Defending Columbus

Yes, Columbus didn’t really discover anything, because there were already millions of people in America. Yes, others from Europe had been here before him.

And yes, he promoted slavery and thought there was nothing wrong with killing the natives and taking their land — But so did just about everyone back then.

Whenever we judge those in the past, I think it’s important to look at them in relationship to their times. chriscolumbusThose who were ahead of their time deserve much more respect than those who may have done great things in their time but did nothing to advance humanity in any way.

We must realize that taking over the natives and controlling them was how things were done. Europe held vast parts of Africa, India, and the east under their control, where the “sun never set” on their empire. That in no way makes it right.

Columbus was a product of his time. It’s not like he said, “Let’s exploit this new place I found and subjugate the natives,” and then everyone said, “That’s a terrible, evil idea!” No, they all said, “Hey, great! Just like we did to the natives in the Congo. More stuff for us!”

Slavery was a part of the history of the world for thousands of years before Columbus. He didn’t invent it. The ancient Greeks, with their democracy and philosophy, thought that enslaving those conquered in wars of expansion was perfectly fine. The Bible has rules about slavery and those rules aren’t “slavery is bad.”

We can’t hold everyone to today’s standards. Jefferson and Washington, who proudly grace Mount Rushmore, had slaves. Lincoln would never have agreed to give women the right to vote. Do you think Teddy Roosevelt would have supported gay marriage?

Society advances. There were people who disagreed with Jefferson and Washington about slavery (notably Franklin and Adams). There were people in Lincoln’s time who even advocated for woman’s suffrage. There are always people ahead of the majority, pushing to make the world a better place.

Maybe in the future we will have provided some rights to dolphins and whales. Or maybe there will some other new right we haven’t even considered today. I certainly wouldn’t want someone 500 years from now calling us all evil and terrible for treating them so poorly.

Columbus is important not because he “discovered” a place where people already existed and had been visited by Europeans long before him. He is important because his “discovery” was a big turning point in the history of the world, for better or worse.

So when you judge Columbus, keep these thoughts in mind. So let’s use Columbus Day not as a celebration of the subjugation of natives, but instead as a day to think about how far we’ve come and what roads lie ahead. Let’s treat it as a day of contemplation, like Veteran’s Day is supposed to be, where we learn from our mistakes.

12 thoughts on “Defending Columbus

  1. Good points. However, I still wish Leif Eiriksson was given more credit than he gets. Not only was he the first European to get here, he did it in a much smaller vessel.


  2. “Tis only fitting that we spend the day contemplating mistakes, as Columbus’s so-called “discovery” of America was a huge mistake since in fact he thought he had circumnavigated the world and found India.


  3. Not buying it. De las Casas was a product of the same times. He did not do the same terrible things. This is like saying lynch mobs were okay, because the people comitting the atrocities were a product of their times, and no one was telling them it was horrible. Civil rights are also an important turning point…it does not mean the evils done to African-Americans should be excused.

    I think we should celebrate the indigenous peoples who were already here.


    • What Christopher Columbus motives were along with that of his bros. Bartolome and Diego (he would later become a priests) were, only they knew. The late Prof. W.H. Carroll and anthropologist Carol L. Delaney (Stanford) have said that Christopher Columbus asked Spain to send good Christians and that Christopher Columbus forbade marauding and atrocities. But many of the people who were sent to the New World were convicted criminals, sometimes death row inmates. Christopher Columbus did not want the administrator job given that he and his brothers were Italian, the sailors and soldiers often went against orders Columbus and his brother Bartolome gave. Christopher Columbus has said in his diaries that he wanted things to be done like this but his sailors and soldiers did differently.

      Now while 1 can discard or debate hundreds of years later the the sincerity of what Christopher Columbus wrote in his diary, again only he knew. Fact is that Columbus and his 2 brothers are thousands of miles away in another land, having to deal with mutiny threats, diseases and warring Indians. 1 could conclude that Columbus and his 2 brothers believed they could not stop the people (who disregarded their orders) from doing what they were doing had to go along with it by pacifying the people they were in charge of until help came from Spain.

