Day By Day

Monday, October 12, 2009

This Day In History

The government has officially designated today to be Columbus Day, marking Cristobal Colon's "discovery" of America, but on this day in history he was still at sea and didn't make landfall until the 21st. So, in the interest of accuracy I will continue to celebrate "Old Farmer's Day". This too is just an approximation -- there has long been a tradition of communities setting aside a day in October to honor the American farmer. The 12th seems to be the most common day so designated, and I'll follow the custom. So, find yourself a really old farmer and give him or her a hug or a handshake, whichever you deem appropriate.

I might as well write a bit about Columbus, since everybody else does. In recent decades he has become a very controversial figure as left wing critics have assiduously tried to destroy his reputation. Suffice it to say that he deserves neither the adulation he was accorded by many early writers nor the venomous hatred recently directed toward him. He was a man who conceived of and accomplished extraordinary things that had immense consequences for world history.

Columbus was by no means the first person to "discover" the New World -- there had been a Viking colony in Newfoundland five centuries before him, and it is likely that fishermen had been visiting the Grand Banks throughout the High Middle Ages [recent claims that the Chinese had discovered Amercia are bogus] -- but his voyage had consequences far greater than any other. It led to permanent European settlement in the Americas and that was one of the most significant developments in the history of the world. The story of his voyages is well known. I will confine myself to a few comments to correct the distorted accounts that currently prevail in schoolbooks and the mass media.

Scholarly consensus is that Columbus was Italian, from Genoa, sailing in the service of the Crown of Castile. There is no plausible evidence to suggest, as some writers have asserted, that he was Jewish, Portuguese, Catalan, or Norwegian or any other nationality.

Certainly Columbus and his men were extremely brutal toward the natives they encountered, but this was not an unusual practice either in Europe or in the Americas. The people he first encountered were Arawak Indians [Tainos or Lukayan] whom he described as being peaceful. Over time Columbus and his successors kidnapped, killed, and enslaved these people with the result that they eventually went extinct. But we should contextualize these actions.

The Arawak were already being driven toward extinction by other Indians in the Caribbean -- the Caribs, to be specific. Caribs regularly raided Arawak communities, killing all the men and taking the women as slaves. Consequently, the Arawaks were rapidly declining at the time Columbus arrived. And the Arawaks turned out not to be as peaceful as Columbus first described them. He left a settlement in Hispanola when he returned to Spain, and when he came back on his second voyage the "Chrismas Fort" settlement had been destroyed and its inhabitants slaughtered by local Indians. After that, the Spaniards did indeed exterminate all Indian communities in the islands that they thought might be a threat to their rule.

It should also be noted that Columbus was also harsh toward Spanish settlers, many of whom he had killed when they protested his actions and policies. He was certainly an incompetent and harsh governor who was eventually removed and imprisoned by the Crown, but that is not the same as being the genocidal monster some popular accounts have portrayed.

It is not accurate to suggest, as some writers have, that Columbus introduced slavery and genocide to the New World. To do so is just an ahistorical exercise in cheap moralism, applying twenty-first Century standards to the past. Both enslavement and the systematic extermination of enemy peoples were being widely practiced by the native inhabitants of the Americas long before any Europeans arrived.

It is not true that Columbus or any of his patrons or associates thought the world was flat. That idea was an invention of Washington Irving in his 1828 biography. Where Columbus was wrong was in assuming that the earth was much smaller than it actually is, but contemporary scholars were well aware of the real dimensions of the globe.

It is a matter of some controversy whether or not Columbus introduced syphilis to Europe. What is certain is that he and his successors did bring a number of epidemic diseases with them to America and that these devastated native populations.

Enough, already.

A couple of Pennsylvania references:

On this day in 1850 Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania (now called Medical College of Pennsylvania [MCP, get it?]) was founded. It was the first women's medical school in America. And four years to the day later Lincoln University [originally the Ashmun Institute] was founded. All in all, it has been a good day for women and minorities.