Columbus - Evil Genius or a Man of his Times?
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.
Did Columbus take the Indians’ land? Yes, at least in the Dominican Republic. The land of the Native Americans of North and South America? No. He never landed there. Did he pave the way for others to take their land? Yes, but let’s be realistic. It was only a matter of time before someone else ventured over the ocean and found this country. And because countries want land and power, a race war was written in the cards for this nation from the very beginning. If Columbus hadn’t started the chain reaction, someone else would have eventually, maybe sooner, maybe later, but it would have happened. To think the Indians would have been able to stay here and hang onto their way of life and land is absolutely ridiculous.
The politically correct mantra “we stole their land,” which seems to be in almost constant circulation these days is, of course, meant to make whites, or those with European backgrounds, feel guilty for changing the Indians’ culture forever. It’s a false, ridiculous charge, for in all honesty, those four words pretty much sum up all of human history. That’s the main reason nations go to war. It’s the main reason they have always gone to war. It’s the main reason cities “annex” land. To add to their tax base. To add to their political power.
So don’t blame the desire for land on Europeans or Americans. We didn’t come up with the idea. We were merely acting upon what had been done for thousands and thousands of years before. And for poor Columbus, the blame gets squarely laid at his feet, as if he hadn’t chosen to cross the ocean the Indians would have still been living peacefully on their land. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
And while we’re at it, let’s be clear about what kind of culture the Indians had. The Europeans first encountered the Native Americans in Central and South America, the Incas, the Mayans, and the Aztecs. All of these tribes practiced human sacrifice. In fact, it was said their altars were always stained with blood. The Europeans found this practice abominable. Did it take a war to rid the tribes of that practice? You bet. Should the war have been been waged? You bet. The Aztecs weren’t likely to give up their sacrifices to their own gods out of European reasoning. To think otherwise is just plain ridiculous. If explorers like Cortez had turned a blind eye to the practice would they then be judged for not doing enough? I’m afraid so. Some people are never happy no matter what decision a person makes.
And make no mistake about it, in this country, even before the Europeans landed, the Indians were not simply smoking peace pipes, loving each other in their tepees and longhouses, communing with wolves and eagles, and hugging trees. They were waging their own brutal wars against each other. They were taking each other’s land and enslaving each other. They forced prisoners from other tribes to run the gauntlet. They burned other Indians at the stake. They slit open the bellies of their enemies, both red and white, tied their entrails to stakes, and then laughed and jabbed at the victim with hot coals as he trotted and danced around the stake trying to escape the heat of the coals, his intestines unwinding as he did so. If the victim showed no fear, they might kill him sooner. The slightest whimper and they would find ways to make sure the victim didn’t die any time soon.
Was that hard to read? I hope so. Only then will you get an idea of the tribes encountered by the European settlers. Were there a few peaceful tribes? Yes, but the vast majority were brutal and bloodthirsty, and even the peaceful ones lived in fear of the more ruthless. They were not innocent in their dealings with each other, nor in their dealings with the colonists. Their inhumane practices started long before the Europeans arrived, so don’t blame them for the brutality. And please don’t say the Europeans brought those tortures with them and introduced them to the Indians. That is absolutely ridiculous. The records are rife with the horror the Europeans felt at such practices. Had they known of such violence they would not have been so shocked.
The bald, flat out truth, which is largely ignored in favor of the more “politically correct” idea that the Indians were somehow innocent children who were grievously taken advantage of, is that if the Indians could have set aside their own grievances with each other they could have easily ousted the Europeans from the continent. The Indian Pontiac, in 1763, tried to do just that. He was unsuccessful, but he waged a bloody war all along the Pennsylvania-Virginia border before he was subdued.
The area of present day Kentucky is another example of not only the Indians’ failed attempt at rallying with each other, but at the wars they waged amongst themselves. This area was dubbed by the Indians themselves as “the dark and bloody ground.” They, themselves, said the land ran “red with blood” from all the wars between the Indians that had taken place there. It was known clearly as no-man’s land among the tribes, because the tribes couldn’t agree on who should have it. By the 1750s, no one lived there. The long hunters easily made their way into the area, followed by Daniel Boone in 1774 and more settlers after that. The Indians waged war after war to drive them out, but it was too late. The land had been vacant for too long because of the Natives’ own inability to come together and make a united front.
