Posted by: Nathan | October 8, 2007

Lay off Columbus already

Today is (was) Columbus Day, and that usually means two things: 1. Banks are closed (but I had to work!), and 2. People with nothing better to do across the nation are lambasting Cristóbal Colón.  I won’t say Columbus was perfect; he wasn’t, but neither are we. Of course we didn’t kill a whole bunch of natives in an effort to claim the Caribbean for Spain (at least, I haven’t), so he is culpable to an extant. However, it is absurd to lay the entire history of Western atrocities at his feet.

A couple semesters ago, I read Columbus’ The Four Voyages, which is really a mishmosh of texts from various authors compiled to present some kind of narrative of how this Italian landed south of the U.S. and changed history. At the end of it all, I ended up feeling pretty bad for the guy. “Whaaaat!?!” you say? Well, permit me to give you some interesting tidbits from the famous explorer’s life.

1. It took CC seven years to get his journey to the end of the world funded. He went to Spain only because Italy, Portugal, and England wouldn’t pony up the dough.

2. The first Spanish colony Columbus founded (Hispaniola) was decimated—everyone died.

3. On the third voyage, Columbus was arrested and sent back to Spain in chains.

4. He never found all the gold he thought he would (and kept telling Ferdinand and Isabella existed there).

5. He was convinced (or pretended) Cuba was Japan; after all, the purpose of his trip was to find a shortcut to India. Brrrrrrmp.

6. We live in the United States of America because Amerigo Vespucci was friends with a European cartographer; we should be living in the United States of Columbia. Vespucci got the glory.

7. He endured constant in-fighting among his fellow sailors and “settlers” (esp. Bobadilla), all of whom could do as they pleased with Spain so far away.

8. He almost died at sea during the fourth voyage, and his prayers during this moment are quite poignant.

9. He was stripped of the titles promised him, and though his sons got some of them back via the courts, they were diminished.

10. And there are the endless nights at sea, violent storms, malnutrition, constant fear of death, confusion, and doubt.

Okay, you’re not convinced. No one’s saying the guy didn’t have his faults. He was ambitious; he wanted power, money and fame. He was willing to kill humans who got too much in his way. Granted. But he was just one guy. If he hadn’t “discovered” “America,” someone else would have. He didn’t have anything to do with the Trail of Tears or Manifest Destiny. He didn’t cause the centuries of persecution for which we now blame him. Columbus didn’t invent the slave trade. The atrocities for which we blame him were carried out by thousands of others over hundreds of years (he died five hundred years ago!)  some of whom we celebrate. He may be no hero, but he certainly isn’t the demon we make him out to be.

All this Columbus hating comes down to one thing: lots of people want a scapegoat for the evils that this continent has known, and because CC got here “first,” we picked him. That’s pretty stupid. By the way, there was plenty of war and evil before he got here; America was no Eden, though we like to pretend it was.

Maybe the parades for Columbus are silly, but if so, the protests are equally pointless. Like all history, we cannot change what has come before, but we can alter the present. Let Columbus’ legacy be the mixed bag that it is—don’t distort past events for your own political agenda. Besides, if Columbus hadn’t landed on this continent, none of us would be here to feel guilty about it.

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Responses

  1. Ah, so that’s why I didn’t get my usual stack of junk mail yesterday.

  2. Well put. And though I think it’s a bit odd to have a day honoring a person for discovering this land (that had already, you know, been ‘discovered’), I welcomed the day off.

    Honestly, why do we have to credit someone for ‘discovering’ this continent? This is akin to someone walking through Colorado and ‘discovering’ a mountain. “Holy crap! There’s a big rock formation there!” Naming a place is one thing, ‘discovering’ it is quite another.

  3. One of my teachers in elementary (don’t remember which one or which grade) said “Columbus didn’t discover America, he introduced it to the rest of the World”. I guess that’s a LITTLE better, eh? On the other hand, a highschool teacher of mine kept saying that Columbus invented America…only she wasn’t kidding. Ah, rural education.


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