Friday, March 19, 2021

Dead Reckoning

The dead are facing a new reckoning in this era of "woke."   But is it fair?  And was Columbus really only 15 when he crossed the Atlantic?

I mentioned in a previous posting that Italians are pissed-off that Columbus Day is being thrown under the bus, not so much because they love Columbus, but they are losing a holiday of ethnic identity.  I mean, suppose it was found out that St. Patrick was a real jerk?  It is not that anyone even really knows or cares who St. Patrick was, or even St. Nicholas (the real saint, not the marketing icon).  These are just props for national holidays.

But in that posting, I said in half-jest that Columbus was a racist genocidal maniac.  And there is evidence to suggest that he was a cruel and inhuman person, interested more in personal glory and riches than in "exploring" the world.  He went West to find riches, not to make friends with the natives, who he stupidly called "Indians" - creating a name issue that plagues us even today.  But he killed people - or his minions and associates did - and forced the natives to dig for gold, which he stole, or even dive for pearls, which he also took.  How many were murdered and how many died of disease is hard to say.  One thing is sure, the arrival of Columbus was nothing for the natives to celebrate.

But was he particularly evil or just typical of his day - or even today?   If Columbus hadn't crossed the Atlantic, someone else would have - as the Vikings did.   Of course, we all know that Vikings were a peace-loving people who never hurt anyone, so surely they came to North America to peacefully trade with the natives.

Speaking of America, its very name is Italian - Amerigo Vespucchi - while the Italians were one of the few countries not colonizing the "New World" but not for lack of trying.   Almost every country in the world has tried its hand at colonialism, and those who haven't, well, only didn't do so because they didn't have the means or wealth to conqueror others.

But it is interesting that Columbus Day became this Italian holiday, when the voyages Columbus made were financed by Spain, and it was Spain that became the conquering force in much of the New World, its galleons of pilfered gold travelling from Mexico to Spain during hurricane season, with predictable results.   Spain wanted to acquire wealth, and I wonder if in fact it didn't backfire.  By increasing the supply of gold in Europe, one could argue that the value of gold decreased.  It would be like chasing your tail.  The more gold you accumulate, the less it is worth.   And it seems sort of horrific that people would travel halfway across the planet, enslave people and kill them, just for a few bars of a metal that at the time had only ornamental purposes.

But should we condemn Columbus for his actions?  What about other historical figures who were notable, but less-than-perfect?  Franklin Roosevelt lead us through a depression and World War II.  He gave us the New Deal and the Atomic Bomb.  He incarcerated Japanese citizens and turned back a shipload of Jews, who were later executed in Auschwitz.   Which Roosevelt do we honor?  The man who created Social Security and helped "the little man" or the man who let the Navy remain segregated during the war?   And if it wasn't Roosevelt that was elected, would it have been another President doing about the same?  This shit gets complicated.

A reader writes:

That's a rabbit hole I don't think anyone should be going down; Columbus was a product of his times, no different than anyone else; and I doubt "racism" or "genocide" were ideas that even registered with them.

They were Catholic Christian, and anyone who wasn't was either objects for conversion (for the sake of their souls, and they believed that without irony) or their enemies, servants of Satan who needed to be destroyed. The zeal with which they pursued either course of action was not enhanced by "racist" notions; they would just as willingly turn fire, blood, torture and mass executions on fellow Europeans who they considered to be heretics as they would on people of other races - see the Albigensian Crusades, in southern France and Northern Spain, as examples.. 

Columbus, in fact, probably had more of a conscience than the Hidalgos who accompanied him on his later voyages; he at least wanted to preserve and convert the Indians (err..."indigenous peoples") and considered them innocent, children of nature; the Hidalgos, in contrast, were by and large hard bitten, experienced veterans of the reconquista, many of them "second sons" coming to the new world to make their fortunes, not by "work" but by the exploitation of the indigenous peoples. Many of them had no interest in conversion or "race"; they were motivated by greed - and, they would have been just as brutal if turned loose on the populations of Europe, as the depredations of mercenary armies in the Italian civil wars of that period prove - and which escalated exponentially during the wars of religion - see the effect of the 30 years war on the population of what would eventually become Germany..

