Monday, October 08, 2007

A Strange Dichotomy

Today, for good or ill, we observe Columbus Day, commemorating ...

Okay. Now we get to the good parts.

He was an Italian (from Genoa, I believe) who sailed around quite a bit for business; around the Mediterranean, into the Atlantic as far as the Azores, and even up to Iceland. While he was up there, it is believed he may have heard the tales of Leif Ericsson and his voyage to "Vinland."

When he got back home, Columbus found out that a new map of the world had been published that showed that the Atlantic was a mere five thousand miles wide, and it was a clear shot directly from Europe to the spices and wealth of the fabulous Orient. With Portugal trying to get around Africa to India, and the Ottoman Empire sitting smack on the land spice routes, extracting hefty tolls from all and sundry, Columbus thought he had the answer.

No one in Italy was interested, so he took his show on the road and tried to convince the Portugese (who weren't interested) and the Spanish (who also weren't interested). Disgusted, he was on his way to France when a messenger arrived to ask him to please come back to Spain. The great voyage was on.

By adroit reasoning he reckoned that his map was inaccurate, and that the "Ocean Sea" was only 2500 miles wide. The Spanish royals supplied him with three old, slightly worn-out ships and he raised crews for them.

I won't bore you with the rest. Onward.

The islands Columbus "discovered" were already the property of the Carib Indians (from which we get the words "Caribbean" and "barbecue," and not much else, sad to say). These people were a lot like other indigenous peoples, reasonably content to farm, fish, hunt, raise the kids, raid other peoples' homes for stuff, and practice an occasional bit of cannibalism when the food started running low.

To say that exposure to the Europeans was an unmitigated disaster for the Caribs would be understating the case. The 'explorers' weren't looking for a new land; they wanted to get to Asia and impress the Great Khan of Cathay. The tiny amount of gold the Caribs had inspired the Europeans, so they went looking, and if that meant torturing (relatively) defenseless natives to get information, hey, it was all in a day's work.

Further, the Portugese had discovered the money to be had in the African slave trade (having acquired the idea from African rulers on their way down to the Cape of Good Hope). Wanting to get a cut of that action as well, the Spaniards started trying to enslave the Caribs.

Certain high-minded types thought that the 'Indians' should be converted to Christianity before being enslaved. Unfortunately, the Spaniards gave the Caribs the one thing they didn't know they had, and the Caribs surely didn't want: Disease.

Smallpox wiped out entire villages, because there was no immunity to the virus in the native population; it might be argued that since the Caribs introduced Europe to tobacco and syphilis (which the Spanish called the French Disease, and the French called the Spanish Pox) the honors were even.

While all this was going on, where was Columbus? He, hair prematurely white from stress, was still looking for China (or at least Japan), and steadily became more and more delusional. Just couldn't handle the disappointment, poor guy. He finally died, worn out, in Spain.

As the years have gone by and more and more evidence has accumulated, a dichotomy has sprung up regarding Columbus. Was he an intrepid but unlucky explorer who sought Asia but discovered the New World? Or was he the harbinger of a great wave of genocides that swept through the Caribbean into Mexico and south into Peru?

Actually he's both, but people tend to look at only one facet of a man's life or career. No one is cut from whole cloth, you see. Columbus was an unlucky businessman who guessed wrong; any "discoveries" he'd made were accidental. Most of the time it was his employees who started the chain of atrocities that most Native Americans remember on this day.

So, was he blameless?

Not really.

Could his actions perhaps be forgiveable, given the tenor of his times?



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