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WALSH: It Is Stupid And Unfair To Judge Historical Figures By Modern Standards

On Columbus Day — “Indigenous People’s Day,” as it is known among revisionists — statues of the great explorer were vandalized in multiple cities. The monuments were doused in red paint and signs were posted accusing Columbus of “genocide.”

It is probably useless to critique the historical analysis of people who make their point by spraying red paint on things, but the “genocide” accusation against Columbus is ludicrous. Genocide is the targeted extermination of a certain ethnic or religious group. It is true that a very large percentage of Native Americans died in the first few centuries of contact with Europeans, but almost all of that was the result of disease. Columbus certainly didn’t intentionally spread disease among the native populations — and couldn’t, as germ theory wasn’t fully formulated for another 270 years or so.

Though Columbus wasn’t genocidal, he was far from perfect. He captured slaves. He executed both Spaniards and Indians under his rule. He took gold. He was by all accounts a bad governor. This was a common flaw of explorers of the era. Many of them were brilliant on their ships but incompetent-to-horrible on solid ground. Magellan made it three-quarters of the way around the world before getting himself killed in a needless conflict with a tribe in the Philippines. A certain type of man was needed to navigate a fleet of ships across uncharted waters. A different kind of man was needed to manage settlements. Unfortunately, the latter type had no way of getting to the settlement except by hitching a ride with the former. And the former wasn’t often willing to cede control of the land he had just gone through all the trouble of discovering (a somewhat understandable reluctance, I think).

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the flaws of men like Christopher Columbus. Nobody is suggesting that we should honor them as perfect people or worship them as gods. The point of the statues, the monuments, the holiday, etc., is to remember and celebrate the indispensable role they played in establishing the civilization in which we all now live — a civilization that just so happens to be the freest and most prosperous in the history of the world. Columbus, through his navigational brilliance, boldness, courage, vision, and determination, is partly to thank for that.

Some people might claim that western civilization is nothing to be thankful for at all, but I can’t help but notice that those people still choose to live here, enjoying the luxuries and freedoms given to them by the very men whose monuments they deface. They claim this is “stolen land,” yet they stay on it and eat its fruits. Perhaps because, at some level, they realize the claim is preposterous. There were maybe as low as one or two million Indians living on the entire North American continent by the 15th century. At most, there were 15 or 20 million. The point is that the vast, vast majority of the land was unoccupied; North America was mostly an untamed, unexplored, uninhabited wilderness. The smattering of tribes spread out across 9 million square miles did not own the whole thing. People these days talk as if the Europeans had no right to come here in the first place (an interesting assertion from open borders advocates), but that is obviously absurd on its face. The tide of civilizational expansion and progress was not going to stop forever at the prime meridian.

Does any of this excuse the bad things done by Columbus and those who followed after him? No, but this isn’t about making excuses. Rather, this is about understanding our ancestors in their historical context. We make nonsense of history when we analyze it through a narrow modern lens. We are, after all, wearing the lens of a free and comfortable people, who live in a mostly settled world, where violence is generally abhorred and the universal equality of all human beings is accepted as established doctrine (in theory). Our ancestors had none of those advantages. Even the rich a long time ago were roughing it by our standards. People in those days didn’t have the same compunctions about violence, largely because they couldn’t afford to have them. And nobody centuries ago believed in “equality” as we think of it today. That’s why slavery was an unquestioned institution in every civilization across the world for thousands of years. We are horrified by things that our ancestors considered utterly commonplace, just as our descendants will one day be horrified by things we consider commonplace. That’s generally how hindsight works.

If Columbus’ willingness to kill people and take slaves must completely define him, as it would define someone who did the same things today, then that same wide brush must inevitably color almost everyone in history as racists and barbarians. The celebrated “Indigenous People” certainly had no problem with war, conquest, and slavery. Few people on Earth did, until comparatively recently. We are forced, then, to discount almost everyone who has ever lived as savage bigots, or to look at their sins and accomplishments from a more nuanced perspective. Though nuance is probably too much to expect of the “Columbus was a genocidal maniac” crowd.

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