Hello, friends and neighbors: It’s that magical time of year again. Yes, like the systematic elimination of the Mets or my yearly “I should try absinthe” rock bottom, it is time for the annual argument regarding the legitimacy of Columbus Day.
I would like to start this article by proclaiming my awareness that what happened to the indigenous populations of the world during the age of colonization is an unfortunate tragedy brought on by nations in a global quest for power.
The thing that people tend to get wrong when trying to defend Columbus or Columbus Day is that they focus on trying to morally justify the actions of Columbus or the Spanish, which is a losing battle.
Frankly, Columbus was a borderline sociopath and the Spanish were imperialistic schmucks. Were all the native tribes peaceful? Absolutely not. Were the tribes that Columbus met peaceful? Mostly. Granted, a few of them might have been cannibalistic, but they didn’t try to eat the Spanish so I concsider that the moral equivalent of breaking even.
“So, then,” you’re probably thinking while sipping free trade tea in a hip millennial coffee shop with the annoyingly happy sound of ukuleles in the background, “How can you defend Columbus Day when you yourself acknowledge that Columbus was a horrible person?”
In response, I would like to ask a counterquestion: How many historically significant people could pass for “good people” by today’s standards?
Caesar was a war criminal, just about every Greek philosopher was a pedophile, Churchill murdered 4 million people, and Abraham Lincoln could make your racist grandfather look like MLK. In 200 years, once the vegans have taken over and eating meat is tantamount to murder, all of our accomplishments will be discredited by smug college students and hippies because, “How could you support the person that colonized Mars? He ate steak and wore leather!”
The issue with criticizing Columbus Day on the basis of Columbus’ morality is that we as a secular people don’t grant holidays based on the moral goodness of their subjects. All our holidays that celebrate people of good moral fiber are religious in nature. If the day ever comes when someone tries to canonize Columbus I will certainly be right there in the opposition.
That being said, we need to acknowledge some realities. Say what you will, the primary one is that the permanent established contact between the Old and New Worlds was a cataclysmically important event in history that, despite many tragedies, led to some incredible advancements. Columbus paved the way for classical liberalism, cross-cultural development and the trade of technology. Without the discovery of the New World, monarchs would still rule Europe, the industrial revolution would never have happened, and every single thing America has pioneered since would either be nonexistent or invented long after the fact by a people seen as property of their government.
Yes, the Europeans committed heinous crimes against the native populations and we as Americans have all benefitted from those atrocities. That being said, some of today’s historical revisionist ideas need to be questioned.
The first and most important thing to note is that Native American tribes warred just as much as, if not more than, their European counterparts. Granted, military technology was not as advanced, so casualties were lower, but, to the Natives, war was tantamount to sport. Does anyone think Cortes destroyed the Aztec Empire with 500 Conquistadors? To be fair, Lt. Sergeant Smallpox played a bit of a role, but it was primarily the 200,000 Tlaxcala that were absolutely fed up with being raped, enslaved and harvested like cattle each year for human sacrifices. The Europeans were able to conquer so much land because the natives saw their fancy weaponry and immediately tried to utilize it to conquer their neighbors.
The second point I want to address is a bit of a dark one: the population decline of the New World. In the decades between Columbus’ voyage and the Plymouth landing, the most devastating plague in human history decimated North America. European sailors heading up and down the East Coast before English settlement described the Native cities as so densely populated that the smoke could be seen from hundreds of miles out to sea. The North American population numbered around 100 million, compared to Europe’s 70 million, and the plague that would sweep westward wiped out 90 percent of the population. When the colonists landed at Plymouth Rock, they arrived to “Walking Dead”-style abandoned cities.
This leads me to my next point: Yes, the Native Americans had cities. They cut down so many trees that scientists believe it caused a mini ice age in Europe, and the plague that wiped them all out had a reverse global warming effect. Cahokia, a native city just east of St. Louis, Mo., was larger than London, had a complex urban center, massive earth pyramids and trade routes that stretched from the Great Lakes to Mexico. The natives lived in a complex society, and although not as advanced as Europe in every way, they were certainly far from primitive.
The clash of cultures between Europeans and Native Americans was a perfect storm of susceptibility to disease, disparity in weaponry and internal conflict of native tribes. The massive fallout from such a storm should not be entirely attributed to European cruelty, but to the circumstances that lent themselves to such destruction.
Nobody should be celebrating Columbus Day because of the morality of Christopher Columbus. We celebrate Columbus Day because, like the Fourth of July or Washington’s birthday, it commemorates a historic event that ultimately affected European Americans’ lives for the better.
Am I saying that Native American communities should have to observe Columbus Day? No: the arrival of Europeans was decimating to their people. But European Americans have, by mere nature of our existence, benefitted from the discovery of the New World, and that is why Columbus Day is a holiday.