Columbus Day: Some Historical Perspective
Together, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are the foundation myths of America. I have been ambivalent, in the litteral meaning of the word, towards Columbus Day for years now. I celebrate America and Columbus' "discovery" of the "New World" because the result of his discovery and the ultimate founding of America is that my family, myself included, is alive and thriving today. Without America, my family would have been exterminated in the genocide of Nazi Germany if not before that in the genocide of the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and later Stalin's genocide in the Soviet Union.
But I am reminded every Columbus day of the genocides on which the founding of America was based. My family had a refuge from genocide because of a previous genocide committed against the natives of America. How's THAT for ambivalence?
The year 1421 is the year when China possibly discovered much of the world. And 1491 is, of course, the year before Columbus sailed. These two years are the titles for two books that re-examine the legacy of Columbus and what came before him.
In 1421, the author tries to recreate the voyages of a series of large Chinese fleets that may have sailed around the world. Long before that year Chinese fleets sailed routinely around the Indian Ocean, including to Africa. That is well established. The Chinese fleets were better, larger and better equipped by far than the European fleets until perhaps the 19th century. Had China been more motivated to do so, they certainly could have pre-empted European exploration and colonization with great ease. This book suggests that they almost did. A great fleet did sail in that year and it is clear that it was ambitious in its goals and may well have explored outside the Indian Ocean that was the main focus of earlier Chinese fleets. The book outlines extensive routes that the Chinese fleets MIGHT have taken based on the authors experiences with ocean currents while serving in the Royal Navy on a submarine. It outlines possible exploreation of Africa, the Americas, Antarctica, Australia, and the Arctic north of Siberia. The book is plausible, but it winds up being so convinced that it is right that it makes claims way beyond the evidence. Much of the evidence provided is dubious, though some is compelling. Evidence of possible Chinese shipwrecks across the globe from that period are perhaps the best evidence given if they turn out to be what the author claims they are. So far none have been adequately expored partly because the exploration of shipwrecks is an expensive and dangerous endeavor. Other evidence is highly intriguing, but not anywhere near adequately explored. Monuments around the world are presented as being the works of Chinese, yet again it seems to me they have not been properly studied to make that determination. By the end of the book I felt that a great deal of evidence does need to be extensively examined with this hypothesis in mind, but I also was left with the impression that the author's claims had far exceeded the current evidence. He MAY be right. But I suspect only partly right.
The author of 1421 has a website where he presents his evidence (some of which is pretty weak), and there is also a rival website claiming they debunk his theories. I suggest taking BOTH with a large grain of salt. And here is the wiki article on the 1421 hypothesis.
The fact that the Chinese may have discovered the Americas should come as no surprise. In fact it could be more surprising if they hadn't! We know the Vikings came to America. There is evidence that Basque and possible Irish fishermen made it to the Americas long before Columbus. Certainly the far more advanced Chinese could have done so as well. But the extend of exploration and colonization suggested by 1421 seems unlikely and, in fact, evidence presented in 1491 seems to suggest that whatever pre-Columbian contact the Basques, Irish and Chinese made was minor and had almost no impact on the Americas, contrary to the hypothesis of 1421.
In 1491 the scope of discussion is far larger, covering from the origins of Native Americans to the aftermath of contact with European explorers and colonies. In the process it tries to overturn just about every previously established theory about Native Americans. It presents extensive evidence and largely is convincing.
