A Christopher Columbus Debate


Last week, I was called up to the seventh grade classroom at the school I am currently interning at (and have worked for four years). The teacher was doing a lesson on Christopher Columbus, and wanted me to chime in because, “We all know how you feel”. It appears to be widely known, my intense feelings against Mr. Columbus, who I believe did not “discover” anything and contributed more to destruction and genocide than he did anything positive. I was asked to give the other side to the story, and offer a different dimension. I talked for about twenty minutes on the matter. Their textbooks are very brief on him: more of the same sing-song nonsense children have been spoon-fed for years. As it happens, a friend and co-worker of mine at Brookdale Community College, Kevin Connelly, has a child in the class and he took issue with the talk I gave. Over the years, we have gone back and forth on Columbus. We are on opposite sides. To us, its a matter of debate and all in good fun. He actually challenged me to a public debate. While that would not be practical, we elected to carry on with our discussion over email, and then post the final transcript here. We are interested in debating more topics if the interest on this blog is there. Hopefully there will be more in the future. Below is our debate:

CONNELLY: As you well know, I have no difficulty in expressing my support as well as my opposition with friend and foe alike. You have an opinion of Christopher Columbus that is very negative and I believe politically and not historically driven. You are free to hold that opinion although I would hope the actual history of record would impose upon your opinion, but I do not appreciate you expressing that opinion as it were correct and factual. You can state this is my opinion and that is fine, but to degrade any person to students is something one should be most careful about. Trashing Columbus has been a fad for the past several years, but again, driven by ideology and many false accusations. He was a man like all of us, and better than many – but calling him a Hitler is over the top and should not be said to impressionable grade school students. I have included a few contrary opinions and believe me, I’ve read many of those spewing and destroying his reputation. Ah, one day we should stage a good debate. Like Chesterton v. Shaw who disagreed vehemently but were friends. [Links enclosed to various pro-Columbus websites, lectures, and readings.]

CAGGIANO: I believe we have had this discussion before. I do not hold Christopher Columbus in high regard. I have not been misquoted in what I said, however, I do feel some parts of what I said about him were left out. I did, in fact, give him credit for being a brilliant navigator and sailor. At a time when many believed the earth was flat, he knew it wasn’t and pressed on. His journey required an innumerable amount of skill and what he did was an accomplishment. I believe I said all those things in class. I also believe I said “This is my opinion” when it came time to discussing his shortcomings as a human being. I know we are not all perfect, but we all don’t commit mass murder either. My opinion of him as a person is different from my opinion of him as a navigator. While it cannot entirely be rested upon his shoulders, the genocide of the Taino Indians (and other tribes) at the hands of his men is inexcusable. While I did make sure to note that the Indians were far from angelic and were quite warlike towards one another themselves, that cannot justify their torture, murder, and enslavement at the hands of Columbus and his men. That much is fact. The other fact is that within 50 years the entire Taino population was gone. Wiped out by disease, rape, and murder. Was Columbus worse than Hitler? Of course not, but the Conquistadors including Columbus and future Spaniards to come were more efficient and successful at what they set out to do than the Fuhrer himself, given the logistics and population numbers of the time period. I believe I was fair in my assessment, though harsh, when I did give him credit for his navigational and colonial skills yet derided the “other” results of his arrival in the Americas. On a non-genocidal note, I also wanted to dispel the myth that Columbus “discovered America”, when it is now historical fact that the Vikings landed in Newfoundland at least 300 years prior to his arrival. We will most likely never see eye to eye on this matter, but I don’t want you to think I just stood there in front of the class ranting and raving for twenty minutes. It also must be noted that the reason why this great man even has a holiday at all is because Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to appease Italian voters in the 1930’s and give them a holiday where they could celebrate their heritage…and also garner their votes. That is the only reason why he has a holiday. I imagine if there was a large and relevant Norwegian population, we might have had a Leif Ericsson day instead. So in the end, Columbus day is a political statement (though its meaning and intention is now forgotten), not a historical one. The only people who should celebrate the holiday as a literal historical tribute should be the Caribbean where he landed, but he did not leave them with much to celebrate.

CONNELLY: Well, you must know I was not “angry” but trying to press for historical accuracy. Columbus had two strikes against him – Catholic and Italian. The claims of mass murder are libelous and nobody can actually blame the Europeans for the spread of disease as they did not understand it themselves. Sadly, it was going to happen at some time. He did not keep slaves or trade slaves and the early claims against him by his rival were disproved in his lifetime. All in all, I believe he was a man of his times and by and large a good one. And while he did not technically discover America, in practicality he did so.

