Monday, October 12, 2009

Christopher Columbus

Alas, poor Christopher's star has fallen.  Once the hero of the western world, he is now disparaged the world over.

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.

Captain Erikson was the son of Erik the Red.  Erik the Red was a Viking banished from both Norway and Iceland...presumably not because he was a nice guy and well liked.  Perhaps he was bossy and mean?  Actually, in the case of Iceland, he was banished for three years for killing a man at The Thing.  But I digress....  I don't know how you can be a sea captain, in charge of an entire crew of Vikings and not be at least a little bossy and mean.  So I'm imagining that Columbus and Erikson possibly had some things in common.  Yet Erikson is celebrated, and Columbus not.  As far as I can see, the only difference is that the Indians managed to kill all the Vikings that remained, and the same fate was not shared by the Spanish.  Leif Erikson even brought a Christian priest to Greenland.  It is possible, nay probable, that the Vikings would not likely have colonized the continent and attempted to convert the Indians.  But it is important to consider the effect that the Norsemen had on England, France and the rest of Northern Europe, the quiet inhabitants of which were terrified of Vikings.

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[2][3], including entire peoples such as the Taino[4] and the Arawak[5], and was the founder of the practice of slavery in the Americas.[6]"  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.

In Sacramento, there was a movement to remove John Sutter's name from a bunch of public items, due to judgements about his character.  Does being a misogynist mean that you did not found a fort and city and find gold?  It makes you a guy who hates women.  It's important to remember that at that time, women were considered inferior by much of the population, not just John Sutter.  The fact that people felt that way does not make it acceptable, but it does make his alleged actions and personality more understandable.  A person's character is his character, his actions are his actions.  If you teach history, teach the whole thing.

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?

Leif Erikson day is October 9, the day in 1925 of the first organized immigration to the United States from Norway.  Columbus Day is October 12, in commemoration of his first landing in San Salvador.  this date is also remembered as Dia de la Raza, Indigenous Peoples Day, Discovery Day, Fiesta Nacional and Dia de las Culturas in various countries.  I would be fine with dropping Columbus Day as an important national holiday.  I am also in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day.  But this reversal to actively teaching children to hate Columbus seems a little much.  If you don't like him, just don't talk about him anymore.

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