It begins with the very origins of American cultures. The long established dogma was that artifacts called the Clovis culture represent the original migrations into the Americas. The Clovis culture is the earliest WELL-ESTABLISHED culture in the Americas. It appears fairly rapidly over a huge range and really does seem to be the origin of most if not all Native Americans. But there have always been claims of pre-Clovis sites that indicate earlier populations. But most of these sites have been difficult to pin down. So far there is no definitive evidence of a pre-Clovis culture in the Americas. But in 1491 the author tries to make the case for pre-Clovis cultures. Mostly I find it unconvincing, but he does effectively call into question the evidence for Clovis-first theories as well. To me the most important evidence is from molecular biology. Using effectively similar techniques used to do DNA fingerprinting, one can compare the DNA of different modern populations and make fairly effective estimates of how related they are and how far back you have to go to find a common ancestor. Time and time again DNA evidence from modern populations have led to revisions of time scales for evolution and relationships between modern populations. Time and time again archaeologists and anthropologists fought the theories based on DNA evidence...but eventually, time and time again, the DNA evidence proved correct. Molecular biology suggests that some Native American cultures DO date from before the Clovis culture. In isolation I am not sure this proves pre-Clovis cultures in the Americas...but it is hard to deny that DNA evidence has tended to be right over and over again. However, overall the evidence, including, according to Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza's amazing book, Genes, Peoples, and Languages (2000), the molecular biology evidence, suggests that the Clovis culture was the origin of the vast majority of Native American cultures around today with the exception of the Athapascan, Native Alaskan, and Inuit cultures which probably arrived later.
Another well-established theory 1491 challenges is the "overkill" theory. This theory is based on the observation that soon after the Clovis culture came into existence, many of the species of animals found in the Americas died off rapidly. The correlation between arrival of the Clovis culture (and possibly humans in general) to the Americas and this mass extinction seems suggestive of a cause and effect. Simply put the "overkill" hypothesis suggests that it was humans who hunted those species to extinction.
On almost every isolated island or location in the world, the arrival of the first modern humans always seems to correlate with such a die off. And this shouldn't be surprising. The arrival of a new species to a location where there are no natural limitations (diseases and predetors) leads to that new species pushing out other species. Humans are no different. We evolved in Africa and it is still only in Africa where dieseases and predetors, those we co-evolved with, still keep human population severely in check. We spread through the world into new territories and population growth on every other continent was much more rapid than it ever was in Africa because simply put, we went beyond the natural checks on our population. It shouldn't be surprising that we pushed out lots of other species.
The overkill theory is largely being abandoned today. But I think that is premature. The extent of the correlation between arrival of modern humans and die offs and the fact that similar things happen when other successful species have spread to new habitats make the overkill hypothesis quite likely to be true in my mind. Not proven, mind you, and the skepticism that 1491 projects is valid. But I think rejection of the overkill hypothesis is an overreaction. In fact, 1491 also presents a hint that the overkill theory IS likely. It describes how the massive herds of buffalo and massive populations of pigeons and similar teeming multitudes of animals found by colonists in the Americas was the result of a massive die off of the Native American population (see below). The destruction of the native population by Eurasian diseases allowed a massive increase in the populations of many species of animals. This strikes me as the flip side of the overkill hypothesis. If there is such a huge increase in animal populations with the crash of the Native American population, doesn't it seem likely that the growth of that large Native American population had a large consequence on the animal population?
From origins, 1491 discusses the liklihood that Native American cultures were far more complex, advanced and populous than once believed. New evidence suggests that complex cultures could be found all over the Americas and the population of the Americas was far higher than ever believed. From New England to the Ohio Valley to Mexico and the Andes, great cities and civilizations abounded. Their methods of agriculture were definitely far more advanced than once thought and possibly far more successful than agriculture developed in Eurasia. The theory goes so far as to hypothesize that much of the American landscape, from New England to the Amazon, was CREATED by the efforts of Native Americans. North American forests and the Amazon may have been the result of Native American agricultural practices. I fully accept that Native American agriculture was superior to what was once thought and I fully accept that populations were higher than was previously appreciated. I am not sure the case is adequately made that huge swaths of the Amazon are human created ecosystems. But the book makes a good case for re-examining the agricultural techniques used in Mesoamerica, the Andes and the Amazon in pre-Columbian days because they could give excellent lessons for modern times. The milpas system in Mexico is an example I have known of since the 1980's as one that is a viable and successful alternative to Western methods. And 1491 gives good evidence that techniques used within the Amazon could blow away modern fertilizers for raising agricultural outputs. Well worth considering these techniques and their usefulness for modern times. There is no reason to scorn lessons learned from the Americas. After all, from corn to tomatoes to potatoes to peppers, modern food around the world owes a strong debt to the Americas. The most commonly eaten Italian, Irish, Indian and German meals, to name a few examples, would not exist without pre-Columbian American agriculture.
