“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind, and rain. The first American? No, not quite, but he was brave and he was bright.” Many can recognize this as a poem commonly recited on Columbus Day. The poem illustrates his bravery and determination. Now though, thousands of people have begun a campaign to change Columbus Day into a holiday called “Indigenous people’s day.” The holiday has been celebrated for roughly 150 years in the United States of America and has been a time when people remembered the discovery of the country. Many critics have begun claiming that he does not deserve a day because of his violent tendencies. Although there are many who argue this point, Christopher Columbus should be recognized as a heroic figure because he acted with the values of his day, behaved in the same manner as his contemporaries, and helped push the world into the modern era, leading to the settlement of the United States.
The story of Christopher Columbus has had a long history of revisions and retellings. The earliest Americans viewed him as a hero who went against popular belief to change the world. Later, the Italians held him up as an example of Italian courage, ingenuity, passion, and innovation. More recently, people have begun telling the stories of his violence and greed. There are those in academia who view him purely as a villain. However, in a 1998 survey of 1,500 people, 90.9 percent of Americans viewed him as the discoverer of America and/or a hero (Schuman 10). It would appear that there should be no contest between pro-Columbians and anti-Columbians, yet several states, including Hawaii, South Dakota, and Minnesota, have already changed the holiday. It seems as though the minority is winning this conflict, but it is important to know more about those who wish for the holiday to change.
In order to understand why Columbus should remain in a good light, it is important to know how the claims against him originated and why. Public opinion is a driving force behind the writing of history. Howard Schuman, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, writes one example of this. Post-civil war Americans believed that Abraham Lincoln was the savior of the Union and was able to bring both people together; however, after the civil rights movement, he is recorded in textbooks as being the savior of slaves and being the man who freed the oppressed (3). There are countless examples throughout history of people’s views changing the views of history. Many people in history believed that “might is right” and that those who can, conquer. Modern Americans believe this is contradictory to what humans deserve because of the human rights movement. The associate dean of social sciences at Kingston University, Philip Spencer, writes that past empires believed it was their right and duty to hold sovereignty over others in order to “civilize” those people (611). Using this belief, contemporary opinions would show Columbus as a hero because human rights as they are currently known were not developed until two centuries later. The current change in views likely grew over the years and escalated further at the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery (Schuman 5). On this anniversary, people re-examined Columbus through modern lenses and decided that his actions were against current values. People who hold this belief are typically called “revisionists,” because they have revised the current view of history to match present values.
Values are always changing throughout history and it is important to recognize that modern values are not the same as those of the past and Columbus should not be held responsible for the values of his time. At the time Columbus sailed to America, minorities were not even seen as human by many people. The current rise in rights for minorities is an incredible accomplishment that should be praised by all modern people; however, that was not the case in the 1400s. According to Schuman, the minority rights movement largely began growing after WWII (3). This could possibly be because the blatant injustices during the war revealed that all were not yet equal. Many groups protecting minorities have been founded after WWII during the civil rights movement. One group, Minority Rights Group International, was founded in 1969 to help fight ethnic injustice around the world (“Minority Right” 1). Unfortunately, Columbus did not have advocacy groups like this in his day. In fact, they did not even have a very globalized world. Many argue his actions were Euro-centric and they were, but to them they were bringing the gift of “civilization” to these people. Columbus discovered the Taino people and they had not yet discovered the wheel, so he believed he was helping these peoples. According to the editor of Christianity Today, after Columbus discovered the New World until 1820, Spain sent over 15,000 missionaries to the new world (Giles pp.7). People today understand that nothing can justify slavery and oppression, but as one Smithsonian observer noticed, “A century ago, Native Americans were relegated to the footnotes while today they not only dominate the text, but have begun to rewrite it” (Schuman 8). Native Americans are now able to write and share about the transgressions they faced. They endued harsh treatment over the years, but was their treatment any different from other people groups throughout the world as they encountered the contemporaries of Columbus?
Columbus was not the only case of Europeans becoming dominant over other cultures and it was not seen as a crime in his day. Jared Diamond, one of the world’s leading anthropologists, argues that due to the resistance against germs and the manufacturing of steel and guns, Europeans almost without fail have conquered most of the peoples who do not have these advantages (Diamond 360). Many at the time of Columbus believed that it was due to their genetic/inherent superiority. Anthropologists like Jared Diamond now believe that it is very likely due to the accessibility of wheat, domesticated animals, and location of resources (360). Citing superiority as an excuse for domination seems like a terrible concept to modern people. How could one possibly decide to rule someone just because of power? Well, throughout history power was all that mattered. It is crucial for modern people to remove themselves from advanced thinking when looking at history and avoid judging Columbus based on that thinking.
