Tuesday, October 9, 2012
In Honor of Columbus
On this five hundredth anniversary of what I learned in elementary school as the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, I am surprised at the unprecedented attention being focused by historians, journalists, and public opinion upon Columbus and what he did. Many say that Columbus should not be honored… that it was not even a real discovery at all, because there were people already in the Americas when he found them. I am somewhat discussed that many would rather condemn Columbus, not to praise him.
I looked it up. “A discovery is made when an individual or a nation finds something or someone or some people or some places of special importance, not previously known to them. When any previously unknown people is first found by another people, that people may be said to have been discovered.” Thus, people as well as places can be discovered. The fact that people live in places unknown to another people does not mean that they, and the places where they live, cannot be discovered.
Columbus reminds me of all the courageous people that step into the unknown to learn something new. Even the nay-sayers have to admit that no people from any other part of the world ever discovered Europe; but Europeans discovered all other parts of the world. Their thirst to learn (ok and to make a little money) led them to “discover” a land and a people previously unknown to them.
In all of history, only the Europeans and the Polynesians of the south Pacific have been true discoverers, sailing for the explicit purpose of finding new lands, trading with their people, and colonizing them. Christopher Columbus was the greatest, because he accomplished the most against the highest odds. That is something to be honored.
Before Columbus people were too afraid to venture past the coastline. Columbus braved the unknown. He wasn’t seeking a “new” land. He just wanted to get to a previously known land. The Americas were just in the way.
Columbus thought “outside the box”. He thought beyond “the world is flat.” He studied reports of strange vegetation and carvings and even bodies found that were neither white nor black. He studied wind patterns. He is a hero of all true learners by setting an example of how real learning is achieved.
Columbus also is a hero of courage. He braved the ridicule of others. He braved the elements. He braved hunger. He braved his own fears. He is a hero of faith.
When he landed and met the inhabits of this newly “discovered” land, he called them “Indians” because he thought he found a new way to India. I will admit that his interactions with the native people was not a smooth interaction. At the same time, the Americas were not a land of peace and freedom.
It is reported that the people Columbus found on the Caribbean Islands were a gentle, happy, attractive people living in a peacefully community. But they were not destined to remain that way – even if Columbus never had stepped onto their sandy shores. Unknown to them all, a ferocious people from the south was advancing northward. History shows that the Caribs people were savage conquerors who practiced cannibalism, not as an occasional cultic ritual, but as a regular diet. Captured prisoners were immediately eaten. Conquered peoples were systematically devoured. On every island they seized, the Caribs soon exterminated every person they came in contact with. Columbus sounds like a pussy cat compared to that!
Over in Mexico, though politically and culturally advanced beyond most other Indian cultures—the Mexica had a large army, a well-developed governmental administration, a system of writing, and stone temples—their empire, which we call Aztec, carried out ritual human sacrifice on a scale far exceeding any recorded of any other people in the history of the world. The law of the Mexica empire required a thousand human sacrifices to the god Huitzilopochtli in every town with a temple, every year; there were 371 subject towns in the empire, and the majority had full-scale temples. There were many other sacrifices as well. The total number was at least 50,000 a year, probably much more. The early Mexican historian Ixtlilxochitl estimated that one out of every five children in Mexico was sacrificed. When in the year 1487 the immense new temple of Huitzilopochtli was dedicated in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), more than 80,000 men were sacrificed, at fifteen seconds per man, for four days and four nights of almost unimaginable horror.
That sounds fun. NOT!
It must be emphasized that there is no serious dispute about these facts and figures. All reputable and informed historians of pre- Columbian Mexico accept their essential accuracy, though some prefer not to talk about them. These facts of history totally dispose of the romantic fantasy of a hemisphere full of peaceful, nature-loving Indians who threatened no one until the cruel white man came.
I guess my point it this… Without the “discovery” of the “new” land with Columbus at the head the freedoms of relative safety, right to worship, and enterprise would not be something we would all be enjoying right now. North, South and Central America would all of remained 3rd world countries were warring peoples murdered and enslaved their neighbors.
Then there is the gold. Many people today are mad about all the gold. He was entranced by the beauty of the countryside but found very little gold. Today we accept paper money and electronic transaction but gold was the form of trade in Europe. No wonder they were looking for gold. Ok. Greed drove many of their wicked actions once gold was found. But was that Columbus? Without Columbus the countries of Europe would still be in great poverty. The economies of the world would be nothing.
I will admit that men do not always make good choices, Columbus included.
Still, think of all that have benefited because Columbus was brave. Human sacrifice and cannibalism ended, and the Indians were almost all converted to Christianity. In the long run, all that lived in this half of the world was able to worship nearly any religion they wished. That can’t be said of many people in the world today. Even those who have ancestors that were enslaved an d brought to this half of the world have benefited from Columbus’ adventurous spirit. Although it is not right to enslave another, many now enjoy freedom from hunger and war because many generations have lived in this land. The economies of the world’s market now flourish… on most days. Learning and forward thinking have brought many “discoveries” to light, from medicine to space. I believe that Columbus inspired these “discoveries” by stepping into the unknown.
Columbus was a flawed hero—as all men are flawed, including heroes—and his flaws are of a kind particularly offensive to today's culture. But he was nevertheless a hero, achieving in a manner unequalled in the history of exploration and the sea, changing history forever. For some strange reason heroism is almost anathema to our age, at least to many of its most vocal spokesmen. But heroes and the inspiration they give are essential to uplift men and women; without them, faceless mediocrity will soon descend into apathy and degradation. Heroes need not be perfect; indeed, given the fallen nature of man, none can be perfect. It is right to criticize their failings, but wrong to deny their greatness and the inspiration they can give.
Christopher Columbus is the discoverer of America, and by that discovery ultimately responsible for America's freedom of religion, enterprise, and wellbeing; and for this we should forever honor him.