Once a hero throughout the Western Hemisphere and Europe for “discovering” in October of 1492 what now is called America, Christopher Columbus no longer is politically correct in the eyes of some historians, churchmen, and officials at city, state and federal levels.
Consequently, this nationally designated holiday honoring Columbus’ accomplishments will be ignored in many schools and public offices and cities where once the day was one of parades, speeches and celebrations paying tribute to the Italian/Portuguese/Spaniard explorer whose name today is found on cities, schools, statues and organizations.
While we now know that several Norsemen and possibly others briefly visited this continent from the Atlantic side at least decades earlier than Columbus, and recent DNA and anthropology discoveries by University of Pennsylvania’s Theodore Schurr and others indicate Siberians walked over the then existing Beringia land bridge some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, it is Columbus who still is credited with forever putting the stamp of Western culture and Christianity on what then was thought (by Europeans and others) to be the New World.
But Columbus has been consigned to history’s purgatory by no less than the National Council of Churches, which in 1992 declared that his day is “not a time for celebration but for reflection and repentance” for a nation that “must acknowledge a continuing history of oppression, degradation and genocide” that began with the intrepid explorer’s landing on what is now the Dominican Republic.
A hearty “amen” was added by Russell Means, the late leader of the American Indian Movement, who called Columbus “worse than Adolf Hitler” as scrutiny of records of the period, especially those written by the explorer himself, underscore evidence that he was a cruel governor who allowed rape, pillage and other crimes by his underlings.
Columbus probably was no more cruel than most other European or Norse explorers who landed in the New World. It was the culture of the day — not just against what we now call Native Americans. Just check with the Huguenots, the small band of French Protestants that arrived in North Florida 51 years after Ponce de Leon landed in St. Augustine, only for most to be slaughtered by Mendez de Aviles at the behest of Philip II of Spain.
Nor was it any different among the Indians themselves. Purple Hawk, an Apache writing a history of his group, points out that the Apache name itself means “Enemy” and, he adds, “They could be unbelievably cruel to their enemies,” often other Pueblo tribes. The Comanche were known for kidnapping women and children as well as stealing horses from other tribes and the stories of cruelty from those men and women — Indian as well as others — captured by the Comanche are legend. Others were given or sold into slavery. And so it goes.
Some accuse Columbus of genocide because he unwittingly introduced diseases of Western Europe into the unconditioned natives, who succumbed in droves to the unfamiliar germs. In addition, he is blamed because his “discovery” led to European settlers who decimated the Indian tribes and took their land. But “I don’t think Columbus should take the rap for what we all are guilty of,” said Kay Brigham, author of Christopher Columbus: His Life and Discovery in the Light of His Prophecies. She thinks there is a little known side of the man found in those papers.
“No one should be afraid to take on any enterprise in the name of our Savior, if it is right and if the purpose is purely for his holy service . . . ” wrote the dauntless sailor whom many historians have described as a self-promoter and exploiter.
Nevertheless, Brigham maintained he had a worthy goal, as revealed by his “Prophesies,” which was to reach India “to spread the Christian gospel” and “to make enough money to finance a crusade to free Jerusalem from the Turkish infidels and rebuild the Temple in order to hasten the return of Christ.”
Hero or villain? You decide.
Adon Taft is the author of the chapters on religion in the three volume history of the state, “Florida from Indian Trail to Space Age,” by Charlton W. Tebeau and Ruby Leach Carson. He taught social studies at Miami-Dade Community College and for 37 years was religion editor for the Miami Herald.