Belief in being superior seems like a very cruel mindset, but that was the mindset of people in his time. Looking through the eyes of past peoples helps historians see why they behaved as they did. According to Kirkpatrick Sale, an independent scholar, Columbus believed that since Europe was superior, it was their duty to spread the gospel to “uncivilized people” (35). This sentiment was touched on earlier, but how did other Europeans act with the mindset of superiority? Philip Spencer writes that having an imperialist mindset unknowingly turned colonists into killers (612). This happened because as Europeans came into contact with new people, they unknowingly caused the native people to retaliate against the perceived threat. The colonists then viewed the natives as savage and retaliated to the preemptive attack. Retaliations would snowball until the most powerful group won out and they could justify their actions. Colonists were not evil people — they truly believed they were justified in their actions. An argument could be made against colonialism, but modern people should refrain from villainizing the colonists who were unaware of their effects. Another example came much later in the 20th century. Joseph Conrad wrote a novel about his journey through the Congo to see the ivory production. It is a fictitious novel about true events. Throughout the novel, the Europeans viewed the natives as savage sub-humans because they kept rebelling against the Europeans (Conrad 33). Since the natives kept rebelling, the Europeans felt justified in attacking and killing natives. This was later seen as a terrible event in the Congo bordering genocide, but it helps modern people see that even in the 20th century of enlightened people, it is hard not to enter into a retaliation-justification pattern. Christopher Columbus was not the only historical figure who found himself in this pattern. The Congo is an extreme example of this and showed the true evil that came out in people during this pattern. Columbus was not pre-enlightenment and without the ideas of the enlightenment encouraging him to be humane, retaliation was much easier to justify. Understanding how and why someone in history behaved is crucial. Knowing what modern people know, is it acceptable to celebrate people in the past who did not behave according to our morals? This is the question many revisionists raise and seems to have an easy answer. If historical figures were bad, they can’t be celebrated. This is a very shallow answer and modern people should take a step back and see what that answer would indicate. Applying our morals to historical icons would negate the accomplishments of the founding fathers (slave owners), Galileo (rebel), Jesus (seen as a heretic), Julius Caesar (war monger), and many other historical figures. Looking at people in history through their eyes, gives a much clearer picture. Columbus may not be a saintly person by modern standards, but his accomplishments should not be wiped away by modern sentiment. After removing modern morals and standards, what accomplishments did Columbus achieve?
Christopher Columbus did not directly settle in what would become the United States, but his exploration sparked a new global world. Today, goods and services span the globe, the United States remains a beacon of democracy, standards of living are at heights never seen before, and scientific ideas and wonders are passed around the globe in seconds. Globalization has changed history like nothing before. Columbus was a major factor in this growth. Philip Spencer writes that colonialism survived due to expansion and innovation (610). Columbus had to ask leaders to fund his exploration in order to expand knowledge and spread ideas. After his arrival in the Americas, new innovations grew rapidly to aid in colonizing the new land and in order to transport gold, merchandise, and people. According to one source, the first colony on Hispaniola failed, but shortly afterwards, new innovations allowed new colonies to form and eventually Jamestown, Virginia became the first colony of the United States of America (Menzies 26). Many revisionists argue that though Columbus led to the first European colony in the Americas, he was not the first to discover it. According to Gavin Menzies, a published author, man discovered the Americas 40,000 years ago (185). After them, the Vikings under Leif Erickson also discovered the Americas. Columbus is significant according to one source because though people already occupied America and Erickson found it centuries earlier, it took until Columbus for modernized colonies and technologies to become established (Hanbury-Tenison 26). Modern tools and equipment and firearms were now accessible to people across the two continents. Many explorers such as Leif Erickson explored because they felt they had to in order to expand. According to Robin Hanbury-Tenison, Columbus was able to explore with the backing and funding of monarchs (23). Being funded by royalty allowed him to bring many technologies that the native people had never seen. Jared Diamond writes that South Americans had just discovered how to produce bronze weapons in 1500A.D, almost 4,000 years after the people in the Ancient Near East (16). This does not excuse the violence that occurred after the Americas were settled, but it drastically improved the quality of life of those in the Americas and helped push modernization. Innovation and exploration could have been led by anyone, but Columbus should be recognized for being the one to lead the charge.
