The letter to the editor from Judith Sellins excoriating Christopher Columbus (Anglicized from the Italian Cristoforo Colombo, because he was in fact Italian, born in Genoa) is not surprising given the current climate of political correctness in our country. What is surprising is the tone.
As much as Ms. Sellins would wish it otherwise, Columbus did “discover” the New World. Other cultures touched here, namely the Vikings in the 11th century and perhaps others, but they did not establish permanent settlements and their contribution was lost in the mists of time. Columbus’s voyages led to the first lasting European contact with this continent and inaugurated European exploration, conquest, and colonization that lasted for centuries.
Columbus’ arrival was not a positive development for the natives on the islands he claimed for Spain, but he did not knowingly introduce contagions to the population.
The matter of slavery was more problematic. Slavery was an institution in most parts of the known world, if not all, dating from time immemorial, into the present day. The first known slave to be taken from the New World to the Old World was in 1502 by a merchant, Juan de Cordoba.
Columbus’ son Diego, who was the governor of the Spanish holdings in the New World, did promulgate the slave trade back to Europe but was not the first white man to do so. This was their culture. It was also the culture of the Middle East, Africa, the Far East and everywhere else on earth at the time, even Northern Europe, although it had morphed into chattel slavery, but slavery nonetheless. That does not give them a pass, but puts their behavior squarely in context of the world they inhabited.
If you judge men (and women) of past centuries based on the mores of today, no one would come away unscathed. Christopher Columbus is worthy of remembrance and pride for Italian-Americans just as the slave-owning Founding Fathers are worthy of the same. Who do we admire today that is not flawed?