On history and values

We are seeing these days many demands for downgrading the value of some historical figures because of their behavior. Columbus was the spearhead of European Colonialism, Jefferson was a slave owner, etc. Is this correct? I will use these two examples to analyze the charges and try to determine to which extent they make sense.

Start with Columbus. Columbus "sailed the ocean blue" in 1492 to reach the East Indies with the goal of gaining a stake for the Spanish crown in India at a time when they were competing with Portugal for the East Indian trade. It so happened, Columbus saw his route blocked by a big chunk of land which eventually was called America. There is no denying the consequences of that historical event. Columbus' landing opened the Americas for European Colonial exploitation and brough over diseases that were unkown on this side of the Atlantic, diseases which wiped out almost 80% of the indigenous population within a century. Disease was a stronger blow to America than even colonialism.

So what was Columbus' fault in it? He lived at a time when European Culture saw itself as the pinnacle of Civilization, and Europeans saw themselves as "bringing civilization to backward people". It was assumed that all Human civilization advanced along the same path, and that a given people could be farther along or farther behind... but the path was one. Therefore, bringing the benefits of European Culture to India or the Americas or Africa was seen as helping the natives. Regarding the diseases? Suffice to say that Medicine was hardly a science and more of an Art in those days. Any knowledge of viruses or pathology was way above their heads. They simply had no clue. The Genocide of native Americans was first done through disease. It does not diminish the wrong of the later genocide by weapons or the stealing of their lands - but it does put in perspective was that first encounter did and why.

Thomas Jefferson is one of the Founding Fathers and the third President of the United States. He was a Virginian and owned Slaves. These are historical documented facts which cannot be denied. Jefferson lived from 1743 to 1826. The Industrial Revolution was in the future, and in Jefferson's days wealth was defined by production of those who worked for you. The concept of Capitalism (or Socialism for that matter) did not yet exist. In Jefferson's world, the same idea of Eurocentrism mentioned before was still prevalent; the British East India Company was rapidly becoming the dominant force in the Indian subcontinent. European powers were establishing themselves in sub Saharan Africa and Slavery was the norm in the Spanish colonies. It is in this context that Jefferson owned slaves. While it is still wrong for any person to exploit another and definitely no person can "own" another, we need to consider the realities of the time.

Thomas Jefferson was a defender of freedom and one of the framers of the Constitution. But for him, "We the People" meant the white anglo saxon property owners in the colonies. The underclass of manual workers - and definitely the slaves, were not seen as included in "We the People". Does this exhonerate Jefferson? Definitely not. It does, however, highlight the incredible change our country made since (with more change still needed). Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries set us on the road to the new world of Democracy. With all their faults (Jefferson was also a defender of State rights over Federal) they started something revolutionary in the History of the World. They stretched their beliefs as far as they could in the historical context in which they lived. An with each generation we have pushed the boundaries farther to make out society more inclusive and more egalitarian; but it would have been impossible without the likes of Thomas Jefferson.

Can we judge the people of yesteryear with our values of today? Of course we can - it is just unfair and a distortion of History. Should we honor Columbus and Jefferson and others like them even when we do not share (and many times oppose) their values?

My point of view is that we should honor them - not for their values, but for starting something that we have built upon through the generations, and we will continue to build upon until we reach a Utopia (if that is even possible). We should honor them as those to got the ball rolling in the game we are playing today. At the same time, when we honor Columbus we should also honor the Native Americans he encountered; and when we honor Jefferson, we should also honor the slaves who gave him the finances and the time to dedicate himself to the cause of Freedom.

Should we take Washington out of our bills and rename our capital? (after all, he also owned slaves). Honoring somebody is NOT sharing their values; is NOT condoning their actions. It is to recognize that without them we would not be where we are.



Add Comment