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Columbus - Evil Genius or a Man of his Times?

October 14, 2014

When I was a kid, Columbus Day was the next holiday after Labor Day. It meant another vacation day. The last before the Thanksgiving break almost six weeks away. That’s a long time for a kid.


We were taught in school that Columbus did a remarkable feat.


These days, not only is there an attempt to erase the man and the holiday from our history, but he’s being vilified as a slave trader and an Indian murderer with a heart more than willing to trade gold for humanity. He is being blamed for the decimation of all the Indian tribes in North, South, and Central America, even though he never set foot on the continent proper. He’s being blamed for the Europeans’ thirst for land and all the Indian wars in this nation from the time he landed in Hispaniola to those occurring in the latter part of the 19th century.


I really have to wonder what they are teaching children in school these days. They are obviously not teaching world history or the ability to think.


A few things Columbus did and did not do. First, he did not found America. He actually landed on Hispaniola, today’s Dominican Republic. He was the first man brave enough to set sail on the Atlantic Ocean. He was looking for a faster way to the West Indies, for hauling goods to Europe overland was tedious and costly. (Go read about Marco Polo and the Silk Road for more history on those trade routes.) No man was willing to take the risk, and Columbus even had trouble finding men to man his ships. The ocean was scary. It was big. His ships were small. There were bad storms and fearsome beasts. They didn’t have modern equipment that could get boats going when the wind lagged. There was no guiding equipment other than the direction of the sails. And no one had crossed it before. The Italian government was so aghast at the idea, Columbus, an Italian by birth, had to go elsewhere to get the funding. Queen Isabellah, a devout Catholic interested in spreading the Gospel of Christ, and her husband, King Ferdinand, wanting glory and riches for Spain, agreed to fund the expedition. (The Protestant Reformation did not occur until 1517.)


Regardless of what Columbus did or did not do afterwards, he had the bravery to haul off across the ocean to God only knew where. For that, alone, the man deserves his own holiday.  He changed the face of history forever. Prior generations understood this, maybe because they still had a sense of what it was like to have unexplored frontiers. Or perhaps they knew the fear of the unknown. At any rate, anyone with a basic understanding of maritime history will understand Columbus’ remarkable feat.


Columbus was, though, a man of his times. We all are. Don’t kid yourself. Our opinions, our approach to problems, our very goals are formed within the society that we live.  It seems, though, that we as Americans have become too soft. We expect people to act outside of their culture. We have no sense of how fraught world history is with suffering, annihilation, and brutality. The world has always been an ugly, unfair place, where the vast majority of us are pawns in the larger game of politics and the search for the power and wealth of the few.


Did Columbus enslave the Indians?  Sure he did. But to be blunt, the history of the world is the history of victorious nations subduing conquered nations.  Every empire since the beginning of time, from the Mesopotamians, to the Egyptians, to the Greeks, to the Romans, and on and on, went to war to gain more territory and killed and enslaved the conquered at will. In fact, the Romans enslaved the Britons (English) when they invaded England starting in AD 43. That’s 1,449 years before Columbus.  To expect Columbus to act contrary to his culture is just pure silliness. Men and women can only act so far out of the norm of whatever time period they live in. And it is clear, when world history is studied, that slavery has been a part of it since the beginning of time. Anyone living in 1492 would think nothing of it, and a conquered nation would expect it. Our history makes us too hyper-sensitive to even understanding slavery in the context of larger world history. We knee-jerk when the word is mentioned and can’t seem to think any farther back than the Civil War. We really need to buck up as a nation and deal with history realistically, the hard parts and the easy ones. We will be doomed to repeat it if we don’t.