In brief: Defending Columbus and Praising Pasteur

It has become very popular in recent years to vilify Christopher Columbus.  First, he lost his status as the discoverer of the Americas when historians proved that Viking Leif Ericsson reached Canada hundreds of years before Columbus reached the Bahamas, Hispaniola and Cuba.  Then historians also determined that theories of a spherical Earth had existed since the second century CE.  Finally, Columbus has been impugned as the first practitioner of germ warfare.  Revisionist historians have transformed the Italian mariner who proved the world was round and sailed three tiny ships with a combined crew of a few dozen from Spain to the Caribbean into the man who deliberately orchestrated a campaign of genocide by disease against the Native Americans.

Columbus set sail for India from Spain in August of 1492.   King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille agreed to finance his expedition shortly after their armies finished driving the Muslims out of Spain, completing the reconquest the Iberian Peninsula for Catholicism.  Columbus sailed on the Santa Maria accompanied by the Nina and Pinta.  When he and his crew arrived in what are now the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, they found the natives prepared to trade.  When the natives grew sick Columbus’ crew and colonists gave them blankets to keep warm.

The meme that goes around now suggests that Columbus deliberately infected the natives with small pox and other European diseases by trading blankets and other infected items that passed the contagion.  He could not have known that his crew and colonists were passing the diseases in the blankets.

Louis Pasteur formulated the germ theory of disease in the mid 1800s.  Pasteur’s ideas didn’t gain acceptance immediately.  Though now even elementary students learn to wash their hands before eating to rid them of tiny germs that could cause illness.  Over three centuries before Pasteur, in the time of Columbus, even physicians would not have conceived of tiny organisms causing disease, to say nothing of mariners, explorers and colonists.

Just as Columbus’ voyage changed the popular conception of a flat earth, forever confirming the ancient hypothesis that the earth was spherical, so Pasteur changed the popular understanding of disease and micro-organisms.  Columbus opened up the Americas to exploration, colonization and the spread of European culture.  Pasteur and his team of scientists developed vaccines for anthrax and rabies and spread the process of killing germs in beverages that bears his name.

Yes, Columbus put some natives to forced labor on his second voyage. No, he wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas.  But he didn’t deliberately spread contagion among the natives.  Columbus and his colonists couldn’t have known about germs because Pasteur wouldn’t prove that bacteria caused disease until Columbus had been dead for over three hundred years.

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