Columbus, (Space) Exploration, and Historical Empathy

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Tuesday, October 13, 2020


Every year, when Columbus Day rolls around, it seems like we have the same argument: should we celebrate Christopher Columbus? Or should we denounce him as a genocidal white colonizer?

At this point, the debate feels trite. The left argues for the latter, and the right argues for the former; round and round the two go, yelling virtually at each other through angry Tweets and contentious rhetoric.

And yet, for all its apparent banality, the issue is more important than ever. It begs vital questions: How should we interpret the past? Should we remove all perpetrators of violence from the historical record or is there room for nuance? 

The answer lies somewhere unexpected: empathy. 

Picture this fantastical scenario for a moment: Imagine the United States is in a race with China, Russia, and Great Britain to see who can first reach Mars. The winner takes the spoils for their respective country: limitless fuel options, an exciting place to settle for the next generation of pioneers, and billions–maybe trillions–of dollars. And the United States names you–you!–as the leader of its first expedition to another planet! You’re guaranteed fame and fortune–all you have to do is accomplish the mission. 

Once you finally arrive on this new planet, you discover it’s not anything like you thought. It’s hot; you’re running out of food and it turns out that there’s not nearly as much fuel as you thought. But, suddenly, you encounter natives (Martians!). You don’t know how to talk to them, how to tell them what you’re looking for, or what your needs are. 

After a while, your crew and the Martians begin to argue. One of your crew members steals something from one of the natives, which, naturally, makes them angry. They attack your crew, or maybe you fire the first shot–it doesn’t matter. All you know now is that there are dead Americans and Martians on the ground.

You go home. There’s just enough wealth on Mars to justify a second trip, but, this time, the U.S. sends you prepared; you have full military backing.

When you arrive on Mars again, it’s a bloodbath. You were prepared for hostility, but so were the Martians. You have superior weapons, and you slaughter their forces. Furthermore, you pass diseases onto them, which decimates their population–even the women and the children. 

As silly as it sounds, this is similar to what Columbus experienced. 

When he set off to find an alternate route to the Indies, he never dreamed of what he would discover. He anticipated finding gold, spices, and vast wealth; he sought fame and fortune for himself and he promised King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that he would make Spain rich. Yet little happened as planned. He never landed in the Indies. He found very little gold and it took years for Spain to see profits from his excursions. Most shockingly, Columbus found a whole new group of people–something so surprising, in fact, some historians, such as David Abulafia, claim it was like finding “advanced life elsewhere in the Universe.”

When he first crossed the Atlantic, Columbus didn’t anticipate genocide, slavery, or subjugation. He simply sought fame, fortune, and adventure. Along the way, in a new and confusing land, things got more than messy; hundreds of thousands of natives were dead, and their land and livelihoods were taken from them. 

But theft and genocide were never the motives. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we whitewash or sugarcoat the atrocities that happened to natives. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge the travesties committed against natives at the hands of European settlers, but it does mean that we take Columbus’s intentions into consideration as we cast judgment upon his actions. It means that we have empathy for him and the situation in which he found himself. It means that we respect his enormous accomplishment. It means we have empathy–for everyone involved. 

We don’t have to choose between treating Columbus like a saint and treating him like a villain. We don’t have to choose between celebrating triumphs and mourning tragic, unnecessary losses of life. It isn’t binary.

There’s room for historical nuance and historical and moral judgment, but it begins and ends with empathy.

Ben Haines is a graduate student at Louisiana State University, where he studies European Intellectual History. When he isn’t studying, Ben can usually be found reading or writing on politics and postmodernism. He can be found on Twitter @bphaines.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Benjamin Haines

Ben Haines is a graduate student at Louisiana State University, where he studies European Intellectual History. When he isn’t studying, Ben can usually be found reading or writing on politics and postmodernism. He can be found on Twitter @bphaines.

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