People aren’t stupid. We learn.
Sometimes lessons are fanciful fables that reassure us; sometimes they’re difficult realizations of our past, and ourselves.
Columbus statues aren’t symbols of humanity’s progress, one man’s courage or Italians’ intelligence. However, they represent racism and hate less than ignorance and greed.
The Peoria Park District this month is expected to decide the fate of the local Columbus statue, according to PPD director Emily Cahill, who said a committee of trustees and staff was expected to meet Sept. 1, followed by a Board meeting either Sept. 9 or 23. The NAACP and other groups asked for its removal, and Cahill told the Community Word that’s an option, along with leaving it with interpretive signage, changing it to represent someone else, and doing nothing.
We need to learn from the past – actual, factual history – and monuments don’t help, showing what we claim to value or what we choose to remember (or forget).
Too many school textbooks stress comforting myths, not facts. Publishers and schools may avoid rocking the boat, or feel content with familiar propaganda, no matter how false.
Thomas Cahill, author of “The Hinges of History” series, wrote, “Many Americans will recall having suffered through a school pageant or two meant to dramatize the monumental encounter between the Genoese ship captain and the Spanish royal couple. And since such dramatizations invariably contain almost as much misinformation as they do historical fact, it is worth revisiting the great moment with a colder eye.”
Central Illinois native James Loewen, author of 1995’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” wrote, “We must pay attention to what the textbooks are telling us and what they are not telling us.”
Changes in Europe and other explorers set up Columbus’ voyage and set the stage for Europe’s world domination for centuries. Columbus’ 1492 voyage was funded by Spain’s Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who that year led the “reconquest” of Spain and launched the Spanish Inquisition and expelled Muslims and Jews who didn’t convert to Christianity.
The most significant Columbus-era details omitted from most textbooks, said Loewen, a 78-year-old scholar from Decatur who taught at the University of Vermont and Catholic University of America, are the rise of military technology, emerging social technology (esp. the printing press), the growing acceptance of prestige tied to wealth and power, increasingly aggressive proselytizing by Christianity; and the zeal for controlling islands, from Sardinia and Malta to the Canary Islands and Ireland.
History can be complicated, surprising, exhilarating and shameful. But if everyday Americans accept incomplete or inferior histories, we lose teaching moments associated with facts that are uncomfortable, even disgraceful.
“Historians do not know all the answers,” said Loewen, “hence history is not just a process of memorizing them.”
Reflecting on our country’s background, we’re torn between extremes: A unified march taming the wilderness, establishing liberty and developing a great nation, or a dark land-grab sloshing through blood of innocents and fouling the world.
Columbus’ purpose was neither seeking a new route to the Far East, nor adventure. It was conquest, unlike Vikings who settled in North America or the seafaring Africans, Phoenicians and Egyptians who probably made the trek hundreds of years before.
Describing the indigenous people he confronted in Haiti (the West Indies island now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Columbus wrote, “They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion… Everything they have they give for anything given to them.
“I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men and govern them as I please.”
He initially kidnapped dozens of Indians to take to Spain (though fewer than 10 survived the trip), and on his second voyage in 1493 – with more than 1,000 armed men, cavalry and attack dogs – he demanded food, gold, cotton and even sex. He started punishing natives severely for breaking laws; they resisted, went to war and were defeated.
The slave trade stepped up in 1495, when 500 Indians were shipped to Europe. Hundreds died en route, but Columbus wrote, “Although they die now, they will not always die. The Negroes and Canary Islanders died at first.”
Loewen said, “Because the Indians died, Indian slavery then led to the massive slave trade the other way across the Atlantic, from Africa.”
An island once home to millions of people, according to Kirkpatrick Sale’s “The Conquest of Paradise, “ the population was decimated: to 12,000 by 1516, to 200 by 1542, and exterminated by 1555, according to Benjamin Keen in “The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia.”
Bartolome de las Casas, who was there and wrote “History of the Indies” (published after his 1566 death), described the “brutality” of the Spaniards, who he called “utterly ruthless and cruel.
“They made bets as to who would slit a man in two, or cut off his head at one blow: or they opened up his bowels. They tore the babes from their mothers’ breast by the feet, and dashed their heads against the rocks,” wrote De las Casas, a priest. “Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits. It should be kept in mind that their insatiable greed and ambition, the greatest ever seen in the world, is the cause of their villainies.”
Before Peoria’s Columbus statue was moved to its Bradley Park site in 1947, the Alfons Pelzer piece was erected in 1902 to promote the Uplands neighborhood, not ethnic pride. Still, some assume Italian Americans revere Columbus.
Commenting on Chicago’s Columbus statue, Gabriel Piemonte of the Italian-American Heritage Society said, “Italian Americans condemn the honoring of Columbus, the murderer, mutilator and enslaver. This symbol is dead.”
Loewen said, “Columbus’ conquest of Haiti can be seen as an amazing feat of courage and imagination by the first of many brave empire builders. It can also be understood as a bloody atrocity that left a legacy of genocide and slavery that endures in some degree to this day.
“Our textbooks are not about teaching history,” he continued. “Their enterprise is Building Character. They therefore treat Columbus as an origin story. He was good and so are we.
“When textbooks paint simplistic portraits of a pious, heroic Columbus,” he added. “they provide feel-good history.”
“The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia”
“The Conquest of Paradise”
“Documents of West Indies History”
“Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World”
“The Italian Renaissance and the Rise of the West”
“Lost Tribes and Promised Lands: The Origins of American Racism”
“A People’s History of the United States”
“They Came Before Columbus”
“Voice of A People’s History of the United States”