Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Goodbye, Columbus

The death of a holiday at Brown

How are things elsewhere in the academy? Well, last month the faculty at Brown University voted to rename Columbus Day “Fall Weekend.” What do you make of that? Rather lacking in poetry, “Fall Weekend.” But from the perspective of the tenured elite, that anodyne moniker has the advantage of ideological neutrality. “Fall Weekend” does not commemorate a European explorer. It therefore does not honor the memory of the settlement and cultivation of the American continent and, by implication, withholds approbation of the ultimate fruit of that settling and cultivation: the founding of the United States. As Fox News reported, the Brown faculty acted in response to the clamoring of students, hundreds of whom had petitioned the university “to stop observing Columbus Day, saying Christopher Columbus’s violent treatment of Native Americans he encountered was inconsistent with Brown’s values.”

“Christopher Columbus’s violent treatment of Native Americans,” eh? How about the violent treatment Native Americans meted out to each other (and to Europeans, when they could get their hands on them)? Is that consistent with “Brown’s values”? Need a refresher course about all that? Here is the historian Keith Windschuttle, in his book The Killing of History, on “the widespread practice of human sacrifice which prevailed at the time of the Spanish conquest.”

Human sacrifice was practised by the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayas of Yucatan, the Incas of Peru, the Tupinambas and the Caytes of Brazil, the natives of Guyana and the Pawnee and Huron tribes of North America. In societies that had developed urban settlements, such as those of the Aztecs and Mayas, victims were usually taken to a central temple and lain across an altar where priests would cut out their hearts and offer them to the gods. In the less technologically developed societies of Guyana and Brazil, victims would either be battered to death in the open and then dismembered, or tied up and burned to death over a fire. The early Europeans were shocked to find that sacrifice was often accompanied by cannibalism. In Tenochtitlan, the remains of sacrificed victims were taken from the temples and distributed among the populace, who would cook the flesh in a stew. In Guyana and Brazil, limbs of victims were skewered and roasted over a spit before being consumed. The Caytes of the Brazilian coast ate the crew of every wrecked Portuguese vessel they found. The American anthropologist Harry Turney-High writes: “At one meal they ate the first Bishop of Bahia, two Canons, the Procurator of the Royal Portuguese Treasury, two pregnant women, and several children.”

Whatever barbarities European explorers visited upon the indigenous populations of the Americas pale in comparison with the barbarities the natives visited upon others. Moreover, the European settlers have this large achievement in the credit column of their moral reckoning: they brought civilization, spiritual as well as material, to the various backward populations they subdued. They also joined together to create a society that grew into the richest, mightiest, and freest country in the history of the world. We mean the United States of America. No, it is not perfect. But for all its faults it remains, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “the last best hope of earth.” Recognizing that, of course, is really what is “inconsistent with Brown’s values.”

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