You don’t have to ‘celebrate’ anybody; just know what happened

The start of the Columbian Exchange. It will not be a good deal for the folks on the shore.

I don’t think I ever have — but then I don’t work for the Post Office.

I mean, I worked yesterday. I’m pretty sure everybody at ADCO did. Although I just realized I can’t swear to that, since I don’t go in to an office any more.

But did you? And whether you did or not, what did it mean to you?

Yeah, I know the “holiday” for those who take one was yesterday, but the real day is tomorrow. Anyway, I write about it now because Hunter Limbaugh got me to thinking about it on Facebook this morning:

Columbus Day? Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Put me down for the latter. My take on Columbus is pretty simple: There was courage in the sailing into the unknown thing. Pretty much nothing else about him or what transpired as a result of his trips is worthy of honor or celebration. One doesn’t have to fret about judging historical acts by contemporary standards in order to conclude that even without demonizing the person, his actions ought not be celebrated.
(NB: America was only “discovered” from a Eurocentric perspective. The people who lived here were well aware of its existence).

Hunter, as y’all probably know, is a conservative Republican who served in the Legislature back in the ’90s (when being labeled “conservative” meant you were conservative, and not a lunatic who doesn’t think about anything, ever).

I wrote a response to that on my iPad at breakfast, but now I don’t see it. I was having some trouble on Facebook this morning. It’s not a straightforward, rational platform like Twitter. But enough about that.

Anyway, I’ll try to reproduce what I wrote here…

My own take on Columbus isn’t really “simple,” except in this regard: I don’t know why everybody has to react in terms of how they feel about the guy, or in ones-and-zeroes moral terms: He was a good guy, or he was a bad guy. He is my hero — or no, the “Indigenous Peoples” are my heroes. Stop worrying about whom you’re going to celebrate. You don’t have to celebrate anybody.

I think in terms of the significance of that moment in history, the start of what is known as the Columbian Exchange. Its effect on life on Earth was more than phenomenal, more than monumental. It was the biggest thing to happen since we had started speaking of years in Anno Domini terms. And when I say “life on Earth,” I’m not just talking about Homo sapiens. I mean all life — animals, plants, insects, microbes, and how all of them affected each other — sometimes in good ways, sometimes in horrific ways.

The quibble over whether he “discovered” America seems silly. He had never seen it before; the people who backed his voyage had never seen it. None of them had a clue this place even existed. So yeah, when he ran into those islands down there, he “discovered” them.

Not that he knew it. His whole expedition was based on an idiotic misconception. Far from being the sage who alone knew the world wasn’t “flat” — all educated people knew it — he was the doofus who thought it was way, way smaller than it is. He never let go of that belief, which is why these continents are named for someone else.

So why was his “discovery” a big deal? Nobody had made such a fuss about the Vikings when they came here, or the Irish monks who came before them. And of course, the world wasn’t taking note when some prehistoric Asians wandered across the land bridge from what would someday be Russia. It was 15,000 years ago (or whatever date you choose), and notes hadn’t been invented.

And that’s the thing. That’s what made it a big deal — the biggest of its kind that had ever happened. He didn’t just land and live the rest of his life here, or go back and forget about it. He went home and told everybody, and then came back. And multitudes followed him. And then people started zipping all over the globe, back and forth. I think of the way Charles Mann describes the moment, in his book 1493, when the globe fully became a village: It was quite a few years after Columbus’ voyages, but it wouldn’t have happened without him (or wouldn’t have happened as it did, when it did). In 1564, some Spanish ships met up with some Chinese vessels in the Philippines, and worldwide trade got started. Before long, you had Italians eating tomatoes and folks in India putting hot peppers in their food, and potatoes basically ending famine in Europe — and all of those things came from this hemisphere.

And yes, the American Indians (yes, that’s how I refer in the aggregate to the many cultures who lived here — I’m not going to second-guess Russell Means) suffered — far more than most people realize. It was so horrible, it’s hard to wrap your head around. It’s way bigger than a guy named Cristóbal Colón coming over here and being mean to the people he met. The people of this hemisphere had never encountered smallpox or other European diseases, and contact killed about 95 percent of the population from Alaska down to Tierra del Fuego — the microbes spread way, way faster than the white intruders did. Until recently, historians didn’t realize how populated this side of the world was in 1491, because it took several centuries for Europeans to spread to all parts of it, and by the time they encountered most of these cultures, everybody was long dead and gone.

Was this some demonic plot on the part of Columbus? Did he think, “Man, I hate those indigenous peoples over there, I think I’ll go kill them all?” Nope. He didn’t know how to be that evil. Not that he didn’t do his share of awful things in his life, in his quest for gold and glory. But not that. The germs just caught a ride, and unleashed hell on millions of unexposed people.

Bottom line, the whole thing is way more complicated than Italian-Americans making a hero out of this guy in the 19th century, or modern folks making him out to be a monster. He’s just this guy who stumbled into something, and changed the whole world.

And all of us should take note of these changes, if we’re to understand the world we live in. It’s not about the guy. It’s about what happened…


2 thoughts on “You don’t have to ‘celebrate’ anybody; just know what happened

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Full disclosure — this version of my “response” to Hunter’s FB post is way, way longer than the first one I wrote on actual Facebook, which disappeared.

    Blogging is like that — it’s… expansive…

    Which is liberating, but leads to worse writing. The discipline that dead-tree journalism imposed made copy better. I almost always wrote columns for the paper at roughly twice the length of the space available, and spent the next hour or so cutting it down. Which made it better. (And usually, the first thing I’d cut was a huge chunk from the beginning — the throat-clearing part, before I got to my actual topic.)

    I’m not alone in this. I read this morning that T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” was twice as long as the eventual version. His friend Ezra Pound cut it down for him (everybody needs an editor).

    That Ezra Pound was one talented wordsmith, for a fascist

  2. DougT

    Funny…they didn’t teach us in school Columbus’ role in raping and murdering natives. With the current political climate I suppose children still won’t learn this.

    I’m currently reading a book that describes one of our earliest South Carolina Chief Justices William Henry Drayton as a very learned man. Some of his judgements are very eloquent.

    But he also said this:
    “Cut up every Indian Cornfield and burn every Indian town,” he proclaimed, so that their “nation be extirpated and the lands become the property of the public.”

    I guess I won’t be visiting Drayton Hall on my next visit to charleston.

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