We Are All Christopher Columbus

Columbus Day was two weeks ago here in America, and that meant two things: federal government workers (those not affected by the shutdown) got the day off, and white guilt ran rampant on social media.

For whatever reason, we enlightened folks of the 21st century have found the need to demonize Christopher Columbus. Maybe it makes us feel better about ourselves at some level — a new form of slactivism, doing nothing and feeling like a better person for it. Maybe we think it makes us appear more sensitive and knowledgeable to our followers on Twitter and Facebook. Who knows.

What I do know is whenever someone would trash Columbus, I would get offended — and I didn’t understand why. After having a few days to process and research, I came to this conclusion:

We are all Christopher Columbus.

To say Columbus is not worth celebrating — or worse, that he ought to be vilified and remembered as a monster — is to say that none of us is worth celebrating.

Let me explain.

First, we need to ratchet down the rhetoric used against Columbus a little bit. This year’s guilt parade was led by the popular (and usually really great) web comic The Oatmeal. They published this rant against Columbus, which everyone dutifully reposted. To say the diatribe was a little misleading would be a gross understatement, however. Here’s a quick rundown of just a few of the facts that The Oatmeal got just a little off:

  • Gold (or “cheddar”) became Columbus’ primary objective after his first voyage. Um, no. Did Christopher want gold? Of course. Did gold turn him into a bloodthirsty tyrant? Not even close. Columbus left that first island (with the gold on it) behind after just a couple weeks and explored several other islands on that first journey. Gold didn’t interest him as much as exploration, observation, and yes, the Christianization of the native population. In fact, he made much more of converting the natives than of finding gold.
  • “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men and govern them as I please.” The Oatmeal presents this quote from Columbus’ journal as evidence of his tyrant-like monster qualities. They completely ignore the context of that quote: Columbus notices scars on many of the Lucayan natives while conversing with and observing them. When he asks about the scars, the natives indicate to him that another tribe from a nearby island continually attack them and try to capture them. Columbus pieces together the rest of the story: the natives try to fight back the best they can, but they have little in the way of weaponry or technology with which to defend themselves. Columbus’ note about how easy it would be to conquer them seems to be born almost out of pity rather than a desire to do so. Also, in that same space Columbus makes mention of his desire to convert them to Christianity — again, what seems to be his driving force at this point (not gold or killing natives).
  • Columbus returned to the New World with 1,500 men armed to the teeth in order to slaughter the natives. Again, not even remotely close. Columbus returned on his second journey with around 1,200 men — and most of them were farmers and priests. Farmers and priests! The 1,200 men did include soldiers as well, but they were intended to protect the colonies that were begun in the name of Spain – to defend, not to attack. The stated goal of this second journey — the overtly, easy to find mission which The Oatmeal blatantly ignored — was to create “colonies of settlement” from which to convert the natives to Christianity. Nothing about gold.
  • When the Lucayans refused to give Columbus gold and their women, Columbus had all of their ears and noses cut off. False, false, false, false. Here’s the real story: one man was found guilty of stealing loads of corn from Columbus’ crew. As punishment for his crime, Columbus ordered his ears and nose be cut off. It was not a group of natives, but one man. It was not in response to not giving them gold and women, but a punishment for stealing. Was the punishment barbaric? Absolutely. Was it anything close to what The Oatmeal piece fabricated it to be? Absolutely not.
  • Columbus wanted even more gold, so he demanded tribute from the natives to fulfill his greed. Wrong again. On Columbus’ first voyage, he left 39 men behind to set up a colony in the New World. When Columbus visited that colony on his second voyage, he found that the natives had overtaken Columbus’ men, killed them, and destroyed the settlement. In retaliation for murdering his men, Columbus did demand gold or cotton as payment from the natives. Those who refused to bring the gold or cotton had their hands cut off (not to wear around their neck, but to force them to bleed to death). It was a brutal punishment, true. But it wasn’t for the purpose of getting gold (otherwise, why would he have accepted cotton instead of gold?) — it was for the purpose of avenging what Columbus saw as the murder of his countrymen.
  • Columbus Day isn’t a tradition – honoring Columbus only came about in the 1930s because of political pressure from the Knights of Columbus group. Wrong again. Honoring Columbus in America began in 1738 when “Columbia” (in honor of Columbus) was used as a synonym for “America” in the British Parliament. The first Columbus Day celebration in America took place in 1792 in New York. The District of Columbia (Washington, DC) was named in honor of Columbus. The capitols of Ohio and South Carolina were named in honor of Columbus. Columbus Day is celebrated in Spain and throughout North and South America, not just in the United States.

Okay, so there’s that. I’m glad we got all that out of the way, so we can get a more realistic picture of who Christopher Columbus was. Make no mistake — Columbus was not an angel or a perfect guy by any means. When he returned to rule as governor of the New World settlements after his voyages, he ruled with a very harsh iron fist. He did dole out punishments like cutting off a guy’s nose and ears, or like cutting off people’s hands and watching them bleed to death. He was no saintly leader by any means. But he was also far from the monster he is portrayed as by most guilty white people on social media.

Here’s the bigger issue to me, though — and why I got worked up whenever people ragged on Columbus on that Monday: Columbus is no different from the rest of us. The story of Christopher Columbus ought to teach us one vitally important lesson about humanity: morality exists in shades of color, not in black and white. To declare Columbus bad and dismiss his accomplishments is to grossly oversimplify humanity and the human condition.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Crash because it has as its core message that same idea, using racism as a vehicle to explore it. Everybody in the movie displays racist tendencies toward someone at some time at some level. It takes the oversimplified question, “Are you racist?” and demolishes it, leaving in its place the much more uneasy question, “How are you racist?”

When we look at Columbus, then, the question ought not be, “Was he good?” as much as it should be, “How was he good, and how was he bad?” Because that is the question we all must ask of ourselves as well.

None of us is wholly good, and none of us is wholly bad, either. We all live our lives in some uneasy mixture of putrid evil and beautiful good, and anyone could point to the dark sides of who we are as reason to not celebrate anything we accomplish — especially if that darkness is exaggerated and lied about (as the Oatmeal did).

Don’t believe me? Then where are the groups of folks protesting Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Or have we forgotten that MLK was a serial adulterer who destroyed his marriage by sleeping around with women while he was traveling giving his inspirational speeches? Why do we celebrate George Washington? Have we forgotten that he owned hundreds upon hundreds of slaves, and that he treated them harshly, authorizing them to be whipped and beaten?

Or maybe… just maybe… we believe that the good they accomplished was worth celebrating despite their glaring flaws. Maybe because we recognize nobody is perfect, including ourselves.

It’s difficult to extend that grace to ourselves, let alone to the people around us. So we project onto celebrities or famous people we know we will never meet, never realizing that we are vicariously condemning those around us.

It’s easy to sit in our enlightened, privileged seats of judgment and dismiss anyone we don’t find worthy of recognition. But when it comes down to it, we are all jacked up people just trying to figure out the best way to live on this spinning ball of rocks. Your failures do not define you. Neither do they define those around you, no matter how superior it makes you feel to believe otherwise. In love, extend grace and mercy. We can suffer imperfect heroes, but we cannot suffer those who demand perfection.