People pulling Christopher Columbus off his pedestal are very narrow-minded.
First of all, they judge a 15th-century explorer by standards of the 21st century.
Yes, Columbus brought to the New World almost four centuries of European-type slavery. Unfortunately, before Columbus, slavery existed among native peoples in the Americas. It also flourished outside of Europe.
Why do you think the French built those cute hilltop villages in Provence? To protect villagers from slave-raiding parties from what is now Algeria.
Why is there still bad blood between the Slavic residents of Russian-occupied Crimea and the Crimean Tatars? Between 1474 and 1700, an estimated 1 million captive Slavs passed through Crimea to the slave markets of the Ottoman Empire.
If the Aztec empire had moved north from Mexico, would it have left a trail of sweetness and light on its way to the Hudson Bay? What would America be like if a Ming Emperor had not burned his fleet in the mid-1400s and China had colonized the Americas from Asia? The Russian Empire was late to the party, but its record in Alaska in the early 1800s was genocidal.
Yes, Columbus’ voyages opened a long-isolated part of the world to a series of fatal diseases. But in 1492, Europe was recovering from the Black Death with a fuzzy understanding of what killed half of its population.
Five centuries after Columbus, in 1990, I flew in a Venezuelan Air Force helicopter to make a first encounter with a band of Yanomami Indians in the Amazon. Before boarding, we did not undergo any more health checks than did the Spanish sailors who boarded the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria on Aug. 3, 1492. Today, after the world fumbled the coronavirus epidemic, it is hard to fault Columbus for not insisting that everyone off the boats on Oct. 12, 1492, wear surgical masks.
People pulling Columbus off his pedestal seem to scorn the ability of the individual to change history. Columbus was a complex package of genius, greed, persistence, political skill, vanity and great personal courage. Like all real people, he had plenty of faults. But we kick a core pillar out from American society if we do not teach children about the impact of dreamers, explorers and entrepreneurs.
Finally, as followers of identity politics, Columbus detractors are remarkably narrow-minded. Politicians take note: In the 2000 census, the largest ethnic group in Berkshire County was Italian-Americans — 16.5 percent. (Irish-Americans came in second at 16.4 percent.) The Berkshires has three chapters of the Knights of Columbus, the national Catholic group dedicated in part to celebrating the Italian explorer. Spain celebrates Columbus Day with wild abandon. In this country, Latinos, about 5 percent of the Berkshire population, seem split or ambivalent.
Learning about history should not be a zero-sum game. We live in special time in the Berkshires. We now have easy access to serious scholarship about the pre-Columbian inhabitants of our lands. Through Jan. 9, readers can visit “Muh-he-con-ne-ok: The People of the Waters That Are Never Still,” an excellent exhibition on the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Indians, on the second floor of the Berkshire Museum. There also are two other shows in Stockbridge at the Library and Mission House on the Native American inhabitants of the Berkshires.
In short, Columbus Day is a good time to open your mind.