On this day in 1492, at about two o’clock in the morning, the man born Cristoforo Colombo in Genoa, spotted an island in the present-day Bahamas, naming it San Salvador.* At this moment, the Arawak people were probably snoring, but eventually they spotted the Europeans, too. And if we are to accept the worldview of Mel Gibson‘s Apocalypto, perhaps they had been bickering a lot lately, maybe even removing each other’s still-beating hearts, so that when the Spanish arrived, bathed in the light of Christian forgiveness (à la Dalí), everything changed for the better.
To be clear, I’m not saying we should accept the worldview of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. Maybe this meme that clogged up my Facebook for days last year is closer to the truth:
Let’s celebrate Columbus Day by walking into someone’s house and telling them we live there now.
Or maybe we’re not particularly well served by dramatic simplifications, regardless of whom they damn. Emphasizing the barbarity of Indian violence serves little purpose, but neither does comparing Columbus to a common thief. Charles C. Mann, in his book 1493—a helpful collection of much of the latest scholarship—provides something of a corrective. Citing the uproar around the celebration of Columbus Day, he writes:
An army of activists and scholars has bombarded the public with condemnations of the man and his works. They have called him brutal (he was, by today’s standards) and racist (he wasn’t, strictly speaking—modern concepts of race had not yet been invented); incompetent as an administrator (he was) and as a seaman (he wasn’t); a religious fanatic (he surely was, from a secular point of view); and a greedy monomaniac (a charge, the admiral’s supporters would say, that could be leveled against all ambitious souls). [Columbus], his detractors charge, never understood what he had found.
Notice how Mann attempts to rescue Columbus from our world and reestablish him in his own. He was brutal by today’s standards, but what were the standards of his day? If he wasn’t racist, then what was he? Why else did he enslave the Indians he found? Most of us, since the Enlightenment, approach international relations from a secular point of view. But what was the dominant point of view in Columbus’s day, and how did he fit into it?
To those of us interested in understanding history, as opposed to making a quick political buck off of it, these are the important questions. Rather than obsess over correcting other people’s simplifications with our own, we might instead seek out the complications. Less of Was Columbus good or bad? and more of How did Columbus change the world?
* Actually, it was a fellow named Rodrigo de Triana who sighted land first, but because there was a fat royal reward for the feat, Columbus took the credit.
A version of this post was originally published on October 12, 2011.
IMAGE: The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus by Salvador Dalí (1959)