On this wonderful Columbus Day, please be sure to ignore the historically illiterate, preening dimwits who will spend their time screeching about a fictional version of history where Europeans were the first to introduce rape, pillage, and slavery to the universally peaceful and noble inhabitants of the New World. It would of course be quite impossible for the Spanish to introduce rape, pillage and slavery to many cultures where rape, pillage, and slavery had been utterly commonplace for centuries.
Notice that these self-hating, white-guilt-ridden folks would never suggest that the nightmarish brutality of many Native American tribes outweighs whatever they accomplished. Even the propensity for cannibalism among some tribes must be understood in context, we’re told. Yet, somehow, the sins of some Europeans settlers automatically negate what the European explorers achieved and discovered.
“Besides,” the smarmy modern critic says, “Columbus didn’t even mean to discover America! And he never set foot in North America! And the Vikings got here first!”
Yes, those are all nice tidbits of information you acquired from Facebook memes, but how are they relevant? Of course Columbus didn’t mean to discover America. Nobody knew that America existed. How does that undermine the significance of the discovery? If some future team of intrepid astronauts accidentally discover a life-bearing moon of Jupiter on their way to explore Pluto, should we dismiss their groundbreaking, history-shaping discovery on the basis that they originally intended to make a different groundbreaking, history-shaping discovery?
As for the Vikings: again, how is Columbus’ incredible feat diminished by Leif Erikson’s exploits in a relatively small sliver of the North Atlantic 500 years prior? You may as well say that it would be unimpressive for me to cure cancer because Jonas Salk cured polio.
We should also remember — it seems that the modern scoffers really have forgotten this fact — that Columbus did not have the benefit of satellite navigation. He made his way by dead reckoning through uncharted waters. Over the course of his voyages, he discovered many Caribbean islands and explored the coasts of South and Central America. He didn’t make it to North America but he made it possible for future settlers to soon find it. That’s quite an achievement, I would say. Or must he be blamed for only discovering half of the western hemisphere while recklessly neglecting to discover the other half? That seems a rather stringent standard, especially coming from people who can’t locate their local supermarket without GPS.
And what about the natives Columbus encountered? Yes, many of them were peaceful. And we all agree that mistreatment of peaceful people is wrong.
By the same token, we should bear in mind that the Rousseau-ian vision of the universally noble savage occupying the New World was incorrect. Columbus was in the neighborhood of the Caribs, a violent people who captured and consumed other human beings. Columbus heard stories of them on his first voyage and bumped into them on his second. Samuel Eliot Morison, in his book “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” describes the Spanish encounter with this charming group:
The searching party found plentiful evidence of [the] unpleasant Carib habits which were responsible for a new word — cannibal — in European languages. In the huts deserted by the warriors, who ungallantly fled, they found large cuts and joints of human flesh, shin bones set aside to make arrows of, caponized Arawak boy captives who were being fattened for the griddle, and girl captives who were mainly used to produce babies, which the Caribs regarded as a particularly toothsome morsel.
Columbus was close to Aztec territory as well. He never met them (that civilizational clash would be saved for later) but it is worth noting that the Aztec empire was not exactly a picture of peace and serenity. Tens of thousands of people were captured and killed as human sacrifices every year in macabre religious ceremonies. An offering was laid on a stone slab at the top of the temple, his beating heart was ripped out of his chest, his arms and legs were hacked off and consumed, and his limbless carcass was rolled down the steps. This process was repeated dozens or even hundreds of times in a single night, and thousands of times over the course of a year. For a long time, historians and archeologists assured us that the Spanish fabricated or exaggerated these stories of Aztec barbarism — they say the same about the stories of Carib barbarism — but then they discovered the skull racks buried in Mexico City.
Columbus never governed with the savagery of an Aztec king or a Carib chieftain, but he did take slaves. That’s true. He was a man of his time in that way. Although the Spanish would eventually outlaw slavery, and beat almost every other culture in the world by hundreds of years in doing so, they cannot be absolved of their role in that ubiquitous evil. Neither can they be uniquely blamed for it. We can wag our fingers about it, but we cannot wag our fingers selectively. If we call the Spanish “genocidal,” we must say the same about indigenous people who participated in the same crimes. If we convict the Europeans for “stealing land,” we must convict natives for the same crime. The knife of historical moralizing cuts both ways.
Or we can mature a bit and learn to view history in its context. Seen through that lens, Columbus appears before us as a deeply flawed but incredibly brave and ingenious man who is responsible for one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. Perhaps you could have done better, but probably not. You probably wouldn’t have even tried. And that’s why Columbus gets his own holiday. He earned it. You might complain about him, but I take note of the fact that you still remain in this country, living off the fat of its land and enjoying fruit from trees planted by people greater and more significant than yourself. So, go ahead and scoff at those men as you feast on the bounty they provided you. But pardon me while I dismiss your criticism and offer up a little toast to Christopher Columbus. Thanks for your contributions, old man. I, for one, appreciate it.
Happy Columbus Day.