Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Duality in History

“By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.” Christopher Columbus

“These people are very unskilled in arms ... with 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.” Christopher Columbus

Yesterday was the anniversary of Columbus reaching the Americas, and I spent last night reflecting on the momentous event. Christopher Columbus, like many figures in history, embodied the duality of hero and oppressor. In recent years, details of his exploration (often from Columbus’s journal entries) have become the subject of controversy, giving him notoriety. As of today, there are 725 biographies listed on amazon.com.

Sailing the ocean-blue in 1492, with the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, is what I learned about the explorer when I was a child. History has often been the study of the winners, so I didn’t know of his interactions with or impact on native peoples until I was in college. The only information I recall learning about Native Americans was the story of Thanksgiving. Perhaps that is why I didn’t like History classes until college – I found the stories of the common and downtrodden much more compelling.

For the last five years, I taught American Exploration to fifth-graders. Textbooks no longer only revere Columbus and gloss over his dark side. Nor did I. When teaching about Columbus or any period in History when people have been mistreated, I’ve always asked the students, “What if?” With Columbus, the question arose, “What if Christopher Columbus, Spain, and the rest of Europe, worked with the native peoples, and learned from them? What would the Americas look like now?” Part of learning from history is tackling the idea of inevitability.

There’s no doubt that Christopher Columbus was a great leader to his crew, with savvy and luck to propel him. On October 10, 1492, his sailors, afraid for their lives, demanded that the ships go back to Spain, and threatened mutiny. The explorer convinced them to give him two more days, and if they didn’t see land, he’d turn back. One day later, one of the crewman spotted land, and on October 12th, Columbus and his men set foot on the New World.

Columbus had no idea he’d discovered a new continent, but thought he was on an island off Japan. He called the native peoples who lived there, “Indians” because of their brown color and (what he thought was) their proximity to India. Because they weren’t Christians, he considered them heathens. As we learn from History, once someone deems a group as “the other”, that person can do virtually anything to them, with little remorse. With Spain’s blessing, the Indians (who had no immunity from European diseases, and so began to fall ill and die in great numbers) were forced to do Columbus’s bidding. Certain that these islands held gold, Columbus forced the natives to work. The Arawak Indian would have one hand chopped off if he could not fulfill his quota. Faced with disease, overwork, and brutality, the Arawak people became extinct.*

Over time, Columbus’s lack of promised riches and word of his mistreatment of native peoples turned him from a hero to a disgraced pauper in Spain. He died with a sullied name, still thinking that he’d found an alternate route to Asia. But to understand the power that Columbus bestowed upon Spain, one only has to count the number of Spanish speaking countries in the Americas today.**

It’s difficult to find heroes who have not fallen short in some way, for many fall prey to the time and culture they lived in, while we judge from another time, another place. Thomas Jefferson preached equality, but owned slaves. Mahatma Gandhi freed India from Colonialism, but kept a mistress in plain sight. There are those whose private lives do not reflect their public images. It was known years later that John F. Kennedy had affairs when President. More recently, Bill Clinton cheated on his wife while in the White House. These icons of history often fall short because of the trappings of power. Their personal failings become public failings. The question becomes, can someone without a private moral compass have a public moral compass?

We desire to put people in power on a pedestal, but too often they fail. Does that mean we should lower our expectations? No. I think the more we expect, the higher they will aspire. We must keep in mind that our leaders are human beings, with all the frailties that we too possess, rather than gods.

As for Columbus Day, Columbus may have described himself as a pawn for Spain, but he was a willing participant in the deplorable treatment of native peoples. The darker truths do not diminish Columbus’s accomplishments; what he discovered for Europe and the gateway he opened for millions to come, but it diminishes him as a human being.

"Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected." Oscar Wilde

*To read more about Columbus's crew's treatment of native peoples, and how a lunar eclipse saved Columbus and his men: http://www.space.com/spacewatch/080208-ns-lunar-eclipse-columbus.html

** For further reading: Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise by Kirpatrick Sale.

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