Is Columbus Getting a Bad Rap? Not Nearly Enough.

Earlier today Rebecca Shafer wrote that Christopher Columbus’ reputation was the worst it had been since he was arrested and forced to step down as Governor of the Indies way back when. She includes a brief rundown of his history in education, from early biographies to more modern textbooks, from romanticized accounts of heroism to Howard Zinn’s accusation of genocide. She continues:

This is in keeping with textbook trends. According to a University of Michigan study, history textbooks in recent years show a strong trend of portraying Indians more positively and placing Columbus on “a more complex positive/negative trajectory.” In short, Columbus seems to have gone from all good to all evil. As I see it, the result is a caricature-like, ahistorical understanding of the past.

Especially considering the latter, it’s hard to say Columbus is at his worst right now. While he got a (justifiably) bad rap in Zinn’s People’s History, his depiction in today’s textbooks is hardly damning. And I don’t exactly see how going from all positive to “a more complex positive/negative trajectory” is the same as going “from all good to all evil.”

In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen examined twelve history textbooks. Regarding Columbus’ involvement in the slave trade and oppressive governance in Haiti, he found that one of the twelve connected Columbus with slavery. Two said of Columbus, “he proved to be a far better admiral than governor.” The rest of the books said nothing of his abuses.

With that in mind, I think it’s fair to say that Columbus’ reputation is undeservedly still pretty comfortable, despite a couple of states celebrating Indigenous People’s Day today.

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