Terry McLaughlin: In defense of Columbus
In 1892, on the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the Americas, President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed a national holiday celebrating Columbus and recognizing his achievements.
The World Columbian Exposition in Chicago followed a year later, and was attended by over 27 million people during its six-month duration.
The U.S. Postal Service participated in the celebration by issuing the very first U.S. commemorative postage stamps – a series of 16 stamps called the Columbian Issue, which depicted Columbus, Queen Isabella, and others in various stages of his several voyages. Over $40 million in commemorative postage stamps were sold during the Chicago exposition.
Colorado became the first state to establish Columbus Day in 1907, and others followed, until President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress declared Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1934, mandating its first observance on Oct. 12, 1937.
Today Columbus Day is celebrated in the United States on the second Monday of October. That is, unless you are a resident of Berkeley, which changed the name of Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day” in 1992, when opposition to Columbus was heard from activists and historians who were often critical of Western Civilization as a whole.
Following suit, Los Angeles officials renamed the holiday in 2015, after L.A. City Council member Mitch O’Farrell cited the “suffering, destruction of cultures, and subjugation of L.A.’s original indigenous people, who were here thousands of years before anyone else.”
Cambridge, Massachusetts did the same in 2016 and other cities such as Albuquerque, Portland, Oregon and Olympia, Washington have followed suit, or are considering doing so.
Despite that it has become fashionable to criticize Christopher Columbus, the majority of Americans view the explorer positively and with pride. In a Marist poll from December 2016, 62 percent of Americans expressed a favorable opinion of the explorer, while fewer than three out of 10 held an unfavorable view.
In response to a 2016 initiative to rename Columbus Day in Baltimore, Eugene Rivers III, founder and president of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies wrote, “To celebrate one cultural group does not require that we denigrate another. Rather than renaming Columbus Day, why not add another holiday, Indigenous Peoples Day, to Baltimore’s calendar in honor of Native Americans?”
Much of the modern hostility to Columbus can be traced to Howard Zinn’s 1980 book “A People’s History of the United States,” which claimed that Columbus was essentially a genocidal monster who paved the way for profit-seeking capitalists from the Old World to destroy and pillage the peaceful inhabitants of the New World. This book has left its mark on American students for decades.
Stanford University professor Carol Delaney criticizes Zinn’s characterization and defends Columbus as a devoutly religious man, not someone committed to pillaging and plundering. She says, “He liked the natives and found them to be very intelligent … Columbus strictly told the crew not to do things like maraud, or rape, and instead to treat the native people with respect. There are many examples in his writings where he gave instructions to this effect.” While deprivations did occur, according to Delaney, Columbus was quick to punish those under his command who committed unjust acts against local populations.
Georgetown University professor Michael Kazin argues that Zinn’s book is focused on class conflict and wrongly attributes sinister motives to the American political elite. He writes, “For Zinn, ordinary Americans seem to live only to fight the rich and haughty.” Kazin argues that Zinn’s book is a “black-and-white story of elite villains and oppressed victims, that robs American history of its depth and intricacy and leaves nothing but an empty text simplified to the level of propaganda.”
Columbus was not a man without flaws. But even in an earlier age in which violence and cruelty were often the norm between different cultures and people, Columbus did not engage in the savage acts of which he has been accused. Attacks on Columbus should not be allowed to obscure the truth about the man, his voyages, and his motives. He believed he could reach the shores of Asia by sailing a mere 3,000 miles west across the Atlantic. Such passage would establish faster and far easier trade routes than were otherwise possible at the time. Despite his miscalculation of distances, after 10 weeks Columbus did indeed find land. It was not the outskirts of the Orient, as he believed, but an entirely new continent.
Columbus’ voyages made the Old and New Worlds aware of each other for the first time, initiating the enduring relationship between the Earth’s two major landmasses and their inhabitants, and eventually leading to the founding of new countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Years later, as a nation began to emerge out of the American colonies, its leaders recognized the explorer’s legacy and “Columbia” served as an informal name for what would become the United States of America. The braveness and boldness Columbus displayed in his trek remain inherent in the American cultural DNA. The spirit that drove us west and then to the moon, is what we celebrate in men like Columbus.
The eventual designation of our nation’s capital as the District of Columbia reflects the esteem the founders had for this Italian explorer, and to most Americans. Columbus still represents the kind of heroic courage and religious faith that inspired the establishment of our country.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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