The Real Lesson of History: There Is No Going Back
McCarthy, Abigail, Commonweal
Traditionally, Thanksgiving celebrates a mutually happy relationship between Indians and grateful Plymouth colonists. But this year we were reminded that the Anglo-Saxons of New England repaid the kindness of the Indians by cheating them out of their lands and well nigh wiping them out with disease, rape, and pillage.
Defenders of the colonists might argue that the Indians were not all that friendly. Cape Cod history records that, when the French explorer Champlain ventured landfall there, he and his men aboard ship woke the second day to the sight of Indians dancing gleefully on the beach draped in the skins of the men who had gone ashore the night before to forage and to wash their clothes. The Indians around Plymouth colony who seemed less warlike had been decimated by illness a few years before the colonists arrived (all sickness did not arrive with the Europeans) and may have decided that conciliation was the better part of valor. But still the wary colonists took no chances. When they lost half their number in the first terrible winter they buried them in a common grave so that the Indians would not know how many were gone.
To argue this way, however, is to indulge in "presentism." This is the term historians use, according to Douglas Wilson (Atlantic Monthly, November 1992) to describe "the malaise that plagues American discussions of anything and everything concerning the past: the widespread inability to make appropriate allowances for prevailing historical conditions."
Before the quincentennial of Columbus on October 12, we of European ancestry were awash in the guilt induced by reminders from Native Americans that their ancestors' cultures were destroyed and their ancestors enslaved by those who accompanied and followed Columbus. The claim is that the only motive of Columbus and the early Spanish conquistadores was greed. The National Council of Churches issued a declaration calling the Columbus event "an invasion and colonization with legalized genocide, slavery, and economic exploitation"--certainly a black-and-white review of history.
Pope John Paul II, arriving in Santo Domingo for the Fourth General Latin American Episcopal Conference, acknowledged the abuses that resulted from Columbus's voyages but expressed gratitude for the evangelization of the Americas: "On October 12, exactly five centuries ago, Admiral Christopher Columbus...arrived in these lands and planted the cross of Christ. That is the beginning of the sowing of the precio. us seed of faith. And how can we not give thanks for that?" (Washington Post, October 13, 1992).
The pope's view is harshly challenged by the arbitrary statement of the Reverend Arthur Cribbs, a United Church of Christ clergyman and an African-American, who sees little or no positive contribution of European Christians to the history of the Americas. "The Spaniards who did speak out against the injustices were the exception .... "he says. "The overall effect has been that the majority of Native Americans...have not benefited from Christianity" (Washington Post, October 12). …