In 2004, I published a historical novel titled The Lost Voyage of John Cabot. The book is a fictionalized account of Cabot’s return trip in 1498 to the “newfound land” in the North Atlantic he had discovered the previous summer, five years after Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas.
Columbus is a character in the story. He and Cabot were not only contemporaries, but also compatriots. Both hailed from the Italian seaport of Genoa. It is likely that they knew each other and were rivals. In my novel, Cabot confronts Columbus upon the latter’s return to Europe in 1493 and challenges his claim of finding a western route to Asia.
My timing as an author has seldom been good. I missed the 500th anniversary of the Cabot voyages, and by the time the book came out seven years later, the backlash against the European explorers (and exploiters) of North America was in full swing. Columbus Day has now become Indigenous Peoples Day, and we are encouraged to disparage the European explorers as enablers of genocide.
History is rarely that simple.
In the course of researching the book, I learned the European colonization of the Americas did not begin with one man or one voyage. The Greenland settlements of the tenth and eleventh centuries endured into the 1400s. Fishermen from Britain and northern Europe knew about the rich sea bottom off Newfoundland, and almost surely of the island itself, long before Cabot’s voyages. There’s evidence the Chinese beat Columbus to the Americas by several decades, but the discoveries were buried in the rubble of political upheaval.
Columbus was a pretty good con man, though. The Greek-Egyptian mathematician Eratosthenes came up with a more accurate estimate of the Earth’s circumference than the one Columbus sold to Ferdinand and Isabella nearly 1500 years later. And Columbus was a hard-bitten Christian at time when Christian Europe felt threatened by the incursion of Islam and the subsequent loss of overland trade routes.
Thus his dealings with the indigenous peoples of the Americas were informed by a similar kind of paranoia that runs through much of white America today. Through the lens of modern sensibilities, the actions of Columbus and his ilk indeed appear monstrous.
But let us remember for a moment that tyranny has been the history of most of humankind. Advances in the way we treat one another have never moved as fast as advances in technology. This is why we have an overabundance of nuclear weapons and a shortage of housing and health care facilities for the poor. Most of history has been laced with bigotry and bloodshed. Christopher Columbus may have been, by every modern judgment, an unsavory character, but he was hardly an outlier.
It is intellectually dishonest to lift a historical figure out of his own time and judge him by today’s moral standards. Hitler was a monster in his own time. Columbus is a monster in ours. There’s a world of difference.
Thomas Jefferson likely forced himself on one or more of his female slaves. Today that would make him a sexual predator. But he also wrote: “…governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” words that changed the world. Are we to vilify him in 2017 for his use of the word “men,” when he lived in a society where sexism was unquestioned? Do we disregard the brilliance of the Declaration of Independence because of the personal failings of the man who wrote it?
Don’t misunderstand me. I have no use for a celebration of the Columbus depicted in Samuel Eliot Morison’s fawning 1942 biography, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. I think the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins should change their mascots. I don’t like public displays of the Confederate flag in its ugly, modern context.
But the European colonization of the Americas cannot be undone. Anywhere you go in the Western Hemisphere, you will hear people speaking French, English, Spanish or Portuguese: the languages of the colonizers. Similarly, you don’t have to be a Christian to be living in Anno Domini 2017. The approximate date of the birth of Jesus is a common frame of reference for the world we live in now.
When we try to sanitize history, we put ourselves in the company of the Taliban and the Soviet communists, blowing up statues and airbrushing photographs. It’s easy for me, a white male American, to downplay historical grievances. But that is not my intent here. Our imperfect past should inform us in our daily struggle toward a more kind and just future for all.