Monday, October 12, 2009
Recently, my 9 year old son was telling me about how they no longer celebrate Christopher Columbus at school because, I don't remember why, something about him being a horrible person. Today, I heard him described, to a group of first graders, as "mean and bossy." Mean and bossy? This person told the kids that they wouldn't learn about Columbus today, but instead they would learn about Leif Erikson. Leif Erikson is known to have reached the new world long before Columbus, and there may probably have been others.
It's true that the actions of Columbus wreaked havoc on the people living where he landed. On the other hand, is he alone personally responsible? If it hadn't been him, it would have been someone else. Does the fact that Europeans brought war and disease to America mean that Columbus was not brave? That he was not a good sailor, captain, negotiator, navigator, and all the rest? For a man of the time, he was both a hero and a controversial figure. His views of the "Indians" (am I allowed to call them Indians??) were not unusual. It seems unfair to vilify him personally for all the atrocity and destruction, particularly when Spanish society was so different at the time than American society is now. According to Wikipedia, "Columbus himself was responsible for the deaths of millions of Native Americans (estimates range between 1 and 3 million) in the first 15 years of his colonization of the Caribbean, including entire peoples such as the Taino and the Arawak, and was the founder of the practice of slavery in the Americas." That just seems like so much work for one man to accomplish alone. And I doubt very much that the "Indians" hadn't had the idea of slavery all on their own. The Indians were not always sweet and innocent themselves, and Columbus did certainly not invent slavery.
I hear rumors that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a "womanizer," yet we celebrate him for all the wonderful things he accomplished for our society during his life. No one is perfect. People are round and deep and complex and amazing creatures, inconsistent and undependable.
Is it fair to reverse the tales of people years or centuries after their lives? It seems to me to be better to consider each individual in the context of their society and time. The North Atlantic is a trial that would be difficult for anyone, no matter who they are. To survive and be noticed after the dusty centuries is itself a feat. If you could cross it today in a wooden ship, you would have at least respect from me, even if you are a complete jerk. Would it not be better, in fact more useful, to consider the context of events and learn from it, rather than strip our once-heroes of their acclaim?