With monuments honoring Christopher Columbus regularly being defaced and destroyed, it’s clear this year’s Columbus Day celebrations will elicit strong debate over the explorer’s legacy. But by looking at Columbus in the greater context of the history of civilizations, one can see that much of today’s anti-Columbian fury is either misguided or part of a blind political agenda seeking to demonize early European activity in the New World.
First off, let’s consider the matter of European disease transmission, principally smallpox, which is estimated by some to have killed 70 percent to 80 percent of the population native to the Americas. While those numbers are staggering, the deaths happened over many decades, and holding Columbus personally responsible is beyond preposterous. Further, calculating an actual number of deaths is impossible because estimates of pre-Columbus populations vary enormously. In the case of Hispaniola, for example, the range runs from 250,000 to 3 million.
It’s also worth remembering all the other epidemics in our history books. The Black Death, originating in Central Asia, killed 40 percent or more of the European people — some 50 million souls — in the brief period of 1346-1353. Such ravage of life is just one of the negative consequences that comes with the advancement and interactivity of civilizations world-wide. The pale horse and its rider pass through all societies.
And in the case of Columbus and the later Spanish settlement in the Americas, let’s remember, the exchange of disease worked both ways. Most historians believe that the Great Pox epidemic in Renaissance Europe was brought over from the New World. The pox, aka syphilis, initially killed some 5 million Europeans and continued taking a toll into the modern era.
Next, consider the civilizations and urban societies of the New World. They 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.
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 Incan civilizations, encountered by the Conquistadores, were no more humane. War, captivity, slavery and human sacrifice was endemic — and pre-dated 1492.
How could Francisco Pizarro conquer the great Inca Empire with fewer than 200 men? How did Hernando Cortes 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. Truthfully, warfare is one of the key institutions of civilization, as evidenced by today’s local wars and rumors of nuclear strikes.
Despite our druthers, we are products of our time. We fit into a greater context. So did Columbus, hence the negative in his legacy. But he also rose out of and above his time. 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 have commemorated 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 mind. Columbia, a female figure, is the personification of America (like Uncle Sam). Columbus was much admired by our founders. The District of Columbia carries his name. The Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway (Interstate 10) symbolically links the U.S. from sea to sea — and to the Admiral of the Ocean Seas. Parks, playgrounds, streets, squares, schools and sites of many other kinds pay homage to him.
No question, we must examine the accomplishments of Columbus. Doing so in the proper context shows there’s no justification in destroying, defacing or removing his monuments — or in minimizing his legacy.