      It’s likely the Native Americans who Christopher Columbus discovered were not the original people. We know the history from 1492 onwards in that both the Tainos and Caribs were fighting each other for land, but we don’t know what the history was before 1492, as we don’t know who was there in 1482, 1472, etc. We don’t know how long the Caribs and Tainos or Arawaks were there, how much of the land was originally theirs and whether there were other tribes living there before who were killed or expelled. It’s possible that in 1462, there were other Natives living there before the Caribs and Tainos drove them out either by war or threat of war-after that the territory fighting left was between the Caribs and Tainos. What it means is that if there was a tribe of 200 people, the larger tribe could threaten the smaller tribe with war, that tribe leaves and dies because they didn’t find enough food, etc. Neither Tainos nor Canibs had written language, this wasn’t recorded in their history, if this happened. So it’s possible others could’ve been living there before the Tainos and Caribs were there, before they were killed or expelled by both Tainos and Caribs and that after that the fighting was left between the Arawaks (Tainos) & Caribs. If this is true, then the Tainos and Canibs would not be the original inhabitants, the original inhabitants would be those who were there before them.

      25% of Native Americans have European DNA-there were 30,000 Solutreans who came from Europe to the Americas during the Ice Age. Some American Indian art has pictures of people with blonde hair blue eyes. In Aztec art, 1 God Quetzalcoatl has a full grown beard and when Hernan Cortez conquered, he was thought as a God who would return from the east. As American Indians did not grow beards, it can be concluded that Aztecs had contact with Solutreans. The Solutreans are believed to have gone extinct either by wars or they mixed. When American Indians or Native Americans wanted land, they waged wars against other Native Americans to get their land. But when American Indians lost their land in wars, then the complaints about ‘stolen land’, though much of the land they had they weren’t the original owners as they had gotten this from other tribes.

      Finally, what matters is what happens today. If an American Indian is being discriminated against when it comes to housing, jobs and crimes (either as victim or perpetrator), then that is wrong and must be solved. But what is history is past. Might makes right was the world then and no need for the Europeans to apologize for winning because they did the same thing the American Indians did to each other but only Whites did a better job winning the lands given they had horses, guns and many American Indian allies who fought on the side of the Whites in Indian wars. Focus on injustices happening today. If people do not want to celebrate Columbus Day, then it is their right but let people who want to celebrate Columbus Day celebrate this day.


  4. I’d give the “European Discovery” of America to Columbus rather than the vikings. I’ve been to L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Called “Vinland” by the vikings, North America was never more than distant fishing grounds, and L’Anse Aux Meadows never more than a temporary fishing village. When they left a few years later, they kept in mind where it was but never built up that knowledge, nor ever returned. So they can claim “First European Use”, but Chris gets the “Discover” honor because of the direct impact his accidental achievement had on world events.

    And while the peoples living here were certainly the recipients of just about the worst treatment in history to that point, they were not indigenous. Like the Europeans who arrived in 1492 and afterwards, the natives were not natives; they arrived and replaced the peoples before them. While some groups have been settled for a number of centuries, many had only been here for a century or two, having forced out the peoples before them. And they replaced the natives in much the same way they were replaced by our European ancestors; genocide through rape, slavery, and killing. They were, in fact, still doing it to each other while the European ships were dropping anchor in their harbors and building settlement in their forests.

    In fact, some families of European stock have been settled here in America longer than some of the previous peoples have. One of my ancestors, Captain John Luther, arrived in 1637, which makes for close to four centuries. I have two or three generations of ancestors born in the 1600s on American soil. Does that make ME an indigenous person?


  5. I have written before about the problem of trying to blame people for things that happened before they were born. It just leads to wars in the extreme (such as in the Middle East where certain idiots are still fighting over slights that happened in the 1500s). I am not responsible for my ancestors, and I am not specifically proud or ashamed of things to which I have no control.


    • Well, that’s true. I’m not blaming modern day people for what happened after 1492. However, I’m not comfortable celebrating Columbus as some sort of American hero.


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