Monday is Columbus Day. While some will heap coals of fire on this explorer for the atrocities that followed his voyages, I give credit to Christopher Columbus for bringing together the Old World and the New World. Like many notable men in history, he was a man of his times. When we curse Columbus for his sins, we ignore the era he lived in and the blessings that we enjoy today as a result of our ancestors.
Columbus belongs to the complicated history of our nation. It's unfair to judge him on the standards of conduct of today — and most Americans agree.
According to a recent Marist poll, a whopping 76 percent of Americans believe Columbus and other historical figures should be judged by the standards of their own lifetimes, rather than today's. Nearly 6 out of 10 believe celebrating Christopher Columbus Day is a "good idea."
Why, then, is there such a harsh backlash against Columbus to the point that this holiday is scrubbed from some school calendars, cities are renaming the day, and statues of Columbus are the target of vandalization?
There's a belief that life was honky-dory for inhabitants of the Americas before Columbus violently disrupted their peaceful bliss. That's false.
Although I am an American citizen, I was born on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus sighted my tiny island in 1493 during his second voyage. He named the island after the Monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia, Spain. (Two hundred years later, Irish indentured servants and African slaves were brought by the British to settle the island, and it remains a British colony to this day.)
Montserrat had at one time been inhabited by gentle Arawak Indians, but this lush green utopia was not a paradise. The island was thought to be uninhabited when Columbus encountered it, because Indians on board his ship said another tribe, the Carib Indians, had eaten all of the island's inhabitants.
The Caribs were a warlike tribe and expert navigators who carried out distant raids in their canoes to expand their empire across the Caribbean. They were known to eat human flesh. They too were people of their times.
Columbus' voyages expanded European imperialism and brought the horrors of slavery, rape, theft, and murder to indigenous people. It also cleared the way for colonization and eventually the founding of America.
If we indict Columbus for the atrocities that he and his men perpetrated, shouldn't we also indict the warring tribes who executed bloodthirsty raids on their peaceful neighbors?
Today, Americans are being encouraged to judge the past based on modern enlightment and condemn people such as Columbus for failing to live up to our standards.
Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States explicitly set out to end the fairytale of Christopher Columbus by retelling the story of our founding through the eyes of victims. Zinn explained:
We must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.
Of course, Zinn was presenting a one-sided view of history too.
In the words of historian David Greenberg for the liberal The New Republic, Zinn's book was "a pretty lousy piece of work," and it garnered plenty of criticism from historians and social scientists on the Left and Right. However, it served its purpose to divide people along race and class and exploit those divisions for political reasons.
We need to understand that Christopher Columbus, Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc, or any historical figure of your choice were imperfect people who did extraordinary things (like our modern-day leaders). Their view of life and humanity had much to do with their cultures – even if we don't approve of those views and practices today.
For those who get morally righteous this Columbus Day, be careful. No one wants their triumphs to be forgotten because of their failings. One day, their descendants may be finger-wagging at the behaviors and lifestyles they take for granted as just what people do in 2017.