The celebration of the “discovery” of the New World by a Portuguese sailor is indeed an ambiguous affair. While Christopher Columbus might not have been the first to arrive in the Americas, he was certainly the first to make their existence common knowledge in other parts of the world. Although his discovery led to an influx of settlers from war-torn and repressive Europe, which in turn contributed to the destruction of the Native American way of life, he should not be demonized. Jennifer Molina of the La Raza group has stated that a national holiday in his honor is “like celebrating ‘Hitler Day.'” But Columbus was no Hitler and is rightfully presented as a hero to all Americans and citizens of the world with an adventurous spirit.
The protest in front of Coffman Union on Monday wrongfully placed blame for the colonization and conquest of the Americas on Columbus’ shoulders. The man undertook a journey of incredible magnitude, subjecting himself to ridicule from both his countrymen and contemporary scholars, in order to face the unknown and accomplish what no man had done before.
The slaughter of Native Americans was the direct result of policies originating with expansionist rulers of 16th and 17th century Europe. The Dutch and Portuguese slave traders, the Spanish conquistadors and the English colonists all helped make America what it is today only by exploiting and spilling the blood of Native Americans and Africans. Columbus’ sole contribution to this process was pointing out that a new land was out there — although he never figured it out for himself, believing until his death that he had reached the East Indies.
If we celebrated a holiday in honor of Hernando Cortez or Francisco Pizarro, then protests by La Raza and the American Indian Student Cultural Center would be justified. Cortez led the conquest and destruction of the Aztec civilization; Pizarro did the same to the Incas. Like Hitler, they nearly destroyed a race. Columbus was not Hitler, Cortez or Pizarro; he discovered a new world, little more or less.
Columbus could not have foreseen the end results of his feat. He died long before other Europeans arrived in multitudes to settle and tame the New World. Later, explorers and settlers should have been fully cognizant of the crimes they were committing, but Columbus only wanted to make a little money by finding a shortcut to the East. He found a new continent and told everyone about it. His successors were the ones who traversed the Atlantic in order to conquer the new lands.
State representative Phyllis Kahn’s observations bear merit, even if they sound hollow coming from a politician. Student organizations should stop wasting their time with meaningless protests based on misplaced animosity. Rather than rallying against an innocent man, accomplishing nothing more than the marginalizing the protesters themselves, groups should concentrate on worthwhile causes for which there is not only a real need for public debate, but also for which change is important and founded in modern challenges or accurate historical record.