Monday, October 11, 2010

Discovery and Change

It's Columbus Day today in America. It's the day dedicated to remembering Christopher Columbus landing in the New World on 12 Oct 1492, in the Bahamas. Coincidentally, it's also Thanksgiving Day for Canadians, so Happy Thanksgiving, Canadians! Enjoy your sweet pickled beaver and roasted moose!

When I was younger, Columbus Day was a federal holiday--still is; except back then, there was no school and banks were closed. Now, it's up to individual states how to celebrate the day of discovery. I liked being off from school, because it meant an extended weekend holiday and there were only four days of school left in the week. I never gave much thought to Columbus Day, other than wonder what life was like aboard the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria--and wouldn't it have been better if the Santa Maria was named something that rhymed with the first two, like the Quinta or the Hasta La Vista?

As I grew older, I was surprised to discover that some people actually protest against Columbus Day. I thought to myself, Good gawd! Who doesn't want a day off? Seriously? I was curious and started to do some research. Suffice it to say it was an eye opening experience. While everyone agrees that Columbus' discovery was a momentous event that changed the world, it's the impact of that change that's being challenged and debated.

I was in high school, in my late teens, and until I started researching, it never occurred to me that Columbus' discovery marked the beginning of some of the darkest chapters in human history. I never thought about how Columbus and the Europeans would see the New World as a resource, including the people, whom they considered inferior. I never thought about how the indigenous people of the Americas were subjected to slavery, slaughtered if they resisted European conquests, and were wiped out from the diseases and the destruction the Europeans brought with them. They don't tell you about this stuff in classes when you're making drawings of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

And they certainly don't tell you about how these native peoples were forced to labor in dangerous mines for gold and silver to fuel European conquests and religious wars. Not to mention how this was beginning of the global slavery of an entire race of people from another continent, kidnapped and forced to work in dangerous, difficult conditions.

The truth is, Christopher Columbus was a horrible man. He enslaved the natives, sold their children into sexual slavery, and butchered them for resisting. And these were the honest, kind natives who helped salvaged the Santa Maria when it was shipwrecked. Within 50 years, these native people were extinct, exterminated by Columbus with the blessings of royalty and the compliance of the Church. It was genocide. And when there were no more natives to enslave, an entire new race of people were kidnapped and forced from the African continent. And the slave trading of the African peoples would flourish for the next four hundred years, their dehumanization would last well into this millineum.

It was the beginning of the end for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Europeans not only brought soldiers to subjugate the natives, they also brought their priests to wipe out the natives beliefs and ideology. For the next five hundred years, the accomplishments of the indigenous peoples, their history, and their very way of life would be exterminated and erased systematically by the immigrant Europeans bent on conquest.

It's kind of ironic how the American Thanksgiving was basically a day created by those Pilgrims to share with the American Indians their harvest, to thank the Indians for helping them survive in the harsh new world. The Native Americans taught these immigrants how to farm, and fish, and hunt in the new environment. Perhaps if the American Indians had foreseen the destruction those Pilgrims and their descendants would bring, they would've left those Europeans to starve and die. But they did not know that their kindness and mercy upon these foreigners would lead to the destruction of the Native American peoples and their way of life.

I suppose it's easier to look back in hindsight and see the mistakes that were made and the failures of the past. The truth is, those people did what they thought was right, what they thought was the norm for their time. We're doing the same. But times change, thankfully. We live and learn for the most part. And I'd like to think we've made some strides since those dark days. We've abolished slavery and women have been granted the right to vote. The history books are being rewritten as the achievements and legacy of the indigenous people are now being recognized and given their due. The surviving natives have embraced their culture and stand with pride. In some parts of the Americas, including the US, Columbus Day has been renamed and celebrated as a day dedicated to the native Americans. In other places, it's dedicated to the multicultural heritage of the Americas.

Everyone agrees that Columbus making contact with the New World was a global event that changed not only the course of human history and development, but has changed the world as we know it. Species crossed into new environments; landscapes were razed and reconstructed in the race to obtain resources; groups of people and animals and plants were wiped out from new diseases and war and the changing geopolitical and natural environment.

We still have some ways to go to improve the lives of not just the native peoples, but the people of the Americas as a whole. But out of the clash of the Old World and the New World, a new people was born out of the mixture of cultures and ideas. We've forged an identity of our own. And though we may speak many different languages and have many different ideas, one thing still remains, these lands are our home, and we all share a responsibility not only to care for these lands, but for all the peoples who live upon it.

I'm not sure how we should celebrate Columbus Day. I'd still rather have the day off. I support celebrating it as a day to remember the indigenous people of the Americas. But I also think that Columbus' achievement should also be remembered. After all, this was an event that changed the course of human history. And maybe that's what Columbus Day should be about. It should be about change. Whether or not that change is positive is up to the people who live in these times. After all, change only happens when people take action. And I'd like to think that Columbus Day is a day to remind us to take action and to do our part to learn from mistakes of the past; to do the right thing; and make the world a much better place for all of us: the immigrants, the natives, and all those who've come to call this place home.


