Response to Christopher Columbus’ Four Voyages
By Amanda MacLean
The other night I had dinner with some friends of mine in a church small group. One fellow had brought an Indian dessert that turned out to be a big hit – a mixture of crushed almonds with butter and sugar that was, as one person commented, “Delicious and nutritious.” We all wanted to know what this dessert was called, but our friend couldn’t remember its foreign name. So Jeremiah, who is sort of the leader of our group and happened to be appropriately sitting at the head of the table, declared, “In honor of the history of exploring new territories and naming places that already have names, I hereby call this dessert…America.”
His wisecrack made everyone laugh. However, I think it struck me in a different way than it did the others, as I had spent a good portion of that day reading Columbus’ Four Voyages. This very issue prevailed in my thoughts as I read the text. Columbus was on a mission – one that was both personal and national in scale. On the personal side, he aimed at exploring new territories and proving his own cosmographical theories. He was also there to lay claim to new territories for Spain and wield its imperialistic powers against other, competing empires.
In today’s American cultural consciousness, it seems that imperialism is generally perceived as an archaic and perhaps barbaric practice. As part of a democratic republic that emphasizes individual freedoms and separation of church and state, it doesn’t appear that the current generation is interested in making the United States an empire in any overt way. Yet many wonder if we have not abandoned this explicit sort of imperialism for another, more sneaky type. With the U.S. military having occupied Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly the last decade, large portions of the population have seriously questioned and accused the motivations of our national government. Do we simply see ourselves as the democratic big brother of every other nation in the world? Is there really a threat of terror that we are trying to defend ourselves against, or are we just trying to spread our own model of democracy in a militaristic way? Are we occupying the Middle East to exploit it for its resources?
Most people have some opinion or idea of how they feel about these questions, but I’ve never been certain about what I think. It does seem certain to me, however, that throughout history, powerful people have always found some way of conquering those more weak and vulnerable around them. Other classes of animals attack and devour other species for their own survival; ours seems to be the only one that attacks and devours within its own. Could it be that conquest, whether it’s in the name of science, religion or political power is something that simply runs through the veins of the human race? However we choose to label or justify acts of domination, both our nation and countless other great empires have a rich history of it. I sometimes wonder if we all, as humans, simply cannot help ourselves.