In defense of the explorers (#Erikson, #Columbus)

October 9th was Leif Erikson Day, and October 12th is Columbus Day. In recent years it has become fashionable to denounce European explorers, Columbus in particular, with monuments being removed across the country. In my view this is a mistake, creating a false perception of history for short term political purposes, while ultimately perpetuating and aggregating the racial and ethnic divides these actions claim to be trying to heal. OK, now that I’ve angered half of my readers, let’s see if I can annoy the other half … 😛 … but please read on and consider. It’s a long post, but it’s a complex subject.

First, perhaps I’m a bit biased, but in the absence of older records it seems Leifr Eiríksson actually discovered America, rather than blunder into it looking for something else as did Columbus. Leifr heard about a new land from Bjarni Herjólfsson, who had been blown off course and seen it but not made landfall. Leifr bought Bjarni’s boat and deliberately retraced the voyage for the purpose of finding and exploiting that land, setting foot in what is now Newfoundland.

Leifr Eiríksson discovers America …

There are stories of earlier contact from Europe going back to Roman times, but if such contact existed (and it possibly did), they left little trace and no solid records. And of course there were many rich, complex, and fascinating (as well as utterly horrific) civilizations here. I do agree it’s somewhat dismissive to imply that if it was unknown to Europeans it needed to be “discovered” so it’s probably better to say Leifr was the first European to discover America, but of course it’s complicated. As far as we know, the indigenous peoples migrated here across the land bridges that existed at the end of the last ice age. There were certainly explorers among them – but we do not know their names or motivations. Indeed, there have always been “explorers” among us, going back to our early, pre-human ancestors, those who looked to the horizon and wondered what was there, and left the familiarity of their homes to find something better, or different, or just because. But as far as we know the major migrations were of the “let’s follow that herd of food” variety rather than the deliberate “let’s collect supplies, organize transportation, head out into the unknown and go find a new thing.” Again, no disrespect, but it’s not the same thing. (And, of course, this discussion is limited to the discovery of North America by Europeans – there were amazing explorers in the Pacific, the Middle East, India, and Africa throughout history).

The celebration of my ancestors like Leif is absolutely not to disparage Columbus – of course his explorations resulted in a permanent exchange between the hemispheres and radically changed the course of history. The Norsemen got here first, but their settlements were not permanent, in large part due to the rapidly worsening climate – but that’s a different post.

No one familiar with navigation and seamanship can read the logs of Columbus without coming away with the impression he deserves the title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”. Yes, he was lucky to avoid hurricanes, his “big picture” of the size of the earth and its continents was wrong, but his logs and measurements, using instruments primitive by our standards, allow an amazingly accurate reconstruction of his travels – he was a good sailor and made careful notes. Columbus was certain there was something out there, and about how far away it was. There are rumors of Basque fisherman exploiting the Grand Banks in his day, possibly landing on the Canadian coast from time to time, but did not share the information to keep these rich fishing grounds secret. Certainly they were by 1497, just five years after the great voyage. In any event, Columbus put together information from multiple sources to lay out his trip, and find sponsors to back him despite the prevailing opinion the trip was suicide.

Contrary to the popular myth, the debate in the age of Columbus wasn’t if the Earth was flat or round – pretty much any educated person knew it was round, seamen most of all, and Eratosthenes had correctly computed the circumference of a round earth as far back as the third century BC. The debate was over the size of the Earth and especially the size of the land masses of Asia. Columbus held to the minority view that the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan was only about 2,400 nautical miles, partly because he underestimated the circumference of the Earth, and partly by overestimating the size of Asia. It’s really about 11,000 nautical miles. Those who said his voyage was impossible, having the distance right but not knowing about the Americas, thought that entire gap was water. If it were, no ship of the time could have carried enough food and water to cross it. Columbus was bold enough (or crazy enough) to risk the trip, firm in his belief (possibly reinforced by knowledge from the Basques) there was something out there within range of his ships. So while he was “wrong” about the distance to Japan and what that something was, he as also “right” about the distance to land and bold enough to try. And the rest is history.

And that history has become increasingly controversial, given the tremendous upheavals caused by the opening of the Atlantic to European exploration/exploitation. That it would be traumatic was probably inevitable given the times: a European society that had tremendous technical advantages but had not yet been tempered by the concept of human rights collided with an Americas that were essentially stone age cultures and societies. It’s hard to imagine how that could have gone well. And it didn’t.

