discovered in 2005 in a state archive in Valladolid.

Regardless this fascinating / horrifying information, most Americans are generally aware of the problematic nature of Columbus, even if it wasn’t what was taught in school (best rundown of such can be found at The Oatmeal). For example, it is widely known that native populations were decimated by contact with Europeans, introducing such fatal diseases as smallpox. According to the records in Spain’s archives, there were approximately three million natives who were either killed directly or indirectly by this contact with the Spaniards. In response to the modern charge that Columbus committed genocide of natives, one contemporary Spanish defense was that he didn’t intend to kill the natives because he meant to enslave them, so . . . if they had just gone along with that, nothing bad would have happened to them (except being slaves perhaps). The painting refers to the idea that he intended to convert them to Christianity, a Spanish defensive narrative that occurred in the century following Columbus’ conquest of the Americas, and that dominated for centuries afterward. The notion that the so-called discovery of the New World was beneficial to natives in bringing them Christian conversion is, you’ll doubtless recognize, the same justification found in the Book of Mormon.

And I looked and beheld a man among the gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many water; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.

—1 Nephi 13:12

Many Church leaders have opined about the “divine inspiration” of Columbus, but none quite so imaginatively as Spencer Kimball:

In 1950, Elder Spencer W. Kimball testified that God “inspired a little boy, Christopher Columbus, to stand on the quays in Genoa, Italy, and yearn for the sea. He was filled with the desire to sail the seas, and he fulfilled a great prophecy made long, long ago that this land, chosen above all other lands, should be discovered. And so when he was mature, opportunity was granted to him to brave the unknown seas, to find this land . . . and to open the door, as it were”

Let’s get real. This vision of Columbus as a boy who wanted to sail is pure invention, a fanciful idea based on someone’s wishful thinking, a notion driven by an uncritical view of the goodness of European adventurers bringing a new culture into a foreign land, a view that their invasive culture and aims were more valuable than those of the native people, that they were providing something more valuable than what they were taking.

Imagine my surprise when a Facebook comment by a former fellow ward member asked where this information about Columbus being tried for his crimes during his lifetime had come from. I replied that it was apparently fairly common knowledge in Spain where it had happened; that he was stripped of his titles was a matter of public record, and his appeals were well known. The ignominy was a sore point for him, one that haunted him the rest of his life, and he and his son worked hard, in vain, to restore the family reputation. This commenter had completed her public education in Mexico, and she had not been taught this (nor had I, in the US). Our American school narratives (and that of the Book of Mormon) seemed to be a byproduct of the Euro-centric version of events in which God inspired Columbus to bring Christianity to the natives, overlooking the price the natives paid for this contact and the greed and ruthlessness that actually fuelled Spain’s efforts. The version of history we’ve been taught sides with the colonists (or conquerors) rather than the natives, which is also what the Book of Mormon does, even though it purports to be a book from the perspective of the natives. The natives are better off being conquered because it will restore them to Christianity and make them white again, no longer indolent and idolatrous.

Another of my favorite podcasts is The Rest is History, featuring British historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook. Earlier this year they did a podcast about the British Empire which started with a fantastic quote about empirialism. In his Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser, anti-hero Sir Harry Flashman explains the martial success of the British Empire on the following basis rather than the standard heroic narrative: 

“Presence of mind, if you like, and countless other things, greed and Christianity, decency and villainy, policy and lunacy, deep design and blind chance, pride and trade, blunder and curiosity, passion, ignorance, chivalry and expediency, honest pursuit of right, and determination to keep the bloody frogs [1] out.” [2]

Flashman is one of those great characters who say terrible but true things that are so awful they make you laugh with their dark humor. Another example of his wit that casts light on the so-called “virtues” of conquest:

“Some human faults are military virtues, like stupidity, and arrogance, and narrow-mindedness.”
― George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman

Fraser also said something valuable about those who prefer myth to history:

“I think little of people who will deny their history because it doesn’t present the picture they would like.”
― George MacDonald Fraser

In the podcast, the historians point out that Flashman has been “cancelled” by those who dislike the character’s expressed racist views (and his frequent sexual assaults), although those are clearly being presented as an indictment of imperialist Victorian ideals. Santhnam Sanghera, the author of Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain[3], who is also a fan of Flashman, is interviewed in the podcast. When asked about the modern trend to expose historical narrative, he explains that we can’t see empire as “good” or “bad”:

When you say you’re proud of imperial history, what does that mean? You’re proud of slavery? You’re proud of abolition?

. . . [One colleague]called me a couple years ago and said “We need to teach the crimes of empire.” I’ve got no time for that. Then [another colleague] was saying, “We’ve got to teach the glories of the empire.” I’ve got no time for that. The only way to teach this stuff is by nuance and not to make it a balance sheet thing. It’s really hard to get away from that. 

