Monday, October 13, 2008

On Columbus Day, in praise of discovery

When I was a boy we were taught that Columbus' voyages, and the other expeditions of the Spaniards and the Portuguese, and later of the Dutch and the English, were epic, inspirational tales. We learned it was an Age of Discovery, as European eyes were opened to the wonders and the riches of a new and unimagined world.

It has since become fashionable to rethink all this. The Conquistadors were cruel exploiters, robbers, brigands, destroyers of indigenous peoples. Later settlers were invaders, despoilers. Berkeley, California, in fact, does not observe Columbus Day at all: Today, according to its civic calendar, is Indigenous Peoples Day.

Both narratives are too simple. Yes, the first explorers brought death and destruction to the native populations... but the worst devastation was wrought, not by weaponry or military force, but by accident. By forces neither the explorers nor the indigenous peoples were able to understand: Microbes. The result would have been the same if the Spaniards arrived as willing pupils, eager to respect and admire the indigenous cultures.

If Charles C. Mann's 1491 (reviewed on Second Effort at this post) is correct, Indian populations in North and South America alike were far greater at the outset of the Age of Discovery than when the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. What early settlers thought of as a pristine wilderness was really a graveyard, peopled by a bare remnant. (Remember Squanto, whose timely assistance saved the Pilgrims? He had escaped English captivity only to return to a home that no longer existed. His people had been wiped out by disease.)

The pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of North and South America tamed nature in ways that Western science is only now beginning to understand and appreciate -- but they were not superior beings ready to ascend to an astral plane. They were people. They quarreled, they fought wars; in some cultures they practiced human sacrifice, sometimes on an almost industrial scale. The Aztecs would never have been defeated by the handful of Spanish soldiers who opposed them, even with the Spaniards' superior technologies. The Conquistadors would themselves have been easily conquered but for the fact that they recruited huge numbers of their own as they marched through the countryside -- willing allies, not subjugated slaves, a truly popular rising to throw off their cruel Aztec masters.

Spanish subjugation came later.

It is too simple, then, to say that the Age of Discovery was only "Good" or only "Bad." There was tragedy as well as triumph. But from this often painful fusion of the Old World and the New, came America, the hope of the world.

Today the whole world is mapped. Spy satellites can read license plates in parking lots and direct missiles down chimneys. Still, we don't entirely understand our world. We know the climate is changing because we've learned that the world's climate has always changed, over time. We reason that our own activities are having on impact on change currently, even if we disagree on how much or what kind. Or whether a particular observed change is the product of a global phenomenon or a purely local one.

Of course, we only have this one example to work with -- even though God has provided us with a seemingly limitless number of stars and planets for us to discover and explore.

Some day, far in an unimaginable future, we may encounter a planet with indigenous sentient beings (even the Vatican acknowledges the possibility). My hope is that we remember what we have learned from the tragedies of our past Age of Discovery and apply those lessons for the benefit of ourselves and those whom we may encounter alike.

And, in the immediate future, as we explore our own backyard, and see how other planets work close up, perhaps we can learn more, too, about the operation of our own. But only if we overcome our new prejudice against discovery and exploration.

Happy Columbus Day.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

wow curmy, that's a scary thought that never entered my head! but how true! microbes huh? man...

smiles, bee

Sarge Charlie said...

the land of fruits and nuts......

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Why do we have to 're-think' history due to current thinking?

The Beach Bum said...

Curmudgeon -

I've always wondered why you don't see too many Native Americans participating in or watching Columbus Day Parades.

The Beach Bum

Patti said...

You would have made a great astronaut.