Recently, people have begun to attack Columbus by saying his actions were not justifiable. However, this was not always the case. Columbus used to be the symbol of adventure and American bravery and freedom. One source writes that in 1792, the discovery of America was commemorated as “the greatest event in the history of mankind since the death of our savior” (Bevir, Daddow, Hall 43). Columbus’ legacy has had a wide impact across the world and particularly in the United States from the name of the nation’s capital, to 11 cities, a province in Canada, and many memorials. In 1893, Chicago hosted the world’s Columbian exposition to honor Columbus’ discovery of America. The exposition reportedly hosted over 27 million visitors, approximately 3 percent of the world’s population (Schuman 6). Not only do people remember his achievements, it gives people someone to look up to. People see Columbus as daring, passionate, and heroic. A very popular inspirational quote of his, “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore,” has been a motivational statement for many people. According to Howard Schuman’s research, 90.9 percent of the general public believe Columbus discovered America and/or he is a heroic figure (10). Many revisionists look back at history and point out flaws that have occurred and try to bring attention to the failures of historical figures of the past. This may seem like a worthy goal so as not to repeat the errors of the past, but it is important for people to have figures to admire and to inspire them. Take away the founding fathers for owning slaves, Einstein for saying misogynistic things, Gandhi for sleeping with many women, Jesus for causing a religious revolution, and Socrates for challenging common ideas and people soon run out of heroes (Clavin). If revisionists remove the concept of heroes and insist on proving the humanity of humans, the public will soon run out of people to look up to because no man can fit their standards. No man can be perfect, but one can certainly try and it is important to remember those who have made a difference and look to them for inspiration to make a positive change in the world.
Christopher Columbus was not the perfect man by any means, but he made a lasting impact on the entire world. Although revisionists have begun to attack his standing as a national hero, he should be remembered for pushing the world into the modern era, helping to settle the United States, and behaving as any other person in his day would. Much can be learned from his mistakes, but he should remain a symbol of courage, ingenuity, passion, and innovation. Many Americans believe he was a heroic man and it is acceptable to continue that belief. It is important to know about the mistakes he made in order to learn and grow as people, but if historians remove the good side from every hero, we are only left with villains.
Bevir, Mark, Oliver Daddow, and Ian Hall. Interpreting Global Security. New York: Routledge, 2014. This article covers topics on global security spanning many years. It is a valuable source for understanding the importance of security and how it has changed from the days of Columbus to the present day. Mark Bevir is a Professor of political science at UC Berkley, Oliver Daddow is a professor of politic science at the University of Leicester, and Ian Hall is from the University of Nottingham.
Clavin, Dan. “Historical Figures You Didn’t Know Were Actually Terrible People.” Warped Speed, Nov 17 2015. Accessed Nov 19 2106 < http://www.warpedspeed.com/historical-figures-you-didnt-know-were-actually-terrible-people/9/?ipp=3>
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness ; And, the Secret Sharer. New York: Signet Classic, 1997. Print. The Heart of Darkness is a fictional book written to reflect the true reality of racism and genocide in the Congo by European traders. Joseph Conrad was an author and merchant who spent time in the Congo to help the traders.
Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. This book covers how Europe became the superior nationality over other people groups based on strength of arms and imperialism. The book details the development of guns, germs, and steel and how those made a large impact on the evolution of European societies. Jared Diamond is a world renowned scientist who studies how civilizations interact and develop.
Giles, Thomas. “Columbus and Christianity: Did You Know?” Christianitytoday.com. 1992. Accessed Nov 19 2016 < http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-35/columbus-and-christianity-did-you-know.html>
Hanbury-Tenison, Robin. The Great Explorers. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010. This book covers several different explorers over the years who have made a large impact on the world both positive and negative. It gives insight into their lives and history. Robin Hanbury-Tenison is a well-known Cornish explorer who gives insight on past explorers based on his unique perspective.
Menzies, Gavin, and Ian Hudson. Who Discovered America? New York: Harper Collins, 2013.
Minority Rights Group International. “The Story of Minority Right Group International.” Minorityrightsgroup.org. Accessed Nov 19 2016 < http://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/MRG-AR09-ARTWORK-Proof-lo-2.pdf> This article gives information on the rise, development, and impact of Minority Rights Group International. It tells about their origins and mission statement. Minority Rights Group International is a group that fights for the rights of minority groups across the world. They fight to give them extra support so they are not taken advantage of by other people.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise. New York: Tauris Parke, 2006. This book by Sale gives a look of how Columbus arrived in the New World and his experience there. It gives a view of how he treated the people and conquered the land he discovered. Kirkpatrick Sale is an independent scholar who has written on many important topics. He wrote this book to give an idea of how Columbus mistreated the local people and the lasting effects.
Schuman, Howard, and Barry Schwarty, and Hannah Darcy. “Elite Revisionists and Popular Beliefs: Christopher Columbus, Hero or Villain?” The Public Opinion Quarterly 69. 1 (Spring 2005): 28. JStor.org. Bernstein Library. Nov 19 2016 <jstor.org>.
Spencer, Philip. “Imperialism, Anti-Imperialism, and the Problem of Genocide Past and Present.” History 98. 332 (Fall 2013): 17. Ebscohost. Bernstein Library. Nov 19 2016 <Ebscohost.com>.