I remember being in 8th grade History, taught by a very smart man, Mr. Derrig. He was explaining to us that Columbus did not actually discover America. It was a bit of a defining moment to me, as I remember experiencing a great deal of anger over learning that. Even as I was experiencing the anger at what I viewed as a betrayal of me by the educational system, there was a detached part of me that was observing my reaction and noting that I was unusually frustrated by this new knowledge. You see, even when I was younger I constantly reviewed information given to me with suspicion. I can’t tell you precisely where that cynicism came from, but rest assured, if I noticed something not quite right, or out of the ordinary about what I was learning, I pointed it out. It wasn’t that I was trying to rebel against the system, I enjoyed learning and loved my teachers, I was just naturally seeking out the cracks in the system.
The anger over the Columbus lie was, in part, because it forced in me a natural distrust of everything I had previously been told. I years and years of teaching were suddenly being invalidated, then how could I trust anything else. This was exacerbated by the fact that we still celebrated Columbus Day. So here we are, knowing that Columbus didn’t discover America and yet we are honoring a day in which we claim exactly that. At 13 years old, I wasn’t really handling that cognitive dissonance with aplomb.
Fast forward to today and Columbus Day has a pretty large group of detractors, if the media coverage is any indication. It turns out that the leader of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria might not have been quite the upstanding guy I learned about in my earlier years. Certainly all the atrocities he is accused of is something I wasn’t taught about all the way through high school. I learned a bit about the disease and the colonization, but no mention of the oppression, slavery and rape the accompanied him. No doubt this would enrage most people today, but back then, it wasn’t quite so uncommon. I am definitely not opposed to doing away with Columbus Day in favor of something else, but I’d like to bring up a few points before we jump on any particular bandwagon.
- Columbus was seeking to get rich, he wasn’t this romanticized explorer. – Well, true, but exploring costs a great deal of money. Finding people to give you their money out of the kindness of their hearts is pretty damn hard, especially since he didn’t have access to things like Kickstarter or Patreon. Exploration was a risky investment, done only at the behest of the very rich. The successful became famous and hopefully, very wealthy, the unsuccessful are dead and broke. You can imagine which occurred more often…
- Columbus was a bastard. – Yes, yes he was. He was also a product of his times and a leader of bastards. That doesn’t excuse his actions, it merely explains them, and that explanation needs to be acknowledged if we’re going to push for change in the name of “truth and fairness”.
- Native Americans were here first. We should be honoring them.- True enough, certainly before Columbus. With that said, although we are honoring Columbus, we’re also honoring the supposed values for which he stood. Bravery, adventure, exploration, growth, leadership, etc. In short, positive attributes we want to instill in our culture. If you pay attention to the majority of those pushing for a Native American day vs. Columbus Day, you would think that Columbus was a wretched monster and the Natives were Noble Savages. The problem with that is that it trades one set of lies for another. The Native Americans were as complex as any European society, and that includes all the usual negative attributes associated with them. They may not have been as technologically adept in many areas, but they were no strangers to warfare, slavery, competition for resources and more.
In the past couple of decades, as our ability to democratize knowledge and its access has grown, our temptation to “fix” history has increased. We rename landmarks now that we find the name offensive. We re-write history to reflect how we think it really was, but we also sanitize it so as not to offend our current sensibilities. In doing so, we perpetuate a new set of lies. Ones that ignore what our history was like before the current changes. If we erase our frame of reference, abolish our understanding of the choices we made, how can we purport to be anymore intellectually honest or ethical, than we were before? I don’t believe that is positive change, real growth, if we elect to ignore the lessons and circumstances of our past in favor of writing a new one.
Columbus’ discovery mattered. It is called the Columbian Exchange. After Columbus peoples and creatures migrated. Saint Brendan didn’t start a flow of goods. Neither did Leif Erickson. Before Columbus there were, what, three domesticated animals in America? Dogs, the various breeds of llama, and guinea pigs. America had a serious problem: Without domesticated animals large civilizations had a serious protein shortage. That led to some interesting practices among the Aztecs and Caribs.
Can you imagine the Irish or Poles without Potatoes? The Italians without potatoes. Life without wheat. Bread cake popcorn. Honey.
Science was caused. There was darn-tooting PROOF Aristotle didn’t know every thing. Ships were scientific instruments. If nothing else, go out and look until you run into something. You will learn or die.
Columbus wasn’t wonderful. Who is? But he mattered.
An excellent point. I think Columbus mattered a great deal, the impact of what he did can clearly be felt today. And yet, his impact really isn’t what we celebrate, and only his negative attributes are highlighted, and then, only framed in modern terms, when we oppose his celebration. If we’re going to swap celebrations, can we at least be honest about the whole picture?