Goodbye Columbus (with apologies to Phillip Roth)
By Patrick F. Cannon
Poor Christopher Columbus. Statues of the intrepid explorer are being hauled down across this great land. Residents of the many cities and town named after him – including the state capital of Ohio – are agonizing of whether they might want to change their names. (May I suggest Rogersville? So far anyway, Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood have remained unblemished.)
As a young lad, I was taught that Chris had discovered “America.” I probably assumed that by “America,” they actually meant our dear United States. Eventually, of course, I found out that he had never actually set foot on the mainland of North America, and had instead blundered into what we now call the Bahamas, thinking (hoping?) that he has reached the East Indies.
(Let me digress for an interesting story. A friend of mine told me years ago that he had gotten a summer job at a union office in Chicago. On the wall was a large painting of Columbus and his crew landing on the shore of what he would call San Salvador. You have probably seen similar views: Columbus at the front of the group proudly holding the Spanish flag; behind him his elegantly-dressed crew holding various standards, including crosses. According to my friend, the title on the frame proclaimed: “Christopher Columbus Dedicating the United States to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”)
In actuality, Chris was out to make a buck and maybe convert the heathens to Roman Catholicism. That’s pretty much what the so-called Age of Discovery was all about. In our rush to judge Columbus by our own standards (none too perfect, if we’re honest), we ignore the realities of the times the explorer lived in. And we should not minimize the sheer courage it took to brave the Atlantic in a ship just a bit more than 100 feet long. As a kid, I boarded the hulk of the replica that sailed to Chicago for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. It lay rotting in the Jackson Park Yacht Harbor; it’s gone now, but I remember being disappointed at how small it was.
The profit motive, of course, is timeless. In those days, the spice trade was king. Once folks who could afford them discovered that their heretofore bland food could be greatly improved with spices like pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and sage, they couldn’t get enough of the stuff (they never got to Ireland, but that’s another story).
When Columbus sailed in 1492, the Roman Catholic church was dominant in Europe (the beginning of the Reformation was about 30 years in the future), and Columbus would have believed that so-called heathens – anyone not a Catholic – would be eternally damned unless they embraced the true faith. In Europe, heretics were routinely tortured and burned at the stake. After the Reformation, things got even worse. No one knows for certain, but at least 20 to 30 million people died during the wars of religion that devastated much of Europe until late in the 17th Century.
It’s true that the Europeans brought diseases along with them for which the natives had no immunity. Still happens, doesn’t it? And unless they embraced the true faith, staunch Catholics would have had no compunction in enslaving and otherwise mistreating them. Actually, they did similar things at home to their own people who strayed from orthodoxy, and were applauded for doing so.
Columbus was, of course, an Italian, and it’s the Italian community that’s most up in arms at his “cancellation.” As for the man himself, he’s been dead for 516 years. Despite what many now consider his sins and transgressions, he may well be in heaven. After all, it was a different world then, with a different God.
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon