Much of the rhetoric about renaming Columbus Day misses the main point: If Columbus had not bumped into America, who would be here today? This question itself has no definitive answer but it underlies the modern history of peopling the Americas.
Columbus is historically important because his 1492 voyage marks the beginning of continuous European contact with the “New World.”
Without Columbus, the history of the Western Hemisphere would have taken a different course. Before Columbus sailed westward, European and North African exploration into the Atlantic Ocean went southward hugging the African coast, then into the Indian Ocean and out to the East Indies.
The America that Columbus found was not some idyllic land free from disease, war, slavery, or the myriad ills that threaten human existence. Columbus introduced none of these scourges to the Americas. New kinds of disease, yes; disease, no. New weapons of war, yes; warfare, no. New patterns of slavery, yes; slavery, no.
Many civilizations arose, flourished, fought, and failed long before Columbus and the ensuing European explorations and colonizations.
The peoples Columbus met were probably descendants of the original immigrants who are thought to have crossed a so-called land bridge into Alaska from Siberia about 15,000 years ago. Although suffused with problems, this theory posits these first peoples and their descendants populated the entire Western Hemisphere.
Between the original settlers and Columbus, evidence shows contact by explorers from China, Polynesia, and the Eastern Mediterranean. And, of course, the Vikings did cross the North Atlantic into America 500 years before Columbus but then vanished. To what extent any of these explorers interacted with the first peoples is very poorly known and needs extensive research if we are to better understand New World history.
But in 1492 Columbus began the interchange of peoples, foods, animals, and ideas between the Americas, Europe, and Africa that shaped our modern lives.
Paul M. Craig
(Originally published on Wednesday, November 16, 2016 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette)