Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Columbus's Legacy

When history can become so garbled the actions of 100 or 150 years in the past can be mistaken, how can historians hope to figure out what they are creating from fragments and scattered bones in the dust of the millennia?

Yesterday was Columbus Day in the United States of America, a day to honor the voyage of Christopher Columbus (AKA Cristobal Colon) and running aground in the Bahamas in 1492. The aboriginal peoples of the North American continent are up in arms about celebrating his achievement because of the crimes he committed while in the Bahamas. Liberals intent on pacifying the American aborigines are digging into Columbus's past and trotting out his true history -- what they can conjecture or infer from letters and writings from the time.

In their usual manner, academics and detractors rely on their favorite tools: accusations and character assassination to placate the natives and to assuage their collective guilt over the atrocities committed in the name of progress and exploration.

Several years ago I read some accounts of archaeological digs in the South around slave cabins. The picture that was pieced together from their findings is very different from what is supposed to be historical fact. The problem with historical fact, at least in the case of diggings into the past of the American South during the 1700s to 1800s is that most people believe the fiction of Uncle Tom's Cabin is fact. Uncle Tom's Cabin is one writer's take on conditions on large plantations, especially large plantations where Simon Legree was the overseer. I believe it was President Abraham Lincoln who was supposed to have told the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, that she was the cause of the Civil War -- or War Between the States or War of Northern Aggression as it is still called in the South.

The facts about the lives of slaves is still in dispute, but then facts are usually in dispute where historians are concerned because their data are derived from journals, personal accounts, and what would be considered in a modern day court of law as anecdotal information, which would not stand up in a court of law.

The point about the reason behind celebrating Columbus Day is not about who Columbus was or what religion he really practiced. It's not even about who really financed his voyage or what names the sailors and the builders gave the three ships under Columbus's command. The celebration has nothing to do with Columbus's misuse of his power or how he ended up in the Americas when he was really looking for a faster route to Asia to bring back spices and trading goods. The celebration is that Columbus is the first explorer acknowledged as the man who made landfall in a world new to the Europeans and came back with goods and slaves to trade. The rest are details.

Yes, the devil is in the details and there was certainly a devil on Columbus's shoulder when he plundered and murdered his way through the Bahamas. After all, he had creditors to pay back in Spain, creditors who financed his voyage and expected a return on their investment. It's rather like borrowing money at a bank for a venture and having to pay back the loan with interest. After all, what are bankers and moneylenders in business for but profit? No profit means no money to lend to other speculators and adventurers and the banks and moneylenders are soon out of business. Columbus's voyage was based on his promise to the investors that he would pay back the money with interest, and it certainly wouldn't hurt if he made a little profit of his own. Why bother to go exploring if the explorer doesn't have any interesting in profiting from his risky venture?

Columbus began his voyage by studying the chronicles of St. Brendan, an Irish priest who crossed the Atlantic and landed in what is now Canada in the 6th century, and on Prince Madoc of Wales who made the crossing and landed in the Americas in the 12th century. No doubt Columbus had also studied the maps and writings of Leif Ericksson who landed in Greenland and Iceland in the 12th century as well. There were maps and journals that predated the Irish priest, the Vikings, and the Welsh prince from the Phoenicians who ruled the seas for several centuries BCE and AD. Ruins in what is now Massachusetts and farther inland bear Phoenician markings and their maps continue to survive the ages and have been copied and used by sailors for centuries.

Columbus was not the first to discover the American continents, but he is the first of many who followed in his footsteps to brave the waters where maps showed only dangers and monsters. Cortez followed Columbus as did Vasquez, Francis Drake, Amerigo Vespucci, and many others. Nearly all of the European explorers raped and pillaged, burned and murdered their way across the Americas enslaving the natives in their search for the Fountain of Youth and gold, even making their way into North America cutting a bloody, smoking swath, and yet it is Columbus upon whom all anger and hatred is piled. Columbus makes a good whipping boy, but he was by no means the only European to commit atrocities against the natives, and the natives were not innocent either. They had murdered and destroyed the cultures they found when they crossed from Siberia to Alaska and made their way down the continent to establish their own cultures cutting their own bloody, smoking swath and exterminating the entire species. In modern language, they performed an ethnic cleansing on a continent-wide scale, leaving no one alive, not even a child.

Mankind, in whatever form and from whatever religion or system of beliefs, is a violent species willing to commit murder, to steal, to enslave, and to destroy whatever lies in their way. Slavery is nothing new in the history of the world and it is certainly not unique to the Europeans. The difference in the Americas is that the immigrant natives didn't enslave the indigenous population; they murdered them to the last individual: men, women, and children. The only difference is that the Europeans enslaved the natives and plundered the land and goods and temples of the immigrant natives, leaving most of the population alive. In some cases, the natives even helped the Europeans to subjugate their neighbors, leading the way through the jungles to the cities in order to rid themselves of tribes that had subjugated and warred against them. Manure always rolls down the hill.

In this politically correct world we now live in, the white-skinned Europeans have become the whipping boy for the natives and the European descendants, whether or not they bred with the natives, bow their heads in guilt over the actions of explorers from whom they likely did not descend. Most of the population of North America may have come from Europe, but most came in later centuries, often fleeing wars and persecution. Doesn't excuse their excesses, thefts, and murder of the natives, but it does paint a far different picture.

Whatever side of the debate you choose, it does not change the fact that Columbus was an intrepid explorer and he did land in a world new to Europeans who for centuries navigated the known waters close to their own shores. For Columbus's daring alone, he should be celebrated. He opened the way for other explorers and adventurers to follow and widened the scope of the known world. What he did after that is another kettle of fish altogether.

Where mankind ventures, murder, fire, and blood will follow in the wake. We must learn to take the good with the bad and learn what we can from what remains. Assassinating Columbus's character to diminish his intrepid venture serves no one.

That is all. Disperse.

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