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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

  1. Facebook. For good or bad, Facebook loves showing you memories every day. I keep noticing that there are posts from years ago that indicate having two or three comments, but in some cases only one of those comments may be showing. I’m assuming that means these  comments were made by someone long ago and far away who has either left Facebook or has otherwise exited my online circle of friends… which begs the question of why Facebook is even bothering showing you a notification of something I can’t actually see?
  2. Thanksgiving apologists. Some sections of social media will spend this week telling us that celebrating Thanksgiving is wrong and a mark of “privilege.” To those people, I will only offer words of wisdom from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s very own Spike, who reminded us with fair historical accuracy that, “I just can’t take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody Indians… You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That’s what conquering nations do. It’s what Caesar did, and he’s not goin’ around saying, ‘I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it.’ The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.” If you’re looking for someone to apologize for Thanksgiving and for American history writ large, boy did you come to the wrong place. 
  3. Social media experts. According to “experts” social media makes us sad, or angry, depressed, homicidal, suicidal, or any of a hundred other descriptors. The thing is social media doesn’t really “make” us any of those things. We humans, with our fancy pants free will, allow social media to have an impact on what we think or feel. If you’re using a completely optional product that causes you so much angst, it feels a little bit like a good time to exercise a little self determination instead of casting around for something or someone else to blame for your own problems. Then again, personal responsibility is never going to be cool or sexy, so just go ahead and carry on blaming social media I guess.

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.