I normally defend funny things. You know, bad movies and beauty pageants and Waffle House. I occasionally delve into darkness (here’s my Furby article), but I try to avoid actual evil. I can’t use my skills to defend slave traders or murderers. I want comedy. Defending actual evil in search of humor is akin to squeezing juice from a rutabaga. I get nothing out of it except tired muscles and weird analogies.
So it’s with great… pride?… that I get to defend a truly wicked man. Or at least, his holiday. For this past Monday was Columbus Day, a day set aside for a slave-trading, greedy murderer. And, um, schoolchildren. And postal workers, bankers, librarians, DMV workers, Catholics, Italian-Americans…
NO, no defending yet! Not until I bash Christopher Columbus!
But seriously, the man was evil. As if that face wasn’t a dead giveaway… because even the dead would give it away, ZING! But seriously, evil. And apparently floating on one leg, but that’s more of a diss on the artist. Take that, Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín!
But enough insults. Here’s a Columbus Day gift. It’s a great infographic on Columbus-related atrocities. I know, just what you wanted!
The infographic first shows what we all know about Columbus: that he discovered the Americas, proved the earth wasn’t flat and in 1492 sailed the ocean blue.
Thing is, lots of people knew about America before Columbus, pretty much any educated person in 1492 knew the earth was round, and the ocean is more of an aquamarine. EVERYTHING WE KNOW IS LIES!
But let’s get away from petty deception. Let’s get into murder.
Columbus first encountered the Lucayan natives when the Santa Maria sank, and the natives rescued his crew and cargo. Columbus called them generous, healthy and hospitable. He then concluded his 1492 journal entry with, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.” I imagine the word “pleased” trails off as Columbus fetches a black cape and twirls his mustache in sudden realization.
Columbus then started bringing weapons from Europe, demanding food, women and gold. When the Lucayans refused, he cut off noses, ears and hands as a warning to the others. Some of his men would hunt the dissenters, murdering them and using their bodies as dog food. Not always in that order.
He sold 9-year-old girls into sexual slavery, tortured natives, spread smallpox… the infographic says, “(Columbus) discovered the New World much like a meteorite discovered the dinosaurs.”
And he’s celebrated on the same level as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., neither of whom fed people to ravenous canines.
But I’m not defending the man. I’m defending the holiday celebrating his legacy. You know, genocide and slave trade and…
NO, bashing is over! Now is defending!
Mattia Landoni of columbiaspectator.com points out that Columbus can hardly be blamed for genocide. He committed many horrible crimes “to earn his place in hell,” but widespread disease wasn’t really his intent. Sick slaves aren’t good slaves. And Columbus didn’t introduce slavery to the world. Just the entrepreneurial form that plagued the Atlantic for centuries.
But you know, a criminal can say, “Give me a break, I didn’t murder everyone, just a lot of people!” That criminal likely wouldn’t get a holiday.
But what about pre-criminal Columbus? You know, the one who had the guts to boldly sail unknown-ish waters. What about the Columbus who accomplished a feat worthy of epic poetry?
Landoni continues, “We deserve to be able to celebrate the young, Odysseus-like Columbus, who accomplished all his heroic feats before he even knew Native Americans existed, let alone hurt any of them—a man who could have hardly imagined what he was getting himself into. At the same time, we should condemn the later Columbus—a little man, overwhelmed by personal fatigue and external pressures, who made many horrible decisions.”
Rick Menzel of startribune.com approaches a different angle. He claims that Columbus can be a hero for two minorities: Italian-Americans and Roman Catholics.
Menzel writes, “The successful lobbying effort that resulted in Columbus Day becoming a federal holiday in 1937 was an important victory for Italian-Americans, one that other ethnic and interest groups would seek to emulate in the years to come.”
Roman Catholics had similar reasons. They too have long been a minority in the largely-Protestant America, and having a Catholic hero in 1937 was a huge boon.
Of course, this is small comfort for another minority, namely Native Americans. But small steps.
So while I can understand those attempting the change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, I can also understand why some want to keep a holiday that brings them a modicum of pride.
However, this New York Times defense is my favorite. Historian William J. Connell says, “‘Celebrate’ is a word we could use for Columbus’s genius, his persistence against the odds in getting people who were much more powerful than he was to back him in a risky enterprise that had results way beyond anyone’s imagination. We can celebrate his enterprise and ingenuity.”
As for the rest, Connell suggests “celebrate” might not be the right word. Perhaps, he hopes, we can “commemorate” Columbus’s legacy.
History, you see, is filled with evil. And not just world history. Our personal histories are filled with poor decisions and wicked failings. However, it’s history, and we learn. And from Columbus, schoolchildren can learn that the world is not simple. That you can take something evil and make something good, or vice versa. The world is complex, and we have no idea what our actions might precipitate or whose champion we might become.
Columbus was a bold explorer who murdered natives for profit. He was also a slave trader who has encouraged millions to dream bigger. Maybe that dichotomy is worth a holiday. Maybe history itself, however complex, is worth commemorating.
So party away, federal workers! Since, you know, most of us forgot it was even a holiday. I’m sure your Columbus Day party was quite a hoot.