Columbus the hero and other American myths

Posted: October 12, 2020 in Uncategorized

I just read a Columbus Day statement issued by our own government. It is a strident denial of history, with shaming of anyone who might describe our American history in anything other than glowing terms. Those people, the ones who tell the whole story, are not really patriots. They are intent on tearing down our proud heritage. Or so the statement leads us to believe.

I guess I am one of those people because I am going to tell the whole story.

A few years ago, I sat in the Cathedral in Seville, Spain and gazed upon the silver-lined sarcophagus of Christopher Columbus. In fact, the resting place of Columbus was not the only silver encrusted thing in the space; the entire sanctuary was silver-plated. Sadly, I knew where all that silver came from. The Americas.

More than 20,000 years ago Asian peoples began migrating from what is now far east Russia westward across a land bridge that spanned what we know as the Bering Strait. In stops and starts, in waves of migrations and likely settlements on and around that glacier covered geography, with great physical and genetic adaptation, the ancestors of native American people moved across and down the Americas. Over the course of thousands of years their tribes inhabited every geography that would eventually shape them; lakes and woods, plains and desert, mountains, jungle and seacoast. They hunted, gathered, migrated with the seasons, established permanent encampments, sustained themselves with agriculture, used and developed tools, pottery and weapons, built monumental mound cities and stone temples, lived in cliff dwellings, pueblos, movable camps and island hamlets.

These numerous tribes formed alliances for protection and survival, competed for resources, waged war, raided their neighbors and took captives and horses, traded and engaged in commerce, imprinted sacred symbols and stories into rock, ritual and dance, shared rites of passage with children, and buried their dead in caves, on platforms, and in mounds. They hunted large beasts, fished the rivers and lakes, and balanced their diets with maize, beans and squash.

Just a few centuries after the Norse traversed the northern route of the Atlantic to the settle along the present-day coastlines of Greenland and Newfoundland, European powers began a vast exploration of the lands of other continents. Buoyed by the Discovery Doctrine of the Catholic Church that declared all lands unoccupied by Christians were eligible for the taking, the seafaring countries of the Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England did just that. Beginning in the 15th century they invaded, made conquest of and colonized the lands and peoples of the Americas. They also brought their European diseases which decimated the tribes.

The Spanish dominated South America, Central America, and Mexico which then reached all the way into today’s American Southwest and California, and this became “New Spain.” The Portuguese claimed the huge area of Brazil. The French controlled much of Canada, the great lakes and the Mississippi river basin for “New France.” The English focused on the American eastern seaboard upward to and including Nova Scotia, as well as the western portions of Canada and northwest American coast.

The expedition of Columbus was the prelude to invasion, conquest and colonization.

The conquest by the Spanish was conducted by such conquistadors as Cortes in Mexico 1519, Pizarro in Peru 1532, de Soto in what would become the southeastern United States in 1539, and Coronado in the present-day American Southwest in 1540. Their methods of destruction and domination contributed to the conditions that would eventually bring their colonial downfall.

In addition to amassing more land for empire, the Europeans had intentional financial goals as they occupied and colonized other lands and peoples. They wanted to exploit the wealth of the colonized lands and return it to Europe or establish new cash crop plantations that would raise needed products for the European market. Whether it was silver, cotton, or sugar, a large work force would be required to make the enterprise cheap and efficient. They had a solution for that challenge, a solution that would reach beyond the indigenous peoples they had enslaved.

In the 16th century, the great European powers began what would become a 350 year-long slavery enterprise in the North Atlantic. Though the practice of slavery was not new in the world the scale of this was new. Never before had such a world-wide, trans-continental coalition arisen dedicated to the one end of joining commerce and slavery, a coalition that included the monarchs and merchants of Europe, the cooperating kings and chieftains of Africa, and the vast slave markets of the Americas.

Cargo ships filled with European goods left all of the well-known seafaring ports – Lisbon, Seville, London and Liverpool, Nantes, Amsterdam – and sailed to the slave river ports all along the western coast of Africa. Those European goods were exchanged for slaves who had been taken captive inland and brought up river to the market ports by the Africans themselves. The slaves were secured through a variety of means – as the spoils of war, through indentured servitude, taken in slave catcher raids. This human cargo was transported across the “big river” of the Atlantic to the slave mart islands of Jamaica and Cuba in the Caribbean and the slave harbors in Brazil, Mexico, and the southern English colonies. There they were sold for cash or traded for products that would return to Europe.

In the Americas, colonists received slaves from all parts of Africa and they became the key to the prosperity of every labor-intensive enterprise – silver and gold mines, sugar and coffee plantations, cotton, hemp and tobacco fields. In the American English colonies, the first instance of slave trade may have occurred more than a year before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. In 1619 an English ship carrying between 20-30 Africans in chains landed at Point Comfort in Virginia. The crew traded the human cargo to colonists from nearby Jamestown in exchange for food.

It wasn’t long until the slave trade not only enabled the production of wealth in the colonies through free labor, but the slaves became valued commodities to trade. Thus, possession and trading of slaves produced capital itself, which only increased the volume of the slave trade.

The British slave trade grew immeasurably in the 18th century, and between 1720-1730 over 10,000 slaves were sold in South Carolina alone. To add perspective, in South Carolina in 1732 there were 14,000 white people and 32,000 slaves. By the eve of the Declaration of Independence, 1776, the British were sailing ships of slaves at the pace of 200,000 every decade, most of them sold in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Of course, the institution of slavery became the single most divisive issue in American culture, leading to a Civil War. After emancipation, Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination took slavery’s place and continued until the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century. The legacy and remnants of slavery and racism haunt us still.

To pretend that Columbus and the conquistadors who would follow were simply proud adventurers makes a mockery of the real history that is ours. This false presentation is a distortion of truth, a whitewashing of the record, a denial of the genocide of indigenous peoples already in the Americas and the slavery of those brought here to work for the prosperity of their owners.

            I am proud to be an American for many reasons, but the invasion, conquest, colonization and exploitation of the Americas is not among them. I remain hopeful that we will someday realize the lofty dreams of our founders. But the way forward will not found through codifying the indefensible. Telling the truth is neither tearing down heroes nor demolishing heritage. Telling the truth is the only way to clear a pathway for future greatness.           

Comments
  1. Larry E Bernard says:

    Well said; well written, Tim. Thanks

  2. Mary Catherine Monroe says:

    Absolutely spot on, Tim. Thank you!
    Mary Catherine

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