I recently saw an article which I did not have time in the moment to read and have not found since, but the head line was to the effect “Columbus is a Part of Our Heritage”. I have since been thinking about Christopher Columbus and our celebration of the “discovery of America”. I do think that Christopher Columbus is a significant historical figure and symbolically he can, as much as anyone, represent the European discovery of the Americas. [Quick note I am personally opposed to holidays which are dedicated to one person I think holidays should commemorate events not people, so yes I don’t like “Columbus Day” as in honoring the person]. But as we consider the question of Columbus Day we must consider what we are honoring and what history we are telling. I am personally not opposed to something akin to Columbus Day which memorializes the European discovery of these lands, but I certainly am opposed to the celebrations I remember from school which focused on a glorified mythology. Frankly, the European discovery of America is vital to the heritage of our Nation in many ways, but only if it is kept in the right perspective.
I can remember being in class making crafts of Columbus and his three ships, talking about how he brought Western Civilization to the New World, and paved the way for America to develop. I even read a children’s level biography that depicted Columbus as a deeply religious saint who’s intent was to Christianize the heathen. The trouble is this is all myth designed to make people feel good about their civilization; what is worse is that it is being passed off as history. Myths– stories used to make sense of the world– are great things, but they become terrible when people forget they are stories and begin to think of them as complete histories. This has certainly happened in the case of Columbus in some sectors of the country. Historical accounts depict him as a corrupt man who abused people for his own profit. Even a cursory glance into the account of his voyage west will show his intent was not to civilize anyone (let alone Christianize) it was to make a profit. Christianizing natives was a gloss given the voyage so the endeavor could be given a favorable spin. One simple statement from Chief Justice John Marshall explains this wonderfully.
“On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire. Its vast extent offered an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all, and the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency. The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity in exchange for unlimited independence . . .”
— Chief Justice John Marshall, Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh, 1823
The truth is that Columbus did not impact in any significant way the British Colonization of North America, they would have been here regardless. It is even more true to say that Columbus’ civilization and that which grew up in North America were very different. But Columbus does serve us well as a typical European in at least one way, he was completely committed to the Doctrine of Discovery- the idea that because natives were “less civilized” Europeans had a right to dispossess them. The mindset of the European settlers was to take as much land as possible whenever possible. Christianization, when it happened at all, was largely simply a cover to make slaves of the indigenous peoples (especially by Spanish and Portuguese settlers, see Andrés Reséndez The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America). Further, indigenous peoples were seen as a threat or inferior therefore Europeans gave little thought to cultural exchange or even “civilizing” natives.
I find it sad that Columbus Day is part of the “culture wars”, and I see that part of the reason is that we are unable to lament as a nation. Our holidays must be about pure celebration, and so on one side we celebrate Columbus and on the other we celebrate indigenous people. We must learn how to grow deeper to acknowledge the wrongs and move forward with the right. All this said I am in favor of a Discovery Day, without attaching an individual’s name to it. But I am in favor of this as a way to teach not as a way to glorify and mythologize the past. The problem is not that kids are learning about Columbus and European discovery, the problem is they are not learning the history. We all recognize that America is in need of healing and the first step is to admit there is a problem. I have said it before (here) our problem is in large part we remember the wrongs (or even invent them) done to us by others, but forget the evil we or our predecessors have done. A day set aside for remembering the past is a good thing when the past is rightly remembered. Often our schools teach kids history with two troupes in mind: 1. show Americans as the good guys, and 2. economic good is the primary good. While there might be smatterings of teachings that do not hold to these patterns, as a general rule they are true (thankfully I do think that pattern is slowly changing). Christians should be concerned about this issue because it undermines our ideals. We should care about “truth” and expressing the truth even when it hurts us, this is called confession (If we confess our sins…). We care about the poor and oppressed, and for us economic gain is only good when it lifts everyone relatively equally. So we should reject the mythology of Columbus, we should be teaching our children to see where our ancestors were wrong and how it hurt people then and continues to impact us today. We are called to emphasize with others, that means seeing reality from their perspective so that we can change our world for the better. This includes reading history through the lens of others; I want my children to learn about the flaws in this nation so they can fix them. Part of the process includes demythologizing the past and learning how European nations exploited various other peoples whom they viewed as inferior.
I am proud of Christian denominations which have taken steps to acknowledge their complicity in the Doctrine of Discovery, and the harm and cruelty done to indigenous groups. I wish the American government would do the same. I think that remembering the harm done by those who colonized this country is as important as celebrating our achievements, even if it does tarnish our achievements.