Aug. 3 marks an important date in the history of the Americas. It is the date, 529 years ago, when Christopher Columbus set sail for a new world. I’m mentioning it here because if Columbus made any contributions, they all are being swiftly wiped and whitewashed from U.S. culture, classrooms and textbooks.
As most know, the cancel culture movement has been on warpath these past few years by toppling statues of those who don’t match our progressive politically-correct society, and it is still marching on. Case in point: Christopher Columbus.
Here are a few recent headlines:
- “Maine among at least five states celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day for first time [instead of Columbus Day]”
For those who don’t know, Columbus has been a target the past few years because of his corralling and enslaving indigenous people, many of whom died in captivity or were abused and raped by Columbus’ crew.
As I’ll point out in a moment, there is no justification for any human’s mistreatment by others. However, one problem often results when standing up for certain ethnic groups by bringing down statues: Such actions often denigrate others at the same time.
That is why this past week, Italian Americans held a rally in Chicago appealing to the mayor to re-erect Columbus statues.
A year ago in Chicago, three statues of Christopher Columbus were brought down because of “a racial healing and historical reckoning project.”
On Sunday, Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, told the crowd the rally was a “call to action.”
“We are here to tell the mayor of the city of Chicago, we want the Columbus statues back,” he said.
Onesti wore a gray T-shirt with an image of Columbus that said, “Christopher Columbus, the first Italian American.”
It’s difficult for those of my generation to understand how we can omit so many pivotal figures in U.S. history because they lived centuries before ours when slavery was entrenched in global culture. History is still history, and huge accomplishments are made all the time by imperfect men. In fact, we’re all imperfect, including me. If faults, even big ones, are the criteria for eliminating someone’s influence, I guess you have to throw away all my world championships, 20-plus action films and over 200 episodes of “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
George Washington said it well: “Perfection falls not to the lot of humanity.”
Unbeknown to most today, broken and sinful behavior was also included among the different indigenous communities Columbus enslaved and tried to convert and civilize under the Spanish Crown. Scientific American documented, all of these people groups “likely practiced some degree of ritualized cannibalism by the way.” That’s not exactly humane. Nevertheless, evil is no remedy for evil. Under Columbus, disease, starvation and slave labor in mines, sea and on plantations eradicated many of these indigenous communities.
I abhor and feel terrible about the cruelties Columbus and his crew eventually brought on the Arawaks on the Caribbean Islands. I equally feel bad that Francisco Pizarro did the same to the Incas in Peru. I also am sickened by what Hernan Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico. And I feel bad because of what the English did to the Native Americans of Virginia and other regions. But do we erase all histories of these beautiful countries because of their founders’ cruelties? Do we omit all of their subsequent contributions and only discuss their sins?
It’s true that Columbus, the Pilgrims and even the first English colony in America at Jamestown were colonizers. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they all led the way for us to be here. Do I agree with all they did? Of course not. But am I thankful their landings led to my family and me experiencing the American dream? Yes, I am.
Cruelty doesn’t erase or change history. Germans don’t refrain from teaching about Hitler because of the Holocaust. They remind themselves and others of his cruelty upon humanity, and then learn from history’s lessons. Why can’t we at least do the same?
Shall we only discuss our disdain and disgust of Columbus’, the Pilgrims’ and the Jamestown settlement’s negative treatment of indigenous peoples when we talk about the origins of America? That itself would be a reductionist and biased view of history. To put a 15th century explorer under a 21st century moral microscopic for the purpose of altering the way we see and teach him and history seems askew.
Just because Columbus left Spain not knowing where he was going, doesn’t mean we can’t credit his expedition for its vision, sacrifices and contributions.
Just because Columbus shared “discovery” credit with countryman Amerigo Vespucci (hence “America”), both of whom came along 400 years after Norse explorer Leif Erikson, and all of whom arrived about 10,000 years after humans crossed the Bering Strait from modern Russia into what is now Alaska to begin populating the New World, doesn’t mean Columbus didn’t “found” America.