The Flashman series takes the idea of myth-making seriously, even if it also recognizes that those myths are basically full of crap. It’s full of crap in a way that matters to people.

People don’t like to have their myths challenged and generally dislike people who do.  You can say they are backward,  benighted, or provincial if you want to.[6] You can also say that they understand there is often a difference between facts and truth. Historians, for quite a while now, have been dealing in a lot of one, and increasingly little of the other. So a large section of the public, both left and right, don’t trust historians.

The messages of Fraser’s Flashman Papers series are two-fold, contradictory, and both valid: on the one hand, don’t believe the myths of history, and on the other, the myths of history are important. 

As the above article points out, myths cohere communities, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. It brings us together in the wake of 9/11 or Parkland. Christianity and Islam both carry myths that bring people together. Mormonism is no exception to this. But by the same token, the German myths about Jews led to the Holocaust, and the myth of the “Lost Cause” fueled white Southerners’ inability to get past the Civil War.

I’ve mentioned several times before a post done by Carter Hall years ago on the now defunct Mormon Matters blog, about the difference between Superman and Spiderman as myth-making tropes. In the Superman mindset, our heroes must be godlike and perfect; any criticism of them will rebound on the critic because they are impenetrable and utterly deserving of our full loyalty. In a Spiderman mindset, our heroes have to make mistakes and be growing into a heroism that doesn’t quite fit. They have girl trouble, can’t keep a job, make moral blunders, and get acne. Not only are they allowed to be fully human, but their humanity is why we root for them; we can relate to them. It’s OK to discuss their failures as well as their strengths, to question their motives and their collateral damage. That’s where the value lies. That’s where the lessons of history can be found. Unfortunately, we don’t do that very well in the Church: the curriculum doesn’t do it, most of the members don’t question it or know what they are talking about, and the leaders often discourage taking a hard look at our history because there’s a lot of bad stuff in there that rightly erodes confidence in leaders. This seems to be a conservative trait, as we are hearing about in the war on “critical race theory” which is apparently broadly defined as anything that questions the heroic myth-building that’s baked into our curriculum. Some of the conservative curricula are so bad that home school texts refer to slavery as the “African migration.” But our Church curriculum is often not much better.

Whenever Columbus (or any other valorized historical figure) comes under fire the argument is immediately trotted out that he was just a product of his time and everyone was the same back then. First, no, he wasn’t just like everyone else, mostly because he had opportunity to do so much damage and give his worst impulses full rein (as can be said of all powerful people), and his actions were bad enough that he was stripped of his titles.[4] This was done because his contemporaries complained about him and investigated him; they didn’t see him as a perfect hero. He was brought back to Spain in chains by his contemporaries, not by croc-wearing, hot dog eaters of our own time (h/t JCS). But I will also point out what The Oatmeal did, that a contemporary of Columbus went to the New World as a conqueror and instead became a humanitarian, fighting for the rights of the natives (freeing his own slaves and becoming a priest in the process).[5] That man was Bartolome de las Casas, known among Spaniards as “The Defender of the Indians.”

  • What myths do you see as important to the Church? Which ones have negative effects?
  • How could we improve the curriculum at Church to deal with facts that contradict our heroic narratives?
  • What lessons are we failing to learn from history by preferring white-washed myths?
  • Should Columbus be cancelled? If so, what does that entail? If not, how should we teach about Columbus?
  • Is the Book of Mormon’s pro-Columbus prophecy problematic? Why or why not?


[1] That’s the French to non-Brits.

[2] Fraser also originated another charming villain in his novels, a name familiar to our regular commenters: John Charity Spring. 

Without spoiling much of the plot itself, John Charity Spring (a fictional British sea captain) is a delightful villain in a book about villains, a murderous, insane, cultivated, educated and hilariously ignorant sea devil who is quick to administer stern moral lectures (and quotations from Ovid and Vergil), flogging innocents a minute later – and then visiting church and having tea with his accordion-playing wife in heart-melting harmony.

[3] He mentions that in writing he has a hard time not using “we” for the British because that is where he has lived his whole life, although those who dislike his anti-colonialist views see him as “other” and he’s been told to “go back to where he came from,” which is England. He has learned that this is something people say to him rather than to other authors on this subject sheerly as a matter of race.

[4] Although let’s not undersell the idea that as a wealthy man, he was targeted as a means to take some of that personal plundered wealth away from him and keep it for Spain.

[5] After a brief detour into suggesting African slaves as a better alternative to native slaves.

[6] In the words of The Oatmeal:

“But Columbus Day is an American tradition!” – Some ignorant, white man from Bumretch, Nebrahoma