What To Make Of Columbus

Today is Columbus Day, or as more places are calling it: “Indigenous People’s Day.” I support this terminology change, as the brutal impact of Columbus’s journey on Native Americans (throughout both continents) is too often overlooked by the dominant culture.  Case in point: we still regularly use terms like “settler” and “colonialism” rather than more straightforward terms like “invasion.”

But I didn’t totally agree with this short, entertaining video takedown of Columbus by “Adam Ruins Everything” from College Humor, which is making the internet rounds today:

A lot of the points in the video are accurate. And I’m glad a spotlight is being shone on Columbus’s foibles and cruelty.  But some context would be helpful.

First, Columbus was a master navigator, and his achievement of sailing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean is a legitimate one.  It’s supposedly the route that sailors still take today.

Second, the idea that Columbus was a “footnote” in history until Washington Irving wrote about him, as the video argues, was not by accident: the Spanish tried hard to keep their “discovery” a secret from other European powers.  They wanted monopoly access to the Americas. As a result, Columbus was not celebrated or promoted officially during his time (actually, it’s even worse than that: Columbus was evidently such an autocrat and tyrant that his crew eventually had him sent back to Spain in chains below deck).

Finally, like it or not, Columbus’s voyage set in motion a massive invasion from Europe (and Asia) into the Americas.  While other Europeans had made it to the Americas before, none generated a lasting wave of migration like what Columbus’s voyage did.

That’s not to say that the impact was all because of Columbus: Spain was financially, technologically and politically ready to capitalize on its discovery.  But Columbus’s voyage was a cataclysmic and world-changing event that is worth being remembered and honored.  Just not by idolizing the flawed man at the center of it.