  1. Perhaps we should all go to the Bahamas to celebrate Columbus Day? Or have the drink called the Bahama Mama. That sounds good too. After a certain number of those drinks, it won't matter what the holiday's about!

    I work at a college and the school isn't closed today. A few of us have received calls from students asking if we're open today, as if we'd be answering the phone if we weren't.

  2. I'm thinking of another kind of Discoverer's Day ...

    Consider how humans mistreat fellow humans when one society has superior technology and how humans mistreat animals because they are seen as lesser life forms.

    I'm thinking we might not fare so well vs space-faring aliens.

  3. I can see why the controversy over Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.

    I think it's true that people tend to live according to the norms of their time. And, as you've rightly pointed out, times have changed.

    Can we apologise for our ancestors? No. Can we learn from what they did? Yes. With understanding and compassion, we'll teache our children from our mistakes.

    There is hope for us yet. After all, 20 years ago, the banks would have just been closed and that would have been the end of that debate.

    I am thankful you're my blog friend. If ever you're this way, there's a bottle of red waiting.

  4. Canada still today has shameful treatments of First Nations people on reserve. I don't know what the answer is, but it's good to raise the issue.

    Today TM and I are hosting Thanksgiving. It will mainly be my family as his parents are in Tokyo right now, but we are frantically cleaning and cooking!

  5. Tara, A Bahama Mama on a beach in the Bahamas should definitely be the way to celebrate Columbus Day!

    I asked at work yesterday if we get holiday pay for working Columbus Day--the other coworkers laughed for two minutes and said afterwards that it was the funniest thing they've heard all summer. So I take it, no holiday pay.

    XL, If we've learned anything from V the final battle, it's that the aliens will kick our assess and enslave our cities and populations. We'll be reduced to forming resistance cells and trying to fight those rat eating aliens!

    Roses, You're absolutely right. We have to learn from our past to create a better future. It's true what they say. Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.

    Snooze, At least Canada acknowledges the existence of their natives and have included them in the Winter Olympics, for the entire world to see.

    I hope you had a great Thanksgiving! You certainly have quite a few things to be thankful for! Cheers!

  6. The answer is universal love. We must all start loving each other. Whatever skin colour, sexuality, age, physical appearence, nationality, political affiliation.

    Let's go discover our new lovers. All the lovers!

  7. We are not much different Down under. Australia Day v Invasion Day
    National Sorry Day, The walk for reconcilliation between the indigenous and non people.

    Can't change the past but we can create a more accepting and less ignorant and celebratory future...

    The times they can be changed....

    Thanx for a vey tought provoking post Eros....

  8. It’s The Freakin’ Green Elf Shorts Caption Competition over at Donn’s blog!

  9. Excellent report Mr Swings!

    We are witnessing a cultural changing of the guard. Millenia of simply accepting traditions from previous generations is circling the drain..not nearly fast enough mind you but the main supporters that prop up these occasions are corporations who want to make a they will drag them out as long as possible.

    I've always loved that poster of the Navajo warriors with the caption 'Homeland Security, since 1492'.

    Columbus was a monstrous egomaniac but Isabella needs to take her fair share of the blame too.

    It's shocking to see how the Old World viewed these savages as subhuman. Half of the Puritans starved to death the first winter and they prolly all would have died were it not for the locals..and how do they repay them!? Plus they started importing slaves to add to their list of crimes.

    Yes, the New World started off poorly but so did nearly every city, country or empire. It's the way we did/do things.

  10. CP, Ah, that is the answer. All we need is love.

    Princess, It's a good thing times do change. Just being aware of the issues is the first step; an important step. And I'm glad that people are talking and starting to take action to create that better future by working together and understanding that while we can't change the past, we can work now in the present to make a better future for us all.

    MJ, Fantastic! I shall update my side bar to bring attention to this news!

    Donn, It is tragic that the enslavement and subjugation of a people is often what jump starts a civilization. Makes you dread when we do make first contact with other beings. They'll probably treat us the same awful way.

    I'd like to think that we are more aware now of our actions, and it's a good sign when we start to question things instead of just accepting tradition. It's how we progress and evolve...hopefully, into better human beings.

  11. Interesting points. I think it is important to think of days such as this in several contexts. Like you say, it is a good time to remind us of the mistakes of history, and how we learned to start doing the right thing.

    I am Fickle Cattle.

  12. Fickle Cattle, Welcome!

    It's true. If we learn from the lessons of the past, we can avoid repeating them and use what we learn to make ourselves and our lives and future much better.