Columbus Day is a US holiday which is celebrated with annual arguments about the propriety of honoring Christopher Columbus with a holiday. The atrocities that he and his men committed are so well documented that you’d think it would be impossible to defend the man, but people are still doing it. Today’s post isn’t about Columbus so much as it’s about how to defend Columbus (not that I’m defending him). There’s an important lesson here about history and about the way we talk about history.
Howard Zinn writes about this in the first chapter of A People’s History of the United States (I’m using the 1995 edition). As an example he cites the eminent historian Samuel Eliot Morison’s 1954 book, Christopher Columbus, Mariner. An old book by now, but I think the pattern remains relevant. Zinn quotes Morison on Columbus’s policy of enslavement and killing. Morison wrote: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”
Zinn observes (p. 7) that the above is “on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance.” Zinn then quotes the last paragraph of Morison’s book:
He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great — his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities — his seamanship.
Now Zinn is ready to make his point. I realize that Zinn remains a controversial figure in the field of American history, but what he says next is something of great importance, the significance of which stretches well beyond the story of Christopher Columbus. Quoting Zinn, pp. 7-8:
One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.
But he does something else — he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important — it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.
And lest you think that this sort of thing doesn’t happen today, or only does so on right-wing outlets such as Fox News (linked in first paragraph), watch this brief 2011 video from National Geographic Kids. Notice how the video is full of rich, specific details about Columbus’s biography and about the 1492 voyage itself, but passes briefly and vaguely over the treatment of the Native Americans. If kids aren’t old enough to hear the real story of Columbus, why give them a version that distorts by omission and selective emphasis? Is this really that much better than what Morison did? The Oatmeal, on the other hand, doesn’t flinch in this popular little illustrated essay.
Some people argue that it isn’t fair to impose present-day moral standards on people of the past. True enough. Columbus lived in a less enlightened age, in which slavery was universally accepted and in which conquerors thought nothing of inflicting sadistic cruelties on anyone who came under their power. Yesterday’s conquering hero is today’s deranged lunatic. I understand that.
But when the deranged lunatic in question gets his own holiday, I think the least we can do is to acknowledge the past and give events their proper emphasis. Columbus’s behavior is beyond dispute. Whatever Europeans thought of it at the time, no one in their right mind today should consider it worthy of honor. We should acknowledge that most heroes of the past were simply self-aggrandizing murderers and thieves who styled themselves kings and discoverers and prophets. We should all understand that game by now.
So let’s use Columbus Day as an opportunity to ask questions: Why did Columbus and his men think they were justified in doing what they did? Why do we think differently? What changed between his day and ours? Why did it take so long for modern people to question Columbus’s heroism? What made an intelligent man like Morison so morally blind despite knowing the facts? Why do so many people make the same mistakes today?