In Honor of Columbus Day

I love Columbus Day.  When I was a young guy working to feed a growing family, it was a little oasis of freedom in the long desert of work that stretched from Labor Day to Thanksgiving.  Sure, there’s Veteran’s Day but by then the cold weather has stripped the trees bare of leaves and the cold precludes barbecues and outdoor activities.  But on October 12th you could put some burgers on the grill and back when such things were done you might have a little parade in town and the school would run a competition to see which parents could pretend their children built the best float looking like the Nina and the Pinta and the Santa Maria.  And every little kid could recite, “In Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

But that was before we found out that Columbus was a horrible monster.  His founding of the New World was the cause of the destruction of the indigenous civilizations that lived in North and South America.

And that is the case.  His discovery uniting both halves of our world sparked the greatest expansion of human population, scientific discovery and prosperity since the discovery of fire.  Compare the state of knowledge in any art or science in 1500 and 1700 and you will find a leap forward that can only be explained by the dynamism created by the Age of Discovery.  Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Leibniz, Newton, Huygens and endless other scientists and inventors appear almost magically once the potential for expanding into a boundless new world fired the imagination and provided the material wealth to pay for all those dreams.  And all these advances in mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine, and the technology that it spawned have changed our world immeasurably.

The children and crackpots who disparage Columbus say he was a genocidal murderer.  They claim that if he had not discovered the New World that the indigenous people would be living in peace and prosperity.  From what I’ve read of the Aztecs peace and prosperity was not their strong suit.  A civilization whose hallmark is conquering neighboring peoples and then dragging the conquered warriors to the top of a pyramid and cutting their still beating hearts out of their chests doesn’t sound like something we should be grieved about putting out of business.  In the same vein what is recorded about the warfare practiced by the North American tribes against each other isn’t exactly what the tree huggers claim was going on.  I think it would be more than fair to say that Old World and New World were fairly evenly matched when it came to cruelty.  Where they differed was in technology.  Swords, spears and arrows really don’t compare to cannons and guns.  Steel beats wood, stone and even bronze.  Cavalry can rout poorly trained infantry pretty handily especially if they’ve never seen a horse before.

The history of mankind is the story of conquest of one people by another.  But what differs is what the conquerors do once they rule.  Genghis Khan and his Mongols conquered the greater part of Eurasia.  But they have left nothing in their wake to justify the slaughter of untold millions of human beings.  The world created by the Europeans following in the wake of Columbus has changed humanity from a short-lived, pain-gripped creature always hungry for his next meal to almost pampered aristocrats trying to keep from being bored by the technological wonders that are strewn around our homes like detritus.  Pictures of the “poor” in a third world country reveals the odd sight that they are all a little on the fat side lately.

And whoever heard of a conqueror giving back his conquests to those he’s conquered.  But that is exactly what the Europeans have allowed in almost the whole of their possessions that they didn’t colonize.  Most of Asia and Africa were handed back to the indigenous peoples during the Twentieth Century.  Whoever heard of that?

So, there is my defense of Columbus Day.  The Europeans proved that they were just as ferocious as every other human population on the planet.  They just had better science and better technology.  The Europeans invented this whole “United Nations, kumbaya, We Are the World” thing and maybe it’ll catch on to a greater extent.  So far it only seems to be us turning the other cheek.  But one day humans will get around to conquering each other on a grand scale again.  There will be other empires and other genocides.  It’s human nature.  But I’d just like to say that Europeans invented the wherewithal to destroy human life on a global scale and so far, they’ve mostly used it only on each other, not the helpless savages that they found around the world.  Hardly a reason to be ashamed.

Happy Columbus Day.