Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Columbus Day storm

Today, Christopher Columbus has and will take a lot of flak from many directions, and probably justifiably so. A murderer he was, a conqueror—by our definition of the word—he was, and a catalyst for the trans-Atlantic expanse of explorers and the eventual devastation of native populations he was. But was this so unusual for the time, or for any period in history? Does he deserve to have his holiday ridiculed and slandered?

No, I don’t believe so. First of all Columbus Day was never meant to be a day to celebrate terror, torture, or the destruction of civilizations. Columbus Day celebrates the beginning of a new age in the Western world: the Age of Exploration, which paved the way for the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the modern era. Today celebrates the embarkation of three tiny ships made of popsicle-sticks crammed with poor souls that took a brave and major step toward the advancement of the world in general. Today we celebrate a great accomplishment for man-kind, just as we may celebrate Neil Armstrong’s first lunar walk or Benjamin Franklin’s realization that lightning was electricity. We hold Columbus Day as worthy of celebration by the simple fact that without the voyage of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria our world may have been drastically different.

To say that we should not celebrate Columbus Day because it also sparked the decline of the Native American is a hypocritical statement to make. Like most pivotal events in human history there was a winner and there was a looser. In the case of the natives of the Americas it was a brutal and devastating lose. But like so many holidays it is the positive that we prefer to commemorate. Should Christians not celebrate the birth of Christ every year because it would later inspire the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Thirty Years War? Should we forget about celebrating Veteran’s Day because, by definition, it is commemorating people that at one point had to kill other human beings? I do not believe so, because I chose to uphold the good that I believe these holidays represent. It is because of Christ that many of us believe in salvation. It is because of veterans that the United States stayed the United States.

And it is because of Columbus and his voyage that I am here today, whether or not he did terrible things or inspired terrible or unfortunate things.

To consider the foul treatment of Native Americans at the hands of European expansionists as a historically tragic event is to forget how human civilization was established. It is true that Europeans conquered the Americas by destroying long-established civilizations. But many of these indigenous civilizations were also formed through conquest. Historians are generally in agreement that the Incas, the Aztecs, and the Algonquians (to name only a few) were built when one group of people decided to expand and take over their neighbors, often with bloody and devastating results. They all maintained their supremacy through fear, torture, intimidation, and death. In one year, the Aztecs reportedly sacrificed as many as 10,000 enemy prisoners (about 28 per day) to their Sun God. When the Spanish conquered the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, they didn’t do it alone: They were helped by local tribes that had lived in fear of the Aztecs for centuries. The Inca of the Andes region performed sacrifices similar to those of the Aztecs, though not as numerously. And the Algonquians of North America violently subjugated enslaved, tortured, and murdered their neighbors to maintain power. When the Europeans brought violence to the Americas, it was nothing new to the natives.

Violence has been a natural part of human development since people first began to live in large groups. Anthropologists today are hard-pressed to find a group of people that has lived in the same place they always have for as long as any human being has lived there. In other words, most, if not all, civilizations and cultures are what they are because of conquest. The Anglo-Saxons are not the original people of Britain. There ancestors stole the island from the Celts. The Celts in turn stole the island from the Druids. The people of present day France have their ethnic roots in west-central Asia. The modern Japanese came from mainland Asia, displacing the natives that inhabited the islands before them. The Zulu of southern Africa likewise migrated from somewhere else, pushing the indigenous people out of their way. To claim that Columbus inspired something evil is to claim that all of human history is evil as well.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that I do not condone or agree with in any way the treatment the natives received from the Europeans, or vice versa. I personally believe the death of so many great civilizations was a tragic and sad event. I simply wish to point out that it is in no way unusual in the history of mankind. It did not occur in a vacuum, and to say that he imposed his evil will on innocent, peaceful people is blatantly and historically false. Such behavior was also a norm in Europe. Just imagine how terrible white people have been to their own kind throughout history and you will realize that European expansionism was not something reserved exclusively for “weaker people.”

Perhaps critics of this holiday are right about Columbus, but this should never detract from the incredible impact they had on history. Maybe instead of calling it Columbus Day it should be called “Exploration Day.”

14 comments:

Paul E. Zimmerman, M.A. said...

Red Knight: "Perhaps critics of this holiday are right about Columbus, but this should never detract from the incredible impact they had on history. Maybe instead of calling it Columbus Day it should be called “Exploration Day.”"

Great piece, well done!

I do have to disagree with this last bit though (and perhaps the paragraph proceeding it, too).

I would like to give the people who bash this holiday and man a chance to actually live in the primitive societies that they romanticize so much. It's one thing to claim a grievance based on a racial identity or to support such thinking, but it's something very different to claim that some great thing was lost that one is rightfully due. Given the life ways that people of the Americas used to have versus what today's politically correct "offendedists" grew up in, I think they would all be singing a different tune about the costs and benefits of what followed the voyage of Columbus if they got a taste of pre-Euro contact life.

The Red Knight (aka, Dr. Know) said...

Thanks Paul. I do believe that Columbus was a murderer and a cruel person, but only from a modern perspective. People today are so convinced of their own superiority that they begin to believe they are more moral than anybody alive or dead. If Columbus had done all this today, he would have been called a war criminal. But when he did all this in the 15/16th century, it was just "business as usual." There would have been nothing wrong with what he did, from the perspective of the Old World and the New! Modern critics have a horrible case of historical relativism.

