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Why You Can Judge Historical Actors

That includes the people who were pitched to us as historical hero’s.

On Monday, the nation celebrated what is now proclaimed as Indigenous Peoples day. Previously, it was called Columbus day. The name of this day has been the cause of quite a bit of controversy over the years, but while the name change is a good step forward, it doesn’t really do anything actionable for Indigenous People in the United States. Americans will continue to receive the day off whether they call it Columbus Day or Indigenous People day, and the worst kinds of these people will whine about the name change.

That whining is what I want to talk about today.

It is well documented that Columbus is the worst. He stumbled into what is modern day Bahamas by luck and/or accident. He wrote about how he planned to enslave the people he encountered, and he was so awful that he was brought home in disgrace and jailed. There’s no real argument that he was awful.

The argument comes in whether we can judge him for how shitty he was.

This is something that comes up a lot when people talk about history. I say something like “UGH, I HATE Columbus.” And, inevitably, some dude bro (probably Deuce) says “ok, but you can’t judge someone in history based on modern day values.” As though it was perfectly fine to rape, murder, exploit, and enslave people (it may surprise to you find out there were laws back then.)

You too, may have run into this problem when talking about history. This idea, that we can’t judge historical actors is usually a bad argument. It’s an attempt to shut down the conversation while still uplifting one of the “hero’s” of history that’s on the decline. Because here’s the thing, it’s true that we shouldn’t judge historical actors based on our modern day values (though there’s another argument about “progress” in there somewhere). However, we CAN judge historical actors based on how contemporaries judged them.

Take Columbus for example. I’ve already mentioned that the Spanish monarchs had him jailed for tyranny he was doing in the new colonies. But if we only talk about colonizers, then we are missing a large part of the story.

You see, we are missing the voices of the exploited.

The argument of “you can’t judge someone on modern day values” excludes the judgement of people who were colonized, enslaved, and exploited. It takes away their agency and their story. The Indigenous People of what became the Bahama’s weren’t like “Oh hi, yes, please! Take my land, take my labor, take my body!” NO, they resisted. They did not want Columbus to exploit them. Their voices matter, and the argument of “don’t judge” ensures that the voices of victims remain obscured.

Ok…So What?

People who were exploited, colonized, enslaved – all of them resisted. Their constant, daily resistance was a judgement against their exploiters. They judged Columbus, just as enslaved people judged their enslavers.

So, when someone is shitty in history, your first thought should not be “Yes, well he was shitty but…” *gestures* “It was the 1500’s” *shrug*. Your thought should be, “how did people resist this exploitation?” Because guaranteed, the people being exploited did not want to be exploited. They had agency, and they absolutely judged.

Part of growing up is complicating the stories you thought were true. That includes the people who were pitched to us as historical hero’s. We can and should judge them, and we do that by listening to the voices of the exploited. As a nation, and as a people, this is the only way we can “progress.”

Columbus was the WOOOOoooOOOORrrRSssST

By mshipstory

Hi!

I'm Lindsay Adams. I'm passionate about history, teaching, and writing.

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