Columbus: the Man and the Myth


Wild TurkeyAnother holiday, another opportunity to vilify the United States. Actually, the upcoming Columbus Day holiday is just a warm-up for the Thanksgiving main event.
We know the narrative by now. Christopher Columbus was not a heroic explorer who discovered a new world. He was a villain who set in motion the centuries-long American reign of terror, including rampant genocide in the pursuit of our greedy, imperialist corporate agenda of war and conquest. (Just ask the kids occupying Wall Street.)

In other words, you should spend this coming weekend in shame for what your forefathers did and for what we continue to represent today.

Except for two things.

You can’t be responsible for your ancestors and unless they came over on the Mayflower, your ancestors probably didn’t have a whole lot to do with the consequences of America’s westward expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. My own forebears didn’t arrive on these shores until early in the 20th century. Before that, they were in Italy and Ireland toiling in the fields. I’m almost sure they weren’t plotting American Manifest Destiny.
Sardella FamilyAlthough, since my father’s people were from Italy and Columbus was Italian, I suppose I bear some measure of tribal guilt for the Pandora’s Box that Columbus opened up. But Columbus was from up north in Genoa and my paternal antecedents were Sicilian, so I doubt we’re related. But I’ll check to make sure.

It’s always been a little unclear to me just what the anti-Columbus crowd wants. Columbus has been dead for 500 years, so it’s a little late to try him in The Hague for crimes against humanity. I guess they just want us to stop celebrating Christopher Columbus with a national holiday.

This brings us to the problem of applying current mores to previous eras. By 21st century standards, Columbus was undoubtedly a brute in his treatment of the natives he encountered. But what sense does it make to judge a man who lived half a millennium ago by today’s standards? Attitudes of explorers like Columbus toward the “savages” they met were rooted in the ignorance of their times. After all, Columbus went to his grave convinced he had landed in Asia. The Age of Enlightenment had not yet dawned.

The myth that the North American continent was a peaceful paradise populated by tribes living in harmony and cooperation before the Europeans arrived is just that – a myth. Warfare between Indian tribes was a way of life in North America for generations before Columbus arrived.

“Not all Indians lived in a continual state of intertribal war, but war was part of the social pattern,” wrote Samuel Eliot Morison in his History of the American People. “Any Indian group that tried to shift its dominant values from war to peace was doomed to extinction by another.”

That is not to absolve Europeans and their American descendants of all transgressions against Native Americans. But the idea that the white man introduced brutality to the New World is as much a fairy tale as any whitewashed story about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

Far more people will be focused on football and a three-day weekend than on celebrating the life of Christopher Columbus. A few cynics will spend the weekend vilifying Columbus and feeling guilty for living in the land that recognizes him with a holiday.

But Columbus was a product of his times. For better or worse, he changed the world and paved the way for a great if imperfect nation.

[The column originally appeared in the October 6, 2011 Wakefield Daily Item.]

Follow me on Twitter

3 Responses to “Columbus: the Man and the Myth”

  1. 1 Derrick Nthe Dominoes

    I’m sorry, but how does this article absolve Columbus from being a total douche?

  2. 2 iitzpapalotl

    Agreed. The writer is an ignoramus. Justifying Columbus for being a product of his time is total bull. It doesn’t make it OK or exuseable no matter what century it took place. Indigenous people had CIVILIZATIONS before the white man ever stepped foot here. So, you didn’t ”save” us. And war was NOT a way of life. In fact they were very rare, not long continued and seldom destructive. A few lives lost would end a battle. Indigenous people were recorded as being “The most social and least quarrelsome of men.” What the Europeans DID introduce was genocide, slavery, racism and disease on a MASSIVE scale and created our present turmoil. That’s what you don’t get. If Columbus never came we would be alive and thriving. And how convenient it would be to “forget the past.” What you really mean is forget OUR past. Why not forget the Greeks? The Phonecians? If that’s how you want to play it. What we want is to educate and for the truth to be told, to reclaim our rights to this land and throw out the lies we call “Amerikkkan HIStory.”

    • 3 Mark Sardella

      I’ve allowed the comment to appear, even though the commenter begins with a personal insult. I don’t know the commenter’s qualifications, but unless his qualifications exceed those of a multiple Pulitzer Prize winning American historian, I’m going to go with Samuel Eliot Morrison’s version that American Indians were at least as inclined to war among themselves as their European counterparts were.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: