This is a little rant. Fair warning.
Columbus Day yesterday got me thinking again about the parallels between the Conquest of the Americas and planetary crisis we now face. There are many people who history has given a bad rap. Christopher Columbus is not one of them. He was a terrible person, and he set in motion a pattern of horrific destruction.
How utterly evil and pointless so much of the destruction we’re unleashing will reveal itself to be not only for future generations but for ourselves in the near future, just as the genocide unleashed by the Conquistadors was seen as a huge evil and a tragic lost opportunity even by their contemporaries:
“What a compensation it would have been, and what an improvement to this whole Earthly globe, if the first examples of our behavior offered to these peoples had caused them to admire and imitate our virtues, and had established between them and us a brotherly discourse and understanding! … So many towns razed to the ground, so many nations extirpated, so many millions put to the sword, and the richest and fairest part of the world turned upside down for the benefit of the pearl and pepper trades. Mere commercial victories! Never did ambition, never did public hatreds drive men, one against the other to such terrible acts of hostility, and to such miserable disasters.” — Bartolomé de las Casas
Or how obviously without an exit strategy our current fossil fuel binge is here in North America; how totally corrupt and reckless and stupid it is, just as all the other resource rushes on our continent have been:
“The quest for personal possession was to be, from the start a series of raids, irresponsible and criminal, a spree, in which and end to it — the slaves, the timber, the pearls, the fur, the precious ores, and later the arable land, coal, oil and iron — was never visible, in which ‘an end to it’ had no meaning.” –Barry Lopez
(both of these are from my journals, so there may be transcription errors…)
As I wrote elsewhere:
“Though we don’t think about it very much, the wealth of the Americas is a major reason why Europeans came to dominate the world. The conquest, colonization and settlement of North America offered what some environmental historians have termed a vast “ghost acreage.” Europeans who had already cut their best trees, trapped out their fur-bearing animals, mined most of their precious metals, and worked many of their soils to exhaustion suddenly found themselves in the 1600’s possessed of all these resources in an abundance beyond their wildest imaginings. They didn’t hesitate. They took everything they could lay their hands on, and there was a lot to grab.
Before Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean, it’s been estimated, there were somewhere between 18 and 40 million native people living in North America, a great majority of whom died of introduced diseases in the century or two after the Spanish started their conquest. When the 16th Century Spanish nobleman Alvaz Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on the Florida coast and made his way by raft and foot to Mexico, he slept most nights in native villages, and was rarely off a traveled path. America, as some historians have said, was not so much a virgin land as a widowed one.
The natural world Cabeza de Vaca moved through was no less full. North America was home to 10,000 grizzly bear; countless millions of deer, antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, moose; hundreds of salmon runs, some teeming with millions of fish; three billion passenger pigeons; five billion prairie dogs (the near-eradication of whom changed America’s scrublands forever – without those billions of little paws churning the dirt, the surface hardened, the water wicked away in flash floods and desertification set in). Even as late as 1830, 40 million bison roamed the plains. It’s said the ancient deciduous forests of the East were so thick a squirrel could run from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground, while the evergreen forests of the western coasts ran for hundreds of miles of trees so large we visit their last relatives and gawk. The Gulf’s coral reefs, salt water swamps and estuaries made it perhaps the richest marine ecosystem in the world, through which millions of sea turtles moved in ancient migrations. The list could go on and on.
And that’s only what we know we’ve lost. There are whole swathes of the country for which we have only a handful of sketches and journal entries to hint to us what peoples and ecologies lived there before we brushed them aside. When I think of the scale of that exploitation, I tend go a little numb. As Wendell Berry wrote ‘The thought of what once was here and is gone forever will not leave me as long as I live. It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.’
That natural wealth, that one-time gift of a whole New World’s bounty, was the fuel that built the great European empires that followed. The world speaks English and French and Spanish precisely because America had so many beaver pelts, ancient trees and gold mines. And there isn’t another New World of raw materials out there waiting to be found.”
So I have no patience for those who want to see Columbus honored on the day that still has his name.
Instead, I’d love to see the day be reframed as Legacy Day, when we stop and think about what our descendents will think of us: what they’ll damn us for destroying, what they’ll love us for handing down in health and beauty.
[Photo from the Columbus Day Parade in NYC, 2010. Courtesy of MarineCorps New York]
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