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Christopher Columbus and the Statue of Limitations

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(Image by (From Wikimedia) Derek Jensen (Tysto), Author: Derek Jensen (Tysto))
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Nationally Christopher Columbus statues have started to come down. As a liberal/Italian-American, I found myself conflicted. As a liberal, I always supported the removal of confederate statues. So, I of course understood, and empathized with the descendants of slaves and the indigenous people who to them Columbus represented a murderer and conqueror. As an Italian, I also understood what these statues represented to my ancestors and family members. He was a hero to my grandparents who faced prejudice and disrespect. Now, I had to ask myself if I suffered from hypocrisy. Was I no different from Southerners arguing to keep up statues of confederates because it was "my heritage". I realized through the eyes of a liberal or a descendant of Italians, each view of Columbus was based on emotion. I needed to look at this through an objective lens. I decided to view the debate of Columbus statues through the lens of a third option I also possess, a master's in history.

Before focusing on the negative of a Columbus statue, I decided to look at the positive. When it comes to statues of Confederate soldiers, I can't find any true positives for them. They were rebels, but unlike the noble reasons our founding fathers rebelled from England--to start a democracy, get away from a monarchy, and form a more perfect union--they rebelled because they wanted to keep people enslaved based on their skin color. The motives of the Confederacy should be looked to with shame. Columbus, however, did have accomplishments one could feel pride in. Yes, he did not discover America, or prove the world was round. But he did, according to Neil deGrasse Tyson, accomplish the most important event in the history of our species. He introduced the Old World to the New World. For the first time in ten thousand years, since the ice age, the human species has now been reunited. There is a valid reason for him to be revered unless the negatives of his legacy far outweigh his accomplishments. His atrocities required a more in-depth analysis.

The sins of Columbus are really the heart of this matter. I am not going at all to try to lessen the evils of Columbus, as some historians have. In fact, I will instead paint the situation for the worse. There is a debate if he brought over African slaves. For this piece, let us assume he did. He also decimated and enslaved the Taino people. He conquered them, and in doing so he did all the bloody horrors that come with conquering: killing, enslaving, and raping. As had every conqueror before and after him. Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, The Pharaohs, Vikings, all are guilty of these same sins. Yet we for the most part we respect all these groups and people in history. We watch shows on Vikings, hope to one day visit the pyramids, view the death of Julius Caesar, as a betrayal and tragic. So why are we different with Columbus? Why is the sin of conquering a group of people used to judge Columbus so harshly, while we ignore or sometimes praise other conquerors throughout time? Using the 6 W's of journalism, we can try to figure out why this is so.

Is it because of who he conquered? Descendants of those affected by Columbus reside in the Americas, because this is the land he conquered. But America itself is a land of cultures and descendants from all over the world. Should Russian Americans be upset over praise to Genghis Khan, Greek Americans hold Caesar in contempt, Jews have disdain for the Pharaohs? I do not want to entertain the reason of who was enslaved because to push the argument back some layers might reveal a subtle racism. Oh sure, Europeans, Jews, and Asians are fine to be conquered and enslaved, but not the indigenous people of the Americas. I know it is easy to picture that cliche' of the noble savage, that all the people in the New World were without sin before the white man came over. But again, no one with the knowledge of the Mayans and the heart-ripping sacrifices of the Aztecs can believe that. The New World was composed of different tribes and civilizations that like in the Old World, warred with each other, conquered each other, and enslaved each other. Life was not any more valuable for them than it was in the Old World when it came to societies fighting. They were not conquered because they were pacifists. When Columbus returned on his second voyage, he found all the men he left had been killed by the Tainos. We can either feel all societies are susceptible to being conquered, or no one should ever be conquered. But to accept some conquerors and not others because of whom they forced their will upon is morally unsound.

