Exploration, conquest, and modernity…

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, we studied something then called the Age of Discovery, or if you were feeling particularly froggy, the Age of Conquest. This was the period in history from the 15th through the 17th centuries when Europeans set out on a global search for faster trade routes, wealth, personal glory. It corresponded with a then unprecedented explosion in knowledge about the natural world. 

I’ve watched a number of reports over the last few days condemning Columbus as a genocidal maniac and all I can do is shake my head in frustration. I will never understand why educated people insist on applying 21st century morality to 15th century actions. If we “discovered” an unknown continent tomorrow, we wouldn’t approach it the same way that Columbus did in the 1490s. We wouldn’t approach it the same way the Great Powers of Europe approached Africa in the 19th century, either. We would approach it using our best judgment based on 21st century understanding of peoples and our modern sensibilities. Half a millennia from now, we would surely be criticized for our actions because they were not how some future observers would have managed the affair.

“But, but,” they say, “He killed all those nice natives.” Yeah, he did. Can’t deny it. What seems to be forgotten in the discussion is Europe in the 1400s was a regular charnel house. Between plague, pestilence, disease, and the Hundred Years’ War, sudden, violent death in the New World most likely didn’t strike anyone as an unnatural state of affairs. All of our contemporary assessments of Columbus come from a 21st century perspective that is at least a full lifetime removed from any real concept of mass die-offs caused by war and pestilence. The dying related to COVID-19 doesn’t hold a candle to what was experienced historically during times of social upheaval.

We lack a personal frame of reference for what “normal” was in the late 15th century. In a very real way, the past is a foreign country. Even as a student of history, I always had a problem with those in the business who feel the need to apply contemporary morality to historical events. History is all about subtlety and context… and both are completely lacking when we try to hold Columbus to the standards of modernity.

During the Age of Conquest, as the name implies, some nations and civilizations did the conquering and others were vanquished. It’s happened since the dawn of recorded time and was happening long before we bothered writing the stories down. As often happens with the vanquished, we don’t hear much about their history. Now as a student of history myself, I’m all about understanding their story, but I’m not about rewriting the entire age of exploration into an overly simple victim narrative just to make someone feel better. Likewise, I’m under no illusion that Columbus or those that followed were demigods. History is a more complex animal than that.

Hundreds of millions of people lived and died during the three centuries of the Age of Discovery. Aside from kings and princes, we remember very few of them by name… and for those few we don’t remember them because they spent their often-short lifetimes boohooing the world around them, but because they dared to do what was hard and dangerous. They’re derided in the modern world, I suspect, because so many now live lives that are unfathomably easy and safe based on any measure of historical precedent. 

In this household, Columbus and all the men who set out in fragile wooden ships from the Old World to lay claim to the New will always be celebrated.

A cause for celebration…

Ah, it’s Columbus Day again. The day of the year when revisionists and apologists whine most loudly that we should all be wearing ashes and rending our garments and begging forgiveness for because of things men did more than 500 years ago at a time we’re no longer supposed to call the Age of Exploration.

As always, I cheerfully encourage the apologists to bugger directly off with that nonsense. I don’t judge historical events or figures through 21st century morality. They were men of their own age, with strengths and weaknesses, who achieved greatly and committed grave sins.

The age of exploration was an age of heroes. We don’t remember them because they spent their often short lifetimes boohooing the world around them, but because they dared to do what was hard and dangerous. They’re derided in the modern world, I suspect, because so many now live lives that are unfathomably easy and safe based on any measure of historical precedent.

In this household, Columbus and all the men who set out in fragile wooden ships from the old world to explore the wonders of the new will always be celebrated.

The age of conquest…

Columbus Day is one of those odd holidays that no one enjoys unless you’re Italian, work for a bank, or find yourself in the employ of the federal government. There are plenty of hand-wringers out there who tell us that it’s Indigenous People’s Day or that there should be no celebration at all commemorating the arrival of Europeans in the New World – I also choose not to quibble about things like who got here when or whether it should be Lief Erikson Day. The concept of discovery is more important than the individual act itself. And to those out there wanting to argue that you can’t “discover” a place where people already life, I mostly say “nuts.” Columbus and his crew discovered territory that, to them and to most of Europe at the time, was new and wholly unexpected. Call it a flapjack and it’s still a rose by any other name.

