ASHLAND, Ohio — We know there’s more to the story of Columbus Day than the courage of Christopher Columbus and the other explorers who ventured into the unknown and began the process of introducing western civilization to what was only to the Europeans a “new world.”
We know, for example, that sticking a flag in someone else’s land and calling it your own is extraordinarily presumptive. We acknowledge how badly the early explorers treated the native peoples. And we agonize over the stain of the slave trade that followed.
But let’s not compound these errors by abandoning Columbus Day. Let’s use the day, instead, to remember what the world was like in Columbus’s day and why we owe the early explorers a debt of gratitude.
Europeans headed west in the 15th century to what they thought was Asia because they were blocked from going east by the Muslim empires of the time.
Compared to the Muslims and Chinese, further to their east, the Europeans of the day were poor, backward and weak.
They suffered as the weak always do. Terrible plagues from Asia brought by commerce already had killed an estimated 100 million Europeans.
They also suffered from slavery. Indeed, for many years Europe’s most valuable export to the Middle East was its own people, sold as slaves by the Vikings. In the period from 1530 to 1640, Muslim raiders captured and enslaved upwards of 1 million Europeans.
The Europeans who conquered the Western hemisphere acted as people always had acted, no better and no worse; those they conquered suffered as the weaker always suffer, as the Europeans themselves had suffered.
This is evident if we look at the first European conquest outside Europe. The Europeans began to assert themselves with the 1415 conquest of Ceuta, across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain.
They conquered Ceuta from the Muslims, which was a dreadful thing to do, as it was when successive Muslim rulers took it by force from each other. This was after the first of them took it from the Berbers, who had seized it from the Byzantines, who had taken it from the Vandals, who had taken it from the Romans, who had taken it from the Carthaginians, who undoubtedly took it from others, now lost to history.
To say that Europeans acted as others had acted doesn’t justify the awful things they did to each other, and to non-Europeans, in their long history. But it might persuade us to moderate our condemnation of Columbus and to judge him less harshly.
We should remember too that we judge him harshly now because the same power that enabled the Europeans to conquer the world also allowed them to impose their later views of human rights on the world. And the views they imposed are now our own views.
Even as the conquest was reaching its zenith in the 19th century, Europeans were bringing to the world the then-novel idea that one group of people did not have the right to impose its will on another.
This revolution in thinking was announced by the Declaration of Independence and its assertion of the self-evident truth of human equality.
It was carried further by the British who suppressed the slave trade with their powerful might and insistent diplomacy, and led the campaign for the abolition of slavery.
It was completed by American insistence after World War I and II that people everywhere have the right to self-determination.
Columbus Day is not a day to celebrate conquest. It’s a day to ponder the good and evil that humans are capable of and to encourage more of the good.
David Tucker, Ph.D. is the director of faculty for teacher programs at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and general editor of Ashbrook’s “Core Document Collections,” compilations of writings, speeches and other documents that present America’s story in the words of those who lived it. Readers may write him at Ashland University, 401 College Ave., Ashland, OH 44805.