The case made for a far more populous Americas is convincing, though the actual numbers cited are highly controversial. Based on these controversial numbers, though, there is strong evidence that once Europeans arrived, there was a massive die off of Native American populations. The numbers presented in 1491 suggest that within 100 years of first contact with Europeans some 97% of the entire native population of the Americas died off from diseases they had never encountered and what remains were the remnants of great cultures and civilizations that were left in ruins by this die off. Most epidemic diseases we know, smallpox, flu, etc. evolved from animals we domesticated: cows, pigs, chickens each have given us epidemic diseases. The Native Americans would never have experienced these diseases that had countless times swept across Europe, Asia and Africa. So they died at first exposure in almost unimaginable numbers. The settlement established by the Pilgrims was at a site that had previously been a teeming native town that had been emptied by disease. This was the case in Peru shortly before the arrival of Pissaro. The Incan Empire had just experienced as much as 50% mortailty from a disease that had probably come from Europeans through intervening native people before the Europeans themselves had arrived in Peru. Disease ravaged the Aztecs (really a nation more accurately called the "Triple Alliance," according to 1491) making them a push over for Cortez. I question the number 97%. When epidemic diseases first strike an area previously unexposed, mortality rates are generally 50-70%. It seems 97% would be unique in human history. But not impossible. A succession of epidemic diseases each having 50-70% mortality, could progressively lead to a 97% die off...but that would assume that they never had any chance to recover.
And therein is evidence that no one before Columbus explored or colonized the Americas to any great degree. The Chinese shared the same epidemic diseases with Europeans. Eurasia is really one continent and diseases spread across the entirety of the continent. Chinese, Basques, Spanish, Irish, Vikings...they all had the same range of diseases. Had the Chinese accomplished what 1421 claims they did in 1421-1422, actually leaving several colonies across the Americas and exploring almost the entire coast of the Americas, a die off similar to the one seen after Columbus, Cortez and Pissaro came to the Americas after 1492 would already have been in full swing by 1491. There is no such evidence of earlier epidemics. That means whatever exploration the Chinese did (and they may well have reached America in 1421-22) little in the way of contact and colonization occurred. This suggests that the large extent of what 1421 postulates is unlikely to be fully true.
Which brings us to Columbus and European colonialism. Columbus himself is something of a mysterious figure. In NYC the Italian-American community celebrate Columbus day as a celebration of Italian pride because of Columbus' supposed birth in Genoa. There is some irony in this since none of the rulers in Italy at the time paid any attention to him. It was the Spanish who hired him. But no one is really sure of Columbus's origin or where his family was from. In fact, in the last year I came across a theory that Columbus was actually of Sephardic Jewish roots, coming from the converso (convert) population of Spain who were forced to convert from Judaism to Catholicism. I came across this theory in a book called Jews in Places You Never Thought Of put out by the Jewish organization Kulanu, and I am not sure the validity of the research behind the claim. But it points out that Columbus' family history is not really known and even his place of birth is not known for certain. His family spoke Spanish (actually Catalan? Ladino?), not Italian. Some linguists, however, identify the Spanish spoken by Columbus' family as being archaic for the time, indicating that perhaps they had left Spain earlier and been part of a converso community abroad. The names Colombo and Colon were common JEWISH names in Italy. Spain had become an increasingly difficult place for Jews to live in the 15th century, and many Sephardim fled Spain. Even conversos were persecuted in Spain, leading many of them to leave. Many Conquistadors were conevrsos and Marranos (converted Jews who secretly maintained Jewish customs) seeking lands where they would be safe from the Inquisition. It should be kept in mind that the Inquisition's main targets were conversos and Marranos. So many Jews, conversos and Marranos left Spain as merchants, pirates (my wife's family has a legend of a Jewish pirate in their ancestry...did they say "Oy" instead of "Arr"?) and Conquistadors.
