Thoughts About Columbus Day

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I just got reminded that Columbus Day is coming up. Some may feel we shouldn’t celebrate it since Columbus, as has been pretty clearly shown, was certainly not the first person from a different continent to discover America. The Vikings did it about 500 years before, Some believe the Templars also did it after Philip the Fair of France had them proscribed, and tried to steal all their money. It seems that he got relatively little of it, the Templars were at least somewhat aware of his plans, and many of their ships sailed before their crews and passengers could be arrested. Some of them seem to have gone to Scotland, but there’s evidence in a small church built by the Sinclair family in Scotland that at least some of the Templars were aware of the continents west of Europe. Some say some of the Welsh also settled in the Americas, and there were tribes of “white” Indians living somewhere in North America, who seem to have gotten exterminated once the massive influx of Europeans began.

More anciently, the west coasts of the American continents seem to have been influenced by travelers from Asia, and at least some of the Central and South American peoples seem to have traveled west across the Pacific too. In Costa Rica are a great many large round stones, placed in groups, usually of three, which seem to have been used as aids to navigation.

Besides that, a Roman galleon was found sunk off the coast of South America. Probably this was accidental: the ship most likely was blown off-course, and reached the vicinity of South American before sinking. Even more interesting is the discovery that a good many ancient Egyptian mummies had, as found in tissue samples, been using cocaine and tobacco. There may be some species of tobacco original to the Old World, but as far as I know, the coca plant is successfully grown only in South America.

But while Columbus was by no means the first to make trans-oceanic journeys, his discovery of what would later be called the Americas was a real turning-point in history: many Europeans became anxious to explore, to settle and to exploit the new lands for as much wealth as they could extract, either by outright armed robbery, mining, or agriculture. Many Europeans came here to get rich quick, which a fair number did, but there were other reasons too, one of the major ones being religious freedom. Many saw the Americas as a way to make a new and better life, in whatever way attracted them. It’s been more than 500 years since that process began. How has it worked out?

North American countries (Mexico being an exception) are some of the richest countries in the world. In South America Brazil is also wealthy, and perhaps Argentina. Most of the other Latin American countries are not. Several of the groups seeking religious freedom didn’t advocate it for anyone else, and their doctrines proved unattractive to those with different goals. Still, there’s always been a strong religous presence in this country (perhaps less so now, or maybe the form of it has just changed), and freedom of religion is still available in this country, and appreciated by many.

The USA, and to maybe a lesser extent Canada, did become wealthy countries; in the case of the USA, largely built on slavery. That’s one of the less than positive aspects of the colonization of the New World. And with that came racism, which I think can be seen mostly as an attempt to justify slavery. Slavery had been a constant part of the ancient world, and if Europeans didn’t keep slaves in Europe (I think some must have, even if relatively few), serfdom wasn’t a great deal different.

Racism is peculiar in that it doesn’t seem to have existed in ancient times, and in its present form seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Almost any human group has been and usually still is xenophobic, to greater or lesser extent. People generally are afraid of strangers, but that’s different from the virulent hatred aroused by various groups: Jews, blacks and homosexuals are some of the favorite targets, rather than just random strangers. The historic roots of this probably begin in Europe, but the particular hatred of blacks seems to have been mainly a product of this side of the ocean. The Founding Fathers of our country were aware of the problem slavery represented, though they may have been less aware of the problem of racism, which in this country seems to be a sort of justification for slavery, though it has subsequently taken on a life of its own. That’s a big part of the dark side of this country, which counterbalances all the positive things in our history.

Not that racism or genocide are unique to this country, though the particular shape they’ve taken here may be. One student of the history of violence says that it was only in the last century that people began to think there was something wrong with genocide (a lot of people still don’t), so that attention was paid to it. In this country, a large percentage of genocide was unintentional: native Americans had no immunity to European germs, so many of them died from epidemics or even pandemics, quite possibly never even having seen a European in many cases. We can’t exonerate our ancestors completely, though: when they discovered that their presence literally made the natives sick some amplified the effect by giving the Indians blankets deliberately exposed to smallpox.

But racism and genocide haven’t been the only realities of this country. Our government became one of the first democracies of modern times (since the
Greeks and Romans), though England’s constitutional monarchy reseembled and preceded our government. Our revolution inspired both the French and Haitian revolutions shortly after ours, and it’s instructive how those differed from ours.

