In defense of the explorers

It’s October again, and this year Leif Erickson Day (which is always the 9th) and Columbus Day (nominally the 12th, but celebrated or demonized depending on your politics on the second Monday) are on the same day. In recent years it has become fashionable to attack the European explorers, Columbus in particular, with obligatory ritual public denunciations and calls for the removal of monuments and anything bearing his name. In my view this is a mistake, and once again I feel the need to bring up the complexity of history and why demonization is no better than glorification. It’s a long post, but it’s a complex subject. Please read on and consider.

Leif Erikson Discovers America’ by Hans Dahl (1849-1937)

First, perhaps I’m a bit biased, but in the absence of older records it seems Leif Eiríkson actually “discovered” America, rather than blunder into it looking for something else as did Columbus 🙂 . Leif heard about a new land from Bjarni Herjólfsson, who had been blown off course and seen it but not made landfall. Leif bought Bjarni’s boat and deliberately retraced the voyage for the purpose of
finding and exploiting that land, setting foot in what is now Newfoundland.

This raises the question of what we mean by “discover.” There are stories of earlier contact from Europe going back to Roman times, but if such contact existed (and it possibly did), they left little trace and no solid records. And of course there were many rich, complex, and fascinating (as well as utterly horrific) civilizations already here. I agree it is dismissive to imply that if it was unknown to Europeans it needed to be “discovered” so it’s probably better to say Leif was the first European to discover America. But what of those already here?

As far as we know, the indigenous peoples migrated here across the land bridges that existed at the end of the last ice age. It seems most major human migrations were of the “let’s follow that herd of food” variety rather than the deliberate “let’s collect supplies, organize transportation, head out into the unknown and go find a new thing.” Again, no disrespect, but it’s not the same thing. There were certainly explorers among them – but we do not know their names or motivations. Indeed, there have always been “explorers” among us, going back to our early, pre-human ancestors, those who looked to the horizon and wondered what was there, and left the familiarity of their homes to find something better, or different, or just because. And there were amazing explorers in the Pacific, the Middle East, India, and Africa throughout history, some may have reached the Americas but did not leave records that we know of.

The celebration of my ancestors like Leif is absolutely not to disparage Columbus. When you set out to find one thing but find something else, that’s still discovery (and to be honest most discoveries are by accident but that’s a different post). His explorations resulted in a permanent exchange between the hemispheres – to be sure, the Norsemen got here first, but their settlements were not permanent, in large part due to the rapidly worsening climate – but that’s a different post. Clearly the Columbus expeditions are a signal turning point in world history in a way previous discoveries were not.

No one familiar with navigation and seamanship can read the logs of Columbus without coming away with the impression he deserves the title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”. Yes, he was lucky to avoid hurricanes, his “big picture” of the size of the earth and its continents was wrong, but his logs and measurements, using instruments primitive by our standards, allow an accurate reconstruction of his travels – he was a good sailor and made careful notes. Columbus was certain there was something out there, and about how far away it was. There were rumors of Basque fisherman exploiting the Grand Banks in his day, possibly landing on the Canadian coast from time to time, but they did not widely share the information to keep these rich fishing grounds secret. Certainly they were there by 1497, just five years after the great voyage. In any event, Columbus put together information from multiple sources to lay out his trip, and find sponsors to back him despite the prevailing opinion the trip was suicide.

Contrary to the popular myth, the debate in the age of Columbus wasn’t if the Earth was flat or round – pretty much any educated person knew it was round, seafarers most of all. Although the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes had correctly computed the circumference of a round earth as far back as the third century BC, the debate of Columbus’ day was over the size of the Earth, especially the size of the land masses of Asia. Columbus held to the minority view that the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan was only about 2,400 nautical miles, partly because he underestimated the circumference of the Earth, and partly by overestimating the size of Asia. It’s really about 11,000 nautical miles. Those who said his voyage was impossible thought so because they thought that entire gap was water. If it were, no ship of the time could have carried enough food and water to cross it. Columbus was bold enough (or crazy enough) to risk the trip, firm in his belief (probably reinforced by knowledge from the Basques) there was something out there within range of his ships. So while he was “wrong” about the distance to Japan and what that something was, he as also “right” about the distance to land and bold enough to try. And the rest is history.

And that history has become increasingly controversial, given the tremendous upheavals caused by the opening of the Atlantic to European exploration and exploitation. That it would be traumatic was probably inevitable given the times: a European society that had tremendous technical advantages but had not yet been tempered by the concept of human rights collided with an Americas that were essentially stone age cultures and societies. It’s hard to imagine how that could have gone well.

