Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Should We Celebrate Columbus Day?

Yesterday someone whose opinion I greatly respect offered his opinion that we shouldn’t celebrate Columbus Day, due to the facts of Christopher Columbus’ brutality with the Native Americans he encountered. I found myself playing Columbus’ advocate. I am not a blind supporter of all the things he did wrong, nor am I ignorant of the explorers that landed on the shores of this continent before Columbus. Napoleon Bonaparte once famously quipped, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” It seems the agreements are changing. In deference to natives to this country, I understand the interest in that change. My concern is, we ought not throw out the baby with the bath water. As a person who has lived and worked in Latin America and Spain and presently works with a Native American tribe, let me offer a few thoughts.

Discovery Rights:

Evidence shows that Norsemen reached the American Continent probably 400 to 500 years before Columbus. They were not raiders, but Christian settlers who had been converted to Christianity about 50 years before their first probable contact with the “new world.” Some studies suggest some Irish explorers may also have stumbled upon this continent hundreds of years before 1492. Possibly 70 years before Columbus, the Chinese seafarer Zheng may not only have discovered this continent, but could possibly have circumnavigated the globe. And what of the ancient peoples who first traveled here by North Pacific land bridges or by boat from the “old world” and first populated this land? They were truly the first discoverers, weren’t they? How can someone “discover” a place if it is already populated?

My thought here is: Many may have discovered America before Christopher Columbus. But he was the first to “get published.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said it this way: “Every ship that now comes to America got its chart from Columbus.” Maybe his greatest feat was that he found this new continent at that time in history when printing was becoming ubiquitous and communications, although rudimentary, were becoming global. Historian George Santayana suggests, “Columbus found a world, and had no chart, Save one that faith deciphered in the skies. He gave the world another world.”

Columbus had an idea (which turned out to be wrong). He wasn’t looking for a new land, but a shortcut to the spices of India and East Asia. He didn’t even know where he was when he got there. But his ambition, determination, and courage changed the course of human history—for good and bad. Isn’t that the story of many great discoveries? Serendipity and good fortune don’t change the fact that Columbus was willing to sail beyond the horizon.

Columbus the Man:

Many today highlight Columbus' mistreatment of the gentle and peace-loving Arawaks he encountered in the Caribbean. But how many people are aware that one of the reasons the Arawaks welcomed the Europeans so warmly was their fear of the Carib Indians who were, as one modern historian puts it, "then expanding across the Lesser Antilles and literally eating the Arawaks up"? In interest of equal treatment, Mr Williams of the modern Carib tribe states: "Our ancestors stood up against early European conquerors and because they stood up… we were labeled savages and cannibals up to today.”

No matter the actual state of tribal relations in the 1400’s, that era and human history in general was a brutal affair. Native tribes made conquest of other tribes with battles counting thousands of deaths and at key intersections, the genocide of some groups. Europe was conquered by Goths, Gaelic’s, Gaul’s, Magyars, and Moors. In fact, the same year the Spanish Crown outfitted Columbus with his small armada, the last Moorish stronghold of Granada surrendered to the Spanish monarchy after nearly 800 years of presence on the Iberian Peninsula. Columbus was a marketer. He went to Spain, the Silicon Valley of his era, as an entrepreneur pitching to venture capitalists. He played on the Crusader frustrations that Islam had retaken Jerusalem. As Spain had just overcome the Moors, he pledged all gold he might find to the reconquest of the Holy land, a powerful vision to the Catholic monarchy of Ferdinand and Isabella. No, Columbus was certainly not perfect, but he should be judged by the motives of his age, not by our enlightened perspectives of equality and global humanity.

Near the end of his life, Columbus recorded: “I am a most noteworthy sinner, but I have cried out to the Lord for grace and mercy, and they have covered me completely. I have found the sweetest consolation since I made it my whole purpose to enjoy His marvelous Presence.”

The Impact of His Voyages:

I will forgo a discussion of the age of Exploration and the economic, cultural, and social impacts--both good and bad, of Columbus' "discovery," to keep this post shorter than it could be and focus on ethics as this seems to be the greatest issue of discontent.

European cultural arrogance and its violation of universal human and political rights lived vibrantly for centuries before and after Columbus’ voyage. Yet no other culture in the world conceived of universal respect for human persons and the embodiment of that principle in international law prior to European development of these doctrines-prodded in part by the encounter with “New World” natives.

And what of these natives? Native religion and life were, whatever their shortcomings, clearly not the creation of irrational brutes. The Spanish crown was so sensitive to these moral arguments that in 1550 it ordered all military activity to cease in the Americas and created a royal commission at Valladolid to examine Spain's behavior in the New World. No other growing empire in history has ever similarly interrupted itself to take up moral issues. Ultimately, greed and ineffective Spanish administration led to the abuses we know of and the fame of La Leyenda Negra, the Black Legend, but the commission did bring about penalties for some of the worst offenders, as well as certain reforms in administration and policy.

Of note, Bartolomea de las Casas, the widely acclaimed Dominican priest who defended the Indians, went so far as to argue that even human sacrifice and cannibalism among the natives should not be held against them because both practices showed deep reverence and a spirit of sacrifice towards the Almighty. At Valladolid, Las Casas argued against Juan Gineas de Sepualveda, another theologian, that Indians were human beings. Sepualveda rejected that argument, but to establish his case he had to try to prove that reason was so weak in the Indians that, left to themselves, they could not live according to reason. Those who knew the “New World,” could not but accept the fact that the Indians were doing just fine before the European conquerors showed up.

We now take it for granted that even nations deeply alien to us have a right to their own territory and culture, but it is largely due to the reflections begun by Francisco de Vitoria, a Dominican theologian and friend of Las Casas, that we have such principles. Vitoria was highly respected by the Spanish king, who appointed him to several royal commissions (unfortunately, he died before the great debate at Valladolid). But Vitoria did not hesitate to tell the monarch that he had no right to lands occupied by Indians, nor could he make slaves out of rational beings. Furthermore, Vitoria went so far as to call the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, in which the Pope ceded lands to the Spanish and Portuguese, improper because the pontiff did not have temporal sovereignty over the earth, particularly over lands already occupied by natives. Later, Pope Pius III, who in response to reports from the New World proclaimed in his 1537 encyclical Sublimis Deus:

Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by the Christians are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen it shall be null and of no effect. . . . By virtue of our apostolic authority we declare . . . that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.

In short, we should recall that ethical developments, too, are a consequence of Columbus.