Just because seeking gold and colonization were at the heart his expeditions, doesn’t mean Columbus’ adventures didn’t lead to the exodus of Europeans coming over to the New World.
Just because Columbus and his crew were riddled with pro-Spaniard prejudice and domination over native peoples, as heinous as they could be, didn’t make his adventures and discoveries invalid.
I believe, like so many other history teachers and professors around our great country, that history can still be taught and historical figures venerated without affirming every aspect of every leader’s lifestyle and conquest sins.
If the Smithsonian or History.com can do it, why can’t the rest of it?
The Smithsonian Magazine spoke repeatedly about Columbus’ “founding” various places and countries despite indigenous people having lived there:
Columbus sailed from Palos de la Frontera on Friday, August 3, 1492, reached the Canary Islands six days later and stayed there for a month to finish outfitting his ships. He left on September 6, and five weeks later, in about the place he expected, he found the Indies. What else could it be but the Indies? There on the shore were the naked people. With hawk’s bells and beads he made their acquaintance and found some of them wearing gold nose plugs. It all added up. He had found the Indies. And not only that. He had found a land over which he would have no difficulty in establishing Spanish dominion, for the people showed him an immediate veneration. He had been there only two days, coasting along the shores of the islands, when he was able to hear the natives crying in loud voices, “Come and see the men who have come from heaven; bring them food and drink.” If Columbus thought he was able to translate the language in two days’ time, it is not surprising that what he heard in it was what he wanted to hear or that what he saw was what he wanted to see – namely, the Indies, filled with people eager to submit to their new admiral and viceroy.
The Smithsonian even commended Columbus’ treatment of some Caribbean peoples: “The Arawak Indians of Española were the handsomest people that Columbus had encountered in the New World and so attractive in character that he found it hard to praise them enough. ‘They are the best people in the world,’ he said, ‘and beyond all the mildest.’ To Columbus the Arawaks seemed like relics of the golden age. …”
Consider this brief treatise of Columbus at history.com in “This Day in History” on Aug. 2, 1792:
From the Spanish port of Palos, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sets sail in command of three ships – the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Nina – on a journey to find a western sea route to China, India, and the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia.
On October 12, the expedition sighted land, probably Watling Island in the Bahamas, and went ashore the same day, claiming it for Spain. Later that month, Columbus sighted Cuba, which he thought was mainland China, and in December the expedition landed on Hispaniola, which Columbus thought might be Japan. He established a small colony there with 39 of his men. The explorer returned to Spain with gold, spices, and “Indian” captives in March 1493 and was received with the highest honors by the Spanish court. He was the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings set up colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 10th century.
During his lifetime, Columbus led a total of four expeditions to the New World, discovering various Caribbean islands, the Gulf of Mexico, and the South and Central American mainland, but never accomplished his original goal – a western ocean route to the great cities of Asia. Columbus died in Spain in 1506 without realizing the great scope of what he did achieve: He had discovered for Europe the New World, whose riches over the next century would help make Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.
And later, such prosperous blessing would do the same for the United States of America. All because, as the Smithsonian noted: “When [Columbus] set out, he carried with him a commission from the king and queen of Spain, empowering him ‘to discover and acquire certain islands and mainland in the ocean sea’ and to be ‘Admiral and Viceroy and Governor therein.'”
The Smithsonian concluded about Christopher Columbus’ contributions: “The discovery of America opened a new world, full of new things and new possibilities for those with eyes to see them. But the New World did not erase the Old. Rather, the Old World determined what men saw in the New and what they did with it. What America became after 1492 depended both on what men found there and on what they expected to find, both on what America actually was and on what old writers and old experience led men to think it was, or ought to be or could be made to be.”
We don’t have to endorse everything about an explorer to be grateful for his expeditions. And we can supersede their depravity and build on their accomplishments. That is exactly what America’s founders did. And that’s the reason we’re here and can experience the American dream.
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