If you’re like me, you were taught in grade school that Columbus was an awful person who killed peace-loving natives, and is a symbol for Western oppression. Consequently, we were told that we shouldn’t celebrate Columbus Day, and that it would be better to replace the holiday with something to honor his victims. For the longest time, I believed this narrative. However, I eventually realized that it suffered from the same problems that a more idealistic Columbus narrative suffers from; namely, it simplifies the story to a very basic good versus bad dynamic.
As a lover of history, I recognized that any narrative that does this isn’t history at all, it’s propaganda. From there, I tried to find a more objective and accurate approach to what really happened, and I came to an interesting conclusion given the present cultural attitudes. Columbus, despite his faults, should be honored for his momentous accomplishments. Any attempt to erase him from historical memory doesn’t correct a lie, it actually perpetuates one.
Few American holidays have been as controversial as Columbus Day. According to modern wisdom, he was the founder of slavery and committed genocide against Native American peoples, who are always portrayed as peaceful hunters and gatherers, innocent of wrong-doing. Furthermore, in the eyes of historical revisionists, Columbus wasn’t just evil, he was dumb, too.
History teachers loved to remind us that Columbus never knew he had stumbled upon a new continent, and that he wasn’t the first person, or even the first European to lay eyes on it. Because of all this controversy, many governments and institutions (UConn included) are taking steps to erase Columbus from public memory by renaming the holiday “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” to honor the victims of Columbus’ alleged mass murder.
I have no problem with a holiday to honor the rich history of Native Americans; in fact, I believe it is in our country’s best interest to have one. However, simply replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day would be a mistake.
It’s hard to understate how important Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas was. It may be true that Leif Erickson was the first European to step foot in North America, and yes, the Native Americans had already lived here for thousands of years, but neither of them ushered in the vast economic and social revolution that Columbus did.
Furthermore, there is compelling evidence that suggests that native peoples, due to challenges posed by the land itself, would never have been able to develop a technologically advanced society independent of the west. The advanced civilization that characterizes many New World countries has resulted in unprecedented improvements in standards of living, the rise of classical liberal governments and a whole host of revolutionary technology that makes the lives of people everywhere better. In short, it is hard to say that the effect that European civilization has had on the New World is anything but a net positive.
Of course, critics will say that this analysis is ignorant of the destruction that came with colonization. They will point to the massive death rates of native peoples due to Old World diseases and slavery. Many will go as far to say that Columbus was guilty of genocide because of the destruction wrought by him and his followers. However, this claim is blatantly false. A genocide is deliberate mass murder with the goal of eradicating an ethnic or religious group, which is something Columbus never tried to do. But what about the disease and conquest brought on by the Conquistadors? It’s true that these factors did lead to a lot of destruction, but they aren’t cause for removing Columbus from his pedestal.
First, let’s consider the disease that Columbus and other Europeans introduced to Native Americans. Europeans never intentionally used disease as a weapon; in fact, they didn’t even understand how disease spread or why the native population was so susceptible to illnesses that were much less deadly to residents of the Old World. Thus, the epidemics that plagued the New World’s native peoples were tragic but unintentional results of colonization. It would be unfair to paint the explorers who brought them here as villains when they were unaware of what they were doing.
Second, we must remember that Columbus and the other European explorers were products of a violent time. War was just a fact of life, as was the subjugation of conquered peoples. Furthermore, inhabitants of the New World were certainly guilty of the same brutality and belligerent activities. Archaeologists and historians who study Native American history have plenty of trouble describing the details of the pre-Columbus Americas, but they almost all agree that the continents were rife with warfare and barbarism not unlike medieval Europe. This is to say nothing about the heinous practice of human sacrifice, which was practiced by many Mesoamerican societies.
Make no mistake, I’m not denying that any atrocities occurred during the Age of Exploration, nor am I trying to make excuses for them. My point is that it is unfair for us to judge 15th century people by 21st century standards of morality, and it is just flat out wrong to condemn some historical figures and paint idealistic pictures of others who committed equally heinous acts. Rather, we must take an objective approach to examining the people who made our past. If we do this for Columbus, we will discover a man who was flawed, but nevertheless contributed so much to our history, and had an overall net positive effect on who we are today. Thus, let’s keep celebrating Columbus Day and let’s honor our history.
Jacob Marie is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.