Monday, October 09, 2017

In defense of Columbus

So apparently today is either Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day, depending on whether you’re a dastardly white supremacist or a woke, morally superior progressive.

It’s trendy these days to vilify Christopher Columbus, and by extension, all European-descended people in the Americas, for the genocide inflicted upon the Native Americans. It’s especially popular among people whose entire knowledge of history comes from bumper stickers and kiddie lit. We are expected (nay, commanded) to believe that Columbus was a cruel, racist slave-trading monster who befouled America with his presence for the sole purpose of eradicating the innocent, peace-loving natives.

I usually try to avoid profanity, but sometimes bullshit has to be called bullshit, and this is one of those times. Here’s the deal:

1. Columbus was no saint, but he was no monster either. He was fairly typical for a man of his time and place, and maybe a little more courageous and devout than most. Europe’s trade routes overland to Asia had been choked off and its economy was suffering badly. At the time, there was no way at all to gauge longitude and even latitude was iffy, and the 3,000 miles that he thought it was to the Indies was longer than it was possible to provision ships for. But Columbus had faith, a desire not to be poor and an enormous set of cojones, and those things paid off.

Sooner or later, contact was going to occur. If it hadn't been an Italian representing Spain, it would have been the Portuguese or the English. Or, equally likely, the Ottoman Turks, who were expanding prodigiously. And who traded slaves and forced religious conversions with even more gusto than Christians did.

Yes, Columbus took slaves, and yes, he treated them abominably. Yes, we enlightened 21st-century people recognize this as a horrible thing. But in his day, it was normal. Christian Europeans were prohibited from taking Christians as slaves, but Muslims had been trading in European slaves for centuries, and Europeans owned Muslims and pagans from the Middle East and Africa already. Slavery was a fact of life and had been for millennia. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that any nation abolished it. It strikes me as unjust to hold a man accountable to a moral standard that wouldn’t exist until hundreds of years after he was dead.

2. It wasn’t a genocide. Really, there’s no reasonable way it could be considered one. Webster defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” The misfortune brought upon the Natives by the white population was great but it was not deliberate, it was not systematic and the group in question wasn’t destroyed.

For the rest of this screed, I’m going to stick with the English colonies in North America, just because (a) those are the only ones I have any stake in and (b) as far as I know those are the only hotbeds of Columbus-hate. I’m not downplaying or justifying the atrocities committed against Natives by white settlers. The only reason I’m not enumerating them is simply that we all know about them. They were horrifying and worthy of condemnation. They also aren’t the entire story.

What usually gets called a genocide was in fact a mass migration accompanied by wars of conquest, such as have happened frequently over human history. Post-medieval England was poor, disease-ridden, crowded and politically volatile. The rest of Europe was no better off. Meanwhile, over the ocean there was a huge mass of land – nobody knew how huge – that wasn’t being used for anything.

“But it already belonged to the Natives!” Yes, it did, insofar as they had any concept of land ownership. But very few of them were farmers, and to European eyes untilled land is wasted. Hunting-gathering is a nomadic lifestyle that requires a large area to support a small population.

So, Mr./Ms./Xs. Progressive-American, if you were in their shoes, would you have stayed in a country where you had no prospect of ever bettering your condition and where the government might at any time turn on you, or would you try to stake out some off that wide-open land for yourself, by force if necessary? Of course you would, and trample anyone who slowed you down. Hunger and hopelessness will outweigh moral smuggery every time.

As for wars, those happen any time you have two groups of people who desperately need the same resources.  Do you seriously doubt, that if the positions had been reversed, Native Americans would not have attempted to conquer Europe? They weren’t intrinsically more virtuous than whites, merely outnumbered and outgunned.

And, crucially, less immune to disease. Europeans had been in contact with Asia and Africa, albeit on a limited basis, for centuries and had built up some immunity in the process. They also kept domesticated animals on a much larger scale. Native Americans had never been beyond their continent, obviously, but because they had no wheeled vehicles or horses, most of them never interacted with anyone but a few neighboring tribes. The overwhelming majority of Native deaths came from germs over which the Europeans had no control whatsoever.

3. The Natives were not pacifistic victims.  As Jim Goad wrote a few Thanksgivings ago (go ahead, read the whole thing):
We fought them from 1540 to 1890. That’s 350 years! They eventually lost, but nobody has proved to be as worthy an adversary as the Indians. We fought them a hundred times longer than we fought the Nazis. When we portray the Indians as an innocent tribe of peaceful hippies who were duped with “guns, germs, and steel,” as Jared Diamond would say, we make them look bad. They were warriors.
If I were a Native, I’d curse Columbus and spit at the mention of his name. I grew up next to a reservation in the ‘70s and I can tell you no ethnic group in America has gotten a dirtier end of the stick. I don’t blame them in the least for resenting whites and the man who started them coming here. Fair is fair.

But I’m not. I’m the descendant of generation after generation of Europeans, mostly English, who seized the chance to get out of the hellhole that was 16th- and 17th-century Britain. My people have flourished in the New World, and I’ll be durned if I’ll lament that fact. I celebrate Columbus, not because he was a swell guy, but because I benefitted from him. Others may do as they think best.