As much of the United States and other nations in the Western Hemisphere celebrate various forms of Columbus Day (which honors the "New World" voyages of Christopher Columbus), I remember a seemingly innocuous tune from my days in elementary school that went a little like this: "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."
In examining the historical consequences of Columbus' voyages (genocide of indigenous populations by slaughter or disease, enslavement, forced conversion, etc.), I became increasingly leery of that 1492 rhyme. Suddenly, other childhood jingles exposed their more disturbing subtext.
"London Bridge is falling down...on my fair lady."
"Rock-a-by baby in the tree top...when the bow breaks, the cradle will fall and down will come cradle, baby and all."
Reexamining these treasured tunes helped me realize just how thickly we have weaved the fleece over our society's eyes. A deeper look at the exploits and views of Columbus further illustrates why singing with glorious reminiscence about his voyage should make us cringe, as if waking from a dream with a cold sweat.
In Norman Solomon's Columbus Day: A Clash of Myth and History, he cites from Columbus' log his initial impression of the indigenous peoples he encounters.
"Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity," Columbus wrote, "go on sending all the slaves [referring to native peoples] that can be sold."
The centuries that followed Columbus' voyage witness the most protracted and systematic cultural, religious, and physical blood-letting in human history. Native peoples over an entire continent were slaughtered and purged from a land they had occupied since the retreat of the last ice age. Cultures, religions, societies, languages, ideals, knowledge, slipped generation by generation toward oblivion like a victim succumbing to a slow, internal bleed, all in the name of God, country, riches, and glory.
And now we get a day off from work and sterilize these events with catchy children's songs.
The toughest part of Columbus Day for me is that I am half white and half Native American. My father's side consists mostly of English and Scottish descent, while my mother's side is of the Lumbee Tribe. The Lumbee, according to which historian you ask, are actually an amalgamate of several eastern North Carolina tribes who were scattered during the early English colonial settlements and inter-tribal wars. These tribes (and perhaps some free blacks) eventually merged as one tribal group in what is now Robeson County, North Carolina.
My tribe has no original language, and no ancient spirituality or cultural practices that trace beyond the influence of European incursion.
This is the legacy we celebrate on Columbus Day: an unregulated, free market exploitation of religion and culture. In today's increasingly shrinking world, the unchecked evangelistic nature of some religions and cultures present a great threat to the diversity and depth of our humanity.
Winston Churchill once observed that the "empires of the future are empires of the mind." Such an imperial drive to spread faith and culture beyond borders of origin is a relatively new scheme within the evolution of religious development, and left unchecked has proven disastrous to cultural preservation. What is unforeseen is that religious incursion, like genetic splicing and tampering, often sows the seeds of irreparable damage to an indigenous way of life.
So here's the rub: should we regulate the spread and propagation of religious ideals? Should we reign in the evangelistic tendencies of religion and if so, how much? The historical context of Columbus and his aftermath beg a question of meme economics. Free trade or fair trade of cultural/religious/philosophical exchange?
As one not associated with or a proponent of any religious persuasion, I am neutral in the argument of faith. I frankly do not care if someone converts to or abandons one faith or ideal for another, however what Columbus Day reveals is that we should become increasingly sensitive and aware of the often exploitative and abusive methods in which religious and philosophical memes propagate.
The question becomes, is there a way to spread our ideals without destroying or exploiting the culture? Might Christianity spread have more effectively and with greater acceptance in the "New World" had Columbus and his legacy of European colonists arrived with intentions to trade with the indigenous population rather than conquest? I believe so, and the Europeans might have learned a great deal more had they traded goods and knowledge with the native population instead of viewing them as culturally and spiritually inferior.
As Churchill suggested, our modern world is one occupied by ideological empires, and those empires are increasingly at war, seeking new conquests and opportunities for exploit. We have missionaries of various persuasions, a new strain of colonists, voyaging beyond their own personal shores--not in an effort to trade ideas with others--but to conquer. I wonder if, some day in the distant future when most or all the world is beneath the heel of one or a handful of ideological empires, humanity will sing another children's tune which sterilizes the day we landed on distant shores and finally whitewashed the color and brilliance of a diverse world, all in the name of God, riches, and glory.
Photo by Daquella manera, via Flickr Creative Commons.