However, we should not be too quick to judge the actions of our ancestors by the standards of today. Human ethics, like our technology and scientific knowledge, have evolved over time. It is as unfair to judge those of Columbus’ era by our standards of human rights as it is to judge them for their failure to understand quantum mechanics.

But if you insist on going down that road, at least apply the standards consistently. Much is made of the cruelty of the Conquistadors, and there is no doubt they were by our standards, but at least some of their actions were triggered by the sheer depravity they saw on the part of the Aztecs. It is said the smell of death from the human sacrifices permeated the air for miles around their temples, and the Spanish were horrified by what they found in the main temple in the capital city of Tenochtitlan. The scale of human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism was unimaginable. Although the Spanish exaggerated the numbers, and used them as a justification for some of their excesses, the simple fact is the lowest scholarly estimates are on the order of 1,000 human sacrifices a year, with some credible estimates as high as 20,000 per year.

(edited to add) Some will ask “but what about the Inquisition?” That is a fair question and comparison. But in my view it isn’t the same for a number of reasons. In brief, let’s try to use consistent standards. In sheer numbers a recent comprehensive study showed that the executions (to be clear, by horrible torture) by the Inquisition over the 500 year period of the 13th to 19th Centuries were on the order of under 2000. That was a slow single year at the main temple in Tenochtitlan by almost all estimates. And, arguably, the Inquisition was acting against the core tenets of Christianity – and was (albeit too late) condemned for its actions, whereas the Aztec religion required human sacrifice as a core belief. So it’s both a matter of scale and of relative theology. If you want to say “well, the Spanish should have known better” you’re excusing the behavior of the Aztecs and arguably perpetuating a form of soft racism, just as emphasizing the atrocities of the Aztecs without fairly, and in context, noting the atrocities of the Spanish is wrong – even if the two are of different types and scales.

It is also important to remember that it was disease that caused the collapse of populations across the Americas – something the Spanish thought was a clear sign of their own superiority and rightness before God, understanding little to nothing of epidemiology. And it is important to remember there were only a few hundred Spaniards; local tribes, who had been exploited and victimized by the Aztecs for generations, freely joined in and helped the Spanish conquer their oppressors (yes, trading “insanely horrific” for “merely terrible”, but an upgrade nevertheless). Although we see them as closer to us and want to hold them to our standards, the Spanish of the time may have had more technology but in many areas such as medicine and ethical philosophy were not that much more advanced than their stone age victims.

None of that is to excuse the behavior of the Conquistadors. Understanding why a person or society does something is not to justify it. It’s easy and self-righteous to say “the Spanish committed genocide!” It’s also not true in a legal or ethical sense. It certainly had the effect of genocide, but for the most part there wasn’t the deliberate intent against the ethics of the times; the concept of human rights as we know it did not yet exist in mainstream thought.

Of course, the Aztecs are an extreme case. In perspective, horrible as they were, they also produced great works of engineering, science, and art. We should be adult enough to see the sophistication as well as the horror. That applies to the Conquistadors as much as the Aztecs. Most indigenous cultures were, like the Europeans, a complex mix of good and bad. Thinking of them as peaceful children of nature is just as warped a view of history as a total damnation of the Spanish. To be sure, in the past there has been too much hagiography of the explorers of the age of Columbus. The harm their actions inflicted has often been ignored, their now unaccptable moral worldviews on issues such as race and religion not properly examined in perspective. Far too often the celebration of European explorers has been used as a not so subtle way of disparaging and oppressing indigenous peoples, and those stories have been lost. Trying to preserve and tell their side of history is long overdue, and recognizing the harm is essential for understanding and reconciliation of our shared history.

Ultimately the problem with the Aztecs, or a modern evil like Nazis, much less the more nuanced case of the Conquistadors, are not that they are some kind of inhuman evil. The problem is they are all too human. When we overly demonize this or that culture or society – even the really odious ones – we reduce the complexity and spectrum of human behavior to black and white, good or evil, usually over issues of our day, not theirs. And that’s just not realistic or helpful.

