Defending Columbus

A lot of people just don’t like the guy – including a family member of mine who has a significant amount of Native American blood. But I do think that he’s gotten a bit of a bad rap and someone should stand up to defend him.

First off, the modern picture being built up of Columbus as some sort of racist-sexist-imperialistic pig deliberately trying to destroy and conquer is nonsense. Columbus was, first and foremost, a seaman and explorer. That was his main thing in life – he liked to go to sea, he liked to explore. And he was very good at both.

There is some ridiculous bit of Columbus revisionist humor out here which holds that he didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing – but he knew precisely where he wanted to go and, actually, he hit land in the New World pretty much exactly at the time and place he calculated – it just wasn’t the land he was looking for, because the earth was larger than he thought. And think about what he did the job with: his flagship – the Santa Maria – was 62 feet long. To give you a bit of contrast, the 19th century U.S. frigate Constitution is 175 feet long, and a modern, Burke class destroyer is 509 feet. Columbus was at sea in tiny boats. Not only were the ships tiny, but navigation was still primitive. Tell a ship’s captain today that he’s to go from Spain to Cuba with merely a compass to help navigate and he’d turn you down – and he at least knows where Spain and Cuba are in relation to each other! Columbus didn’t. He set off into the blue thinking that just maybe there was land at such a such a place and he would find it by using dead reckoning navigation…and he did it. This is an astounding achievement of seamanship regardless of what else one wishes to think about Columbus or the arrival of European in the New World.

In addition to denigrating Columbus’ achievement as a ship’s captain, the more important condemnation of Columbus is that he did morally wrong by arriving in the New World. Columbus was the deliberate and malicious bringer of slavery and genocide to the New World. This assertion stands in the public mind firmly atop the very large number of Natives who died – but to me, it is absurd to condemn Columbus for things he never intended and especially for things which happened after he was absent from the New World. Columbus’ intention was to find a trade route to Asia – he wasn’t intending on finding a New World, still less one which, in the event, turned out to have no immunity to non-American diseases. He wasn’t out to massacre. He did enslave – but so did every other sort of person on earth when they came across strangers who could not resist them…including, it must be said, the peoples of the Americas who also engaged in slavery.

The thing about the peoples of the New World is that they were, well, people. In other words, just like everyone else – with their portions of good and bad. Just as we can find noble people in every community, so can we find base people. No one lives in harmony with the environment because no one can – we all must change the environment to suit our needs or we’ll die. There was only one Eden, and God kicked us out of it because we sinned – and we go on sinning. In the fullness of time, we’ll be back in Eden; but if you’re looking for an Eden after the Fall, you won’t find it in this life. Columbus did not stumble upon Paradise and destroy it – he found people. Had no one ever taken it into their heads to sail Columbus’ course and the New World had been left to its own devices, then the history which would have been written in 2014 by the people living here would be as much a chronicle of crime and chicanery as anywhere else – but also a chronicle of people who rose above and did right in spite of everything, just as everywhere else.

I do understand that for the Native peoples of the Americas, the coming of Europeans was a catastrophe. A much more technologically advanced civilization came upon a less technologically advanced people and the result was bound to be bad for the peoples of America. It was going to massively disrupt the social, political and economic lives of the people living here. Adding to the that was the fact that no one – anywhere – knew how diseases were spread and the peoples of the Americas, isolated for many thousands of years from the main stream of human interaction, had no defense against the diseases of Europe, Africa and Asia. It was the onslaught of disease that caused most of the destruction – and no one intended that it should be so. Given the nature of things, eventually someone – from Asia or from Europe – was going to arrive on the coasts of the Americas. At some point in human history, the foreign disease environment was going to arrive and cut a bloody swath through the population. To blame Columbus – or anyone – for this is to arrive at the level of absurd.

It is also very true that the Europeans still should have treated the populations of the New World with justice and mercy. This didn’t happen. Plenty of crimes were committed. But this is now more than 500 years since Columbus sailed and we can’t undo what happened – neither the mere appearance of a different civilization, nor the un-intentional transmission of disease, nor the criminal failures of many who arrived in Columbus’ wake. The world we have today is the result of everything that went before and our job, as rational human beings, is to learn from what happened and seek to better the example of the past.