See, Columbus sailed during what use to be called the Age of Conquest. Some nations and civilizations did the conquering and others were vanquished. It’s happened since the dawn of recorded time and was happening long before we bothered writing the stories down. As often happens with the vanquished, we don’t hear much about their history. Now as a student of history myself, I’m all about understanding their story, but I’m not about rewriting the entire age of exploration into an overly simple victim narrative. Likewise, I’m under no illusion that Columbus or those that followed are some kind of demigods. History is a more complex animal than that.

All I’ll say is we’d do well to learn a bit more about the Age of Conquest. I suspect some of the lessons there are shockingly applicable to those of us schlepping around in the modern world.

Celebrating Columbus…

I’m told by today’s endless media loop that celebrating Columbus Day isn’t cool. Blah, blah, genocide, blah, blah, conquest, blah, blah not a very nice man. Blah. Here was a guy who loaded three small wooden ships, pointed them west, and hoped at some point to find land waiting for him on the other side of the ocean before he ran out of food and water.

Christopher_Columbus“But, but,” they say, “He was looking for the Indies and only landed in the Caribbean by accident.” I suppose that’s true… but since I know people who can’t go across town without using their in-car navigation system, Google Maps, and hand written directions, I’m willing to cut the guy some slack considering he decided to cross an ocean using wind power and maps that were, at best, a wild ass guess of what might be out there.

“But, but,” they say again, “He killed all those nice natives.” Yeah, he did that. Can’t deny it. What seems to be forgotten in the discussion is Europe in the 1400s was a regular charnel house. Between the black plague and the Hundred Years’ War, letting the bodies hit the floor in the new world most likely didn’t particularly strike anyone as an unnatural state of affairs. All of our contemporary assessments of Columbus come from a 21st century perspective that is at least a full lifetime removed from any real concept of mass die-offs caused by war and pestilence.

We simply lack a point of reference for what “normal” was in the late 15th century. Even as a student of history, I always had a problem with those in the business who feel the need to apply contemporary morality to historical events. History is all about subtlety and context… and both are completely lacking when we try to hold Columbus to the standards of modernity.

Today, I’m celebrating Columbus Day. If that’s not cool, well, so be it.

Admiral Chris…

In an overabundance of political correctness, we all are taught that Christopher Columbus wasn’t a courageous explorer so much as he was a seagoing marauder bent on global genocide. The truth? Well, I’ll leave that to the historians to sort out. All I know is that here in this corner of the internet, we observe Columbus Day. I think it’s the perfect example of our collective official dysfunction that Columbus is now generally portrayed as an evil force for colonization and enslavement and yet we still officially sanction a day in his memory. Sometimes it’s good that national myth is stronger than the changing social historiography. At least it’s good for me since it’s a day I’m not spending in the office. Happy Columbus Day!

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Columbus Day…

You know what? Chris Columbus wasn’t perfect. He did some bad things. He also had the courage to climb aboard a hundred foot wooden ship and sail 2500 miles into an ocean that was more or less uncharted. Looking for a trade route to the Indies, he landed in the Americas and opened two continents to further exploration and began the largest age of migration in all of human history.

I’ve watched a number of reports this morning condemning Columbus as a genocidal maniac and all I can do is shake my head in frustration. I will never understand why educated people insist on applying 21st century morality to 15th century actions. Of course if we “discovered” an unknown continent tomorrow, we wouldn’t approach it the same way that Columbus did in the 1490s. We wouldn’t approach it the same way the Great Powers of Europe approached Africa in the 19th century, either. We would approach it using our best judgment based on 21st century understanding of peoples and our “improved” sense of morality. And 500 years from now, we would probably be criticized for our actions because they were not how those “future” observers would handle the situation.

Columbus is roundly criticized because he “didn’t even know he was in America.” Of course he didn’t know he was in America (aside from the continents actually not being called America at that point). Up until that point, perhaps a relative handful of Europeans had ever set foot on the continent and most of those did so in the extreme north. There were no accurate maps, no global positioning systems, and actually no way to even accurately establish longitude. And still, for God and glory, Columbus captained three fragile ships to a new world.

I won’t become an apologist for history. The history is what it is. Actions were not all good, nor all bad. They simply are what was done at the time. While Columbus legacy is clearly “mixed,” I have no qualms about celebrating him as an iconic figure in our history.