Beware Revisionist History
Christopher Columbus statue toppled in Saint Paul
Revisionist history is framing a historical figure, event, or narrative in a distorted and dishonest way in order to advance a particular social or political agenda. It may be intentional or happen simply because of blind ignorance; in either case the person in the present is not “walking in the moccasins” of the person from the past they are accusing of some horrible action or attitude that, by today’s standards, are completely unacceptable.
Now, I am a bona fida self-taught History nut and people who are so ignorant of history that they do not even know how ignorant they are drive me crazy. It’s not about being right. It’s not about realizing that people can be cruel. It is just that being judgmental and ideological in a way that does not use History to help people today get along better but rather is divisive seems to me an abuse of History. Now, for some odd reason my “pet” era is the Byzantine Empire. Recently I have been teaching the history of Byzantium to some High School kids online and when I was researching the connection between the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492 I came across this tidbit:
“Few know that his ultimate goal, the purpose behind the enterprise, was Jerusalem! The 26 December 1492 entry in his journal of the ﬁrst voyage, hereafter referred to as the Diario,3 written in the Caribbean, leaves little doubt. He says he wanted to ﬁnd enough gold and the almost equally valuable spices “in such quantity that the sovereigns… will undertake and prepare to go conquer the Holy Sepulchre; for thus I urged Your Highnesses to spend all the proﬁts of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem. Throughout the pages of the Diario Columbus speaks of the gentle nature of the natives and how easily they would become Christian if only the sovereigns would send religious persons who would learn their language and instruct them. He writes that at their very ﬁrst encounter he wants them to be friendly and that he “recognized that they were a people who would be better freed [from error] and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force” (Diario 11 Oct. 1492[1989. In my ﬁrst reading of the diary I could not understand why he seemed so driven to ﬁnd gold; no wonder people have assumed his motives were purely mercenary. But this understanding changes when one realizes that ﬁnding the gold was necessary not only to repay the people who had invested in the voyage (and to induce them to ﬁnance another), but also, as seen from the diary entry cited above, essential if he was ever to ﬁnance another Crusade. Today, we might disapprove of that motive, but at the time it was felt to be a worthwhile and Christian duty.” https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/columbus.pdf
What has this to do with today? Well, many statues of Christopher Columbus are being torn down because he owned slaves in the New World. OK, he did. Yes, he was not perfect. Are you? Am I? What matters more is WHY he did what he did? Where was his heart? Was he trying to be cruel? Was he meaning to amass wealth and power to himself in a way that he knew would make the world a little more hell and a little less heaven? Well, in spite of his imperfections, I think that based upon the above quotes from his diary he meant well. Based upon the dominant worldview of his culture at this time and place he was trying to bring his “Holy Faith by love [rather] by force” and considered it his “Christian Duty” to do so. You and I may disagree with this, but that does not make him evil.
Now, given the messiness of life and its rich contradictions, those who are upset with Columbus also have a point. He did horrible things, as made clear by this other side of History:
Had Columbus reached Asia, perhaps he’d have proved a keen entrepreneur. As it happened, he landed on Caribbean shores, in a densely populated region that was economically impenetrable for an Old World trader. Some gold was available, but it was not used as currency. Captives could be had, but they weren’t sold in open markets. Columbus presumed soon after landing that he could make friends and trade for gold and slaves following Portuguese practices in West Africa, yet with a few exceptions, there was no market economy in the Americas to match those of the Old World.
Failing to understand this, Columbus quickly made managerial mistakes, some fatal. He planted a colony on the north shore of Haiti and named it La Navidad. When he returned on his second voyage, everyone at “Christmas town” was dead. Columbus launched another settlement, named La Isabela for his royal patron, that met much the same fate. Archaeologists have found that La Isabela was constructed like a hybrid Genoese-Portuguese trading post of the sort found in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Africa. It was intended to survive by trade rather than self-sufficiency, prompting inhabitants to engage in suicidal raids on neighboring indigenous villages. Columbus’s misunderstanding of local economies and his failure to adapt to local conditions cost not only Spanish lives but also countless indigenous ones.
Many today accuse Columbus of being an evil slave owner and leader of the genocide of the native population of the Caribbean. Yes, this is true, as far as it goes. But there is more to the story. If we judge Columbus on what we know from the historical record, is that the right charge? He definitely saw profit in enslaving and selling native peoples kidnapped from Caribbean shores. Once he made allies among what he called “good Indians,” Columbus advocated fighting and enslaving native groups he presumed to be cannibals. By 1500, he and his brothers had sent nearly 1,500 enslaved islanders to European markets to be sold. Even “friendly” indigenous peoples were forced to mine gold en masse, speeding death from malnourishment, overwork and disease.
Columbus was clearly no friend of native peoples, but a document discovered 10 years ago in Simancas, Spain, suggests he was an equal-opportunity tyrant. Witnesses testified that his brief government of Hispaniola was marked by routine cruelty not only to the native Taínos but also to Spaniards who defied or mocked him. A woman who reminded Columbus that he was the son of a weaver had her tongue cut out. Others were executed for minor crimes. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-christopher-columbus/2015/10/08/3e80f358-6d23-11e5-b31c-d80d62b53e28_story.html
So, yes, he was a cruel man who lived in a cruel age. But rather than being “evil” perhaps we should see that he simply represent his Age. Remember, even when I was child corporeal punishment of children and students was acceptable and considered an essential ingredient to the raising of healthy child! Of course there is much, more to the story. Given that truth in History is dubious and totally depends upon a broad understanding of the Age, you may understand the horrible things that happened if you research the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 [the Roman Empire] and the impact of the interaction of the Spanish with Islam as they reconquered Spain, [only completed in 1492] which took hundreds of years and gave them an aggressive streak without which they could never have been victorious.
So, as this section is “What are you doing?” here is the punchline:
As the world changes, let’s keeping looking for the good, rather than the bad. Let’s realize that almost all people mean well, but may be misguided. They are like you and I, stressed and traumatized and feeling threatened and sometimes react in self defense in “unfortunate” ways. All that means is that if we can see the world from their point of view, ie. “walk in their moccasins”, we can heal together, rather than create the “us” and “them” that is now happening that ensures that there is more strife ahead.