Now we turn to what he did. We have already agreed Columbus did conquer native people, and countless others in the past also did the same thing, so this act alone does not explain why Columbus should feel scorn. Sure, there can be anecdotal reports of his brutality for shock value, but Genghis Khan killed so many people it lowered the carbon footprint of the earth. The brutality he utilized is not more egregious then other accounts in history, and by far not the highest death toll. This is not a contest for who was the most brutal, and who killed more. He has blood on his hands, and he used sadistic forms to keep control. No denying it, but there can also be no denying others have done the same or worse and are still revered. But conquering was not his only crime. Is he also not guilty of bringing the first African slaves to America? As I said before, let us assume he is. However, he is not guilty of creating the economy of African slaves. Muslims started the African slave trade in the ninth century, and the Portuguese started using African slaves in the 1480s on Cape Verde. Columbus may have been the first to bring them to the New World, but he did not create this idea of using African slaves. Had the New World never been discovered, African slaves would have still been exported. It was an existing institution that, like previous conquerors who had networks for slaves available, Columbus chose to utilize. So why is the guilt thrown his way but not the creators of this network? We ignore the Muslims, Portuguese, and African warlords who helped capture these slaves, that created this institution. Again, this does not absolve him of using slaves, just like for the sake of the environment I am not absolved for choosing to eat somewhere that brings my food in Styrofoam containers. But if I chose to eat somewhere else, those containers would still exist, and those Africans would still be in slavery and exported to the New World, regardless if Columbus utilized them from 1492 until his death in 1510.

Okay well how about where? Where, oddly, might score Columbus some points in comparison to other conquests. While Alexander went for the established Persia and Genghis went for Russia, Columbus started the conquest of "new" land. Yes, civilizations were already established there, and in no way were the people conquered an inferior race, but they were an inferior society, with inferior technology. There was feeling of bringing these people into the modern day, making them Christians (he had some baptized, which prevented them from slavery), while also an opportunity with little risk to his men, unlike Napoleon choosing to war with the rest of Europe. Would any explorer from any part of the world not squeeze this opportunity for the most it can be? Had he chosen not to conquer this land, he would be regarded in history like Leif Erikson discovering New Foundland, a missed opportunity for someone else to come in and take the glory. Was he really supposed to leave all this undiscovered land and resources for someone else?

And this leads us to another question that may also help him, when. A study of history as a whole shows us that over all as a species we grow more civilized. It is why Hitler and Stalin are referred to as monsters--in the 20th century we are past the point of rounding up people to have them murdered. It is why slave owners in 1860 are looked to with more disgust, since by then the western world and half of America had viewed slavery as an evil, than our founding fathers who in the late 18th century, slavery was still accepted by most of western civilization. Many actions are viewed by what they are and when they occurred, to see if appropriate. Now, the thought of a grown man sleeping with a thirteen-year-old girl is one of the highest evils. In the 17th century it was calls for a wedding since most died by thirty. If what Columbus did was so evil for his time, why then did similar if not far worse atrocities occur for hundreds of years after him. The stories of Cortez with the Aztecs, and other conquistadors. The English settlers massacring Native Indians for centuries while importing millions of African slaves. We have established he was not the first to start these practices and now nor was he the last. So why is he held to such a high standard? The past cannot be viewed with the moral code of the present. Even the concept that racism is a bad thing is new to the existence of humans, maybe since the 1950s it started to get traction. Lincoln freed the slaves, but he in no way felt the black man was equal to the white man. Was he racist by our definition, absolutely? But he was still a great man and a product of his time. We are all products of our time. We should take comfort that our moral standard has always improved, for once we can look in the past and feel they were more moral than us, we are probably living in a horrible present. And what Columbus did was more than accepted for his time.

Why did he do it? Could this possibly show what a monster Columbus was? Was he sadistic; could he have done it another way? Again, this point might also defend him. Columbus might not have had much of a choice. His ship was sponsored by Spain, which meant he needed to provide results. They wanted a return on investment. He did not have the freedom to discover these lands and then do as he pleased. But even Spain had him jailed after his third voyage for how he treated the natives. True, but the motivation behind his imprisonment might have been political. The man who reported his cruelty to the crown, Francisco de Bobadilla, wanted to be governor of Hispaniola, and not under command of an Italian (again, everyone was racist in the past). Could these accusations be fraud, sure, but again for the point of this essay, let us assume the worst and that he is guilty of all of them. Could he have not done these acts because he knew he had to provide for the crown? The settlers were unhappy with Columbus and felt he had falsely promised them riches in the New World, and so they supported Bobadilla. The Spanish crown did not care really about the cruelty placed upon the Taino people, but that he was not returning with much gold. Which is why the crown never punished the conquistadors for their countless cruelty in the New World during the following centuries. Columbus may have had as much agency as a soldier obeying orders. Yet where is the vitriol toward the monarchs of Spain? Instead, again, it is placed at Columbus's feet.