Why are the Native Americans not blamed for their part in their own failure to hang onto their land? Personally, I think it’s because they have become the poster child for environmental issues and peace (which they didn’t even practice before the European came along). They are also propaganda tools for people who want to somehow discredit white European American contributions to this country. After all, the squeaky wheel gets the most grease. If the grievances and untruths are constantly aired, people will believe that and not look deeper into the truth. And if you make a country despise their history, then the people will accept whatever new ideas are foisted on them.
And why is this venom against Columbus so disturbing to me? Because it totally forgets the little person caught in the middle. I myself have a Jacobite rebel that was exiled and a possible Acadian ancestress that was exiled. I have at least one indentured servant in my background and probably more. These individuals were given no choice about whether to come or not. They were the pawns in a much larger game. Once here they had to survive. If that meant killing Indians, they had no choice. If that mean moving west for more land because there was none left in the east, then so be it. Those choices were no different than my German ancestor who left the Rhine River in the 1800s to go to Russia for a better life.
It is grossly unfair to judge these people. We did not live in their time. Even an active imagination can’t understand the society, culture, or world of someone in 1492, in 1550, 1620, 1800, or any other time. We can seek to understand the political and social forces that drove them to make the decisions they did, but that is all. And we should not be judging those decisions as good or bad in light of our own culture. In fact, good historians do not do so. Political activists, with hidden agendas and who are willing to propagandize history to further their own ends, do.
We have a LOT to be proud of. My Jacobite ancestor, who would likely have been a chief in the Highlands, endured seven years of servitude on a tobacco plantation, chose to stay here rather than go back to Scotland, and eventually owned his own acreage. My ancestress, possibly an Acadian exile, married a Scotsman and made a life for herself after exiled from her home, and the Acadian exile was truly one filled with terror.
I am profoundly moved by the decision of my Hechler ancestors to leave Russia in 1890 and to come to America, sight unseen, with nothing but the clothes on their back, in search of a better life. There was a reason people like them came. When did we as Americans lose sight of that? When did we forget the opportunities this nation provided, and still provides, to people? How can we overlook the fact that people are still flooding our borders legally and illegally? Why is it that these people want to be here, but we do not? How is it that some people have become so ungrateful they can’t even look to the good, and vow to not repeat the bad, of past generations? Are we so shallow that we can’t look in two directions at once?
As for the Native Americans, do I feel sorry for them? You bet. In fact, my heart breaks for them. But it also breaks for the Jacobites, for the Acadians, for the Irish immigrants of the potato famine, for the Jews and Christians killed in World War II, for the people in parts of our world today who live in brutal regimes under constant threat of slavery, imprisonment, or torture. The Indians were not the only ones disenfranchised and driven from their home land. They, alone, cannot be singled out for a mere struggle for survival that has been going on in nation after nation since the beginning of time. Neither can the Europeans be singled out for doing what every empire before them has done.
I am proud of my family tree. I’m proud to say I hope their blood, filled with the ability to adjust to hardship, to shed despair, to forget the past and forge a future, runs through my veins freely and in massive quantities. Life is hard, brutal, and the human condition is frail. Life’s challenges require courage, fortitude, perseverance, and the ability to make hard decisions. We all have to live within the culture and constraint of our times, just as the generations before us had to do, including men like Columbus. Nothing else is possible, for we only have so much control over the world we live in.
We, as Americans, really need to move past the “or” of history and move to the “and.” History is not black or white, good or bad, completely right or totally wrong. It is black and white. It is good and bad. It is somewhat right and it is oftentimes wrong. We can embrace both beliefs in whatever context we are studying.
And we need to honor the Native Americans and their good alongside the Europeans and their good. We need to learn of the bad of the Native Americans and the bad of the Europeans.
Surely, it’s not too late to teach our children to do both. Our nation’s very survival depends upon it.