Monday, October 12, 2015

The Columbus I Knew

It’s Columbus Day. I’m old enough to remember when Columbus was a good person, worth studying, as part of our history. Not like he has become—liar, genocidal maniac, evildoer of all time.
The famous voyage was 523 years ago, and since none of us was there, we have to rely mainly on recorded history. But recorded history from that far back doesn’t really change. So, if he really was an all-time evildoer, the record would have shown that all along. If we had an accurate record.

If I were a historian, I might have, at hand, the original documentation. I don’t. But I do have some logic and common sense.

Columbus's Voyages
Image found at Wikipedia

Here’s what I think I know. Columbus was a ship’s captain, intent on exploration. Specifically he was looking for a better trade route. He may have miscalculated the circumference of the globe, because there was an entire continent between Europe and the Far East.

He had to seek funding for his venture. Not an easy thing to do. Shipping, up until very recent times, was a risky endeavor. But if the ship came in (yes, that’s where the saying came from), it was a commerce bonanza. Remember the premise of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice?

So, Columbus eventually traveled to Spain, from his home in Genoa (in present-day Italy), and persuaded King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to invest.

Here’s a little Iberian history: for a couple hundred years there, Spain (a little bigger than Nebraska and Kansas together) and little Portugal (a little bigger than Vermont) were the maritime masters of the world. That power over the seas meant better commerce, exploration of new lands and routes, and eventual new colonies. Portugal was specializing in a southern route around Africa, so Spain took the challenge to find western route.

So, in the times of Columbus, he was at the forefront of his profession. He set out to conquer the world—but only in the “I went there” way, and the “I’m creating opportunities for commerce” way. The mindset of a European of the day was different from ours. They saw as normal things like conquest, subjugating weaker peoples, slavery, subordination of women, and other things that might not (should not) meet with our approval today.

Maybe those things shouldn’t have met with their approval either, but no one taught them better. People had pretty much always thought the people in power were the ones strong enough to subjugate the weaker ones.

So when they came in contact with the native peoples, they weren’t shocked to see slavery and the rest. They were impressed with them at first, and pleased with the welcome they received. It wasn’t until later visits, when they found the crew members they’d left with them had been murdered and, um, probably eaten. That was shocking. The later conquistadores were further shocked to encounter ritual sacrifice leaving piles of bloody bones—sometimes the limbs and organs were eaten.

To a people who were used to thinking of society as stratified, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they thought the savage behavior was the result of an inferior savage people who deserved to be conquered and possibly enslaved.

But, unlike almost any society previous, and the indigenous peoples themselves, the “invading” Spanish missionaries decided to rethink their assumptions about the savages not having souls, got the King to hold up on conquering until the Pope made a declaration against stealing belongings or enslaving the indigenous peoples.[i]

What if Columbus hadn’t insisted on a west-across-the-Atlantic route? Would the native peoples been forever safe from invasion? Probably not. Eventually someone else would have come.

Whoever came would have carried with them diseases common among them; that was inevitable. As was contracting diseases from the natives to which the Europeans weren’t immune. But this was several hundred years before germ theory, so it’s hard to imagine the Europeans came with the intent to kill with biological warfare. Carrying germs when you don’t know about germs might be unfortunate, but it can hardly be equated to genocide. So let’s stop letting revisionists get away with that.

How about we just say Columbus was a successful explorer, by sea, leading the way for European extension into the American continent. We don’t have to say he “discovered” America; we can say he discovered a route to this new part of the world, which was later followed up by other explorers, traders, missionaries, and colonists. He had what appeared to him and those around him to be an honorable, brave, and intrepid passion. And by most measures of his day, he was successful.

Personally, I believe it was a blessing to the New World and the Old World that relatively good people came to this land, and settled it, and created the best experiment ever in Constitutional freedom, with its resulting freedom, prosperity, and civilization. The world is better, because America came to be. Maybe God directed Columbus to come here.[ii]

So, thank you, Christopher Columbus, for sailing this way back when no one where you would end up.

[i] Dinesh D’Souza’s book America: Imagine a World without Her, recounts some of these events in the chapter “The Red Man’s Burden, pp. 89-106.
[ii] This piece from the 500th anniversary year offers this suggestion:

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