So somehow we have to find a balance and shared truth of history. Certainly a “correction” and wider perspective was needed in the uncritical view of European history. But I feel the pendulum has swung too far, and those who want to tear down the monuments and condemn those explorers have become as hypocritical as those who unquestionably glorified European exploits. One example is a quote from the logs of Columbus recounting his first contact with the natives that is often repeated by his critics and usually makes the rounds this time of year. The quote in question is …

They ought to make good and skilled slaves, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them.

Seen that way it would appear outrageous, yet this is taken out of context.. Here is the quote in context:

Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies … I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants (slaves, depending on the translation), for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases Our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.

Different interpretation, and not quite what those who retweet the fragment want to portray. This said, while not as bad as many others Columbus did engage in what was effectively a slave trade, and treated the indigenous peoples harshly when he came under financial pressure. But his actions were well within the accepted norms of the times – note from the quote that slavery was common in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Europeans (much less the horrors of the Aztecs). This was true throughout the world. Pressing other humans into involuntary servitude is a common failing throughout human history in virtually every culture to one degree or another. Europeans didn’t start it, but modern western culture is, finally, making some attempts to end it.

It is vital to realize that the period from 1500 to 1900 saw enormous changes in our society including the birth of the modern concept of human rights, concepts that grew out of the age of the Conquestadores. The issue of slavery and race is of course bound up in all that. This already long post would need to be book length to discuss the rich and complex history of individuals like Bartolomé de las Casas, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Cardinal Archbishop Domingo de Mendoza of Seville, leading to the Papal Bull forbidding enslaving the indigenous peoples (Sublimis Deus), all of which slowly – and at great pain though events ranging from the American Civil War to Nuremberg to Rwanda – has led to our modern view of human rights.

And speaking of the Catholic Church, it too was struggling forward along with the rest of humanity, trying in its human institutions to live up to the teachings received from Christ. de las Casas is said to have begged for forgiveness for his initial advocacy of enslaving Africans rather than Indians, saying “I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery… and I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God.” Should we damn him for his earlier mistake, or applaud him for pushing against the tides of his times? In my opinion, like the founding fathers of the United States, we can strike a balance: applaud them for their lofty goals and views that laid he groundwork for our modern world, while yet acknowledging they had flaws and didn’t always live up to those ideals.

Our ancestors were far from perfect. Guess what? We aren’t either – our successors will no doubt look back in horror at certain aspects of our age. We are still struggling with these same issues; there are probably numerically more slaves in the world today than there were in 1860, and the treatment of ethnic groups around the world, particularly outside the “western world” of European society (as imperfect as that seems at times), often remains horrific. How will our descendants view our blind eye to widespread slavery in the Islamic world simply because we want their oil? Yet hopefully our descendants will also see the good in us, try to understand why we have done what we did, honor our success, and forgive us our weakness, mistakes and failings.

The complexity and nuance of the issue of how we remember the past – and manipulate it to shape the present and future – sparks such emotion there is no way one blog post does any aspect of it any real justice. We can’t lose sight as to how far we have come, just as we must not fail to continue to improve. That improvement cannot come from either hagiography or demonization, but only by through a deep understanding of the complexity of the problems our ancestors faced, and the decisions they took.

So I continue to celebrate the days commemorating the explorers while also recalling with sadness those who suffered. I strongly feel that taking down memorials to the explorers is a major mistake; a better course of action is to also elevate those who have been ignored, and ensure both aspects are in context; it’s not a zero sum game. History is complex, and each generation reinterprets it through the lens of their own foibles and concerns. Only by openly appreciating both the good and the bad, and understanding them within the context of the times in which they lived, can we learn and grow.

In conclusion, I feel a strong connection with the explorers in history. True, my tools are satellites, lasers, radars and computers rather than the Drakkur (longship), sólarstein (sunstone), and Skeggøx (ax) of my forefathers. But the forces that drive me – curiosity, the desire for a better world, and, of course to provide for my family – are really the same forces that drove them. Those forces can be directed for good, for evil, or far more often some mix of the two. It’s all part of the struggle of being human.

5 thoughts on “In defense of the explorers (#Erikson, #Columbus)

  1. Enjoyed your needed attempt to promote a reconciliation of two disparate views than a redacted version. Jim wilson

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  2. Nailed it! I am so thankful that you take the time to share the range and depth of your knowledge and that you communicate your thoughts in an understandable way.

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  3. What books do you recommend to learn more about the pre-Columbian civilizations? I know a lot of their history was destroyed when the first Europeans arrived, but not all of it.

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