Christopher Columbus, a Hero, a Villain, or a Product of His Time?

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In recent days, Columbus Day was celebrated by some and condemned by others in various parts of the country. For quite a few years now, there has been a growing debate about Columbus and his contributions to humanity. Many do not consider him a discoverer because they say that he didn’t discover anything, considering that the land with its inhabitants was already there. He might not have discovered anything, but one cannot discard his daring accomplishment of crossing the Atlantic and finding these territories, which were “new” for Europeans and provided the way for others to follow. One would think that the same concept applies to others who hold the title of “discoverers”. Should credit be taken away from Sir William Herschel as the discoverer of the planet Uranus because the planet was already there, and in fact, astronomers had already seen it although they called it something else?

As time goes by, some people continue to have even more negative attitudes about Christopher Columbus. Statues are being vandalized, destroyed, or replaced, and even the name Columbus Day has been changed in some places to Indigenous Day, a name which quite frankly should have had a place on the calendar for some time now. Many claim that Christopher Columbus committed genocide against the native people who inhabited the lands in this new continent. What is genocide? The Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAP) (1948) defines it as follows, “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" (p. 1). There is no argument that genocide was committed against the Christian Armenians in the early part of the 20th century and against the Jews during World War II.

However, when Christopher Columbus arrived in what is now known as the American continent, inarguably, there was a clash of cultures, a conquest. It was 1492, a time when Europe was gradually leaving behind the Middle Ages, a period characterized by brutal wars, invasions, and religious turmoil. In Spain, it was the time of the Inquisition. The Spanish Monarchs, in their quest to unify Spain by expelling the Moors and the Jews if they did not convert to Catholicism, felt that through religion they would be able to purify the masses and have control over them religiously and politically. Had the OSAP been in existence in 1492, perhaps the actions of the Inquisition would have been considered genocide.

The year 1492 was a different time in history, not excusable, but the modus operandi. In the inquisitorial process, people converted or lost their possessions, were jailed and, sometimes, if proven guilty of some sin, burned at the stake. Not to excuse their actions because even one death is inexcusable, the numbers of those executed were inflated by those whose interests were to discredit Spain (Cervera, 2014). It is important to note that during this period, it wasn’t just Spain carrying out proceedings against people who were of a dubious faith or did not adhere to certain religious beliefs. Cervera mentions that during the XV and XVI centuries, 25,000 women accused of sorcery were executed in Germany and many more throughout Europe. Of course, one should not forget the witch hunt that took place right here in Salem, Massachusetts in the latter part of the XVII century.

Christopher Columbus was a product of his time and a servant of the Spanish crown. As Columbus was financed in his voyages to the “New World”, his duty was to claim the territories for Spain, to bring the word of God, and to convert those whose faith did not adhere to the Christian faith. For many years, it has been known that most of the indigenous people of the Caribbean died because of warfare and diseases brought by the European conquerors. Jared Diamond (1997) in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel clearly explains this collapse, which was magnified by the superiority of the weapons brought by the Europeans. The demise of the indigenous population in the Caribbean is unique because unlike the islands, on the mainland, the natives were higher in number and had a massive expanse of land through which they could escape. The natives of the islands were accustomed to conflict and hostilities as other tribes, especially the Caribs, continuously sought to gain control and attacks on other tribes were an inherent characteristic of their culture. As well, on the mainland, although never encountered by Columbus, the Aztecs were domineering and cruel in their warfare, taking their enemies as slaves and using some of them in sacrificial offerings. At the present time, the 21st century, what should not be accepted is to continue having native groups living in reservations. Clearly, the Native Americans are one of the most disadvantaged and oppressed groups, in many instances, isolated from the rest of society and denied some basic human rights. They have become silent victims. Why not fight for their equality and go after the real problems?

Tearing down statues and changing names is similar to a child having a temper tantrum. The behavior is more an emotional expression or outburst than a rationally well thought-out decision. Should this trend continue, perhaps the continent should no longer be called America and perhaps many other places with names related to the discovery of America need to go, including the District of Columbia, or for that matter many European names that have been honored. However, history cannot be rewritten or invented and events in history are a reflection of the period in which they take place. History is history, a past period from which future generations need to learn from the good and the bad.

References

Cervera, C. (2014). El mito de la Inquisición española: menos del 4% acababan en la hoguera. ABC Historia. Retrieved from: http://www.abc.es/historia/abci-falsa-leyenda-negra- inquisicion-espanola-solo-18-por-ciento-quemado-hoguera-201512040335_noticia.html

Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

The Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAP). (1948). OSAP Analysis Framework. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/pdf/osapg_analysis_framework.pdf