And it certainly didn’t.

However, we should not be too quick to judge the actions of our ancestors by the standards of today. Human ethics, like our technology and scientific knowledge, have evolved over time. It is as unfair to judge those of Columbus’ era by our standards of human rights as it is to judge them for their failure to understand quantum mechanics.

But if you insist on going down that road, at least apply the standards consistently. Much is made of the cruelty of the Conquistadors, and there is no doubt they were by our standards, but at least some of their actions were triggered by the sheer depravity they saw on the part of the Aztecs. It is said the smell of death from the human sacrifices permeated the air for miles around Aztec temples, and the Spanish were horrified by what they found in the main temple in the capital city of Tenochtitlan. Although the Spanish used it as a justification for some of their excesses, the simple fact is the lowest scholarly estimates are on the order of 1,000 human sacrifices a year, with some credible estimates as high as 20,000 per year.

Some will counter “but what about the Inquisition?” That is a fair question that must be asked but let’s try to use consistent standards. In sheer numbers a recent comprehensive study showed that the executions (to be clear, by horrible torture) by the Inquisition over the 500 year period of the 13th to 19th Centuries were likely under 2000. That was a slow single year at the main temple in Tenochtitlan alone under the vast majority of estimates. And, arguably, the Inquisition was acting against the core tenets of Christianity – and was (albeit too late) condemned for its actions, whereas the Aztec religion required human sacrifice as a core belief. So it’s both a matter of scale and of relative theology. Both wrong, both evil, but the two are of different natures and scales. If you want to say “well, the Spanish should have known better” you’re excusing the behavior of the Aztecs and arguably perpetuating a form of soft racism.

It is also important to remember that it was disease that appears to be the primary cause of the collapse of populations across the Americas – something the Spanish thought was a clear sign of their own superiority and rightness before God, understanding little to nothing of epidemiology. And it is important to remember there were only a few hundred Spaniards in the beginning; local tribes, who had been exploited and victimized by the Aztecs for generations, freely joined in and helped the Spanish conquer their oppressors (trading “insanely horrific” for “merely terrible”, but an improvement in their eyes nevertheless). Although we see them as closer to us and want to hold them to our standards, the Spanish of the time may have had more technology but in many areas such as medicine and ethical philosophy were not that much more advanced than their stone age victims.

Of course, the Aztecs are an extreme case. In perspective, horrible as they were, they also produced great works of engineering, science, and art. We should be adult enough to see the sophistication as well as the horror. Most indigenous cultures were, like the Europeans, a complex mix of good and bad. Thinking of them as peaceful children of nature is just as distorted a view of history as a total damnation of the Spanish. To be sure, in the past there has been too much hagiography of the explorers of the age of Columbus. The harm their actions inflicted has often been ignored, their now unacceptable moral worldviews on issues such as race and religion not properly examined in perspective. Far too often the celebration of European explorers has been used by their successors as a not so subtle way of disparaging and oppressing indigenous peoples. Trying to preserve and tell both sides of history is long overdue, and in context essential for understanding our shared history.

We have to view that history in context, in all its complexity. This time of year Columbus’ log entries about slavery as it was practiced in the Caribbean at the time of his arrival are often misquoted as being his thoughts as to what the Spanish should do. Quotes from his’ logs and letters are taken out of context and stitched together to make them as inflammatory as possible. That is a level of intellectual dishonesty that is sadly pervasive in these discussions.

Still, while not as bad as many others Columbus did engage in what was effectively a slave trade, and treated the indigenous peoples harshly when he came under financial pressure. But his actions were well within the accepted norms of the times – again note that slavery was common in the Americas as well as Africa and the Arab world long before the arrival of the Europeans. Pressing other humans into involuntary servitude is a common failing throughout human history in virtually every culture to one degree or another. Europeans didn’t start it, but modern western culture is, finally, making some halting attempts to end it.

It is vital to realize that the period from 1400 to 1900 saw enormous changes in our society including the birth of the modern concept of human rights, concepts that grew out of the age of the Conquestadores. The issue of slavery and race is of course bound up in all that. This already long post would need to be book length to discuss the rich and complex history of individuals like Bartolomé de las Casas, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Cardinal Archbishop Domingo de Mendoza of Seville, leading to the Papal Bull forbidding enslaving the indigenous peoples on June 2, 1537 (Sublimis Deus), all of which slowly – and at great pain though events ranging from the conquest of the Americas to the American Civil War to Nuremberg to Rwanda – has led to our modern view of human rights.

