The Legacy of Christopher Columbus
The two-dollar bill and the nickel bear the face of the third U.S. President. This man, who drafted and signed the document declaring “all men are created equal” endowed with “inalienable rights,” in practice considered fellow men inequal by enslaving certain of them. Evidence strongly suggests he fathered offspring with one of his female slaves.
The five-dollar bill and the penny bear the face of the sixteenth U.S. President, a man who stated publicly, while running for U.S. Senate, that he was not in favor of “bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races,” that he was not “in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people”; a president who jailed thousands of Northerners without charge or trial.
The twenty-dollar bill bears the face of the seventh U.S. President. This man, who defeated British enemies in the War of 1812 and defunded the second Bank of the United States, approved the Indian Removal Act and his administration forced thousands of Indians to leave their property and relocate.
The fifty-dollar bill bears the face of the eighteenth U.S. President, who oversaw his wife’s slaves before slavery was abolished, and whose two presidential administrations were notoriously, exceptionally corrupt, for he selected his friends and associates, who were either incompetent or corrupt, for government office and power.
The seventh and eighth months in the calendar, July and August, derive their names from two Roman emperors—men who were unjust, violent, brutal, oppressive, whose scheming hastened the death of the Roman Republic and thus ushered in the Roman Empire; men who owned slaves themselves and whose brutal battles and conquests enslaved thousands more.
One day out of three hundred and sixty-five, the second Monday in October, is known as “Columbus Day.” Christopher Columbus was a man who, after years of persistence, obtained the means to embark upon a voyage across the Atlantic. Why?
None of these reasons have to do with trying to find new sources of slaves. At any rate, he undertook this voyage, on small ships, in the late 15th century.
This meant no air conditioning; no running water; no electricity; no GPS; no accurate maps of the ocean he traversed; no maps of his destination; no radio; no television; not a single modern convenience nor comfort that many take for granted.
Regarding those maps, Columbus persuaded Queen Isabella to fund his west-ward voyage to find a route to India using his estimates—which were faulty—of the size of the earth. (He and his contemporaries knew that the earth was round. The book pictured here is a must-read.)
Certainly there was good that resulted from Columbus’ voyages. For example, many, if not most, North Americans living today would not exist if Columbus had not attempted to find a new trade route to India.
And certainly there was bad as well.
Today, many paint Columbus as an exceptionally monstrous person, almost as some kind of medieval Hitler, due to the bad that resulted. He and the Spaniards did enslave and mistreat some of the inhabitants of America.
To add infection to injury, the Europeans carried germs for commonplace European diseases, and these germs were easily fatal for natives, because the natives lacked resistance or immunity to them.
God held Columbus accountable for whatever wrongs he committed towards the indigenous people. Whatever influence or impact he had in the slave trade is limited, also, by the fact of his death in 1506.
While ‘devastating’ accurately describes the effects of the European- transported diseaes, we cannot justly lay the responsibilty for these ills upon Columbus.
First, Columbus—even if he had known all that doctors in that day knew about disease—did not know what germs were, and would not have foreknown that the indignous people he met would be so vulnerable to them. The first modern “germ theory” wasn’t even proposed until 40 years after Columbus died!
Second, Columbus took the voyage because he wanted to find a new trade route to India; why would he plan to exterminate the people with whom he wanted a trade route?
Third, scientists have analyzed more than 12,500 skeletons from 65 sites in North and South America—with slightly over half from pre-Columbians—for health problems, and the healthiest sites were typically the oldest, predating Columbus by more than a millennium. In “The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere,” researchers Dr. Richard Steckel and Dr. Jerome Rose wrote,
Our research shows that health was on a downward trajectory long before Columbus arrived.
Furthermore, the Europeans themselves did not escape unscathed from Columbus’ discovery. Scientific analysis also indicates that someone from the “New World” transported the bacteria responsible for syphilis to Europe. For there is “no longer any solid evidence for syphilis” present in Europe before the late 15th century—to be precise, until 1495, three years after Columbus’ first voyage. Epidomiologist Tara Smith wrote that, in that time,
“[S]yphilis wasn’t a hidden venereal disease: it was a highly virulent infection that could run its course in a matter of weeks to months, covering the victim in sores from head to toe until they died an excruciating death. However, this highly pathogenic form was soon replaced with a milder version of the disease, more similar to what we see today.”
Columbus had not spent decades seeking resources for the voyage, and had not endured discomfort nor risked death to undertake it, solely to enslave others in faraway lands, neither to make them die from disease. Today, however, some focus only on the negative results of the voyage, and some insist no day should commemmorate him nor his discovery.
One might think, from this anti-Columbus narrative, that all those living in the Americas before the Europeans arrived were pacifists, that none of them were capable of mistreating, maiming, enslaving, or killing others.
But merely a little research will show that plenty of natives and tribes in America practiced slavery, human torture, cannibalism, and human sacrifice. The natives with whom Columbus and his men interacted were not all helpless, powerless infants. For example, when Columbus was departing Central America, only one ship out of the original three remained, and he lacked room for thirty-nine of his men, who thus stayed behind at the settlement called “La Navidad”. When he returned on the second voyage, the settlement was in ashes and all thirty-nine men were killed.
We cannot claim, either, that the inhabitants learned violence or oppression from Europeans. For example, an excavation in the Dakotas at an Arikara town, dated to 1325—centuries before Columbus came—uncovered a mass grave containing the bodies of nearly 500 victims—men, women, and children—who had been scalped and dismembered.
The tribes and peoples in the Americas were not necessarily friendly towards one another; as we read:
Among the most bitter enemies of the Illinois between 1655 – 1690 were the five tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca).
Clashes and battles arose elsewhere between other Indian tribes, such as the Blackfeet and the Shoshones. These clashes and battles should not surprise anyone who knows the truth about man’s fallen, sinful human nature. Certainly, the “Indians” were never one collective, united group; there were, and are, a variety of different tribes and people groups. (According to the National Congress of American Indians, there are 562—yes, five hundred and sixty-two—federally-recognized “Indian Nations.”)
From the venom and passion of the anti-Columbus activists, one might think that nothing commemorates indigenous history or identity, that it has been eradicated. This is far from true. Over half of the 50 states in the U.s. have names from Indian identities. Furthermore, many cities and counties throughout the states are named for Indians.
Last but not least, a day was not chosen to commemorate Columbus because he had enslaved people. Columbus was not an exception in this regard; he did not stand out from the crowd, nor does he stand out in history, because he enslaved people. Columbus stands out because he believed so strongly in finding a westward route to India that he undertook a voyage other navigators in that era would not take.
Given all the above, there should not be one standard for the identities of those featured on our currency, or those featured in our calendar months, or the names of states, cities, and counties—and a separate standard—one of perfection—for Columbus, to prevent one day from being designated in his memory.
Postscript: Columbus and the Spaniards with him called the dwellers of the land they discovered “Indians,” because Columbus thought he had found the new route that he sought to India. The term “native American” is European also, because “American” come from the name of the map-maker Amerigo Vespucci. If you take offense at the description of the people as “Indian,” because that is what Columbus called them, you ought also to take offense at the description of “native American,” because it uses a European’s name to describe them.