Posted by John Allen Small on Monday, October 14, 2013 Under: Opinion
(Note: The following newspaper column was originally written and published back in 1992 as my contribution to the discussion surrounding the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World. It generated a lot of response at the time, both pro and con, and I suspect there are folks out there who will still take offense to it today. That's their problem, I guess...)
“The land was ours before we were the land’s…”
When Robert Frost recited this line during President Kennedy’s inauguration in January of 1961, most Americans still believed that this was true. It was all part of that notion we used to call “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that America’s rise from a sparsely settled continent to the world’s superpower – indeed, America’s very existence – has been a part of some Higher Purpose.
The story of that “Higher Purpose” has its beginnings in the voyages of Christopher Columbus, whose discovery of the New World assured him his place in history as the first American hero. Or so Mrs. Woodruff told us back in the first grade.
But history has a way of re-writing itself, and when it happens the lustre of our heroes becomes a bit more tarnished. Neither Washington nor Lincoln were as honest as we were led to believe - hardly surprising, really, since the best of men are but men at best. Jefferson – the man who wrote that “all men are created equal” – owned slaves. And the oft-told tale of Columbus is made up mostly of myths.
For example: one prime compo5nent of the Columbus Story, at least as Mrs. Woodruff and countless other teachers told it all those years ago, was that our boy Chris had set out to prove that the world was round. Seems that many sailors were convinced that their vessels would sail right over the edge of the world and plummet into eternity.
Today, of course, we know that the belief in a round planet had al5ready gained a solid foothold in the minds of men some time before Columbus ever set sail. And even if it had not, it is doubtful that it would have mattered to Columbus; truth to tell, the uppermost thing on his mind was the stuffing of his own pockets. He told us so himself.
“Gold is most excellent,” he wrote. “He who possesses it does all he wishes to in this world…”
Okay, so Columbus was a greedy so-and-so. And ap5parently something of a dunce, as well. How else can one describe a sailor who sets out to find a shortcut to the Orient, only to bump into a large continental barricade he didn’t even know existed – despite the fact that numerous mariners and explor5ers, most notably the Scandinavians, had visited, written about and drawn maps of this “New World” some 400 years before Columbus was born?
Historian Walter LaFeber once re5ferred to Columbus as “the most spectacular chance taker of his time.” This must surely have been true, because when the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria raised anchor and set sail from the Spanish port of Palos on the morning of Aug. 3, 1492, their captain had no more idea where they were headed than anyone else aboard.
Shortly thereafter, Columbus’ men came to realize that he was a few fries shy of a Full Value Meal. They were lost. They were tired. All they had to eat was fish, fish and more fish. This was not a happy crew.
Somehow Columbus managed to avert a mutiny. Perhaps he reminded his crew of the great riches that awaited them. Or perhaps they were so lost they thought they had turned back, only to be proven wrong. Whatever the reason, the voyage continued until finally, on October 12, lookout Rodrigo de Triana cried out the news: “Land! Land, ho!”
Vindicated at long last, Columbus triumphantly strode out upon the beach, unfurled the Spanish flag and staked his claim in the Orient in the name of Queen Isabella. How was he supposed to know he was nowhere near the Orient?
Fortunately for Columbus and his band of explorers, the local natives - or “Indios,” as he called them, a term which over time became the more familiar "Indians" - took pity on the voyagers. They took these strangers into their homes, gave them shelter, gave them food. The perfect hosts. And how did Columbus and his men thank the natives for their hospitality?
By enslaving the Indians.
By killing them, either by outright murder or through the introduction of various imported diseases.
By raping and pillaging their lands, and by inviting others – DeSoto, Ponce de Leon and their ilk – to do the same.
Boy, that’s gratitude for you.
In the millennia prior to Columbus’ voyage, there had been many examples of cross-conti5nental and even cross-oceanic travel and exchange between the various cultures of the earth. While not all such exchanges were peaceful, none were responsible for the genocide and ecocide that the ar5rival of Columbus set into motion.
Between 1492 and 1500, an esti5mated eight million people were killed as a direct result of the “gifts” of Western civilization. Cultures which had flourished for thousands of years ceased to exist. And a pattern of behavior was estab5lished that continued to characterize the American attitude towards the In-dians for hundreds of years to come.
History remembers Adolf Hitler as a mon5ster who orchestrated the attempted annihilation of the Jewish race, and rightfully so. But we insist on remembering Columbus, whose ar5rival begat similar actions against Native Americans, as a hero.
I’m sorry. Something about that just doesn’t seem right to me.
Throughout America today, there will no doubt be numerous parades, fire5works, re-enactments and other events commemorating Columbus’ voyage. The director of one such annual cel5ebration once described their event as “a backdrop to examine the events and people that have shaped the world’s destiny over the past 500 years, and to learn from and build upon those lessons as we plan for the 21st century.”
Such examination is hardly inap5propriate. One might even say it is 500 years overdue. For while there is much in our American her5itage for us to be proud of, there is also much to be ashamed of. And we should never forget that this heritage has its origins in acts of violence and inhumanity towards a people whose only crime was that they met Columbus when he got off the boat.
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