What to Think About Christopher Columbus

My PhD supervisor, Dr. John D. Wilsey, begins every semester with a lecture on the five C’s of history: change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity (I plan to do a short blog series articulating each one in the future). In order to understand how history works and to develop the ability to think historically, the student needs to understand these concepts.

While a case can be made for the necessity of every one of the C’s, the one that seems most disregarded in today’s progressive climate is complexity. Increasingly, we seem incapable of being able to evaluate an event from our past in an honest manner that gives adequate and nuanced attention to both its positive and negative features.

This refusal to account for complexity can be seen in the recent iconoclasm of statues in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. There is no, “Yes, but” allowed in our conversations about history. If the historical figure is guilty of whatever the current culture considers the unpardonable sin of the moment, he or she must come down. We seem incapable of appreciating the contributions of flawed people. The problem is that we are all very flawed.

In this context, I am grateful for a number of historians who have written to counter these over-simplistic narratives. Increasingly, going against the public tide on these issues requires great courage. I shared one such article several weeks ago that challenged recent narratives about our nation’s founding, specifically as it relates to treatment of native peoples.

This week, Robert Royal has written a very thoughtful essay on Christopher Columbus that challenges several prevailing assumptions. Here’s a sample:

But there exists something approaching a taboo about saying anything positive about Columbus or any of the other European explorers. People ready to condemn him for every ill that has occurred on these shores, strangely, would never think of crediting him with the many goods that have been achieved as well. And it would not be stretching things to say that the blanket rejection of Columbus has become something of a poorly informed metaphor for the repudiation of virtually all of Western history.

It’s well worth your time.

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