Columbus: the Man and the Myth
Another holiday, another opportunity to vilify the United States. Actually, the upcoming Columbus Day holiday is just a warm-up for the Thanksgiving main event.
We know the narrative by now. Christopher Columbus was not a heroic explorer who discovered a new world. He was a villain who set in motion the centuries-long American reign of terror, including rampant genocide in the pursuit of our greedy, imperialist corporate agenda of war and conquest. (Just ask the kids occupying Wall Street.)
In other words, you should spend this coming weekend in shame for what your forefathers did and for what we continue to represent today.
Except for two things.
You can’t be responsible for your ancestors and unless they came over on the Mayflower, your ancestors probably didn’t have a whole lot to do with the consequences of America’s westward expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. My own forebears didn’t arrive on these shores until early in the 20th century. Before that, they were in Italy and Ireland toiling in the fields. I’m almost sure they weren’t plotting American Manifest Destiny.
Although, since my father’s people were from Italy and Columbus was Italian, I suppose I bear some measure of tribal guilt for the Pandora’s Box that Columbus opened up. But Columbus was from up north in Genoa and my paternal antecedents were Sicilian, so I doubt we’re related. But I’ll check Ancestry.com to make sure.
It’s always been a little unclear to me just what the anti-Columbus crowd wants. Columbus has been dead for 500 years, so it’s a little late to try him in The Hague for crimes against humanity. I guess they just want us to stop celebrating Christopher Columbus with a national holiday.
This brings us to the problem of applying current mores to previous eras. By 21st century standards, Columbus was undoubtedly a brute in his treatment of the natives he encountered. But what sense does it make to judge a man who lived half a millennium ago by today’s standards? Attitudes of explorers like Columbus toward the “savages” they met were rooted in the ignorance of their times. After all, Columbus went to his grave convinced he had landed in Asia. The Age of Enlightenment had not yet dawned.
The myth that the North American continent was a peaceful paradise populated by tribes living in harmony and cooperation before the Europeans arrived is just that – a myth. Warfare between Indian tribes was a way of life in North America for generations before Columbus arrived.
“Not all Indians lived in a continual state of intertribal war, but war was part of the social pattern,” wrote Samuel Eliot Morison in his History of the American People. “Any Indian group that tried to shift its dominant values from war to peace was doomed to extinction by another.”
That is not to absolve Europeans and their American descendants of all transgressions against Native Americans. But the idea that the white man introduced brutality to the New World is as much a fairy tale as any whitewashed story about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
Far more people will be focused on football and a three-day weekend than on celebrating the life of Christopher Columbus. A few cynics will spend the weekend vilifying Columbus and feeling guilty for living in the land that recognizes him with a holiday.
But Columbus was a product of his times. For better or worse, he changed the world and paved the way for a great if imperfect nation.
[The column originally appeared in the October 6, 2011 Wakefield Daily Item.]
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