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Christopher Columbus: Hero for the Ages or Genocidal Maniac?

October 10, 2010

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.

Who decides if Columbus is a hero or criminal?

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:!/video/video.php?v=1094029805720

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Priscilla permalink
    October 10, 2010 7:03 pm

    My personal favorite: “Why don’t you also reconsider Thanksgiving day? A day when you are thankful remebering a bunch of sanctimonious people who slaughtered the natives that not even a year before saved them form drowning into their own diarrhea ….”

    Ugh. I’ll have to get that image out of my mind before this year’s Thankgiving dinner, lol.

    • October 10, 2010 7:50 pm

      Priscilla: I’ll probably never look at turkey, cranberry sauce and candied yams the same way again. 😉

      What gets me about all these latter-day accusations is that there’s absolutely nothing we can do at this point to change history. All we can do is feel guilty, which I think is the point of all the accusations. (Well, that and reparations, too.) It’s time these injured souls recognized that they’re Americans, and that we’re all together on this bus trip.

  2. p-brane permalink
    October 11, 2010 12:59 pm

    I would like to point out that what Columbus did wasn’t actually all that impressive. People like to think that what Columbus did was an extraordinary feat of daring done by a navigational genius but the truth is that
    1.) Columbus deliberately fudged the maths about the time it would take to get to the Indies in order to get more of a chance of getting his stuff
    2.) People already knew the earth was round for over a thousand years (and they already knew its rough circumference since 240 b.c. (when Eratosthenes measured its circumference with a margin of error of only 5 to 10%)
    3.) The Portugese were already sailing to within a couple hundred miles of Brazil for years (to catch favorable winds to India) and it was only a matter of time before one sailed a bit too far and discovered it that way. Indeed, it might be possible the Portugese landed on Brazil before Columbus did (though no evidence for this has been found yet)

    While Columbus’s bad treatment of the natives may be ignored to a point (the 15th century was, after all, not a terribly enlightened period) I also think he shouldn’t have a freaking holiday named after him!

    • p-brane permalink
      October 11, 2010 2:18 pm

      By “his stuff”, I wanted to say “ships and funds to sail to China. Sorry about not clarifying that.

    • October 12, 2010 10:54 am

      p-brane: You make some intelligent objections to the notion that Columbus was a brilliant and indispensable historical personage, but of course my point of view is more moderate:

      1) We really don’t know for sure if Columbus deliberately underestimated the proposed distance of his voyage. Queen Isabella just might have been generous in granting his request… she knew his exploration would enhance Spanish wealth and prestige if it succeeded, and was willing to take the risk.

      2) True, but did they know the length of Asia in Columbus’s day? For all they knew, it might have extended all the way to the western shores of the Atlantic, flanked by island chains that no European had seen. (That’s what Columbus believed, anyway.

      3) “Within a couple hundred miles” doesn’t really cut it, unfortunately; what matters is who made landfall first. For example, back in 1968 Apollo 8 traveled all the way to the moon, made several orbits and returned to Earth without landing. It was by far the most extensive and adventurous space trip ever attempted up to that time. But who gets credit for being the first on the moon? The men on Apollo 11, who actually took their vehicle down to the surface and stepped out. Not that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin deserve a holiday in their honor; they were simply working for NASA. On the other hand, Columbus had to conceive his voyage, sell it to the rulers of Spain, assemble his fleet and crew, navigate the crossing, step onto alien shores, deal with the natives and build the first permanent European settlements in the New World. He never touched the North American mainland, but he made America possible. Would someone else have done it eventually? Sure. Just as someone would eventually have invented the telegraph if Samuel F. B. Morse hadn’t. But Morse gets the credit because he was first.

  3. Kent E. Garshwiler II permalink
    October 12, 2010 1:00 pm

    Columbus Day is a day that the Government set up for the United States citizens to remember that our existence on this continent because it wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for this man.

    If we are to read further into it we can all take something out of it; be it Positive or Negative. It isn’t the second, third, or fourth trips that should matter on this day. The fact that two different cultures met at a point in human history that changed the world as we had known it prior.

