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. Those 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.