Among Columbus' backers in Spain was Don Isaac Abravanel...a Jew who refused to convert and eventually left Spain. There were also many conversos among Coumbus' backers in Spain. And, perhaps, most intriguing is that Columbus made references in his writings to the Jewish calendar. You can read more about the case for Columbus being Jewish or converso or Marrano at this website. Another book that covers the link between Jews and Columbus is the surprisingly named Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.
Of course if Columbus WAS of Jewish descent, it would add an extra layer of irony to my ambivalence to Columbus day as celebrating both the beginning of one genocide and the establishment of nations that saved my family from genocide.
And speaking of the genocide that followed the Age of Exploration, we come to a book that has been part of my Columbus Day musings for a couple of years now: King Leopold's Ghost. It is a horrific tale of what people will do in the name of profit and out of a sense of racial superiority. King Leopold II set out to turn the entire Congo basin into his own personal colony. It wasn't a colony of Belgium until later. It was a colony held by a single man. According to some estimates, ten million people were killed so that one man could make the modern equivalent of $1 billion. Those people were killed to keep costs down in production first of ivory, then of rubber. Eventually, outrage from Britain, the US, France and Germany led to the transfer of the Congo from Leopold to Belgium...without much change in the genocidal practices.
Those familiar with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness will be familiar with King Leopold's Congo. Kurtz was based on real people, and much of what is described in that fictional book was taken straight from Conrad's own journals while he worked on a steamboat going up and down the Congo. What Conrad wrote was fiction...but it was about the most factual fiction one can find. Conrad witnessed genocide and did his best to convey what he saw in his book.
Everything we take for granted was built on genocide. America was built on genocide. Rubber was and to some degree still is harvested through an oppressive system tantamount to genocide. Our clothing today is made in sweat shops that fail to adequately support those who work so hard for our cheap prices. Eighty percent of the uranium used in the atomic bombs that ended WW II came from mines in the Congo run along similar lines to the genocidal system of King Leopold. Awhile back I saw a couple of segments on Al Gore's Current TV that showed in some detail the way gold is mined in the modern Congo and diamonds mined in Sierra Leone, and much of it was reminiscent of what I read about King Leopold's exploitation of ivory and rubber, and what is described in Heart of Darkness. When I bought our engagement and wedding rings, the diamond and gold probably were extracted thanks to near slave labor.
I was raised with the idea of "never again." To me this didn't just mean never again for genocide against Jews. It meant no more genocide...no more horrors like those I read in Heart of Darkness as I grew up.
Rwanda, Burundi, Darfur...sweat shops, Chinese prison labor, sub-minimum wage jobs right here in the US...
We all benefit from atrocities. And, let's face it, that is the history of civilization in a nutshell. From Babylon and Egypt, through Harappa and China, right to Belgium, America and Britain, we all benefit from atrocity.
In fact, we often glorify atrocity. Some of the perpetrators of the Catholic Inquisition and slaughter of American Natives are now sainted by the Catholic Church. There are statues glorifying slave-holding Southerners here in America, and glorifying King Leopold II in Belgium. In Japan Hideyoshi is considered the "George Washington of Japan," but he also led the slaughter of many Koreans, a group still oppressed by Japan. And there is Columbus Day in America, a holiday that, without intending to, glorifies genocide.
How do we deal with this? Ignoring the issue is the most common way of dealing with it. Belgium has museums, monuments and palaces glorifying King Leopold, but nothing that admits, let alone makes up for, the genocide in the Congo. In America we have history books that claim that slavery "wasn't so bad" or that the blacks were worse off after being freed or that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. Denial is not the way to stop genocide.
So, what does Columbus Day mean to me? Well, I come back to being thankful that America is here for my family to have settled from the oppression of Europe. In fact it wasn't just the US...one of the first Jewish members of my family to flee Europe took ship to Argentina and only later settled in the US. So Columbus' legacy saved my family. But I can't ignore the blood that was shed in the process.
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