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Celebrating Columbus: Hero, bufoon, or genocidal maniac?

October 11, 2010


Chris Columbus, the greedy, mass murdering conquerer, not the movie director.


Do you get as much kick out of the Huffington Post as I do? The top liberal site on the Web, it routinely gets stuff wrong, as in today’s gallery about Columbus Day revisionism. But then what can you expect from a journalistic enterprise that demands most of its writers work for free? Brave new world, indeed.

It’s true, though, that a bad odor surrounds the name of Christopher Columbus in later years, and not just because he botched the first two Harry Potter movies. Oh. Wait. Different Chris. Apologies.

He’s now often seen either as an idiot who didn’t know he’d failed to reach the East Indies, or as a rapacious colonialist who murdered and enslaved the peaceful Arawaks for their land and gold and set the pattern for enslavement, conquest and environmental despoilation that  would follow for the rest of the New World.

Over at HuffPo, some anonymous blogger wants to remind us of such Columbian infamy by recommending “5 Books That Expose the Scandals, Tactics, and Dubious Tactics of America’s Discoverer.”

The problem lies in the selected books, not all of which are important works of popular history. On the other hand, the HuffPo list completely ignores what is probably the most significant anti-Columbus book ever written for the general reader.

The one clearly deserving title on the list: Howeard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present. At least Zinn directly tackles the Columbian legacy. History with a lefty slant? Sure, but a useful corrective to received wisdom, too.

From there it gets dicey.

If Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America is included because it “features sections on American Indians, which debunks the myth of Columbus as hero,” then why not Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which makes similar points from a different perspective?

Or Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, Vine Deloria, Jr.’s  seethingly funny 1969 screed on Indian rights?

Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen, “is more a critique of textbooks, rather than history itself.”HuffPo’s words, not mine.

Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History, by Richard Shenkman and The Greatest Stories Never Told: 100 Tales from History to Astonish, Bewilder, and Stypefy, by Rick Beyer are popcorn books that reduce history to tasty, bite-size pieces.

Not that there is anything wrong with history as entertainment. But how can such a list ignore Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Mathew Restall, a somewhat scholarly book that challenges everything we think we know about interactions between Europeans and Indians?

How can such a list not include Kirkpatrick Sale’s profoundly angry Conquering Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, the granddaddy of all Columbus debunkers?

Even Gavin Menzies’ loony 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, thoroughly discredited by mainstream historians, deserves a place on the list. I mean, it contains 14 years of crank scholarship, written with enough style to interest a major New York publisher.

Or mayhap I just have a weakness for grand books by misguided gadflies….

At any rate, I’m sure there’s no end of additional books challenging the Columbian legacy. If you have a favorite, please share. Or, if you’re of a traditionalist, right-wing bent, then by all means defend the guy. But keep in mind, there’s no justifying the first two Harry Potter movies….

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2010 1:59 pm

    As usual, you made me the reader laugh as well as think. As for Columbus books, I liked two books from the early 1990s, by Delno West and Kay Brigham, which show Columbus as an avid student of the Bible. According to their books, Columbus thought his explorations would further evangelism and hasten the return of Jesus.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 11, 2010 2:08 pm

      I don’t doubt it.

      Unlike some people with a taste for debunking, I do not think that’s incompatible with the crimes against humanity Columbus is alleged to have committed. He was a man of his times, and it is possible to hold two thoughts in the heart, no matter how much they may conflict, at the same time.

  2. October 11, 2010 9:00 pm

    It’s a mindset, a time, a style, a fever, the spirit of the age. But mainly it’s the Religion and the permission it gave (and gives) to wreak havoc in the name of Jesus killed by the Jews, Muhamm the Mad, Jehovah the Wrathful, Ching-Ching, Choo-Choo and Kali and the Trickster, Fill in the Blank. I’m convinced Columbus wouldn’t recognize at all that he was doing something evil. How can you do evil to a subspecies born to be slaves bound for hell? It’s in the religious beliefs, the Ceremony – a bunch of stage props allowing you to throw your weight around, crush the barbarian. Now we say that Columbus was the barbarian. Or is it that we are the barbarians?

    Things change?

    Everything stays the same, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 11, 2010 11:05 pm

      While I agree that Columbus was corrupted, at least in part, by a perverted understanding of his faith, he’s still culpable for the crimes he committed, and for those he fostered for others. I say this because of his plans to convert the Indios and spread Xristianity. You can only convert human beings. No matter how much he may have looked down on the Arawaks, he knew they were people and that killing and enslaving them was wrong.

  3. Tommy Smart permalink
    October 11, 2010 10:06 pm

    Tony Horowitz’s “A Journey Long and Strange” is a good read for anyone interested in Don Christopher Columbus.

    Also of interest is the chapter “Christopher Columbus – The First European Syphilitic?” from “Pox: genius, madness, and the mysteries of syphilis” by Deborah Hayden.

    Then there is “Sails of Hope: Secret Mission of Christopher Columbus” in which Simon Wiesenthal posits that Columbus was Jewish, without of course giving any evidence other than anecdotal.

    So there you go, Chauncey, three more for the list.

    Oh, and Safe Boating.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 11, 2010 11:06 pm

    Tommy! Welcome back! Excellent and erudite suggestions, all, thanks.

  5. October 13, 2010 8:07 am

    One could equally say Hitler was a “man of his times” – and maybe in another 100 years that is how some historian, blogger will describe him. The fact remains that Columbus was a genocidal maniac and it is an insult to millions of indigenous people that this man is celebrated. But to admit to that would require admitting to other crimes against humanity.

    It’s interesting that a history presented from the people’s perspective is described as having a “lefty” stance as if it was some kind of disease and we the people dont have our own history to tell! As for the Huffington Post – Imagine people actually working for nothing but to get to the truth! How subversive is that?

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