Now, what you said about "some great thing was lost that one is rightfully due" is completely correct. If we take morals out of the equation and treat the natives and the conquerors as animals, the Europeans had every right of nature to harm the natives because they were the stronger. Nature is all about survival of the fittest. If they had been two packs of wolves in the forest fighting for territory, and one completely killed the other, do you know what liberals would call it? NATURE!! Why then should humans be so detached from the most basic fundamentals of nature?

Paul E. Zimmerman, M.A. said...

Red Knight: "If we take morals out of the equation and treat the natives and the conquerors as animals, the Europeans had every right of nature to harm the natives because they were the stronger. Nature is all about survival of the fittest."

This is true of animals, but obviously our European ancestors and the American natives were not animals. We are rational beings.

That is why what I was getting at is, rather, what great civilizations were lost? More to the point, civilizations being the physical expression of a people's ideals, what great ideas about human existence were lost when native societies were toppled? As far as I can tell, none.

If we compare where the Europeans were back then in terms of societal development and future potential versus the same amongst the various peoples of the Americas, one might ask what sort of world each society would have led to, and I think it's fair to conclude that what the Europeans were building (in terms of philosophy, technology, science, etc.) has been far better for everyone the world over ever since than anything that would have followed from the peoples of the Americas. Therefore, I don't share the sentiment that anything particularly valuable to mankind was lost when those native societies were swallowed up. In fact, their descendants have a lot to be thankful for, things they enjoy now that would not have happened otherwise, most likely.

The Red Knight (aka, Dr. Know) said...

I suppose I mis-spoke/typed. I meant to say that humans are still animals, albeit rational ones, with certain urges, desires, and needs. Considering the philosophy of the time, however, it is no wonder why people behaved the way they did.

I honestly do not agree with your assessment that they had nothing, if little, to offer. The greatest civilizations of the Americas at the time (namely the Inca, the Aztecs, and the Maya) were very advanced in many respects. They believed the world to be round, and had developed a calender that was much more accurate than the Europeans. In mathematics they had developed the concept of zero and negative numbers far earlier than the West. I've also heard that they may have developed a form of calculus. It's difficult to say what else may have disappeared with them.

Paul E. Zimmerman, M.A. said...

Red Knight: "The greatest civilizations of the Americas at the time (namely the Inca, the Aztecs, and the Maya) were very advanced in many respects. They believed the world to be round, and had developed a calender that was much more accurate than the Europeans. In mathematics they had developed the concept of zero and negative numbers far earlier than the West."

Indeed, they invented some revolutionary things, but where are those things now? Answer: we still have them, and they are very good to have.

But it isn't a laundry list comparison of who invented what that I'm interested in. Invention is great, but utilization is greater. Additionally, if you look at both the historical time line of the peoples of the Americas in general, in terms of what they were doing, and also the longevity of their societies, it's striking how long it took them to get only as far as they did, particularly when you take into account that the modern world began only about 10,000 years ago, well after the Americas had been settled by humans.

So, like I said, I don't put much value on who they were or what they did. When it comes down to it, they are not the ones who built the world we inhabit now. They contributed a brick or two here and there, but the plan for the house was to be found in Europe, so to speak.

The Red Knight (aka, Dr. Know) said...

You are correct, Paul. The world, I believe, is far more advanced because the Americas were colonized by Europeans. But it is a huge "what if" game. What if the Europeans had been able to utilize the knowledge of the Maya or Aztecs for their own needs? Would that have had a dramatic effect? Possibly. Few people know that the steam engine was invented in Egypt before the birth of Christ, but it wasn't utilized until about 1750. What if they had utilized it before Christ's time? Would we be living in space now? What if...

As history occurred, the natives of the Americas have had no major role in advancement as a people. But still, things may have been drastically different.

Paul E. Zimmerman, M.A. said...

There's always room for what if's, and thanks to them, we get fun games to play like Civilizations. ;)

It's the "what is" that I think makes fools of the Columbus day protestor set, however. Despite some warts, the what is has turned out to be pretty good, I think. There's much to appreciate and much to look forward to. They would do themselves a huge favor by realizing that.

The Red Knight (aka, Dr. Know) said...

Very true Paul. And I'm an Age of Empires fan myself.

Michael said...

I know that I "pass for white," but the truth is that I'm about half Mexican. Anyone who encounters my family down in Arizona would immediately recognize them as of unmistakeably Mexican descent. Whenever we hear protestors bitching about how California, New Mexico, Arizona, etc were stolen from Mexico, my Mexican family simmers. We lived close enough to the border to know which side we're happy to have been born on.

We're delighted with "what is."

The Red Knight (aka, Dr. Know) said...

Well, Michael, you might want to be careful about this kind of speech. The CES department might want to investigate you.

WSUCollegeRepublican said...

Good to see you back Red Knight. Maybe I'll see you at the meeting tonight.

Michael said...

I've already told John Streamus to kiss my ass once. If anybody else needs that advice, it's free.

Satanic Mechanic said...

Everyone knows it was the Vikings who came across America hundreds of years before Columbus. They sailed as far south as Narragansett sound, but they tested positive for steroids and had to give up the claim

Paul E. Zimmerman, M.A. said...

Mr. Mechanic: "They sailed as far south as Narragansett sound, but they tested positive for steroids and had to give up the claim"

Impossible. 10,000,000 screaming barbarians cannot all be wrong.

Just ask the folks over at CES.