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Hero or Villain?

Entry 1969, on 2019-03-07 at 14:19:38 (Rating 4, Comments)

Recently I had a discussion with a colleague about an upcoming event organised to examine the history of Captain Cook and his relevance to New Zealand. I sarcastically mentioned that I was surprised an event (it was a convention or conference of some sort) would be dedicated to Cook, who was such an imperialist, patriarchal villain, but that sort of back-fired when I was informed that it was that aspect of his life that would be a major part of the discussion.

But with so much oppressive political correctness today there is an increasingly fine line between humour and reality. All European explorers, especially those whose voyagers lead to later colonisation, are treated as evil monsters who brought nothing but pain and misery to the native inhabitants of the lands they "discovered", and who exploited the people and natural resources for the benefit of their political masters back home in England, Spain, Italy, etc.

This primarily applies to European explorers from the 1400s to 1700s: Cook here in New Zealand and other parts of the Pacific, Cortes in Central America, and Columbus in North America, for example.

It's hard not to admit a certain amount of truth in this attitude, of course, but at the same time I think it is more fair to see both sides of the story and recognise that there were both good and bad aspects to the voyages of these explorers.

I recently heard a podcast which provided a really interesting view on this. The opinion was from well-known science populariser Neil deGrasse Tyson. He mentioned two aspects of Columbus' voyage to the New World, one event which he called a "dick move" and another bigger aspect of his voyages which he rated as good.

The dick move involved a famous story which linked in well to his themes of popularising astronomy and showing how having scientific knowledge can be useful. He described how Columbus used his knowledge of an upcoming solar eclipse to intimidate the natives of Jamaica to continue to cooperate with him.

The natives had barely enough to survive themselves, but gave up extra food to supply Columbus' men while they were there. After a while they got a bit sick of this and threatened to cease supplying the visitors. Columbus knew an eclipse would occur on 29 February 1504 and told them he would cause the Sun to disappear unless they continued to provide him with food. When the Sun was eclipsed as he predicted the supplies were resumed.

This sounds like an apocryphal story, but according to reliable sources it is probably true. Of course, solar eclipses are extremely rare at any single location on the planet, so Columbus was extremely lucky to have one occur at just the right time. He was also lucky that the German astronomer Regiomontanus had produced such an accurate prediction!

But was this really a dick move? Well maybe, but I also have to admire his ingenuity and his use of science for his own benefit. And imagine if the opposite had happened. If the natives had known something Columbus didn't, and used that superior knowledge to fool him, I think we would be having a laugh at Columbus' expense and admiring the natives cleverness.

So what was the good part of Columbus' activities? Well, that is far more controversial! When the Americas were first colonised by humans the land bridge from Asia was only present for a limited time (when sea levels were much lower). So only a relatively small number of people crossed it and that meant the genetic diversity was quite low. So - yes this is controversial - the great thing that Columbus brought to the Americas was colonisation and increased genetic diversity.

And now the most dominant culture on the planet is located there, as well as several other significant countries which exist because of colonisation from Europe. In some ways the native people got a fairly bad deal, but for our species as a whole it was arguably the most important event of recent times. And it's not all bad for the natives, because they now have access to the advantages of Western culture, such as considerably longer life spans, access to modern technology, and better health.

There is one other point regarding this which is relevant. That is that the exploration and colonisation of the Americas was inevitable. If it hadn't been Columbus it would have been someone else. Criticising Columbus for something that would have happened anyway seems pointless and unfair.

So calling Columbus either a hero or a villain is equally ridiculous. He was just a person who did what any other similar person in a similar position would have done. And saying he made a few dick moves or did some of the greatest things ever is also ridiculous. Those moves were both good and bad. For example, the eclipse trick was a clever move, but also a sneaky one.

Maybe it's time to accept that the explorers from that era weren't evil invaders intent on destruction and dominance. That was a part of their characters without doubt, but the reality is more complex than that. The reality is that the simplistic view labelling all European exploration and control of most of the world as evil imperialism is just more mindless political correctness, where the "repressed minority culture" is always seen as the victim who were unfairly treated.

Recently a political commentator here made a rather irreverent suggestion that we should have a day where the original inhabitants of the country should show gratitude to the European "invaders". After being viciously attacked by the usual politically correct parts of society, he pointed out that the suggestion was clearly satirical and that he wasn't serious, but I think that in some ways he was. And I think he has a good point, too.


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