Some are calling for changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day – I disagree with the change, but not with the creation of an Indigenous Peoples Day. Let us have both – let us have a day set aside to honor a brave man – and his crews – who set out into the unknown to widen the horizon of human knowledge. Let us also set aside a day to remember the peoples of the Americas who were here when Columbus arrived. It has been the mingling of all the peoples of the world in the New World which created the dynamic civilization which has more than once been able to right the wrongs of the Old World – both in Europe and Asia, as well as Africa. In the long chain of events, because Columbus sailed the ocean blue, an American Army arrived on the coasts of France to bring liberty, and American food and medicine has arrived all over the world to end suffering. The net balance of all that has comes to pass in the Americas has been good, not bad – and Columbus deserves remembrance as the man who set the events in train.

12 thoughts on “Defending Columbus

  1. Amazona October 13, 2014 / 1:29 pm

    The whole Columbus Day fuss is invented out of whole cloth to further create divisiveness among Americans. It’s nothing more or less than an opportunistic grab at a made-up conflict, which serves the purposes of (1) turning some Americans against other Americans and (2) denigrating all of Western Civilization, one element at a time.

    Native Americans lived in a world in which victors enslaved those they conquered. It had been going on for centuries before Columbus, and I doubt that it came as a surprise to anyone. Slavery had been a staple of every civilization going as far back as we have records. Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Sumerians, Irish, British, Scots, Africans, South Pacific Islanders, indigenous peoples of every continent——I doubt that any recorded civilization is free of the taint of slavery, and often of much more, such as the cannibalism prevalent in the South Seas and Africa, or the human sacrifices practiced in so many primitive cultures.

    The cartoonish big brush of Liberal reformatting of history paints a picture of a horrible horrible man intent on risking his life and those of his crew members just so he can find some people and be mean to them. To do so it also has to reframe all of Native American culture as blissful, nonviolent, communing with nature and mutually respectful of all tribes and innocently welcoming the source of their destruction, those evil destructive plotting bastids!

    There is no country, culture, race, government, era or history that does not have something shameful in it. There is no segment of history that would not benefit from a time machine filled with creatures who have the ability to undo wrongs and make it all sweetly sanitized. But until we can move backward in time, we are stuck with the simple fact that the past is the past, and all we can do is study it, learn from it, try to change the bad parts as we move forward, and get over it. To the Left, however, the past is a treasure trove of misdeeds waiting to be mined for political gain, even when this requires completely restating what happened, inventing foul motives, and generally fictionalizing history to serve its purposes.

    To me, the question is not “What happened in Columbus’s time?” or even “Why did it happen?” but “What is to be gained by rewriting history and savaging this man, denying his accomplishments and dismissing his many good qualities? Who benefits from these slanders and libels?” Because that is always the question—-a corollary of Follow The Money.

  2. Amazona October 13, 2014 / 2:33 pm

    “There is some ridiculous bit of Columbus revisionist humor out here which holds that he didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing – but he knew precisely where he wanted to go and, actually, he hit land in the New World pretty much exactly at the time and place he calculated – it just wasn’t the land he was looking for, because the earth was larger than he thought. ”

    I am far from being an expert, or even knowledgeable, on navigation in any era. But I am a dedicated Patrick O’Brian fan (O’Brian being an author who practically lived at the Admiralty in Greenwich, England, reading logs of captains and other ships’ officers and immersing himself in the lore, history and science of seafaring, with a focus on the Royal Navy in the 19th Century) and in reading his books a couple of times each as well as listening to them on audio books I have absorbed at least a little awareness of how sailors navigated prior to modern equipment. I have been amazed that in the mid 1800’s a captain could just set sail from Portsmouth and go pretty much directly to, for example, Gibraltar, and have a very good idea of where he was at any given time.

    True, Columbus sailed long before the Napoleonic Wars, but I knew that even in his time there was some basic navigational knowledge and skill.

    “Some of the early instruments used to assist sailors in determining latitude were the cross-staff, astrolabe, and quadrant. The astrolabe dates back to ancient Greece, when it was used by astronomers to help tell time, and was first used by mariners in the late fifteenth century. It was used to measure the altitude of the Sun and stars to determine latitude. “

    Columbus and some of his contemporaries used the astronomy, mathematics and instrumentation of their time to determine that the world was not flat, but round. That is a pretty remarkable intellectual accomplishment. He set out with three tiny ships to prove this, which shows amazing courage. He landed very close to where he wanted to land, which shows skill both as a sailor and as a navigator. He realized and admitted that he had made an error in thinking this would be the Indies, which shows intellectual integrity and honesty. He then went on to look for his original intended goal, which shows perseverance. All in all, I think that REAL history shows him to be a pretty impressive guy.

