Our National Heroes

History – A Fable Agreed Upon By The Winners

On Columbus Day we celebrate a sort of Star Trek “boldly going where no one has gone before.”

Columbus discovered America!  He was a hero! 

Well, maybe not.

To begin, he wasn’t the first European to reach America.  Vikings beat him by a few centuries. 

And when he arrived he didn’t play nicely with the locals, the Arawak Indians, a tribe inhabiting the Bahama Islands.

The following quotations provide a grim summary of Columbus’ shortcomings in the hero department:

“The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.” ¹

“Endless testimonies. . .prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives. . . . But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then. . . . The admiral, (Columbus), it is true was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians. . . . ” ²

“What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortés did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.” ³

Unlike some critics of prominent historical figures, I don’t advocate condemning them because, judged by our present day standards, they fall far short.

To judge past conduct exclusively by present standards is laughably irrational.

Historical figures should be judged first according to the standards of their time, and only afterwards by the standards of ours.

Columbus was no hero, but neither was he a total failure as a human being.

To sail westward into the vast Atlantic ocean with no reliable charts, in three little ships, (the largest barely one hundred feet long), with only the vaguest idea of where he would end up required superb seamanship and immense courage.

Re-evaluating our national story / heroes more realistically can’t hurt us.

Accurate knowledge of our past is part of a good foundation of national mental health.


¹ Christopher Columbus, Mariner, 1954,  by Samuel Eliot Morrison

² History of the Indies, by Bartolomé de las Casas, (a contemporaneous record)

³ A People’s History of the United States, 2003, by Howard Zinn

 

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