Of course Columbus discovered America — a fact which, in itself, makes him neither a hero nor a devil

Look, people… If it makes you happy, Columbus was wrong, the Bugs Bunny version notwithstanding.

Yeah, the Earth was round, as every educated person of his day knew. Only low-information types thought otherwise. But the scholars of the day also knew how big the Earth was, and why Columbus’ idea of sailing west to get to the East Indies was a pipe dream.

But because he was dumb enough to insist on proving his point, he accidentally discovered the New World — and almost no other development in human history has had such wide-reaching consequences, for good or ill.

Consequently, I consider efforts to downplay his “discovery” of the New World a bit on the silly side. Such as this reference in an interesting piece by the NYT’s Brent Staples:

It also tied Italian-Americans closely to the paternalistic assertion, still heard today, that Columbus “discovered” a continent that was already inhabited by Native Americans….

Allow me to make a “paternalistic assertion.” Yep, he did discover America. And everything that has happened since arises from that fact.

A digression…

Right now, I’m reading the book Guns, Germs and Steel, and it’s fascinating. Basically, it attempts to determine the underlying factors that caused certain parts of the world to be “discovered,” and ultimately dominated by, people from other parts of the world.

The whole book aims to answer a question posed to the author by a New Guinean politician named Yali back in the ’70s. When Europeans “discovered” New Guinea a couple of centuries back, the people there were technologically still in the Stone Age. The local people were blown away by the physical artifacts of a modern society — ranging from steel axes to soft drinks — which they referred to collectively as “cargo.” Yali asked the author:

“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

Jared Diamond’s attempts to answer the question are deeply fascinating.

The book spends considerable time on one incident in particular, back in 1532. You may know the story of how Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro took the Incan emperor prisoner, accepted a ransom from the Incas of a vast amount of gold, and then killed the emperor anyway. Aside from dwelling on some “woke” aspect of this encounter, such as the obvious fact that these Spaniards were a__holes, Diamond asked why it happened this way. In other words, why didn’t Incan emperor Atahuallpa go to Spain, take King Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, prisoner and hold him for ransom? A variation of Yali’s question.

And no, the answer isn’t that Atahuallpa was a nicer guy, or for that matter that American Indians were on the whole nicer than white guys (although again, Pizarro and crew didn’t exactly create a great first impression for the rest of us white guys).

Nor is Diamond satisfied with, the Spaniards had guns and steel swords and horses. The book aims to understand why people from Europe had guns and steel swords and horses. For that, he goes back to when homo sapiens first spread out over the Earth, and in certain places gave up hunting and gathering for farming, and different kinds of farming in different places, and the effects that had on the development of technology an complex political structures, and so on.

I highly recommend the book.

But my point is that, whether you personally see it as a good thing or a bad thing, Columbus’ discovery of America was definitely a thing, and one of the most consequential pivot points of history. If you want to explore just how consequential, I recommend another book, which I’ve recommended before: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann.

What happened on Oct. 12, 1492, was monumental, and certainly worth marking with a special observance. It changed the world as almost nothing else that has ever happened did. Where people get all bollixed up is when they try to assign moral value to the event.

I don’t know why people do that. Discovering America doesn’t make Columbus a good guy. It doesn’t really make him a bad guy, either. Some other stuff he did after he got here makes him look pretty bad — especially to someone with a 2019 worldview. But like him or hate him, the thing he did, what he stumbled onto, has enormous global significance. He did something amazing, but it doesn’t make him a hero. Or the devil.

The arrival of Europeans, with their relative immunity to certain diseases like smallpox, had horrific consequences for the native population of this hemisphere. What happened was so horrible that it staggers the imagination: 95 percent of the population died out.

But just as discovering America doesn’t make Columbus a hero (to me at least he was not), he can’t really be blamed for everything that happened to the people who lived here, however badly he may have treated the natives he encountered. (Which was pretty damned badly.) He didn’t say, “Hey, let’s go to China (where he thought he was headed) and infect the local people so they all die out.” In fact, most of the people of this hemisphere died over the next few decades long before they came into contact with whites — the germs spread across these continents much faster than people did. People of European descent didn’t even realize on what scale this happened until quite recently (and to learn more about that, read Mann’s prequel, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.)

Of course, people can play games with the word “discovered.” They can say, those Asian people who crossed the land bridge 15,000 years ago “discovered” America, or even say the first Europeans to discover America were actually the Vikings. Or St. Brendan the Navigator. But none of those events opened this side of the world to the other side, mainly because the world wasn’t technologically prepared to bring that about.

So, as a historic event with repercussions for the entire planet, the moment that America got discovered — in the sense of the planet learning of its existence and being affected by it — well, that happened 527 years ago this week.

Feel about it any way you like, but that’s the way things unfolded….


12 thoughts on “Of course Columbus discovered America — a fact which, in itself, makes him neither a hero nor a devil

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    This whole thing about people feeling they have to have a position on Columbus, of either admiring or despising him, kind of befuddles me.

    And I think that’s because I’ve never understood the attraction of identity politics.

    There’s little doubt that when Columbus Day was started, it was as a celebratory thing, holding him up as a hero. It was about making Americans feel better about Italians among them, as well as building up those Italians’ views of themselves. I find it hard to imagine feeling proud that someone from the same country as my ancestors stumbled into America half a millennium ago. But, you know, I’m not Italian.

    The anti-Columbus position is also to a great extent based in Identity Politics, as underlined by the fact that much anti-Columbus activism centers upon an effort to replace Columbus Day with “Indigenous Peoples Day.”

    None of which I get. But I do get that the Columbian Exchange was and is a HUGELY significant phenomenon. And it’s always made sense that if we’re going to commemorate historical events, that one should be worthy of the list.

