Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Columbus Day (late, but still relevant)

(Note: The following was written as a letter to the editor to the Florida Times-Union, in response to a Columbus Day editorial which misrepresented the nature of Native American culture and society as well as the nature of the encounter itself. The Times-Union editors exercising their right of freedom of the press- they are, after all, free to publish or not publish whatever they want- did not publish my response.)

In their editorial "Civilization: Day to Remember" (October 11, 2002), the Times-Union editorial writers have provided their readers with an example of precisely why a real university education, as opposed to simple career training, is vital in today's world. The writers display a hair-raising level of ignorance with regard to both the nature of the indigenous American populations at the time of Columbus, and also the nature of the consequences of the Encounter. As if this were not enough, they quote as their authority a "researcher" at the Ayn Rand Institute, a center for the diffusion of ethnocentric polemic hiding under cover of a libertarian "philosophy."

To quote the "researcher": "Prior to 1492, what is now the United States was sparsely inhabited, unused and undeveloped. The inhabitants were primarily hunter-gatherers."  It is true that population density, overall, was lower than in Europe, but in some regions it was certainly as high or higher, where conditions supported dense populations. But that the land was "unused and undeveloped" is Orwellian doublespeak, true only if you define "used" and "developed" by European notions, under which people have to live in one place and practice farming on a bounded plot of land.

Yes, some Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, people who tend to have a very well-elaborated knowledge of their ecosystem and how best to exploit it. And while it is true that such peoples typically lack the ability to store food, and therefore must forage on a daily or near-daily basis, it is not true that their lives are "nasty, brutish, and short" as the "researcher" claims. They generally live very healthy, happy lives, with more leisure time to devote to relaxation, music, storytelling, and sexual trysts than people have in modern industrial societies, unless they’ve been pushed off their productive lands, as is generally the case for today's hunter-gatherers.

Native Americans were not all hunter-gatherers, however. By 1492 they had organized themselves into a diverse array of societal types, including, in several regions, state societies as complex as anything known to the conquering Europeans, complete with social stratification, division of labor, written language, full-time religious specialists, a military, and so on. So, to argue that the Europeans brought "civilization" to the Americas is a blatant lie.

To suggest as the Ayn Rand "researcher" does that there was "little agriculture" in Pre-Columbian America is also a lie. Native American farmers grew an astounding variety of foods. Perhaps their most important contribution to world cuisine was corn, but they also provided potatoes, which became a cheap and easy-to-grow source of food for Europeans. Some other Native American contributions: tomatoes, peanuts, squash and pumpkins, chili peppers, pineapples, various kinds of beans, papaya, guava, avocado, cassava, cocoa (chocolate), and turkeys. Try to imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes, or the Swiss without chocolate.

What did the Europeans bring to the Americas in exchange for this bounty? They contributed the Eurasian suite of domesticated animals (horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats) and grains (wheat, oats, barley, etc.), which were mixed blessings when we take into account the social and ecological disruptions which they caused.  Probably the most important crop contributed by the Europeans was actually one from southeast Asia: sugar cane. But, significantly, this was not a food crop, but rather one which, cultivated and processed into sugar, molasses, and rum by millions of enslaved Africans (industrialized slavery was another European contribution to the New World), provided much of the capital for the industrial revolution and the rise of European world hegemony.

The Europeans also contributed influenza and smallpox, which helped them by killing off huge numbers of Native Americans before they ever even saw a European. They sometimes used smallpox deliberately, in an early form of biological warfare.

My point in writing this is not to put Columbus on trial; after all he's dead, so what would be the point? But, as the historian Howard Zinn says, "to emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves- unwittingly- to justify what was done."
It also makes it easier to keep doing it.


  1. nice quote by Professor Howard Zinn- he has been missed, he is missed, and he will be missed.

  2. and...1492 was the year that the Spanish Inquisition started after the forced conversion or expulsion of the Spanish Jews and Spanish Muslims.


Comments and feedback are welcome, as long as they conform to normal standards of civility and decency. I will delete comments that do not meet these standards.