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In Defense of Christopher Columbus

October 19, 2009 - John Stack



            It has become acceptable these days to demonize Christopher Columbus. He brought disease and violence to the native Americans. He was a tyrant. He was a bully. Puh-lease. This was the 15th century! This wasn’t modern America! The sailors on these ships had no clue of the diseases, parasites and such they were carrying. Heck, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the scourge of seamen everywhere –scurvy (deficiency of vitamin C) was found to be in fresh oranges. And we should have expected Columbus and his cohorts to have run around with surgical masks in their dealings? There is no way possible they could have known they would be the source of so much death and devastation.

            The brutality and violence was real though. But, in the context of the day it was not uncommon nor frowned upon. Taking things by force was a way of life. In many places TODAY might means right   still rules. Should the whole Italian government of the time be held accountable for the violence perpetrated upon the Indians? How about all the Spanish? Or, the ancient Greeks and Romans for that matter? Our so celebrated birthplace of democracy was nothing like today’s idea of democracy. Only free male landowners had any say in Roman affairs, and only the rich at that. And the Senate back then would make today’s Senate seem downright moral and trustworthy.

            Why complain about this? Some things really irk me. The Brown University faculty decided this year to replace Columbus Day with a new holiday in the fall. They said it was  based on the nature of Christopher Columbus's conquests and treatment of Native Americans. The colossal irony? John Brown, the founder of Brown University was a slave trader!! Where are the petitions to change the name of the university to something that doesn’t celebrate this atrocity? Of course Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slave owners also. Why not get rid of President’s Day? Why not rewrite our textbooks to talk more of the dark side (as seen thru the eyes of today) of these two Americans?

            We don’t celebrate Columbus for his actions which are looked poorly upon today. We look upon him, and celebrate him, for his courage to undertake such a voyage. For his forward thinking of finding a new passage while many still thought of the earth as being flat!

            How about our local John Brown. He was one of the most famous abolishinists of all time. While many understand his raid on Harper’s Ferry was somewhat unjustifiable, his legacy is not of a treasonous murdering traitor. His is that of one of the early leaders of the abolitionist movement. Although he was unquestionably militant, and was guilty of crimes so heinous that today he would be spoken of in words such as ‘mass murderer’ ‘terrorist’ and ‘psychopath’ . But, it can be speculated that he started the civil war, helped stop slavery in the US and was the person responsible for the civil rights movement.

            To pass judgment on a historical figure without understanding the social norms of the times is to misunderstand history. We don’t live in those times. Their understanding and education is significantly different than what we have today.

             People may question whether Columbus deserves his own federal holiday, but that should be based upon his accomplishments. It should not be based upon applying current day morality to a different culture 500 years ago.



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