Discovering Columbus Day

October 14, 1997|By Michael K. Burns

COLUMBUS DAY was observed yesterday by the usual highly advertised "sales" and by a three-day weekend for government employees and banks. It was notable for the absence of celebration, and the reticence of even those who might wish to make a big to-do.

At least the revisionist screed of the blame-mongers was less apparent this year, perhaps confident in the success of past persuasions.

On the quincentennial of his New World arrival five years ago, there was an effort at homage to the opening of the Americas to European discovery by the Columbian expeditions.

But vituperation, condemnation and regret were the more obvious public sentiments, scornful of the Spanish conquest and the imposition of Western rule on the American continents.

Celebrations were muted, a dreadful film of Columbus' life flopped, souvenirs went a'begging. He may have been a heroic figure, but one with an egregious purpose, the scorners said. He bore the blame for all of Western culture in the Americas, then and over the next five centuries, and for all that befell the indigenous Americans he encountered (themselves immigrants from Asia).

Lost in much of this historical retrospection is the fact that he carried the flag of Spain, implanting Spanish rule and culture.

Columbus was an Italian; the most passionate celebrations of his voyages today are held in New World communities with Italian roots, whether in the Northeastern United States or the Southern Cone of South America.

Yet there is little pride in the explorer among the so-called Hispanics in the United States. Despite the inclusive name (Latin American and Spanish), Hispanics see their roots not so much in Spain as in the New World. The Spanish expedition is seen as the conqueror, the oppressor.

Symbolic invader

It's not just Central America, from which many U.S. families trace their history. Many people see Columbus in a different, symbolic role than in the reality of his feats.

He is viewed as an all-embracing European invader, not a Spanish explorer, and certainly not a Hispanic (in today's terms).

Discussing the history of Spanish culture in the Americas, an otherwise informed writer called Columbus' supporters "Anglo-centric." But Columbus was certainly no Anglo, nor were his jealous Spanish royal patrons.

Certainly Columbus and his voyages could be considered "Euro-centric" -- with a mixed crew from various places and differing customs.

Recall that Magellan, the pioneer Portuguese navigator, was in the employ of the Spanish crown, his nation's rival. He opened the door to American expeditions by other European states intent upon conquest and riches.

While the Spanish expeditions to the Americas were exploitative and cruel -- historian Samuel Eliot Morison said the Columbian ruthlessness led to "complete genocide" -- they were not dramatically different from other invasions or forced colonizations in Europe and elsewhere.

Columbus is blamed for many of the sins of the broader European conquest. We're told his crew introduced smallpox to the continent, decimating native populations; that he cruelly took slaves; that he imposed by force an alien religion.

But historians also point out that those people he mistakenly called "Indians" transmitted untreatable syphilis to the Old World explorers -- and gave them the "gift" of tobacco. As for slavery, it was practiced by native civilizations long before European contact; Cortes achieved his remarkable conquest of Mexico with the aid of Marina (Malinche), a Mayan slave of the ruling Aztecs.

The incredible embrace of Spanish exploration in North America is often overlooked, even as Columbus continues to bear five centuries later the Europeans' collective burden.

In Maryland, Englishman John Smith is often thought of as the first European explorer of the Chesapeake Bay, when boats of the Spanish governor Pedro Menendez de Aviles preceded Smith by decades. In some measure, that reflects the view that the American exploration was broadly European, not specifically Spanish.

Columbus is worthy of commemoration today because he brought Western civilization to the American continents. That is a basic foundation of our contemporary civilization, regardless of what ethnic group we choose to identify ourselves with. Hail, Columbus.

Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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