And, those attitudes were hardly unique, or confined, to Europeans; the depredations of the Ottoman "Akinji" (unpaid, irregular skirmishers and foragers raised for campaigns, whose only reward came from what they could loot) were infamous; the Ottoman practice of forcing a "tax on christian children", selecting sons to be taken from their Christian families and  raised as the Sultan's slaves; the practice of Moorish corsairs to swoop in on Christian villages, loot everything and take entire populations into slavery on a huge scale are no less brutal than what is blamed on the conquistadors; and neither of them can match the unparalleled psycopathic brutality of someone like Timurlane, who slaughtered and killed an uncountable number of people, regardless of race or religion, if they opposed him.

And, let's not forget that, by and large, the "indigenous peoples" of the Americas were no innocent children of nature themselves; contemporaneous with the arrival of Columbus, the Aztecs were atop a civilization in the valley of Mexico that was slaughtering (err, "sacrificing to their Gods") uncounted thousands of people each year in the name of "religion"; that the descendants of the Maya had nearly reduced themselves to extinction through brutal internecine warfare. Or that the slavery imposed on black Africans was ony possible by the eager participation of other black Africans themselves, who delivered huge numbers of captives to the European slavers in exchange for trinkets. 

Bottom line, brutal and cruel and greedy as the Conquistadors were, they seem to have been pretty typical of the state of mankind across the globe at the time. They didn't, by and large, intentionally slaughter the "indigenous peoples", as someone like Timurlane might have; they actually needed and wanted the natives to live, as they depended on their labor to make their system work; what devastated the native populations was the introduction of European diseases, but that was hardly intentional.

So, I don't know; is Columbus deserving of a Holiday? He was brave, resourceful, and determined; and he was first among his contemporaries to discover the existence of the Americas; so for that, I think he does. Was he a saint? No. Was he any worse than anyone else would have been? No, I don't believe so. We should celebrate his achievement; it did "Change the World"; he doesn't have to a "perfect person" to do that.
Those are all good points and my reader certainly knows his history.  Native Americans, or the people-who-were-here-before-Columbus (Pre-Columbian Americans?) were by and large a violent lot.   In school we learned that the various tribes in New York State came together to form the Iroquois Confederacy - which ended years of bloody wars between the various tribes, which lead to retributions and so forth.  Once united under one banner, well, they could go after those no-good Algonquins!

In the Southwest, you can see the ruins of the Anasazi people - the "cliff dwellers" who built inaccessible homes under cliffs for no apparent reason.  Oh, right, they did this to fend off invaders.  Years later, the Navajo people came to the area, and when asked what happened to the cliff dwellers, demurred, "Dunno, they were gone when we got here!"   Or maybe something else happened.

The same is true in Latin and South America - wars among various nations, human sacrifice, and so on.  The Aztecs, I believe, were the ones who would play soccer with your head, if you were captured in war.   Nice folks, you surrendered and you were just executed en masse.   There are no innocents when it comes to tribes of human beings.

Of course, some want to sell another narrative - that Pre-Columbian America was a place of peace and harmony, where the Indians lived in rhythm with nature.  They used every part of the Buffalo, never taking more from the land that it could give.   Except - well, not.  In the West there are many places named "Buffalo Jump" which are cliffs the Indians would stampede the Buffalo off to kill en masse.  To do this, they would start huge prairie fires - talk about carbon footprint.  The only reason they didn't kill more Buffalo was that they didn't have repeating rifles and railroads to transport the carcasses to cities.

In other words, our reader is right to a certain extent.  Nations, races, peoples, who do not commit atrocities are not "innocents" necessarily, they are just people who didn't have the opportunity.   The blacks sold into slavery in Africa were not "caught" by white slavers, but by other tribes of Africans, who then enslaved them and sold them for hard currency to Americans, Spanish, and yes, British.

