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Dec 1, 2011
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Hero or heathen?

Regarding the feature article on Christopher Columbus (“Hero or Heathen,” Nov. 24), it seems that some of the interlocutors in this article practice what is noted in James Lowen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” That is actually a risk that one who teaches history is guilty of if one does not stay current with most recent scholarship. One needs humility in teaching history. It has been long established that Christopher Columbus and many of the other Spanish conquistadors and their counterparts from France, Holland, England, Portugal and Russia in the course of the centuries of discovery from 1500 to 1800 were often cruel, exploitative and in general very nasty people.

However, to single one individual as being responsible for the destruction of Native American cultures and peoples from Alaska to Patagonia over a time period of approximately 300 years is a great stretch. We have testimony from Spaniards as to the cruelty and what would today be genocide against the Arawak peoples of the Caribbean. The cruelty was in forced labor, rape and mass execution. (Columbus states that native women preferred European men over their own men. History can be very complex, very confusing and the truth is often difficult to determine.) The extinction of native peoples and cultures in the end had more to do with disease pandemics set off unknowingly by the Europeans as they brought the diseases of the Eastern Hemisphere (Europe, Africa and Asia) to the Western Hemisphere. Columbus in my view was a very bad man, but Hitler he was not in spite of what some teachers in the article mention. Exaggeration in history is not a reputable value.

The supposed thinking by Aztecs and Incas that “the explorers were gods” is old fantasy history that has been discredited by more recent scholarship. I myself did not like learning that, but in the interests of historical truth and of not perpetuating “good stories,” I have now accepted assigning that good story to the ash bin of historical fiction.

Distinguished historians like Henry Kamen and Hugh Thomas have shown how Spain’s official circles even to the 18th century were troubled by how its empire had been put together. You do not find anything similar amongst other conquering European states and certainly not in the new United States of America. Whatever else were the many faults of Christopher Columbus, Admiral Samuel Elliott Morrison thought C.C. was a credible sailor. Leif Erickson was not a “1,000 BC” figure. There is speculation that Irish missionaries made it to the Americas before the Vikings. It’s probably true that many made it to the Americas and had little idea as to “where are we?”

Richard Wagner

Des Moines

Eyes in the sky

I liked the recent article about the traffic cameras in Des Moines (“Eyes in the Sky,” Nov. 17). I think it might be interesting to publish the names and speeds of those caught by the I-235 speed camera. It is 60 mph through most of the city. You have to be going more than 71 to register a violation and more than 81 to hit the extra $2 per mile. Going that fast is just not safe, when the rest of the vehicles are going the speed limit. The police have better things to do than run speed traps.

Chuck Corwin

Des Moines


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