    No one really knew what to expect on the first encounter and it turned out to be a great experience for both sides. Unfortunately, one group had more technology and immunity to disease than the other and there were consequences later. How were the Native Americans supposed to know they should of been wearing “haz-mat suits”? Come-on people! Use some COMMON SENSE!

    Would some of you readers preferred the English to discover the New World first or France or maybe China?? Either way the world was getting smaller and a meeting was bound to happen.

    Should the United States government apologize? NO! Columbus was Spainish…not English…and the U.S. didn’t exist at that time.

    As 1/16th or 1/32nd Sioux I find it appalling to thing anything more than a brief first encounter to celebrate where we are today. Should we have a National holiday for Native Americans…OF COURSE! Learning about others is a great way to reduce fear and bring understanding of all cultures.

  4. October 12, 2010 2:02 pm

    Well said, Kent. We’re celebrating what happened on October 12, 1492 — that’s all. The first contact. We’re not celebrating Columbus the man or commemorating his birthday (which we don’t even know). We’re honoring a single stupendous feat: the European discovery of a vast new world across the sea, a world that had been previously unknown to them. (Well, the Vikings got to North America first, but they didn’t make anything of their discovery or spread the news to other nations.)

    And you’re right: the first voyage was a miracle of harmonious mutual discovery, with Columbus writing in glowing terms about the friendly and beautiful natives he encountered. It was the later massacre of his men at La Navidad that most likely hardened Columbus against the natives. But October 12, 1492 should always be a day to celebrate.

  5. valdobiade permalink
    October 12, 2010 5:32 pm

    Rick wrote: But October 12, 1492 should always be a day to celebrate.

    Yep, especially if you are government employee having this day paid and staying home. Taxpayers are paying for that. Unlike a lot of private companies that cannot afford that.

    And.. uh.. Kent, Columbus was Italian. His birthplace is hardily contested, he was born in Genoa. That he lived most of his life in contact with Spanish… that’s another kettle of fish. Columbus borrowed money from Spanish. Found the “new world” then Portugal, Spain, Portuguese and French established territories.

    USA is celebrating Columbus day just to show how such a beautiful, free, marvelous, extraordinary, democratic, republic, free, exceptional, luminous, for freedom, powerful, without equal country exist due to a day: October 12, 1492.

    Let’s celebrate!!!!!!

  6. valdobiade permalink
    October 13, 2010 7:21 pm

    Yay! There is also 4th July, the day when we got our independence from… uhhh… English speakers… well… I speak English but at least I don’t drive on left like those idiots.

    Well.. I am proud that I am an English descendant, not like these immigrants…

    Let’s celebrate!!! What’s 4 July? I don’t care, there are petards and light explosions outside… let’s go out… There are big discounts at the mall… Yay!

    Let’s invent more holidays… what? There are not anymore events worth to be observed? Hey! Let’s celebrate the day of “Mission accomplished”… Yay!

  7. Aishah Bowron permalink
    September 9, 2011 4:26 pm

    Celebrating Columbus Day is equal to celebrating genocide !. Christopher Columbus is a bad guy who brought death, violence and pain to the Americas !. I fucking hate Christopher Columbus ! Celebrating this genocidal killer must be stopped !.

  8. Aishah Bowron permalink
    February 18, 2013 12:52 pm

    Why is there an holiday for an Indian-killing slave trader ?

    • February 18, 2013 1:03 pm

      First of all, Columbus Day simply commemorates the discovery of the Americas on October 12, 1492. We don’t celebrate Columbus’s birthday or even the man himself. Second, life was harsh in those days… for just about everyone. Columbus started killing Indians because Indians massacred a garrison of his men. No doubt he was intent on exploiting the new land for riches that he could take back to Spain — that’s colonialism for you, and I don’t pretend to make apologies for it. But without colonialism, we’d still be living wherever our ancestors came from. There would be no United States.


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