I wasn’t planning on writing anything to mark Columbus Day, but having been around the ‘net a bit this morning and seeing the ignorant comments about Columbus, I feel I just have to say something.
First off, what did Columbus do? He set off in to the unknown in three tiny ships with only minimal navigational aids and yet struck land in the place and in the time he thought he would. That, as anyone familiar with sailing can attest, is a remarkable achievement. That it wasn’t the land he was looking for is neither here nor there because no one in Europe knew about the Americas. It took incredible bravery for Columbus and his crew to do what they did and a remarkable amount of sheer seamanship. It is an achievement comparable with going to the Moon – but in some respects more difficult because they didn’t know what they would encounter, while our voyages to the Moon were without surprises on route, timing and what we thought we’d find when we got there. To make snide remarks about how Columbus thought he’d found Asia is asinine – its as if we found out there was a star 10 light years away with intelligent life on it and set out to see it…and on the way bumped in to a different star with intelligent life 5 light years away; it would still be a remarkable discovery.
Secondly, what didn’t Columbus do? First off, he didn’t bring war, death and slavery to the Americas – they already existed in the Americas. Why? Because humans lived there. And here’s a newsflash for ya, folks: the natives of the America were just like us. Full of anger and jealousy and greed and fear and stupidity, just like we have…and, of course, also full of dignity and courage and generosity, just like we have. People are people – Columbus did not discover Eden; that Garden we were all kicked out of long before Columbus came along…and we won’t get back in to it until the End, Columbus or no. It is just stupid to think that Columbus did something wrong – he did something and whenever anyone does something, it will have effects, and often effects never foreseen by the original doer of the deed. Columbus is not responsible for what happened to the natives of America.
Thirdly, just what was found in the Americas? Well, aside from primitive peoples, there were also civilized peoples…people so civilized that they had advanced to the point of massacring people in great, big bloody batches. The Mexica were not nice people – they were looting, enslaving and murdering their subjects. It is true that Columbus didn’t stop that, but he set in train the events which would eventually bring proper retribution to the Mexica for their crimes…and when they were overthrown, it was with the eager help of the native people the Mexica were oppressing. Should we instead wish that Columbus had sunk to the bottom of the sea and maybe the human sacrifices of Mexico continued for a few more centuries? Would that have been good? Oh, but what about all the natives who died of disease – what of it? It was terrible, but it wasn’t a crime on anyone’s part. No one knew how disease was transmitted…the Europeans hadn’t the foggiest notion that they were bringing disease. Given the nature of things, eventually the natives of America were going to be exposed to disease environments they were not resistant to…it was going to happen. If it hadn’t been Columbus then someone – either east or west of the Americas – was going to come to the Americas at some point…and the diseases would have still struck down the same number.
Columbus was a man of great courage and intelligence who played a man’s part in the world. Good and bad, he brought the Americas in to the mainstream of world history and set the stage which eventually allowed the United States of America to emerge as the greatest nation in human history. He is worthy of honor and emulation in his willingness to dare greatly. And, so, Happy Columbus Day!