CONNELLY: [While on the subject of history and ignorance] I have read several accounts of this in the past. It just goes to show that history we know depends much upon who wrote it. [Enclosed was a link about white Irish slaves who were a rather large part of the North American slave trade in the 1600’s, yet are almost entire ignored by history books, mainstream historians, and all forms of mass media.]

CAGGIANO: I’ve actually read all about it, perhaps even that same article. I have a friend on Facebook who is very vocal about it. It is a part of history that is ignored and will always be ignored. Any white educator caught teaching about white slaves would undoubtedly be nailed to the cross of racial insensitivity and told, “Oh but there weren’t that many white slaves. The black man faced worse hardships.” True, but why is one evil and the other simply “oh ok”? Its something I will never understand in this topsy-turvy world where the truth has to constantly be altered to fit whatever agenda is popular. However, I don’t consider Columbus as a part of that category. You may consider it a recent fad to bash the man, but from a pop culture perspective, even as far back as 1949 and the movie Christopher Columbus starring Frederick March mentioned the intense hardships suffered by the Indians upon his arrival. That’s just one early example. I’m sure there are more. You may think my Columbus views are part of a crusade to be politically correct, but I think you misunderstand. I consider myself very un-politically correct. If you caught any of my posts on the Confederate Flag, then you’d probably gather as much. My interests don’t concern political correctness— rather information that is ignored or glossed over by mainstream media, textbooks, etc, which obviously extends into the classroom. We can say Columbus did great things, but we should also discuss the “baggage” that comes with him. When is the right time? Obviously not first grade when they need to learn the basics of the discovery and holiday (which I taught yesterday during my internship and behaved myself). But at what point should they learn the other side? Middle and High school is the right time, but the textbooks still ignore it. Yet, even when textbooks are becoming more and more inclusive and politically correct, Columbus is still relatively untainted. We could at least give the Vikings some credit.

CONNELLY: I agree completely with the view, if it is wrong, it is wrong even if we recognize degrees of wrongness. No I do not think you are trying to be politically correct in defaming Christopher Columbus but I do think there exists a broader movement that is doing so. If you will forgive me, (hate using labels but it is simply easier in a short email) there have been many years of liberal or leftist infiltration into academia and our educational system has become semi totalitarian in many ways and driven by political/ideological intent. History, the history your age group has been presented with – the bad white man, the corrupt founding fathers, and more subtle between the lines the fake Christians – especially Catholics – and arrogant West, permeates much of modern-day outlook. Perhaps we leaned too much on the idealized version of history while it is now all the negative elements. As far as Christopher Columbus the real evidence points to a smart, ambitious, flawed but basically good man. The claims of slavery and brutality by him personally are more than suspect, they are mostly conjecture and libel. I quote historian Samuel Elliot Morrison, “Christopher Columbus belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and symbol of this new age of hope, glory and accomplishment. His medieval faith impelled him to a modern solution: expansion. If the Turk could not be pried loose from the Holy Sepulcher by ordinary means, let Europe seek new means overseas; and he, Christopher the Christ-bearer, would be the humble yet proud instrument of Europe’s regeneration. So it turned out, although not as he anticipated. The First Voyage to America that he accomplished with a maximum of faith and a minimum of technique, a bare sufficiency of equipment and a superabundance of stout-heartedness, gave Europe new confidence in herself, more than doubled the area of Christianity, enlarged indefinitely the scope for human thought and speculation, and “led the way to those fields of freedom which, planted with great seed, have now sprung up to the fructification of the world.”…In his faith, his deductive methods of reasoning, his unquestioning acceptance of the current ethics, Columbus was a man of the Middle Ages, and in the best sense. In his readiness to translate thought into action, in lively curiosity and accurate observation of natural phenomena, in his joyous sense of adventure and desire to win wealth and recognition, he was a modern man.”

One Comment Add yours

  1. John Traynor says:

    Interesting debate, but I find that it is something like debating about a traffic accident that your grandfathers had in 1935. What happened happened and it can’t be changed.
    The Vikings were here before Columbus, but their settlements failed. The Chinese explored the west cost at about the same time as Columbus reached the Bahamas, but they only explored and then they went home. You don’t mention the chance that Columbus was trying to find a safe place for Spain’s Jewish community to go in response to the Spanish Inquisition. There are hundreds of theories to review. In the end, we have what we have. There have been centuries of injustice. Many civilizations have been changed. Whether good or bad, Columbus is responsible for the world we live in today. It is up to us to make it a better place. Remembering Columbus every year makes us review our history.

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