And speaking of the Catholic Church, it too was struggling forward along with the rest of humanity, trying in its human institutions to live up to the teachings received from Christ. de las Casas is said to have begged for forgiveness for his initial advocacy of enslaving Africans rather than Indians, saying “I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery… and I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God.” Should we damn him for his earlier mistake, or applaud him for pushing against the tides of his times and ultimately coming to the truth in Christ’s teachings?

So should we not judge at all? Of course not. The Aztecs were horrific, both by our standards and the standards of the day. Nazi Germany was horrific, again by both our standards and the standards of the day. But not every odious actor of history rises to that level – it’s not a binary choice. Ultimately the problem with the Aztecs or a modern evil like Nazis (and their still active heirs), much less the more nuanced case of the Conquistadors, or even the Antebellum American South, are not that they are some kind of inhuman evil. The problem is they are all too human. When we demonize this or that culture or society to the point they no longer seem human – even the really odious ones – we reduce the complexity and spectrum of human behavior to black and white, good or evil, usually over issues of our day, not theirs. And that’s just not realistic or helpful.

So somehow we have to find balance and a shared truth of history. Certainly a wider and more inclusive perspective was needed in the uncritical view of European history. But I feel the pendulum has swung too far, and those who want to tear down the monuments and condemn those explorers have become as hypocritical as those who unquestionably glorified European exploits.

The complexity and nuance of the issue of how we remember the past – and manipulate it to shape the present and future – sparks such emotion there is no way one blog post does any aspect of it any real justice. We can’t lose sight as to how far we have come, just as we must not fail to continue to improve. That improvement cannot come from either hagiography or demonization, but only by through a deep understanding of the complexity of the problems our ancestors faced, and the decisions they took. Some (Hitler and the Nazis come to mind) will legitimately be judged evil – both by our standards, as well as the standards of their times – but if we are honest, most will simply be found to be not that different than us. How and where we draw the line between those who truly evil, and those were just flawed, is hard and usually not so clear cut as with Nazi Germany.

In my view, taken as a whole, in context, the age of the explorers and how it reshaped our world remains an inspirational story of how the best aspects of humanity are over time overcoming our more base, ingrained instincts. It is also a cautionary tale to always be aware of our failings, and for the unintended consequences of our actions. As with the founding fathers of the United States, we can strike a balance: applaud them for their lofty goals and scientific progress that laid the groundwork for our modern world, yet acknowledging they had flaws and didn’t always live up to those ideals, sometimes causing great harm.

Our ancestors were far from perfect. Guess what? We aren’t either – our successors will no doubt look back in horror at certain aspects of our age. Yet hopefully our descendants will also see the good in us, try to understand why we have done what we did, honor our success, forgive us our weakness, mistakes and failings.

So I continue to celebrate the days commemorating the explorers while also recalling with sadness those who suffered from their actions. I strongly feel that taking down memorials to the explorers is a major mistake; a better course of action is to also elevate those who have been ignored, and ensure both aspects are in context; it’s not a zero sum game. History is complex, and each generation reinterprets it through the lens of their own foibles and concerns. Simplistic comic book depictions with unimpeachable heroes and irredeemable villains are rarely helpful. Only by openly appreciating both the good and the bad, and understanding them within the context of the times in which they lived, can we learn and grow.

Christian Krohg, Leiv Eriksson oppdager Amerika (Leif Eirikson discovering America)

I feel a strong connection with the explorers in history. My tools are satellites, lasers, radars and computers rather than the Drakkur (longship), sólarstein (sunstone), and Skeggøx (ax) of my forefathers. But the forces that drive me – curiosity, the desire for a better world, and, of course to provide for my family – are really the same forces that drove them. Those forces can be directed for good, for evil, or far more often some mix of the two. Hopefully we choose wisely. It’s all part of the struggle of being human.


  1. Very well written, Chuck. Obliterating the past does little or no service for the present and future.

  2. Rape, murder, and genocide can’t be explained away by the times IMO. Columbus is a documented monster, criticized by some Catholics of his day . It’s true the Aztecs committed their own atrocities, but Columbus didn’t crystallize Aztecs, he brutalized simple islanders with no means to defend themselves. One to the first things he did upon landfall was kidnap a native woman for the purposes of gang rape. I would do a little more research on Columbus before praising him.

  3. A truly amazing and insightful perspective on history packed full of interesting facts and timelines … thank you, Chuck!

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