Rethinking Columbus

You may recall that a month or so ago, there was a bit of a hubbub in the papers about people wanting to take down or at least relocate certain monuments to Confederate generals and leaders. Has anything come of that, by the way?

Lost even further down in the media coverage were a few proposals to remove statues and other similar proposals to sweep Christopher Columbus under the rug, as it were. I believe that the City of Los Angeles decided to change the name of “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day”. In New York City, it was suggested that Columbus Circle be renamed, and the massive monument in the middle of the circle get put someplace where no one would be forced to look at it. A modest statue (a bust, actually) of Columbus in my area was smashed by vandals.

This is all part of an ongoing movement to discredit Columbus at best, and brand him as a genocidal maniac at worst.

Is it at all possible anymore to have a reasonable discussion about him?

Let’s be honest; he’s been mythologized in to demigod status in the past. Part of that is due to the promotion of Italian-American organizations. However, he’s been celebrated in America since 1792. Historians trying to correct the record – or at least present a fair assessment – find to their dismay that important information isn’t there. We know little about Columbus’ background and ancestry. We don’t have the specifications on the ships of his first voyage. And of course, we don’t even know where he made his first landfall.

But in taking down the myths, some people have gone too far in the other direction. They’ve fallen for the myth of the “noble savage”, and believe that all the native Americans were happy hippies living in perfect harmony with each other and nature.

That’s just as dangerous a myth to believe; it can lead to a paternalistic attitude towards natives (“We must protect the innocents from any outside influence!”) that can be just as harmful.

The reality is that the Taino that Columbus encountered were no strangers to violence. He wrote in his journal that a lot of the men were scarred. When communications were established well enough for him to ask about that, he was told that the scars were from battles with other islanders, who were raiding them to steal their food and women.

From Cuzco to Cahokia, native Americans built huge cities – certainly not living in peaceful little communes. And need I remind anyone that the Aztecs weren’t the only civilization in the New World that practiced ritual human sacrifice?

To hear some of his critics, you’d think that Columbus personally killed every single native he came across, and with his bare hands! What really killed the natives? Diseases like smallpox and typhus. They spread much faster than any European could travel, and (depending on whose numbers you use) killed anywhere from 50% to 90% of the population. North American civilizations were destroyed even before Europeans got there.

Look, Columbus wasn’t a perfect human. He wasn’t the superhero we wanted him to be. But he came from humble beginnings, learned a new line of work and got good at it, kept his ear to the ground for new opportunities, figured out a bold and risky and innovative plan to meet a need, persuaded enough people to back him, and then led the 15th Century equivalent of the first Moon landing.

Kind of a typical American success story, wouldn’t you say?

Isn’t that worth celebrating?

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