    The constant sneering of the Left at anything that they either do not know, or believe, usually based on a snotty assumption of superior knowledge or intellect always unsupported by fact, is really quite tiresome.

    • M. Noonan October 13, 2014 / 11:38 pm

      True – I just didn’t want to get into the weeds on it too much. Morrison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea is an excellent source for Columbus’ voyages – especially that, as a yachtsman, he sailed Columbus’ routes in a sailing vessel to try to get a feel for what it was like. He pointed out the sort of navigational tools which were actually available to Columbus which, in truth, did include more than a compass. But not much more – and with the methods available in Columbus’ day it was tough to chart a course – especially if, say, you were aiming for an island ten miles across…but if you miscalculated then you’d “arrive” 50 miles off…

      Here is an interesting tid bit: for all our mental picture of sailors sleeping in hammocks in the days of sail, it was the Native Americans who introduced sailors to the item. Prior to that, the crew just slept as best they could on the deck. Columbus’ crews noted the device being used by the Natives and swiftly adopted it as the perfect bedding for a man sleeping at sea.

  3. Amazona October 13, 2014 / 2:47 pm

    I wonder if any of the RRL have studied the sweet, amiable, easy-going Vikings and their explorations, and the impact they had on the lands they invaded visited. Because it appears that it was only being in a hurry to get somewhere else that led the first European visitor to North America to just keep on going.

    “According to one historical source, Grænlendinga saga (The saga of the Greenlanders) America was discovered by accident in the autumn of 996 AD.
    The saga tells the tale of Bjarni Herjólfsson, who is believed to be the first European to see North America when he set sail for Greenland to meet his father.

    “Bjarni Herjólfsson had learnt how to sail to Greenland from Norway, but his ship encountered several days of strong northerly wind and fog,” explains Englert. “His ardent efforts to keep the ship afloat resulted in his ship being blown off course.”

    The discoverer of America was mocked

    In his efforts to get back on course, Bjarni Herjólfsson tried to sail due west again. He eventually saw a piece of land [North America], but this land was more fertile than the Greenland he had heard about.
    His crew wanted to go ashore, but Herjólfsson insisted on reaching Greenland before the end of the sailing season. So he headed north and there he noticed that the land was becoming less fertile and rockier.

    After a while he saw land that resembled what he had been told about Greenland and eventually he landed near the place where his father lived.

    “Bjarni Herjólfsson was not credited for having found new land. Rather, he was mocked for not having gone ashore {in America],” says Englert.

    Although he passed on his findings in Greenland, there was little interest in his reports until, after his father’s death, he returned to Norway.

    Here, Herjólfsson’s travel tales inspired Leif Ericsson to mount his own expedition to Greenland. He bought Herjólfssons ship and manned it with 35 crew members.
    In the year 1002, Ericsson discovered North America. Here, he found grapes and berries, which is why he decided to call it Wineland.

    Hmmmmm. I wonder if Leif was just a kind and benevolent soul, in spite of his reputation, and just chatted up the natives before moving on. Or perhaps is it is just the lack of written accounts that allow some to believe that only Western European Christians (Catholics) were evil genocidal enslavers.

  4. Cluster October 13, 2014 / 5:19 pm

    Happy Indigenous People’s Day

  5. Amazona October 16, 2014 / 11:45 am

    We had a meeting with our insurance people this week, to discuss changes in insurance plans, etc. (BTW, by keeping our existing plan we kept our rate increase down to 27%—–woo hoo! Of course, we probably won’t be able to keep it next year and even if we do the anticipated increase over this year will probably be in the 30-35% range a change of plans would have cost us this year.) As the agents were leaving something came up about Columbus Day and a young woman said “Well, I guess Columbus really was a bad guy.”

