Yesterday was Columbus Day...or Indigenous People’s Day...or Rape of the Americas Day…or whatever you want to call it. The day that we’ve traditionally celebrated Columbus’s discovery of America...or not...since he thought until the day he died, that he was in India.
And then again, there’s that whole “discovery” thing. How can you discover a place that already has people in it? Seems that *they* would’ve discovered it first. Why should old Chris get credit for it?
Well, writer Will Furguson came up with the best explanation in his book Why I Hate Canadians (not to worry, he’s Canadian himself). He compared Chris’s situation to that of discovering a new restaurant. The restaurant was there long before you happened upon it, and thousands of people had eaten at it before you arrived; but it was new to you. You “discovered” a restaurant that you hadn’t known of before. And when you tell all your friends, who had also never known of this restaurant, about this place, they’ll credit you for “discovering it” and bringing it to their attention.
Which is what Columbus did...he “discovered” a new world that no one in Europe had known of before. One that already had people in it, but one that was new to the experience of the Europeans.
“Well, OK,” you say. “But what about the Vikings? Weren’t they here even before Columbus?”
Oh for sure...and I got in trouble for this one back in grade school when I kept insisting that Columbus didn’t discover America because I had read that the Vikings were here first. A classic case of me being too smart for my own good; of being technically correct, but practically wrong; of technically correct, but missing the point.
Or…of the teacher not being able to patiently explain that I was missing the point, rather than just wanting Gatling to shut up about the Vikings already.
It’s true that among the Europeans, the Vikings got here first...by almost 500 years…and had a few short-lived settlements in Eastern Canada. But as the term “short-lived” implies, they didn’t last very long and nothing came of them. There wasn’t a great Scandinavian rush to settle in this new world, and the Vikings apparently didn’t tell a whole lot of people about what they found; because very few others knew about the settlements in Vinland until hundreds of years later. The point that I was missing, while being technically correct (and that the teacher didn't ’splain to me), was that Columbus’s later “discovery” of America happened at just the right time and under the right circumstances to set the “Age of Discovery and Exploration” in motion.
And that’s why all of us, for better or worse, are here.
And let’s be perfectly clear about something…there’s absolutely no guarantee that if Columbus hadn’t accidentally stumbled upon this place, some other European wouldn’t have, with the same results. In fact, there’s no guarantee that something else or someone else wouldn’t have happened to wreak havoc on the indigenous population. We can romanticize about what might have been, but it’s all just useless conjecture.
We can, however, work to own up to and correct the damage that was done since 1492.