Christopher Columbus — Hero or Villain?

Maybe it’s neither. Columbus was brave and daring, and did things that were important to world history. But he wasn’t heroic in the sense of displaying great moral qualities. Courage, while generally a good character trait, isn’t necessarily heroic or even highly honorable and praiseworthy unless it’s deployed in certain kinds of actions or causes.

But he also wasn’t especially villainous in the sense of displaying particular evil qualities. His arrival in the Americas caused a great deal of death to American Indians, chiefly from disease. And it caused the subjugation and literal or virtual enslavement of the Indians. But this didn’t stem from Columbus’s being an unusually evil person. It stemmed from the brutality of the time, coupled with the contact between one culture that was much more powerful than another (and that carried many communicable diseases to which members of the other culture lacked resistance).

I’m inclined to say that we shouldn’t celebrate Columbus Day, precisely because such national celebrations should be focused on honoring people who did things that were both especially important and especially honorable (such as veterans, President Washington, or Martin Luther King, Jr.) and not just on people who did things that were especially important. This might conceivably include not-necessarily-good people who did things that were unambiguously good. But European expansion into the Americas alone, important as it obviously has been (especially to the U.S. and to Hispanic culture, but also to the rest of the world) doesn’t qualify as the sort of good that needs to be celebrated this way. And that’s especially so given that it caused — even if largely inadvertently on Columbus’s part — tremendous though unfortunately historically not uncommon tragedy.

Yet we should abandon the holiday not because it is somehow offensive to American Indians, but because it is not consistent with what should be our own standards for honoring people — honoring people with honorable characters and honorable accomplishments, and not just important people. We can consider Columbus to be important and noteworthy the way that Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great or other great men were important and noteworthy, without either honoring him with a holiday or condemning him as a historically villain. In fact, I think it’s the excessiveness of the condemnation of Columbus (and the focus on the offense to particular groups) that pushes many people to defend Columbus Day.

For a similar post I wrote some years ago about Crusaders as a high school team name (especially at Catholic schools), see here.