    You can guess what happened then. No, I did not harangue, but I did, very mildly, say that is a vicious lie, that Columbus was an explorer and excellent seaman who had the courage to test the new theory that the world was not flat, that he had never set out to enslave or eliminate any populations, and that in that era no matter where you lived you grew up with the understanding that if a stronger tribe or force were to come along you would probably become a slave. She didn’t act intimidated or put off, but said “really?” and I just added a little about the actions of those coming after Columbus being blamed on him personally, and that he and those who did come after him had absolutely no way of knowing that the indigenous peoples had no resistance to European pathogens such as measles so infections were completely inadvertent. Hmmmm.

    You see, when someone does speak up and say something like the bit about these Europeans having no way to understand that they might be exposing people to new and different pathogens it makes complete sense. A simple reminder that in the late 15th Century no one knew about things like germs, or how disease was spread, immediately makes it clear that Columbus and those who followed him would not have been able to purposely spread disease, because of the scientific limitations of the time.

    We don’t need to harangue or lecture, but we do need to provide some balance to the lies, which become ingrained as part of accepted “knowledge” when they are allowed to go unchallenged.

    BTW, in the meeting I did comment that the lesson to be learned from the rate increase is that votes have consequences. One of the agents, talking about the incredible confusion and complications and rate increases and so on, said something like “Thanks to Obama, …..” and I corrected her with “No, thanks to everyone who voted for him, and everyone who voted for the Senators and Representatives who rubber-stamped the bill.”

    • M. Noonan October 16, 2014 / 12:11 pm

      The family member I reference in the post was at it all Columbus Day on Facebook – and for a few days after. Columbus, in such a view, was a homicidal maniac who intended all bad things that followed. Understanding she comes greatly from Native culture, I’m not minded to argue the point right now – there are other fish to fry, as it were; but it shows what people are taught…and people tend to believe what they are told.

      • Amazona October 16, 2014 / 6:30 pm

        Yet your family member’s outrage is dependent on assumption of things that don’t make sense.

        If Columbus had been a homicidal maniac, he had plenty of places to indulge his pathology without risking his life and spending miserable weeks at sea to find some other place which might, or might not, provide prey for sadistic impulses. Spain was right next door to some hunting grounds which would have offered plenty in the way of people to enslave, populations to eliminate, etc., being right around the corner from Africa. And Columbus would have had to be vastly more advanced, scientifically, than anyone else in his world to know how to infect people with diseases.

        This is just another example of someone being fed something that, for reasons that lie within the person’s own personality and psyche and not in objective fact has such strong appeal that reason and logic go out the window. Of the many millions who have been fed some version of this story, it has been taken to heart only by a relative few. Some, like my insurance agent, have come away with a vague impression of Columbus as “a bad guy” but only a few have resonated with the hatred and dishonesty to the level you describe in your relative. There is something unsettling and disturbing about people with such a need to hate.

      • M. Noonan October 17, 2014 / 1:34 am

        Oh, to be sure, I’m pretty confident that the truth has not been told.

      • Amazona October 17, 2014 / 10:45 am

        “…she comes greatly from Native culture” This seems to be another example of the careful cultivation of victimhood in certain minority cultures.

      • Cluster October 17, 2014 / 11:31 am

        Kind of like Elizabeth Warren? Did she have high cheek bones?

      • M. Noonan October 17, 2014 / 5:46 pm

        There is a lot of that – and, of course, it isn’t just her. She’s family so I’ll put up with it, but I’ve come across more than one person of Native blood who is just ignorant and arrogant about it all.

        It just astounds me – but people will believe myths about themselves quite easily. Easy to believe, if you’ve a mind, that your ancestors were all sweetness and light…especially if it excuses you for current problems. One of the arguments I got into ended up with me pointing out that with all the bad things that the Europeans did, the one absolutely good thing to their credit was the overthrow of the Mexica – what we more commonly know as the Aztecs of Mexico. If there was a human empire which ever needed destruction, it was that of the Mexica – horrible brutes who massacred at least hundreds of thousands of innocent victims in their so-called religious ceremonies (which were nothing of the kind – when a people goes into human sacrifice, it is a means of cementing political and economic control by use of horrid images which frighten most and give the Ruling Class a sense of superiority). Hernan Cortez was a freebooter – a man out for gold and glory. But he was better than each and every Mexica he came across who supported the inhuman regime of the Mexica Empire. My pointing this out led to quite a lot of fireworks…

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