Columbus Day this year will be celebrated amidst a new furor regarding his legacy – particularly his monuments which have been defaced or destroyed in several places. Much of the anti-Columbian fury is either misguided or part of a blind political agenda which seeks to demonize early European activity in the New World. Let us place Columbus in the context of the history of civilizations.
First of all, consider the matter of European disease transmission, principally the small pox. The huge mortality rates of 70-80% among Native American populations occurred over many decades. Critics apparently want to hold Columbus personally responsible – which is preposterous! The loss of life is regrettably true. But the actual number of deaths is impossible to determine because estimates of the original population vary enormously. For example, in the case of Hispaniola, the range is from 250 thousand to 3 million!
Devastating epidemics of new diseases are not unique within the annals of history. A new disease, the Black Death, originating in central Asia and killed 40% or more of the European people- some 50 million souls- in the brief period 1346-1353. Such ravages on life are just one of the destructive aspects of the advancement and interactivity of civilizations world-wide. The pale horse and its rider pass through all societies.
In the case of Columbus and the later Spanish settlement in the Americas, let’s remember, exchanges worked both ways. Most historians believe that the Great Pox Epidemic in Renaissance Europe was brought over from the New World. In its review of the matter, a researched article in The Guardian of May 17, 2013 states “…medical science is largely agreed that indeed it (the great pox) was a new disease brought back with the men who accompanied Columbus on his 1492 voyage to America.” This pox, aka syphilis, killed some 5 million Europeans initially and continued taking a toll into the modern era.
Next, consider the civilizations (urban societies) of the New World. These cannot be romanticized simply because they have left behind great monuments. The earliest ones, at Teotihuacan, outside Mexico City and the Mayan, were as brutal in their exploitation and treatment of subject peoples as any of the civilizations of the Ancient Near East, such as Assyria.
Tourists love to visit the magnificent pyramids of Teotihuacan and the Mayan sites close to resorts. So beautiful! So inspiring! So conveniently located! Not so beautiful if you consider the human sacrifice that regularly occurred there. Woe betided the captives and slaves from conquered territories.
The later Aztec and Inca civilizations who encountered the Conquistadores, were no more humane. War, captivity, slavery and human sacrifice were endemic- and pre-dated 1492.
How could Francisco Pizzaro conquer the great Inca Empire with fewer than 200 men? How did Hernando Cortez overwhelm the powerful Aztecs?
Answer: they found willing allies in subjugated, enslaved or rebellious native populations.
Make no mistake about it. Civilization itself can be brutal. European civilization has “evolved” past its early stages, but 20th century wars, atrocities, genocide and terrorism show humanity is still prone to the same savage impulses as Assyrians and Aztecs. Warfare is one of the key institutions of civilization, even now as local wars and rumors of nuclear conflict abound.
Despite our “druthers” we are products of our time. We live in context. So did Columbus, hence the negatives within his legacy. But he also rose out of and above his context. He was a great explorer, an intrepid adventurer, a man of fervent faith and a defiant leader who blazed a path to the modern world. His admirable traits allowed him to rise above his human imperfections.
He holds a special place in the consciousness of Italian Americans and Hispanic Americans who strongly identify with his accomplishments. These groups celebrate Columbus Day with parades and commemorate him with statues in North and South America. The world’s largest Columbus monument is in Puerto Rico.
Christopher Columbus also enjoys iconic status in the wider American community. Indeed, he is woven into the pattern of American life. Columbia, a female figure, is the personification of America (like Uncle Sam). Columbus was much admired by our founders. The District of Columbia carries the explorer’s name. The Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway (Interstate Route 10) symbolically links the U.S. from sea to sea and to the Admiral of the Ocean Seas. Parks and playgrounds, streets, squares, schools and sites of many other types pay homage to him. In New Jersey, Interstate 80 is The Christopher Columbus Highway. We must examine the legacy of Columbus. Doing so in proper context demonstrates that there’s no justification whatsoever in destroying, defacing or removing his monuments – or in minimizing his legacy.
Silvio Laccetti is a retired Professor of Social Sciences at Stevens Tech, Hoboken, New Jersey