Sailing into another argument about Columbus

June 28, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

SO IT LOOKS LIKE that skinny Mrs. Purvis lied to us," said Slats Grobnik.


"You remember her. That teacher we had in grade school who'd never let me go to the bathroom."

Oh, yes. She thought you were trying to sneak a smoke. How did she lie to us?

"She's the one who told us about Christopher Columbus crossing the ocean blue in 1492 and what a great guy he was. And now it turns out he was a real louse."

Ah, you've been reading about the great controversy over the celebration of the 500th anniversary of his discovery of the Americas.

"Hey, be careful. You said 'discovery.' Don't let no Indian hear you say that. They say it was an invasion."

I think it is acceptable to say "encounter," rather than discovery.

"Whatever. After he got here, everything fell apart. This was a paradise, where the buffalo roamed and the deers and the antelopes played. Then Columbus got the Aztecs killed, and started slavery, and polluted everything, and now because of him, it ain't a natural paradise anymore."

No, I think what the historical revisionists are saying is that by discovering, or encountering, the Americas, he made possible the subsequent invasion by the Spaniards and other Europeans who committed many of the foul deeds you've mentioned. And they say we should not celebrate an event that led to the invasion and plundering of a land that belonged to Native Americans. We should mourn and feel guilty.

"But I didn't do nothin'; why should I feel guilty?"

Yes, but our ancestors did.

"Not mine. My old man always cheered for the Indians in the cowboy movies. He liked the way they danced. He said it reminded him of a Polish wedding."

You see, that is an example of the Eurocentric attitude that disturbs so many anti-Columbus historians and writers.

"What kind of attitude?"

That because the early explorers and exploiters were Europeans, they thought they were a superior civilization and had a divine right to do anything they chose, such as overrunning someone else's land and claiming it as their own.

"Well, they was, wasn't they?"

Was what?

"Kind of superior. Not to put a rap on the Native Americans, but by 1492, they hadn't even figured out the wheel. So if they was 3,000 years behind in figuring out the wheel, how long would it have taken 'em to come up with arch supports or draft beer or air conditioning or the jukebox or any of the other great inventions? I mean, they had this country to themselves for all those thousands of years, and back in Europe they already had big cities and universities and books and orchestras and three-flats and booze and guns and hookers and spaghetti, and what did the Native Americans ever invent besides a pointy tent?"

Well, they are credited with introducing the world to the pleasures of tobacco.

"Great. So how many people all over the world have croaked because of tobacco? And how many others are miserable because they can't shake the habit but they can't light up at work and their wives are yelling at them about secondhand smoke? And they want me to feel guilty? Besides, if Columbus didn't come here, what would have happened?"

I suppose it would have been a matter of time until someone else did.

"Yeah. What if it was the Chinese? Then they would have turned them all into communists, and how would they have liked that?"

I'm not sure that the course of history would have led to that. But, yes, someone else would have been no less benign. Invading and conquering and even enslaving were considered normal behavior in those days.

"Sure, and I read where a lot of the Indians did that to each other. Did you know that the Aztecs went in for being cannibals? I think only on special occasions, holidays and stuff, but that's still kinky. Say what you want about Columbus, he didn't eat none of them. But Italians have always been finicky about their food. Maybe if he had some Parmesan cheese he might have tried it."

Well, whatever one thinks, it's an interesting academic dispute because it deals with man's inhumanity to his fellow man, collective guilt, the distortions of history and other profound questions.

"Yeah, and as far as I'm concerned, the Indians was lucky."

How can you say that?

"Didn't the Vikings get here a long time before Columbus did? But they turned around and went back because they didn't see any blond women?"

I'm not sure that was the reason they left, but, yes, they did reach this part of the world.

"And weren't they a bunch of Norwegians?"

Something like that. So what?

"If they had stuck aroun, the Indians and the rest of us would be eating herring three times a day, that's what."

Can't we talk about the pennant races?

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