This does not excuse the actions of whites in the slave trade - far from it.  But then again, it doesn't mean there is a collective "white guilt" that people should feel because someone in their genetic background once did something naughty.  Germans born after 1940 have no reason to feel guilty about World War II - they were either children back then, or weren't even born yet.  Yet some feel that the sins of the fathers should be paid by the children.   We see the same thing here in America with talk of "slave reparations" and other forms of "restorative justice" where injustices of centuries past should be addressed.

Talk about a rabbit-hole.  How far back do we go and how significant are the injustices to be addressed?  And who gets retribution?  The Romans crucified Jesus, but since he didn't have any kids, and thus no descendants, does that mean no reparations?   Does an immigrant (or their descendants) who came to this country in 1908 have to pay slave reparations, even though they never enslaved anyone, and arguably were exploited themselves?

BUT... on the other hand, is this argument just a way of saying, "Hey, everyone was bad back then, we shouldn't judge using today's standards!"   And if you accept that argument, then you can't really say much about any historical figure, ever.

The image above is from a children's story book about Columbus.  It pretty much reflects my education about Columbus in the third grade in 1968.  "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue!" we sang, and "History" was all about remembering that date - 1492, as well as 1776 and 1865.  The Speedwell leaked.  That is what history is all about, right?  Rote memorization of names and dates.

And back then, without exception, all the historical figures were heroes, with the exception of a few villains, who were purely evil.  There were no gray areas in our education.  Any day now, we'd win the Vietnam war, and send those Commies packing - if only LBJ would let us use nukes!

And as for Indians, well, there were two kinds, the "friendly Indians" (like Uncus, who was probably gay) who gave you corn and whatnot (they called it "Maize") and then the other kind, which needed killing.   We lived in a black-and-white world, in more ways than one.

So, is it a bad thing that we re-examine these "truths" and find out that things weren't as we thought they were?   I mean, until a few years back, my understanding of Columbus was that he came to "America" and made friends with the "friendly Indians" and then said "I'll be right back!" with no mention of plundering of riches.   I mean, I think we read he died poor and went to prison, but that was sort of not important.

Understanding history, I think, means understanding all of it.  This means we need to examine the reality of our past, and not some sanitized version of it, where people worship the false Gods of the "founding fathers" who knew what was best for use 200+ years ago.  And by the way, they would be horrified to find out that today they are worshiped in some parts as infallible oracles of Democracy.

But given all that, do we "cancel" Columbus Day or tear down his statue or re-name "Columbus Circle"?    That is a more interesting question.  Some argue that restorative justice requires this, others claim it is "cancel culture."  Frankly, I don't have an answer.

I don't think that Italians celebrate "Columbus Day" for the genocidal aspect.  Rather, as I noted before, it became an "Italian Day" in many cities with large Italian populations, which again, is ironic, as Columbus was leading what was, a Spanish expedition (and no one expects the Spanish Expedition!).

Confederate statues and celebration of confederate holidays and the confederate flag are a different issue.  The folks who put up these statues, often did so during reconstruction or during the Civil Rights era, and they knew what they were doing was wrong as evidenced by the fact that they passed laws at the time preventing the removal or relocation of these monuments because they knew, down the road, someone would want to.   We had one in Alexandria, Virginia, and by law, the City could not remove it, without permission of the State legislature.  They knew what they were doing when they put that statue up - it was a message sent and received.

And many of these Confederate "heroes" were little more than terrorists - raiding small towns in West Virginia and killing women and children.  It must have worked as the State of West Virginia - formed because they wanted no part of the war or slavery - is home to more racists than ever.

Would anyone today defend a statue of Hitler?  Of course not - but some still celebrate his birthday, in Germany, pining for the "good old days" and papering over the bad ones.

I am not sure it is right to "cancel" Columbus on the one hand.  But on the other, I am not certain it is right to excuse his actions on the grounds that "if not him, someone else woulda done it!"

Like anything else, it isn't a simple issue, one that can be broken down into right and wrong to fit the confines of a children's history book.