Boy, will this get me a lot of fans!!
Yesterday was Columbus Day, which officially celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus‘s arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492.
This date is usually met with outrage and indignation. For instance, Matthew Bulger wrote a post saying that celebrating this day was the same as glorifying genocide. I understand where all these people are coming from, but this take is just an oversimplification of a complex matter, that can’t —and shouldn’t— be reduced to the atrocities commited by Spaniards more than 500 years ago.
Trust me, things are a little more complex than that. I know, because the Regressive Left —the only kind of Left available down here in Colombia— makes the same claims year after year, so now I’m immune to their appeals to emotion and and self-righteousness.
For starters, this date doesn’t celebrate Christopher Columbus himself, or the fact that indigenous and black people were enslaved. It is the celebration of a historical event that altered the course of history forever. Yes, there was genocide, pillage, rape, slavery, injustice, imperialism, infamy and genocide, but that’s not all of it. I know this age of political black-or-white manichaeism can’t stand gray areas, or that there could be positive outcomes of such a horrific age… but there is a case to be made in this sense.
Because when Columbus came to America, there was no human rights or democracy or Enlightenment or anything like that, so you can’t judge their past actions with our current moral standards. And yes, he brought terrible things such as racism —that permeates our societies until today— and that putrid poison called Christianity, but there were improvements as well, such as the access to the incipient modernity, setting the foundation for the scarce scientific endeavors that were born here, and the gradual (and limited) access to improved quality of life and larger life expectancy that came with western development and, otherwise, we wouldn’t have. That’s something I could get behind!
On the other hand, although the conquerors committed atrocities —and no one is denying this— it is also true that the conditions in pre-Columbian America were nothing like a Garden of Eden. We must remove the veil of the noble savage to make a fairly consistent comment on this issue.
Human sacrifices were quite often, there were turf wars between tribes, there was chieftaincy and warlordism, religious beliefs were imposed; sexism was rife, as well as other irrational practices, such as basing public policies on whatever political leaders claimed they saw when they were high as a kite, there was feudalism, barter, and houses were made of wattle and daub.
Even taking into account all the atrocities that were committed by Spaniards, had there not been Conquest and Colony, it is quite plausible to claim that today we would still be like that; and European postmodernists would insist that we should be kept in these conditions because it would be our culture, while they themselves would be enjoying democracy, freedom of and from religion, wi-fi, aircraft, drinking water and electricity 24/7.
Had it been up to me and I could rewrite this part of history, I would have had the Spaniards ran into indigenous peoples and treat them as equal human beings, with full sovereignty over their own territories, they would have exchanged knowledge, and their societies would have started symbiotic relationships with each other, learning from each other, and ‘culturally appropriating’ what best worked for them. That would have been ideal. But that’s not what happened.
Just take into account that it wasn’t all bad and it could have been waaaay worse. There’s nothing we can do to change the past and there’s no use crying over spilled milk, but we can address this issue dispassionately, and ponder its negative outcomes and the positive ones.
(image: Claus Rebler)