Three New Lessons for Columbus Day

Many Americans seem to hold on to a romanticized portrait of Columbus even when they are exposed to his dark side.

Three New Lessons for Columbus Day

In the run-up to Columbus Day, an infographic sailing around the web is busting myths about Christopher Columbus and condemning him as a “sex slaver, mass murderer and champion of sociopathic imperialism.” The information in Matthew Inman’s screed isn’t newhe draws it from 20th-century books by Howard Zinn and James Loewen—but his packaging surely is. Judging by the hundreds of thousands of people who have “liked” his essay and the thousands of tweets, hating on the namesake of today’s holiday has mass appeal. Here’s a taste:

I - Columbus was no hero to Native Americans or his fellow sailors

I am not about to rain on this anti-Columbus parade. The Italian leader of four Spanish voyages to the New World was no saint, to say the least. In the initial assessment of the Native Americans recorded in his journal, Columbus wrote he “could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.” Native Americans, he thought, “would be good servants and I am of the opinion that they would very readily become Christians.” Columbus was an opportunist and something of a bastard even to fellow Europeans. Though he admits in his journal entry of October 11, 1492 that “the land was first seen by a sailor called Rodrigo de Triana,” he cheated his fellow sailor and fudged the record to claim the lifetime pension King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella promised to the first man who saw land.

But there is nuance to be added to the Columbus backlash, and some original polling data (a Praxis first!) reveals what Americans of various stripes think about the man who is sometimes said to have discovered America.

2 - Most Americans have encountered criticisms of Columbus, but a majority still consider him a hero

In a survey I commissioned for Big Think in September through the polling agency Toluna, 55 percent of the 300 respondents say they had, at some point in their education, “read or discussed ideas that are critical of Christopher Columbus.” Not surprisingly, the younger the subjects are, the more likely they are to have heard these critiques: 70 percent of respondents aged 18-34 have encountered critical takes on Columbus in school, compared to 52 percent of respondents aged 35-54 and only 44 percent of those over 55.  

Over 75 percent of the respondents agree with the statement that “history teachers should provide information about the negative aspects of what happened to Native Americans after Columbus's journey to America,” compared to 14 percent who disagree.

But when asked which statement better characterizes Columbus, more respondents chose the sunny side of the 15th-century Italian explorer: “brave sailor who discovered America” was the choice of 54 percent of respondents, while 36 percent selected this statement: “the person whose voyage to America set the stage for genocide and disease for Native Americans.” So many Americans seem to hold on to a romanticized portrait of the sailor even when they are exposed to his dark side.

3 - Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to harbor a critical attitude toward Columbus

Many more Spanish speakers in the United States seem to be critical of the Spanish expeditions to the Americas in the 15th century than are non-Hispanics. Only 40 percent of Hispanic or Latino respondents chose the “brave sailor” option as the best description of Columbus, while 48 percent preferred the “genocide and disease” statement. Among African Americans, the numbers are more lopsided: only 30 percent chose “brave sailor” while 63 percent agreed more with “the person who...set the stage for genocide and disease for Native Americans.”

Compare these numbers to the views of the white subjects, where the numbers are basically inverted. Whites preferred the “brave sailor who discovered America” line to the critical description by a margin of 58 percent to 30 percent.

Why are racial and ethnic minorities less sanguine than whites about Columbus’s legacy? It could be due to a general feeling among underprivileged communities that America was built on the backs and through the oppression of people like them. The mental health problems of Aaron Alexis, the Washington, D.C., navy yard shooter, may have been exacerbated by a perception of racial discrimination, and countless studies point to the continued relevance of race in minorities’ housing, education and employment opportunities. It stands to reason that today’s disadvantaged Americans might be more sensitive to the oppression of Native Americans half a millennium ago.

A thought on Inman's proposal to replace Columbus Day with "Bartolomé Day"

The unrestrained anger against Columbus found in Matthew Inman’s popular infographic goes overboard at times, such as when he blames the explorer for single-handedly launching the Atlantic slave trade or for causing the deaths of millions of Native Americans. The 3-5 million Indians who died of starvation, violence and disease in the first few decades after contact do not all fall on Columbus’s head. Most of this carnage was inadvertentthe antibody-poor Native Americans, as Alfred Crosby details, succumbed to microbes Europeans toted to the New World, particularly the smallpox virus. And there were conquistadors with far more blood on their hands than Columbus. Hernan Cortes, the butcher of the Aztec empire, is only one example.

Finally, it is a bit simplistic of Mr. Inman to present Bartolomé de las Casas as a more deserving honoree for an American holiday. Though las Casas did bravely report on the worst Spanish crimes against Native Americans and defended the Indians in a famous debate in 1550, his argument on behalf of the Native Americans granted two at-best partial truths about their cultureidolatry and human sacrificeand advanced a specious justification of their practices. The Indians were only committing a “probable error,” las Casas claimed: a moral failing inexcusable in the eyes of God but understandable and excusable in the eyes of human beings. By sacrificing humans, las Casas untenably argued, the Indians were just trying to give a gift of ultimate value to their gods; and anyway, their priests said it was OK, so how would they have known any differently?

Aside from his unsuccessful logical jiu jitsu to defend Native American practices, Las Casas held Indians as slaves and, after freeing them, advocated the importation of Africans. He watched Spanish monks as they burned the "the vast majority" of "hieroglyphic books in the Maya world" to facilitate the Mayans' conversion to Catholicism. (He may have regretted this crime, but did little to stop it.) His story belies Mr. Inman’s facile claim that while the evil Columbus raped young girls and stole gold, the saint las Casas “found his humanity.” The fact is that many criminal acts conspired to launch America as we know it. Machiavelli said that all great foundings are built on great crimes, and he was, lamentably, correct. It will always be a complicated endeavor celebrating America's founding moments.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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