The Complicated Tragedy of Columbus Day

I have torn feelings about Columbus Day. The “Columbian exchange” (Europe’s encounter with the New World) was a humanitarian catastrophe greater than any other in history. Charles C. Mann’s 1491 woke me up to this several years ago. As many as 90% – 90%! – of North and South Americans died from smallpox and other infectious diseases. Whole civilizations collapsed. This vacuum set the state for the tragic sins of slavery and anti-Indian oppression.

However, how much of this can be personally blamed on Columbus? He had no idea that Native Americans had no immunity to smallpox – no one even knew what caused smallpox. War was perhaps inevitable when the empires of Europe encountered the empires of America, but Americans did pretty well defending their territory until disease overcame them. Haven’t you ever wondered why it took 130 years for Europeans to begin settling North America after Columbus’ initial encounter? World history would have been very different if the New World had not been ravaged by epidemics.

Is there a way to mourn the tragic loss of pre-Columbian America without assigning personal blame to Columbus?

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