ARCHIVE OPINION

Remembering Christopher Columbus

Chromolithograph by Louis Prang and Company
Written by Ranbir Negi

“Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World”

 

Christopher Columbus is universally recognized as the explorer undertaking the journey no man dared—marking the beginning of centuries of transatlantic exploration and colonization of the American continent. 

Setting sail on August 3, 1492, Columbus with three small ships—the Niña, Pinta and Santa María—ventured for nearly ten weeks before stumbling upon Guanahani what is now known as the Bahamas. The day he “discovered” the “New World” is celebrated as a national holiday in the United States, portraying Columbus championing as the discoverer of the continent in the Western Hemisphere. However, in the present day, the historical figure of Columbus has espoused the label of villain, monster, inhumane and “genocidal” explorer.

The person who lived 500 years ago is now is slandered and used as a scapegoat for the atrocities of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the decimation of the Native American population, and everything negative that ensued after his “discovery.” Columbus did not discover America, neither did he ever set foot on the North American continent. Consequently, Leif Eriksson, a Norse explorer, is believed to have set foot on the North American continent in a coastal area called Vinland five centuries before Columbus in around 1001 A.D. But the Norse never established permanent settlements and left within a year. Nevertheless, historical facts surrounding Columbus are now obscured with emotions, myths and propaganda. He was not a hero, but neither should be made villain, and the rampant criticism on Columbus’ voyages comparing him to modern standards are not just historically inaccurate, they are unjust.

What particularly interested me to write this article was after coming across an Instagram post with the titled “The truth about Christopher Columbus”. The “truth” as it presents it was nothing but a succession of tweets from an indigenous activist with no historical backing, no references, and just mired with myths, biases and prejudices. While a large chunk of the tweets can be attributed to a viable snippet of the slandering of Columbus, most of them present several historical gaps. Stating fragmentarily how 95% of the indigenous population died because of Columbus’ “discovery of America” further distorts history. Consequently, another fervent article goes to the extent of comparing the celebration of Columbus to that of celebrating “racist genocide”. Sweeping statements like these lack clarity and add extra layers of the distortion of historical truths.

To explicitly state, Columbus did not commit genocide. Rather, the inexperience of the Native population with germs such as smallpox, measles or the flu caused the death of nearly 90-95% of the Native American population. Even if a Chinese explorer was to set foot and interact with the Native population, the outcome would have resulted in the same way. Unlike Eurasian populations, Native Americans lacked domesticated farming animals and relied on hunting-gathering until the Europeans arrived. As Jared Diamond elaborates,

“It turns out that most of the nasty, infectious diseases of human history came to us from domestic animals. Thirteen of the fourteen herd domestic animals were Eurasian species. The only herd domestic animal of the New World was the llama, but the llama didn’t live in really big herds. So we didn’t get diseases from llamas, but we did get diseases from pigs and sheep. And Eurasian people in general got exposed to these diseases at childhood and therefore developed an immune system. In the New World, smallpox arrives and nobody is exposed to it, so it’s hitting everybody, including adults.”

Brazenly pointing fingers at Columbus and terming it “racist genocide” is a fraught accusation as inevitably any person from Eurasian civilizations who was to come in contact with the Native population would have transmitted germs and lead to the same decimation.

The debate around Columbus being a hero or villain and why we shouldn’t celebrate him continues to be in flux. Several uncertainties and gaps persist where estimates, accounts, and narratives cannot all be gulped straight down. Historical figures like De Avado and Cortés, and matter of fact, the US government were objectively worse than Columbus. Yet, by blaming a man five centuries ago, a majority of other history is ignored and we risk repeating it. For any indigenous population, that must be the paramount fear.

In public discourse, Columbus is vilified as a symbol for everything that went wrong. The pragmatic lens to view Columbus is to rethink and reorient ourselves by asking the question—What will the outcome of criticizing a person who lived half a millennia ago output to the current condition of the indigenous population? Ironically, focusing on current issues of land grabs does not bother the so-called “indigenous activist”. Earlier this month in Canada, during an event commemorating the opening of a portion of the Calgary Ring Road, Seth Cardinal Dodginhorsea, an indigenous man, takes the podium and says “The ring road is built on my family’s land. People are going to be driving on my family’s home…We lived here, we grew up here, we touched that land. The way this land was taken was not healthy nor well done. Again, it was hard to read your development plans. You left us out of Tsuut’ina Nation history,”. After Dodginhorsea ended his speech, he pulled a pair of scissors from his pocket and cut off both his braids and tossed them on the pavement, his final sentence, “With this, I leave a piece of me with the road.”

The rampant stigma of hate around Columbus continues to marginalize and neglect the pressing issues and voices of indigenous people who, more than wanting to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, are struggling to preserve their land, culture and history.

 

Columbus day must not be celebrated, but the Italian explorer deserves credit for his wanderlust of stumbling upon the landmass. Further, simply renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day will not change the course of history, nor immediately change the subordinate positions of Indians, nor grant them better representation, and will neither pressurize the government into taking actual policy decisions into the protection of the indigenous population. The day will simply result in another slandering, scapegoating and hateful event on Columbus, and falter the recognition to honor the history and culture of indigenous populations.

Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Pinning 500 years of the ugly history that ensued on the figure of Columbus is an easy way to shift all of the atrocities and guilt which happened to Native Americans away from the rest. Further, scrutinizing and subverting narratives of history will output to no progress in the present. Propagating fluid prejudice or vandalizing and beheading statues is a futile effort that will output nothing except satisfying the rage of the radical left who lack historical sense. What can be is to understand the needs of indigenous people, provide for better laws and policies, protect their endangered land, understand their culture better, and rationally reflect on history by comparing the standards of 500 years to the present day.

Finally, as Columbus wrote in his Lettera Rarissima, “Let those who are fond of blaming and finding fault, while they sit safely at home, ask, ‘Why did you not do thus and so?’”

 

Views expressed are personal.

About the author

Ranbir Negi

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