How Columbus Became White

Luisa Farah Schwartzman, University of Toronto

This paper engages with the world that Columbus came from and the one that he encountered. The main argument is that the world at the time of Columbus was not neatly divided between the “West” and the “East,” or between Europe and the rest of the world. Columbus and his local contemporaries were centrally involved in the construction of these divisions, but the divisions could not be taken for granted. I use Columbus’s story (as a Genovese who worked in Portugal before moving to Spain) to talk about the trading links between Europe, Africa and Asia, which over time became colonial relationships. Then, I use his relationship with Isabella and Ferdinand in Spain to talk about the links between the Reconquista (the Christian conquest of Muslim-led polities in the Iberian peninsula) and the colonization of the Americas, showing that the project that took Columbus to the Americas was part of the same process that created the division between the West and the “Orient,” and between “Europe” and “Africa.” I discuss the influence of Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula up to that period (which linked Europe to Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and West Africa), and the relationship between Christian and Muslim expansion projects, both of which continued into the 19th century. I examine the caste system that existed and was transformed in the Iberian Peninsula at the time, which combined differences in social status with increasingly stigmatized differences based on religious origins, eventually incorporating the colonial relationship with Africa and the Americas. Finally, I take the reader with Columbus to Hispaniola, the place where he enacted a violent relationship with Indigenous peoples, and which would later become Haiti, to reflect on the intertwining of racializations around the Atlantic and beyond.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 139. Building the Racial Nation