‘In 1492 America discovered Columbus and colonialism’. This phrase was very popular during the sixties to give history a different perspective. Instead of a hero, Columbus is depicted as a villain. Even his Spanish surname (‘Colón’) begins with the first 5 letters of ‘colonialism’. America could have known from the outset what was coming!
There is some truth in this perspective. But it is only a half truth, as we shall see. The fact is that Columbus had the understanding and guts to know that it was time to explore the world. He was the active player, not the American continent that was waiting to receive him. Columbus served humanity well, despite the 3 to 4 centuries of colonialism. Globalization started with Columbus.
A different perspective
‘Slavery was finally abolished by 19th century white people’. In our Caribbean culture it is OK to stress the bad things white people did. Slavery, colonialism etc. If you are a white person, you are supposed to feel guilty about this and shut your mouth. You certainly have no right to denounce any failures of our own people. That’s ‘taboo’ for a white person.
But the truth is that slavery has been with us from time immemorial. There was slavery in Africa, where Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French and English ships bought slaves from African owners. Even today there is slavery in Africa (a.o. in the country of Niger, where thousands of people live in circumstances which can only be described as slavery).
Slavery was common in China, Japan, India, the Middle-East and Africa. Western-Europe was an exception, although the position of the serfs basically amounted to slavery as well. People have always treated each other cruelly, everywhere on earth. The killings (genocide) ordered by Hitler are not essentially more cruel than those committed in Ruanda in 1994.
Age of Enlightenment
However, during the 18th century a movement arose in Europe, which historians call the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. Liberalism - the novel and unique idea that all people are born free and equal - gathered strength during this period resulting in the abolition of slavery and other emancipatory breakthroughs. If it hadn’t been for these 18th century European liberals, the world would still live in the darkness of repression and abuse as a system of government.
Perspective for the future
Both perspectives referred to in this article are no more than half truths. What we wish to stress is that nobody living at this present moment should feel guilty or inferior, because of what happened in the past. We live now. And all of us have a responsibility to see to it that the future will be better and that all errors of the past will be abolished. We have to hold on to the spirit of freedom of the Age of Enlightenment: Democracy, equality, liberty, human rights. And build something even better on this foundation!