Weighing the Columbus Cargo

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

Weighing the Columbus Cargo


Byline: Edward Hudgins, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Many critics argue Christopher Columbus gave us a devil's bargain. In October 1492 that Italian explorer, working for Spain, opened America to his fellow Europeans. The result: We got a prosperous New World by impoverishing, enslaving and murdering the natives who were already here.

But this fails to distinguish between two types of exploitation, one over other humans and the other over nature. The former should be expunged from our moral codes and civilized society, the latter is the essence of morality and civilization.

Human exploitation was suffered especially by the tens of millions of inhabitants of the pre-Columbian lands from Mexico through South America. Cortes the Conquistador, for example, defeated the Aztec rulers of Mexico. Many of the tribes that were subject to the Aztecs sided with Cortes; they hated the Aztecs for, among other things, their practice of cutting the living hearts out of members of tribes they subjugated, as sacrifices to their gods. Cortes imposed his rule on the Aztecs and their subjects alike, replacing one tyranny with another. The natives were treated harshly and many forced to work as de facto or actual slaves for their new masters.

On the other hand, many settlers, especially in North America which had far fewer natives, took a different path. They came to the New World to build their own lives. They did not prosper by conquering other men but, rather, by conquering nature.

They had to clear the land, plant and sow crops. They had to practice the trades of carpenters, masons, loggers, miners, blacksmiths and tailors to build their towns and to create the necessities for life and prosperity. In the centuries that followed, their descendants - including Americans today - built the richest, most prosperous country on Earth.

Today it is chic among back-to-nature types to idealize the pre-Columbian natives and question whether what we have today constitutes real progress. This silliness was given philosophical credence by the 18th-century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notion of the "noble savage." No doubt many individual natives were as noble as one could be in savage circumstances, but America before Columbus was no Eden.

Let's put aside the wars between tribes, the outright brutality and the like, and just look at the daily lives of the Indians before Columbus. Life was lived simply, in primitive cycles. Natives inhabited crude hovels and hunted or used subsistence farming to sustain themselves. Yes, they could enjoy family and friends, tell tales of bringing down buffalo, and imagine that the stars in the sky painted pictures of giant bears and other creatures. …

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