    Not that I’m big on holidays, anyway. If the whole thing went away, I would not mourn it. I can write about how huge the Columbian Exchange was any time. I don’t need a special day…

    1. Rose

      It isn’t identity politics to want our citizens to understand that historic events and people like this are vastly more complicated and nuanced and messy than we’ve been taught in our sanitized and streamlined history textbooks. We tend to want pure heroes, idols to look up to, when they are just as human as the rest of us. Yes, it is important to place people and events in their historical context but it’s still important to recognize that, even through certain treatments of different races by whites was accepted at that time, it was still horrific. And it should be a lesson to us on how far humans have come and how very far we still have to go.
      Columbus’ treatment of the indigenous people (and the white settlers too) was actually even worse than was typical of that age and he was reprimanded for that and actually removed as governor. Read “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” by Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish priest who was appalled at the treatment of the Indians by Columbus and his men.

      I also recommend “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” by James Loewen, which examines American history textbooks over the last several decades.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Rose, I’m a history major, and I hear people say what you just said all the time, and I don’t know what they mean.

        Where are these “sanitized and streamlined history textbooks?” I’m not aware of them.

        I don’t recall any of my teachers telling me any lies. Consequently, I lack the cynicism that Mr. Loewen and so many others aim at history.

        I can’t recall expecting “pure heroes, idols to look up to” from history. I expected them to be people. Sometimes, they were extraordinary people, like Lincoln, Washington and FDR. But they weren’t perfect. We’re all sinners; we all fall short. But some of us manage to accomplish extraordinary things anyway.

        And yeah, I think we should respect and sometimes even admire people who manage to do that, despite their shortcomings.

        I wouldn’t put Columbus into the “admire” category, but I would definitely put Lincoln there — and lots of other people who were mere mortals.

        I admire John Adams, too. He’s my favorite of that Revolutionary generation. But he was a real pain in the neck, a very difficult person to deal with. And there’s the Alien and Sedition Acts. But I admire him nonetheless…

        I don’t know why so many smart people tend to speak of public figures of the past as though it were a matter of ones and zeroes — black hat or white hat.

        I see that every year when we have this silly argument over Columbus, like he had to be either a plaster saint or evil incarnate. No, he didn’t. He was just this extremely ambitious guy with a fuzzy idea of geography who happened to stumble into something that became one of the most transformative events of human history.

        1. Rose

          Brad, I think you’re a bit unusual in realizing that our historical figures/heroes/etc are human. Re: textbooks, when I was in school we didn’t learn about Columbus’ treatment of Native Americans. My son’s curriculum presents a better assessment of his discovery, his inhumane treatment of the indigenous population, and the positive and negative impacts of all of it. On a closer to home topic, Mary Simms Oliphant’s “Simms History of South Carolina” was used in the state’s schools from 1932 to 1984 (revised every five years). In it, she presented slavery as a beneficial institution in which slaves were treated well so they would be healthy and contented and converted to Christianity. And this textbook was very influential in perpetuating the belief that states’ rights, not slavery, was the cause of the Civil War. A belief that still has deep, deep roots in many Southern minds.

  2. Harry Harris

    Brad, I think your ethnocentrism is hanging out like a slobbery tongue. I guess the lives and culture of any who proceeded the Europeans here, either as migrators, settlers, or explorers don’t qualify them as discoverors because they weren’t interested in or capable of hegemony. Columbus’s later plan to enslave West Indians and his other actions and motives don’t color your assessment as to whether he deserves a holiday, I guess. The holiday is in both his honor and the event. Call it “discovery day,” though he didn’t actually get to the mainland, and I’m less put off. He certainly did lead the invasion, and it was consequential.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And Harry, there are plenty of times when I may evince a certain ethnocentrism, particularly in my study of history — I’ve studied Western FAR more closely than Eastern, for the simple fact that I think its incumbent on me to learn what I can about the culture I live in. Also, even if I weren’t a Westerner, I’d think it would be good to learn the broad outlines of Western history, because of its dominant effect on the rest of the world.

      I find other cultures interesting, and often appealing, but I know I’ll never learn everything I ought to know about my own corner of the world in a lifetime, so I concentrate on that.

      But I don’t see how anything I said in this post is ethnocentric. If a Chinese guy, or an American Indian, had kicked off the Columbian Exchange — which had profound effects upon the entire planet, I’d be just as impressed as I am by what this pushy Italian did…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, I’ve read that. It’s by Charles C. Mann and summarizes the main points of his book I mentioned above, 1491.

      I highly recommend that and the sequel, 1493…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        One of the more fascinating things in the book is the rejection of “the pristine myth’—the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost unmarked, even Edenic land, ‘untrammeled by man’…”

        By contrast with the stereotype of the Noble Savage living in perfect harmony while hardly disturbing it with so much as a footprint, he writes that the Indians “were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly dominated by humankind.”

        Oh, by the way, at one point in the book he makes a good case for why he (and Russell Means, and others) uses “Indians” instead of “indigenous people” or “Native Americans.” I found it pretty persuasive…

  3. Jim Catoe

    I am currently reading Diamond’s book. Another important book, and one that I would consider seminal in the study of the first people in the Americas. is “Indian Givers: How The Indians Of The Americas Transformed The World.” The author, Dr.Jack Weatherford, is a Dreher graduate that received a PhD. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Jose.

    An interesting excerpt from his book: “And foods discovered by the Indians, such as potatoes, chocolate, and chilies, revolutionized the cuisines of Europe and Asia. In fact, some 60 percent of the foods eaten in the world today were first harvested by the Indians of the Americas,”

    The book is still available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback editions.


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