Columbus and The Historians

When I was a kid Columbus Day was a special holiday. OK, it was not Christmas or Easter, but it was better than Arbor Day, with all due respect to that holiday. I did not think of it back then, but it was an acknowledgment of the contribution Italians made – and continue to make – to the U.S. He did a great thing, he discovered America! Sure, there were people here already. We knew that. While I admit that Leif Eriksson got here first, I feel compelled to ask; what did he do with what he found? What Columbus did was unique. He not only found the Americas; he plotted the path to get there and back. He opened up trade with Europe. He did good things. So, what happened? How did this hero to Italian Americans become so vilified that his statues are being torn down and vandalized, that the day that Italian Americans have adopted to be a day celebrating our contribution to this country is now being transformed to Indigenous People Day? 

This can all be laid at the feet of two historians, Hans Koning and Howard Zinn. These were two socialists with an agenda whose work was the catalyst for all this hatred of Columbus. While it may seem unfair to dismiss the accuracy of their work simply because of their political ideology, we should remember Zinn’s own words from his most famous work “A People’s History of the United States.” Zinn writes: “it is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not others…My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the mapmaker’s distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests. Where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.”

Zinn makes my case for me. He clearly finds it acceptable for a historian to distort history for ideological purposes. Unfortunately, his tome has been accepted by some factions without a rigorous analysis of his particular interpretation of American history. If we were to accept, as many have, Zinn’s work as an accurate portrayal of our collective past, none of our past leaders would be worthy of veneration. Our parks and plazas would be cleared of statues, our history books redacted, and museums purged. From Columbus to Clinton, all are targets of Zinn’s ideologically driven distortions. None are worthy. All are banished. 

The first distortion of which Zinn is guilty is to view Columbus through modern eyes. He judges Columbus’s actions by modern standards, which on the face of it is ridiculous. Yes, Columbus did take slaves, but he did so within the context of what was moral at that time. He did not simply grab up peaceful villagers and throw them in chains. As I have written in the past, it was acceptable with all cultures, even of those indigenous to the Americas, to take prisoners of conflicts as slaves. The idea that slavery was an inherent evil had not yet evolved. 

Another of Zinn’s distortions is to present native Americans as lotus blossom eating pacifists who were as one with each other as they were with nature. This was hardly the case. Tribes warred with one another, albeit not at the same level as in Europe. There is also evidence pointing to them taking slaves from other tribes. Columbus was seen by one group of native Americans, the Arawaks, as their deliverer from the Caribs, another tribe who some evidence indicates took Arawaks as slaves. Of course, this is contrary to Zinn’s ideological interpretation of events, so they are conveniently omitted from his history. 

Columbus could also be accused of not respecting native American cultures and religions. He sought to convert the natives to Christianity. Again, the preservation of indigenous cultures is a modern virtue. Columbus was a sincere and devout Christian. He genuinely believed that by converting the indigenous people to Christianity he was saving them from eternal torment. While today many feel that we need to respect the religion of other cultures, in the time of Columbus it was an act of love to lead them to Christ.

I have often repeated the quote of unknown origin; within every lie there is a truth and within every truth there is a lie. As we read history we must ask where are the truths and where are the lies. Certainly, we should treat with extra skepticism those who openly admit that they distort history to support a political agenda. In studying the life of Columbus in the context of the world in which he lived, I find a man who was a skillful navigator, a talented sailor, and a sincere Christian. I do not believe that he was driven by greed or sought to do anyone harm. Rather, I believe him to be well motivated. I believe him to be a worthy hero of the Italian American community, someone to be venerated.