Haiti’s revolution was significant in one way: it’s the only successful revolution we know of by slaves. Toussaint L’Ouverture was an outstanding leader who managed to defeat both the French and English, while trying to find common ground with whites. He might possibly have succeeded if the French hadn’t taken him to France and imprisoned him in the Alps, where he died of lung disease. But it’s unlikely that Haiti could have successfully existed as a separate country, since it was so small, in a region where three great powers contended. None of the leaders following had the wisdom of Toussaint, so the military was allowed to become ineffective, whereupon France imposed a penalty on Haiti for the loss of revenue its loss as a colony represented. At the time of the rebellion it had been the most profitable colony in the world; now it may be the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

France’s revolution was another matter. There had been bitterness during the American revolution since a large percentage of people had no desire to become independent of England, and there was some violence because of that, but not to the same extent as France. The United States of America were fortunate to escape the massive Terror that France endured, and even more fortunate in its political leaders. Someone said that we’ve never had as many outstanding political leaders in this country since then, and I believe it. George Washington set a precedent by not becoming a king or dictator. He served two terms as president, then retired. Napoleon didn’t have that kind of humility, or did have that kind of hubris. I also greatly respect Washington for something I only learned recently: while president he brought quite a number of his slaves to Philadelphia (then the nation’s capitol) and freed them there. Unusual for a southerner, though it seems that when young he had been friends with another young man of mixed blood, so he may have sympathized more with blacks than most people of his region and class.

The most defining struggle this country has had has been the Civil War, and while it’s tempting to paint that in black and white to say it was a struggle between good and evil, it obviously wasn’t that simple. One notable thing about it was that black slaves, about whom the war was ostensibly fought, came out worse than almost any other group participating (poor southern whites may have been a close second). Neither northerners nor southerners liked or sympathized with blacks much. The war was essentially a regional affair, with southerners fearful of losing their “peculiar institution”, and northerners feeling that southerners were treating THEM like slaves. Ultimately, I doubt that many of the participants had a very complete understanding of the issues, and they’ve never been resolved, still tormenting us today.

I don’t think it was just a matter of racism, but also a question of who would hold power. American imperialism might be seen as an endeavor related to that of slavery: becoming wealthy through theft. Slaves had been stolen from their own countries and brought to this one, where their labor did a great deal to build the country without their getting much recompense for it. In the early to mid-19th century, first Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase (which Napoleon agreed to because he had just lost the colony of Haiti and needed money), then James Polk fomented the war with Mexico, which brought us the other part of the western half of this country (leaving out Texas, which has its own story). Part of the disagreement leading to the Civil War was whether these territories would be slave or free, and we can only say that the story of this country would have been much different if, first, we had never acquired those western territories, and second, if the north had lost the Civil War. As it was, slavery as an institution had failed, while imperialism as a strategy had succeeded. I might suggest that both activities spring from the same impulse: for one group to profit at the expense of another. This desire was nothing new or unusual, but it was part of the process of turning the New World into a copy of the Old World.

At the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th, imperialism was largely the way the USA did things. We forced Spain into a war it didn’t want in order to take its remaining colonies, and intervened in a number of other countries for the benefit of big businesses primarily. Some might try to justify these interventions, but they should be asked if they would justify another country’s intervention into our internal affairs.

Throughout American history there have been waves of reform. Andrew Jackson reformed the banking system and extended the voting franchise from property-owners only to almost any citizen, except for women and slaves at that time. Theodore Roosevelt, while in favor of imperialism, did reform the financial system and initiated national parks as a method of conservation. During the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt initiated many reforms in an effort to end the Depression, but was unable to do so until the Second World War gave an overwhelming stimulation to the economy, and provided an economic model for the rest of the century.

The foundation laid during the Depression made the country extremely prosperous in the 1950s and later, but there were predatory forces in the country operating throughout that time, which became more obvious later. Our interventions in other countries continued, and later in the century the system that had bolstered the middle class started to come undone, and there was a resurgence of class warfare (which had always existed to some degree in the country), though it was rarely called by that name, complicated by racism. The Civil Rights legislation of the middle 1960s had changed some lives for the better, but had led to great bitterness on the part of many whites.

That’s pretty much where this country is today. At least two conspicuously different mindsets contending for power, neither of which is entirely virtuous, though different people will consider one side more virtuous than another. Many have considered the political system of the United States worthy of great adulation, and the foundation of our power in the world. Thomas Friedman pointed out, in at least one book, that as positive as our political system has been, we were fortunate in many other ways as well. We have a large country, with a large percentage of arable land, a favorable climate, and lots of natural resources. Few other major powers of today or the recent past have all of those advantages. China has lots of territory, but less arable land, and a much higher population. Russia also has much territory, but less arable land, and an inhospitable climate. As good as our political system may be, it wasn’t the only reason for our ascendence, and having been designed by humans (even though relatively wise humans), and operated by humans, it has been as susceptible to corruption as any other human institution.

Everything about the European takeover of the New World hasn’t been bad, but not everything has been good either. And there are few things in the world that can objectively be said to be unequivocally good. Idealists would like to have seen this hemisphere produce more highly evolved human beings. Technology has changed our ways of living, but it hasn’t produced better people. Those who have profited from the way the country has worked tend to like things the way they are. Things will change, no matter what we do, but we can hope to make the changes positive. This is an interesting time to be living, to watch the collision of the various worldviews, and to hope that something good and decent will come out of it all. Results have been mixed before, so it’s unrealistic to think that they won’t be mixed again. This continues to be an interesting process to watch.

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