Some historical legends like Christopher Columbus have had their legacies re-evaluated by modern historians, and have been found wanting.
Past generations of American school-children learned of a kind, wise, and skilled adventurer who made the greatest discovery and changed the way people looked at the world; today’s students hear of a monster who raped, pillaged, enslaved a people with relish, and found nothing new. It may seem impossible, but they are actually being taught about the same person: Christopher Columbus. Though Columbus has been dead since the year 1506, the prism through which he is viewed has changed as history has become a more serious business, and the acceptance of myths has been replaced with a desire for hard facts.
Christopher Columbus is not the only historical figure who looks a little different under the bright, searching lights of 2009 than he did to the more comfortable glow of the past. Some who are revered and considered to be among history’s greats have had their legacies revised. Though the deeds of Columbus cannot evolve, the times in which they are perceived certainly can (and do).
Heroic Memory, Bitter Reality
It was once widely accepted that Christopher Columbus “Discovered America,” and that it was he who corrected the “widely held” belief that the world was flat. Rhymes memorialized his achievement and etched its date of 1492 into the minds of so many American children forever. The United States and other nations of both North and South America set aside special days to remember him (in the U.S. it is a Federal holiday observed each year on the second Monday in October). He became an icon for the Italian-American community in New York City (where an annual parade is held in his honor on Columbus Day) and across the country.
The truth was always outside of what was instructed. In reality most people during Columbus’s time in the late 15th century knew that the earth was round. Not only did he not discover America (the millions of Native Americans who already lived throughout the two continents would have had a hard time believing no one knew it existed), he was not even the first European to find it: the Vikings of Scandinavia made it to Newfoundland, Canada in the 11th century. He even incorrectly called the natives he found “Indians,” thinking he’d wound up in India; his mistake in identification would lead to issues in nomenclature that have lasted centuries.
Judgment of the Ages
It is not just what Christopher Columbus did not do or disprove that leaves him looking less great than he once did, it is what he did: he put into motion the enslavement and massacre of an entire people. The Taino people inhabited the island that he named Hispaniola, but he immediately took it over. He wrote, “I found very many islands filled with people without number, and all of them I have taken possession for their Highness.” Through enforced slavery, the spread of disease, and outright murder, the Taino population was nearly annihilated.
Historians today condemn Christopher Columbus for his actions. By modern standards forced enslavement of human beings is unforgivable, let alone killing enough people for it to be considered genocide. Columbus was not responsible for the deaths of a single Taino throughout the 20th century and into the 21st as his legacy changed, but his brutal actions became widespread knowledge; his exploits were not a secret kept only by historians, but known even to middle school teachers. Students began to learn the darker parts of the Columbus story, and some people started to call for his removal from the pantheon of American icons.
Through the History’s Looking Glass
Most heroes of yesterday will come up short if put under the harshest microscopes of today. George Washington, the “Father” of the United States of America, was a slave owner and when he moved to Pennsylvania (a state where slavery was newly prohibited) to take up the Presidency, he snuck his slaves in anyway, never telling them that now they were technically free. Yet how does contemporary history judge Columbus, Washington, and others? The answer is: they shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards.
When looking at people that society may consider heroic, it is unwise to hold those people to current norms because they will always disappoint. At the same time, perhaps some of those figures should never have been elevated to the heights they have so long enjoyed. Christopher Columbus’s legacy is a tricky one because it was so long comprised mostly of untrue myths (such as his teaching people that the world was round). A very flawed man is found under the closest inspection, but that doesn’t mean he is unworthy of remembrance for what he actually did and who he really was. He and others from the past should never have been assessed by the mores of today, and if they are they will always look less heroic.
- Jack Weatherford, “Examining the Reputation of Christopher Columbus,” (Baltimore Evening Sun; Reprinted by hartford-hwp.com)
- Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (Random House Inc; New York; 2004)
- Elivra Nieto, “Christopher Columbus: Little Known Facts Behind the 15th Century Explorer and his Voyage,” (Suite 101; July 20th, 2009)
- Bartolome de Las Casas, Translated by Nigel Griffin, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Penguin; New York; 1999)