Monday, October 11, 2010

Rethinking Christopher Columbus

Europeans' descendants have been living in the Americas for over 500 years now. Columbus was used in the past as a sort of mythic forefather of the modern Western hemisphere, a sort of Romulus or King Arthur or George Washington or Vercingetorix. Creating such myths is an understandable impulse for new countries, but we're all getting long in the tooth on this side of the Atlantic, so we no longer need the myth of the bold, intrepid Christopher Columbus.

He needs to be deƫmphasized in history teaching. He didn't really have a vision, except that he felt the world was smaller than most people did, and that if you sailed across the Ocean Sea, you wouldn't starve to death before you got to the other side. He was wrong about that, and would've starved to death before he reached the other side, along with his crew, and would've been forgotten about in the annals of history.

He was a merchant mariner; that's all. If he didn't bump into these continents, someone else would have before too long. His contact with the Americas brought Western disease, which the Americans didn't have any kind of resistance to, which wound up killing most of the people he came into contact with. If not for those diseases, Westerners wouldn't have had such an easy time conquering the civilizations here, and likely wouldn't have managed to do so.

In sum, Columbus should be taught as a minor figure, as the guy who happened to be commanding the boats that started it all. But a hero? Nah. A villain? No more or less than anyone else who showed up here around that time. Teach that we made contact, and what resulted from that contact, but really, as far as Mr. Columbus goes, that's quite enough.

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