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.