Christopher Columbus: Hero for the Ages or Genocidal Maniac?
Just in time for Columbus Day, I discovered an intriguing video imploring us to “reconsider” honoring the world’s most famous (or notorious, depending on your politics) explorer with a public holiday of his own. Instead, the video suggests, we should use the day to honor native American culture.
We all know that the European discovery of the Americas proved to be the undoing of native cultures from the Arctic to the Tierra del Fuego. And yes, Columbus was less than kind toward the Caribbean natives he encountered. (Of course, some of them were less than kind to him and his men.) But after acknowledging his imperfections, do we really need to demonize the man who made America possible?
I’m all for setting aside a day to celebrate American Indian culture, but not by trashing Columbus and his achievements. Yes, he was harsh in subduing the tribes he encountered (life was harsh in those days). On his first voyage, he had fallen in love with the sweet, guileless Taino Indians who greeted him. But after another native group massacred a Spanish garrison on Hispaniola, Columbus and his men turned brutal in their retributions.
Still, Columbus was no genocidal maniac. The most devastating effect of his landing was the spread of communicable diseases through the native population — not exactly a deliberate extermination policy. And no reasonable person can hold Columbus responsible for the depredations of later conquerors like Cortez, Pizarro and Andrew Jackson.
The video itself is relatively mild and respectful (if reproachful) in tone. But you need to sample the thousands of comments (yes, thousands) to fathom the depth of the lingering animosity of American Indians and other nonwhites toward Columbus, the United States, and white people in general.
Of course American policy toward the Indians was typically unfair, dishonest and often brutal. We know that much. But would any of us — Native Americans included — wish that America had never happened? Does any thinking person really want to hit “rewind” and watch American civilization play in reverse — shrinking eastward, back to Plymouth and Jamestown, then vanishing from the shores of the continent?
We tend to romanticize the native cultures as noble and pristine. This exalted image isn’t without merit, but of course it’s an idealization. Would the descendants of the defeated tribes prefer to be living in a stone-age hunter-gatherer society without computers, modern medicine or even wheels? That’s the way I read it, to judge from the anger aroused by the Columbus Day video. And that’s a shame for all of us.
The worst of it is that so much of the anger is directed at present-day white Americans, including those whose ancestors had nothing to do with the vanquishing of native tribes. Collective guilt is a primitive and baseless concept. Anyone who levels the charge, or swallows it, simply isn’t thinking clearly.
They say time heals all wounds, but this one is still gaping after five centuries. Is there a doctor in the house?
Watch the video here: