Columbus Day is a perfect occasion to celebrate perhaps the greatest explorer of all time, Christopher Columbus.
Columbus not only discovered a new continent, he also opened the way for the Westernization of North and South America, he ensured the dominance of Western civilization from the 16th century to the present, and he inaugurated an era that brought the blessings of freedom and enlightenment to people across the world that had no way to achieve those things for themselves. In short, Columbus is the architect of the modern world.
I realize what fighting words these are in today’s era of political correctness and identity politics. I understand that Columbus today is considered, at least in woke quarters, to be a very bad guy, perhaps even a genocidal maniac who, along with his successors, essentially wiped out large segments of the Native American population. From Venezuela to America, left-wing activists relish in pulling down Columbus statues and monuments. Today’s progressive consensus seems to be that Columbus simply went too far, and it would be better had he never come to these shores.
I think the heated exchanges about Columbus, not only in academic precincts but also in popular culture, tell us more about ourselves than they do about Columbus. Consider: In 1892, when much of the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Columbus landing, Columbus was hailed as a hero. A century later, on the 500th anniversary, many people called him a villain. Obviously these reactions were more of a measure of the prevailing ethos of each era rather than an objective or measured assessment of Columbus the man.
Today, for instance, it’s hard even to get agreement that Columbus discovered America. The problem is with the word “discovered.” Progressives are committed to a doctrine of cultural equality that is reluctant to admit that an explorer like Columbus could possibly “discover” another people who were already there. At contemporary gatherings of historians, it’s now obligatory to speak of how Columbus “encountered” America.
The term encounter, to be sure, implies a cultural or civilizational equality between Europe and the new world, or more precisely between European culture and the culture of the Native Americans. Yet there’s hardly any doubt that it was European ships that made their way to the Americas, while Native Americans had no ships that could possibly have made their way to Europe.
This simple fact reflects the larger reality that Europe was in every respect—intellectual, technological, economic—far more developed or advanced than any of the native cultures of the Americas. If this were not the case, how could the small force of Hernán Cortés, for example, rout the vastly larger army of the Aztec empire, which collapsed before the Spanish onslaught while hardly providing any resistance?
The charge of genocide, leveled against Columbus, cannot be sustained by a fair examination of what happened. Admittedly, large numbers of Native Americans perished in the decades following the Columbus landing, reducing the native population by half, perhaps as much as two thirds, in certain areas. This result, however, was not due to warfare but rather due to diseases contracted by the Indians—smallpox, measles, and so on—which were brought by the white man and to which the natives had no immunity.
This is tragic, to be sure, tragic on a grand scale, but it is not genocide, because genocide implies an intention to exterminate a population. Anyone who reads the journals of Columbus can see that he was very well disposed toward the Indians. He especially praised the sweet disposition of the natives he encountered on his first voyage, although admittedly he had a less benign view of the so-called Caribs who had a reputation for capturing and eating their enemies. The very term cannibal derives from the Caribs.
We can see the injustice of using the term “genocide” by asking whether the release of the COVID virus, whether accidentally from a Chinese wet market or through negligence from the Wuhan Lab, constitutes genocide. My answer would be no—not unless the virus was deliberately discharged as a biological weapon that was intended to wipe out a sizeable segment of the world’s population.
Moreover, some diseases that the white man brought to the Americas, Europe contracted from the Mongol invaders who came from Asia. Once again, the Mongols brought the diseases without knowing it. The outcome was no less catastrophic. The so-called black plagues of the 14th century wiped out, by some estimates, a third of the entire population of Europe. Still, no one calls this genocide—because it isn’t.
It’s hard to appreciate the achievement of Columbus today because we have difficulty imagining the conditions of the late 15th century: small and cramped vessels, no modern instruments of navigation, sailors subsisting on bread and water, huge and turbulent seas, ridiculously inaccurate charts and maps, dangers of mutiny, starvation, and shipwreck, and a destination that was imagined but largely unknown.
Contrast this with, say, the modern space program. Astronauts don’t come up with the idea for, say, going to the Moon or Mars. They merely train to man the space vehicle that is supported by thousands of scientists, technical staff, troubleshooters, and so on, equipped with a thorough knowledge of what it takes to get from here to there and hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in financing to make it possible. Columbus, by contrast, conceived his mission, secured the meager funding that enabled it, and carried it out himself, making his way to the New World not once but four times.
To those who say that Native Americans once lived in a paradise, which Columbus somehow destroyed, I say this. If that life was so wonderful, why don’t Native Americans go back to it now? Certainly on the reservations the Native Americans, who control their own destiny, could give up electricity, cell phones, central air, casinos, cars, and cheeseburgers. They could get back up on their horses and go look for food, just like in the good old days.
My scenario, I realize even while composing it, is imperfect. Native Americans who truly wanted their old lives back couldn’t get up on their horses, because they had no horses before Columbus came. (The horse was brought to the Americas by the Spanish.) But my general point holds, and the fact that no group of Native Americans has taken up this project of living in the same way their ancestors did conveys, to me at least, that the old days weren’t so good after all, and that the benefits of modern civilization, once established, are difficult if not impossible to refuse.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.