There are basically two competing narratives about Christopher Columbus. As we observe another Columbus Day — along with the annual arguments over him — I’d like to suggest a third way of looking at the man.
When I was a kid, Columbus was a hero. He was a brave explorer who discovered America while looking for a shorter trade route to India. His discovery led to people from European countries braving terrible danger to come to the New World and start the colonies that would eventually form the United States and give us the country we have today.
Today, the view is entirely different. Columbus was a greedy, murdering villain who is responsible for the destruction of the peaceful Native American societies that existed before he showed up. The natives were universally peace-loving and kind people who had their way of life destroyed by Columbus. If it hadn’t been for Columbus, the natives would have continued living in peace and harmony while the Europeans fought among themselves elsewhere.
Neither view is especially honest or nuanced. I’d like to suggest a third possibility.
Columbus was just another in a very long line of men of every race who have gone off in search of fame and fortune. There was nothing especially great about him or especially evil about him. Human beings have a long history of killing each other — in sometimes cruel ways — especially when they meet groups or tribes of others who are weaker than they are in some way. Look at history and see how every group of people has played the role of oppressor and the role of villain at some point.
Today, we remember — and feel bad for — the groups who lost such struggles for power, but there’s little reason to believe that those losing groups wouldn’t have done the same to the winning groups if they had had the technological means to do so.
Human beings are greedy. They’re murderers. They want what isn’t theirs — and they’re willing to do whatever they need to do in order to have what they want. Anyone who believes that one group or another is morally superior to the rest of us — or who believes that one group wouldn’t do terrible things to conquer another — is fooling himself.
The idea that it’s wrong to kill those of other groups and take their land and possessions is a fairly modern idea. For most of human history, it was accepted that groups competed and took what they could take from the others. Sometimes, groups invented grievances to “explain” their genocides, but more commonly, it was simply accepted that this was the way of the world. (Look at the Old Testament stories of the Hebrews conquering and slaughtering the people of Canaan to establish Israel in “the promised land.” But it was OK to slaughter all those people, we’re told, because God said to do it.)
This was true among Europeans. It was true among Asians. It was true among Africans. And it was true among the Native American tribes before the Europeans showed up to conquer and kill them. (The idea of the peace-loving natives living a hippie lifestyle is a modern movie invention. The tribes were happy to kill each other in battles over territory or access to game.)
Everything that the revisionists say about Columbus is true. He was a monster by our standards. He was a product of his day and he acted in accordance with what they believed was right. That doesn’t justify what he did or what anybody of any nation or tribe did to conquer or kill someone else. It’s just to acknowledge that what they were and what they believed — almost all of them — were very foreign to our modern ways of thinking. In historical terms, we humans are monsters.
What Columbus did was historically significant, because it was a key point in the Europeans’ conquering of the western hemisphere. But it’s not something to be celebrated as some romantic event. On the other hand, it’s a misunderstanding of history to pretend that if the Native Americans had had the technology to reach Europe — and the Europeans were technologically backwards when they got there — that they wouldn’t have done pretty much the same things in reverse.
Human beings can be monsters to one another. Much of what Columbus did was monstrous. (The Oatmeal has an interesting litany of the facts, if you’re interested.) But the real lesson is to see what barbarity used to be widely accepted among human beings, not to pretend that Columbus and Co. were especially evil. In some ways, we’ve made progress since his day. We’re still monsters at times. It’s just not as accepted as it was then.
I don’t think this narrative makes either side of the debate happy, but I think it’s a fair way to look at the truth.