Monday, October 13, 2014

Reconsidering Columbus

The burden of history must be a difficult thing to carry, even for the dead. Few historical figures would know that better than the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, the man who led an expedition that connected the civilizations of the Old World with those of the New in 1492. In the five hundred years that followed, the inhabitants of those New World civilizations were enslaved, infected, massacred and displaced by the Old World Conquistadors and colonists that followed. Although no reliable estimate of Western Hemisphere populations before Columbus has been determined, it is clear that the death toll from the meeting of these civilizations was well into the millions.

Landing of Columbus, John Vanderlyn

But how much of the blame for that history can be laid at the feet of Columbus? Yes, his was the expedition that brought the divided populations of the Old and New Worlds together, and yes, his own treatment of native populations (enslavement, torture, executions) was appalling, but is it fair to bind him to all of the deaths and atrocities that followed? Even an idealized and peaceful contact between European and American populations would’ve have resulted in death by disease for many, as both European and native societies lacked the medical capacity to control the spread of infection at the time. And were the Europeans who followed Columbus to the Americas merely following his lead, or were they acting based on the flawed moral foundations of their own civilization?

The Europe from which Columbus sailed was a collection of violent authoritarian kingdoms loosely bound into a single civilization by Christianity and their historic connections to the ancient Roman Empire. For almost 500 years many of those kingdoms had been involved in a crusade to reclaim land in the Levant from the Muslim civilization that had conquered the region. Spain, the country that sponsored Columbus’ expedition, was a fairly new kingdom (the union of Castile and Aragon), occupying territory that was also once ruled by Muslims. In the same year that Columbus sailed, Spain forcibly ejected all Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism, and subjected many of the conversos who remained behind to persecution and torture in the years that followed. The entire continent was a hotbed of war, oppression, torture, and religious persecution.

It was almost inevitable that connecting the civilizations of the Old World and the New World would end badly for one group. Given the violence of the Europeans, their marginal technological advantage and the susceptibility of Native American populations to Old World pathogens the outcome was almost a forgone conclusion. For that we may assign Christopher Columbus an appropriate portion of the responsibility, but ultimately we should not embrace the attempts to vilify him more than he is due for the overwhelming failures of his civilization. It is, after all, our civilization, the one from which we have descended and from which we have acquired so much material prosperity at the expense of the natives.

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