In Defense of Christopher Columbus October 12, 2009Posted by Sean Varner in History, Immigration, Politics.
Tags: Columbus, History
Every so often I feel the need to defend a historical figure who has been so maligned by revisionist historians and politically correct elements of society that they are sentenced to life in prison by our nation’s fourth-graders. As this article in the Washington Post describes it, Columbus is now given a more “balanced” treatment. Gone is the ridiculous idea that he “discovered” America (they dispute how can one discover some place where others are already living). He is condemned for his intention to bring smallpox and slavery (why would this be an objective if he thought he was in India?). And he is labeled “very, very mean and very bossy,” a thief, and is charged with misrepresenting the Spanish crown. If students had to pick a picture of him and the choice was between his classical portrait and Hellraiser, they would probably assume he was the latter.
The point is that the attempt to bring honesty and accuracy to the nation’s students has swung from one end of the pendulum to the other. The representation of Columbus as a philanthropic explorer who was looking to expand the bounds of human knowledge, and had pow-wows with the native populations, was obviously grossly exaggerated. It is good that we have moved on from that idealized perception. However, neither was Columbus a bloodthirsty Genghis Khan bent on subjugating native populations by spreading smallpox and introducing slavery (the natives of Central America already practiced that among themselves). As is so often the case, the truth lies between the extremes. Motivated by glory and riches, stumbling upon the Caribbean and calling it India, and by complete accident introducing heretofore separate civilizations, Columbus deserves his recognition as the “discoverer” of the Americas.
The bizarre treatment he now receives in our nation’s classrooms is unwarranted. Columbus did discover the Americas, obviously from a Eurasian/African perspective. Even though there were people already inhabiting those lands, that doesn’t change the fact that a discovery of their existence took place by the other hemisphere. If an Aztec or Incan vessel had first ventured to Spain, it would have been a discovery the other way around. And whenever those two hemispheres were finally introduced, several exchanges were bound to take place. As Jared Diamond categorizes it in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, the native populations had no immunity to smallpox. The only way they could have avoided a massive plague was if the two worlds never came into contact. Despite the human tragedy, it was bound to happen. Columbus only brought the day of reckoning sooner rather than later, when some other visitor to the Americas would have transported it.
Hugo Chavez branded Columbus Day the “Day of Indigenous Resistance” in 2002. As if the meeting of the two civilizations should have or could have been resisted. Thousands of years of advantages in military development and mass deaths that bred immunity to deadly diseases preordained (by 1492) the results of contact between the two worlds. Demonizing Christopher Columbus for something that was beyond his control and, likely, beyond prevention, is counterproductive to historical analysis and factually inaccurate. It amounts to lying to our nation’s students.