Category Archives: colonialism

Our 21st Century Columbus Day Conscience

Columbus Day was fun when I was a child. It was a day off from school when school had barely begun. It was also a day dedicated to a brave explorer sent on a journey of discovery with nervous sailors in primitive ships with masts and sails by a King and a Queen. It was the kind of story that made school interesting and exciting. It was uncomplicated by guilt about the effects on the people Columbus encountered and it was a very Eurocentric version of all of the voyages of discovery. Or course we would have been too young, I think, to comprehend the cultural complexity that such guilty knowledge requires.

Our current state of enlightenment forces us to look at voyages of discovery as cruel voyages that resulted in disease, death, slavery, colonialism, imperialism and disruption of a satisfying way of life. Europe, in the belief that the people they found in other lands were primitive and in need of the advantages of civilization, annexed the lands which these native peoples inhabited and took any resources they possessed (such as a supply of gold or spices or whatever was valuable) whether the indigenous people wanted to share or not. These explorers did not travel with humility but with the arrogance of people who believed they were superior because they knew how to build ships and travel huge distances and because God loved them best and because taking plunder by conquest was the rule of the day.
Spain and England actually divided the globe in half for a while with England taking the East and Spain the West. At another point European nations took to competing to see which country could amass the most colonies. Asia, Africa and the Americas were divided according to who managed to arrive first and stake their claim. Once again indigenous people were ignored or conquered. For a century or two the British Empire spanned the globe until England started to honor the requests of various colonies for autonomy.
[imperialism – the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies.]
[colonialism -the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers and exploiting its resources.]
Today people see America as arrogant and imperialistic. I’m sure if we’re honest that we can see some similarities between the activities of Europe in the age of exploration and our current role in the Middle East and elsewhere. We haven’t annexed territories since post WW II, but we have maintained a sometimes tension-producing presence in Middle Eastern countries who sell oil to us and we have marched in to defend ourselves against terrorists, even though the terrorists did not seem to always be sanctioned by these countries. We feel we can justify our need to help repel lawless elements which these governments seemed unwilling or unable to control. It has not won us a lot of friends, which is probably true of how many primitives felt about Christopher Columbus. Are we imperialistic? Are we bullies? Are we greedy? From what I can see these qualities may not be the finest ones humans possess but they are ubiquitous. The situations we are dealing with are quite complex and it is way too simple to paint all our motives as evil. We tried isolationism before and we know that keeping our eyes on our own business means that we would be making ourselves vulnerable to the ambitions embraced by other nations.  I like that we are trying to have a conscience about it. We try to analyze when we can refrain from interference and when interference becomes necessary. Who said Columbus Day was a useless holiday? No day that makes us examine our humanity and our motives can be all that useless.
We are looking to the heavens (space) as our new frontier and we are poised for another era of exploration. The ships we use in space are probably just as primitive as the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria seem to us now. We are also poised to be every bit as imperialistic as Europe in the age of discovery. We are already involved in a race to see who will be first. Who will plant their flags where? What indigenous people will we find? How will we deal with people who may not resemble humans? Of course space gives a lot more scope to our explorations than our tiny planet did but it still looks like we will take our national pride, competitive spirit and our skills as warriors (in case they are needed)  with us into space.
As to Columbus Day, we will probably continue to use it in its new capacity as a reminder of our savage bits. And we now accept that perhaps Columbus really didn’t discover North America, but fortunately we didn’t name it Columbia either.