My Turn: Good-bye Columbus and what might have been

  • DANIEL A. BROWN

  • The Christopher Columbus statue at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle in New York. AP

Published: 10/5/2021 4:23:06 PM

Few historical figures have undergone such a radical transformation in recent years as that illustrious Genoese, Christopher Columbus. From being one of the most revered explorers who bravely sailed the ocean blue, he is now condemned as the worst genocidal killer ever, much to the relief of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Genghis Khan.

To be fair, it’s doubtful that Chris woke up one sunny morning and thought “I’m bored. I think I’ll discover a new continent and exterminate millions of happy, carefree, innocent native peoples.” No, his intent was more prosaic. He wanted to make a buck. Obtaining spices from the East Indies was the ticket to fame and fortune so Columbus decided that instead of slogging east around Africa, he’d head west and bump into Southwest Asia in a week or two. By 1492, all literate Europeans knew the Earth was round.

Other adventurers had attempted this route before him but they had either disappeared or, like the Vikings, chose not to remain in the new lands they found. But had Columbus never existed, someone else would have eventually come to the New World with the same doleful results. The Age of Exploration was in full swing and Europe was busting out to find what lay around the next corner. If their motives were based on greed and exploitation, that made them not much different than many other inhabitants of the harsh time period of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Contrary to revisionist mythology, the inhabitants of the pre-1492 New World were not living in some spiritual, one-with-the-earthy, Kumbaya paradise. War, oppression, massacres, imperialist conquest, hierarchy and environmental despoliation existed there as in everywhere. The effects were less destructive because indigenous folks lacked the lethal technology of the new arrivals who also threw white supremacy (the English and the Dutch primarily) and Christian fanaticism (mainly the Spanish) into the mix.

In his 1897 sci-fi classic, “The War of the Worlds,” author H.G. Wells hints that whenever a superior technology meets a lesser one, the latter suffers. One wonders what would have transpired in the Americas if some other nation, other than the Europeans, had gotten there first.

It almost happened. From 1405 to 1433, the leading maritime power on the planet was not Spain or Portugal but China. Led by the intrepid admiral (and eunuch) Zheng He, Chinese fleets sailed as far west as the eastern coast of Africa and up into present-day Saudi Arabia. And what fleets they were, vast armadas not to be seen on the ocean until World War I. Zheng’s fleet consisted of over a hundred ships and up to 28,000 men, a far cry from Columbus’s dinky trio of caravels and 200 sailors. Zheng’s flagship itself was a nine-masted monster that dwarfed the Santa Maria. A typical Chinese fleet contained dozens of support vessels including water tankers, horse transporters and patrol ships. Most contained trade goods such as porcelain, silks, or other ornate wares crafted by the Chinese dynasty.

What would have happened had Zheng switched directions and headed east? He might have come upon the highly sophisticated Aztec Empire although he would have been repelled by their barbaric habit of human sacrifice. If arriving further north, Zheng could have colonized the sparsely populated areas of the North American coast. How he would have treated the native peoples is anyone’s guess but the notion that as fellow “people of color,” all would have been harmonious is naive modern thinking. Nobody in the 1400s thought that way and besides, the Tibetans might have an opinion on that stereotype.

In the end, it is all conjecture. Assuming that China had all that it needed, the emperor abruptly banned further oceanic travel on pain of death and turned inward. The New World would become the hegemony of the European powers.

It should be noted that white Europeans were just as brutal to each other back then as they were to the indigenous populations of the New World. Starting in 1540 and continuing for over a hundred years, Europe embarked on a series of savage religious wars that killed over 10,000,000 men, women and children, depopulated parts of central Europe and reduced some sections to cannibalism. The frightful atrocities committed rival anything perpetrated by Christopher Columbus and company.

The term “historical trauma” is in vogue these days, usually applied to what people of color have endured over the centuries. For me, the phrase is an apt description of all human history. And so it goes.

Daniel A. Brown lived in Franklin County for 44 years and is a frequent contributor to the Recorder. He lives in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico with his wife, Lisa and dog, Cody. He invites constructive comments only at dbrown1793@gmail.com.


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