Last, but not least, is how, and this might be what separates Columbus from other conquerors. When we compare him to Khan, Alexander, Caesar, there is a sense those faced more equally matched combatants, while Columbus had an obvious advantage. Maybe then Columbus should have been less brutal. Alexander defeated Persia, a great empire, years prior. Columbus conquered people who had no idea what firepower or horses were. In sports we accept Michael Jordan talking trash to fellow NBA players, but that trash talk would be viewed with scorn if he directed it to a team of JV high school players. Columbus had such technological advances, his subjugation over the Taino people would be similar to that of the aliens from War of the Worlds. He is the historical equivalent of a bully. Neil deGrasse Tyson also talks about how knowing of an upcoming lunar eclipse thanks to astronomical charts, Columbus convinced the natives that if he didn't give him provisions he needed for his starving men, his god would turn the moon to blood. The ruse of course worked once the eclipse happened. He was so far advanced that it is not seen as combat, but just an onslaught of weaponry, tactics, and information. How can this be defended except that all is fair in love and war. America did not restrain itself from using nuclear power on Japan, because the Japanese had no clue about it. No, we dropped two bombs and killed hundreds of thousands. And sometimes the greater power still loses, like the Russians in Afghanistan, and America in Vietnam. Can we knock someone for using every advantage they have when the stakes are imprisonment or death? We forget Columbus was but three ships on a strange land with thousands of natives. History could have been written with he and all his men dead--which is what was found when he returned for his second village--had he decided to pull punches for the sake of a fair fight.

So where does this leave us, and how do we view Columbus? He should not be romanticized; there is a lot of blood on his hands. The myths of him proving the world round, or that he discovered America, should be stopped. He should be viewed with honesty. That also means he should not be scapegoated as the only evil from Europe on the New World. He was still a man who was a product of his time. His cruelty was in no way exceptional to what the conquistadors or English settlers did to the native population of the New World. Columbus was in no way the author of this style of cruelty imposed upon conquered people. These practices have been going on for millennia before his time. If we write him off for these acts, we must then write off every great conqueror before him. His evil was there, but it was par for the course at the time. What was not par was his accomplishment. He introduced the old world to the new, and for that he deserves to be remembered, and the statues should stay.

Now, should the feelings of the descendants of his victims be neglected--no. There should be an Indigenous People's Day, but it does not have to be swap out for a day to remember Columbus. And when Columbus is remembered, it should be an honest and somber telling of history, not in the style of nursery rhymes, "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue." While the feelings of those who view the statue deserve respect, an accurate appraisal of history should also be respected. All statues of leaders a century or more ago will be people who were racists. And all conquerors will be murderers. Let us be wise enough to accept this, for a morality test that all will fail is not a true test of morals. Columbus like other conquerors was from a past where his barbarianism was accepted and expected. A statute of limitations has passed to judge these menby the morality of today.

But a statue again is just a symbol, and perception is everything. The historian can view Columbus as a perpetrator of evil, but evil that was common for his era, and for most of humanity's existence. The Italian-Americans will romanticize when he looks upon the statue of Columbus, and what Italians have accomplished. While others will look to him and see just the evil he dropped on this world. But maybe the real problem is we are looking for symbolic solutions and not real ones. I have read horrible things Ben Franklin said about Italians, but I am still not against acquiring hundred-dollar bills. Teddy Roosevelt supported the lynching of eleven Italians in New Orleans, yet he still is my favorite president. Why do I have this view? Because of my training in history; well that is definitely an element. If you study history and don't get mad, you are doing it wrong. Everyone was a racist back then, with barbaric practices, and atrocities everywhere; so yes, I can compartmentalize these events. But I think it is something deeper and more real.

I do not face constant racism from people daily. So, when I grab a hundred-dollar bill, or see an image of Teddy Roosevelt, my mind does not go right to the racism of these people. That is my white privilege. I am not always thinking prejudice, because I am not always experiencing prejudice. I can understand how one who lives with this pain, and then cross paths with a statue of Columbus, will feel the hate and look upon it as another example of racism. Maybe our goal should not be to take down statues of people who were significant to history, but instead to be significant to each other. If we treated each other better, and the experience of racism was not a daily occurrence, then these symbols won't have so much power. The Columbus statues meant so much to Italian immigrants because it represented hope after the daily prejudice they felt at the turn of the twentieth century. With equal and just respect toward each other, we can view a statue of Columbus with the same just respect. He did an incredibly significant feat, but how he did it was brutal and cruel, but also the practice of a long-ago time. Maybe it will be easier to feel things were bad in the past, if you don't currently feel things are bad in the present.

 

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Drew D'Amato is the author of the novels Social Studies and Bloodlines. He also has a masters degree in history, and has taught at the high school and college levels. When not writing he spends his time getting himself into trouble.
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