Thirty Million . . . and Counting

     October 12 is a day of celebration for some and a time of mourning for others.  While some people contend that Christopher Columbus was a brave explorer who deserves to be revered, others counter that he was a brutal person and an imcompetent navigator who ushered in centuries of death and oppression for those who lived on this continent before his arrival.  Where did such divergent views come from? And more importantly, who is right?

     The traditional view of Columbus as a fearless navigator and adventurer has long-dominated the textbooks of grade-school children throughout this country.  This view is in line with the notion that every "hero" this country has is a person of impeccable morals and exceptional courage.  This country refuses to allow any person associated with its founding to be seen in any other than the most favorable light.

     A few decades ago, grade-school textbooks began embracing the concept of multiculturalism; strict Eurocentric views were no longer appropriate.  At this time the view of Columbus underwent a revision in these books.  Now many of these textbooks recount the atrocities he committed along with the traditional view of Columbus.

     Of course, there are those who see this change as blasphemous and un-American; they consider "revisionism" a dirty word. Revisionism, in and of itself, is pointless.  But when the history being revised was originally constructed incorrectly, revisionism serves a useful purpose.

     The blame for the thirty million or so human beings who have died as a result of Columbus' invasion must not rest entirely on Columbus.  He merely initiated the decimation and enslavement of these people when he invaded this continent and shipped five hundred Arawak "Indians" to Spain (two hundred of whom died along the way).  He left a legacy of racism and genocide, and for this he must be held accountable.  As an individual he directly contributed only a negligible fraction to the death of those millions---but it was Columbus who paved the way for others who would continue and expand what he started.

     Supposedly, Columbus Day is a time to honor a great man and to praise the "discovery" of a "New World" which we call America today.  When we understand that the invasion and subsequent exploitation of this continent was achieved at the expense of millions of lives and dozens of indigenous cultures, we find more reason to mourn than to celebrate.

     The invasion of this continent by Columbus was an historic event and it should not be overlooked, but we should remember what was lost and not just what was "found".

     Should we impose our late-twentieth century moral judgments on late-fifteenth century individuals?  After all, "discovery and conquest" were commonplace at the time.  If we truly believe that the taking of human lives is morally averse, then that belief should transcend time and encompass any action by any individual at any point in history.  Forgiving such atrocities has a grimly transitional implication: Murder was acceptable then, it is intolerable now, but maybe it will be acceptable again someday.

     More importantly, we should consider the message being sent: You kill one person and you get the death penalty---you kill one million and you get a holiday.

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© 1994 / Ignacio González

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