Tag Archives: changing standards of morality

Strawman Monday: Christopher Columbus as a Hero

8 Oct

This is the first of a series of posts dealing with characters whom we like to make into caricatures.  I will call these “strawman posts” because they will be profiling people who are more often presented as strawmen than they are presented as real people.

 It is easy for us to reduce other human beings to one or two of their characteristics, even sometimes characteristics that do not actually exist, then to argue against those characteristics as though we are arguing against the real person.  This has come to be known, in logic, as having a strawman argument.  It would be called winning an argument if such a person actually existed.  But he doesn’t.  Instead, we argue against a figment  of our own imagination.

Today is Columbus Day, a day revered by government employees because they get to stay home for pay (giggle, I am one of them).  Not quite what Columbus did.

It has become fashionable to denounce Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day.  He made four sea voyages to the Americas, beginning in 1492, as an agent of the government of Spain.  The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, wanted to find and control a new trade route to Asia for spices.  Columbus primarily saw his purpose on the voyages as that of a missionary to people in lands not yet touched by the Christian gospel.  Those two, very disparate, missions merged in one voyage, then  in three more.

The Catholic Monarchs had just that year, in 1492, expelled the Jews from Spain (this was when many of them settled in England) and militarily overcome the last Moorish (Muslim) stronghold in Spain, which they had been more or less trying to do since the Muslims entered Spain back in the 700’s.

It has also become fashionable to say that Columbus was the first European to lead a mission that resulted in continued contact between the two civilizations, Europe and the Americas.  We don’t say a couple of things anymore that were said in my youth:

1)    “Columbus discovered America” (because it was already discovered by the native Americans living here) and

2)    “Columbus was the first European who actually left a written record of the Americas” (because, while Leif Ericson made his way to what is now Canada in about the year 1000, his exploration was never formally made a part of Viking history or any other subsequent history, and had to be reconstructed later, after the Americas were settled in the time of Columbus).  For some reason, this information is usually summed up as “led the exploration that resulted in permanent contact between Europe and the Americas.”  I guess it is not fashionable to point out that Vikings didn’t know how to write and only passed down oral history but that is exactly true.

We have an issue with history nowadays in that we want to paste our moral values onto historical figures.  We have a hard time allowing that they were regarded as moral in their own eras.  But in such areas as slavery, values were vastly different in 1492 than they are now and so, yes, Columbus allowed some of the natives in the Americas to be made to work without receiving wages.  Today we know that was wrong.  But we want to rebuke Columbus for that from our vantage point of 2012, without admitting that the authorities of his day would, in many cases, have regarded him as a deeply Christian man in every way.

He did care about his Christian faith and about bringing it to the Americas and to the other civilizations where his footprints trod.  That was not the only motivation for his voyage, nor even his only motivation as a person, but it did motivate him.

So, what do we know about Columbus, if we let him be a complex human being like the rest of us and not a strawman?  He was passionate and adventurous and brave.  He accomplished something that Europeans had long sought to accomplish, finding a westward route to treasure (if not the spices of Asia!).

It is okay to celebrate his day!

End Note:  the following, from the Encyclopedia Brittanica on-line, shows Columbus’s own words in regard to the propagation of the Christian faith overseas in his voyages: 

 

“…and I saw the Moorish king come out of the gates of the city and kiss the royal hands of Your Highnesses…and Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians…took thought to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the said parts of India, to see those princes and peoples and lands…and the manner which should be used to bring about their conversion to our holy faith, and ordained that I should not go by land to the eastward, by which way it was the custom to go, but by way of the west, by which down to this day we do not know certainly that anyone has passed; therefore, having driven out all the Jews from your realms and lordships in the same month of January, Your Highnesses commanded me that, with a sufficient fleet, I should go to the said parts of India, and for this accorded me great rewards and ennobled me so that from that time henceforth I might style myself “Don” and be high admiral of the Ocean Sea and viceroy and perpetual Governor of the islands and continent which I should discover…and that my eldest son should succeed to the same position, and so on from generation to generation forever.”

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