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COLUMBUS: HERO OR BRUTE?

Once a hero throughout the Western Hemisphere and Europe for "discovering" America in 1492, Christopher Columbus is no longer politically correct in the eyes of some historians, church leaders and officials at city, state and federal levels.

Consequently, Monday - the nationally designated holiday honoring Columbus' accomplishments - will be ignored in many schools, public offices and cities where the day used to hold parades, speeches and celebrations paying tribute to the Italian/Portuguese/Spaniard explorer.

We now know that several Norsemen and possibly others briefly visited this continent from the Atlantic side at least decades earlier than Columbus. And, anthropology discoveries by University of Pennsylvania's Theodore Schurrand others indicate that Siberians walked over the then-existing Beringia land bridge 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. Even so, Columbus still is credited with forever putting the stamp of Western culture and Christianity on what then was thought (by Europeans and others) to be the New World.

But Columbus has been consigned to history's purgatory by no less than the National Council of Churches, which in 1992 declared that his day is "not a time for celebration but for reflection and repentance" for a nation that "must acknowledge a continuing history of oppression, degradation and genocide" that began when the explorer landed on what is now the Dominican Republic.

Russell Means, the late leader of the American Indian Movement, called Columbus "worse than Adolf Hitler" as scrutiny of records of the period, especially those written by the explorer himself, underscored evidence that he was a cruel governor who allowed rape, pillaging and other crimes by his underlings.

Columbus probably was no more cruel than most other European or Norse explorers who landed in the New World. It was the culture of the day - not just against what we now call American Indians. Just check with the Huguenots, the small band of French Protestants that got to north Florida 51 years after Ponce de Leon landed in St. Augustine, only for most to be slaughtered by Pedro Menendez de Avilesat the behest of Philip IIof Spain.

Nor was it any different among the Indians themselves. Purple Hawk, an Apache writing a history of his group, points out that the Apache name means "enemy," and that "they could be unbelievably cruel to their enemies," often other Pueblo tribes.

Some accuse Columbus of genocide because he unwittingly introduced Western European diseases into the unconditioned natives, who succumbed to the unfamiliar germs in droves. In addition, he is blamed because his discovery led to European settlers, who decimated the Indian tribes and took their land.

But "I don't think Columbus should take the rap for what we all are guilty of," said Kay Brigham, author of Christopher Columbus: His Life and Discovery in the Light of His Prophecies.She thinks there is a little-known side of the man found in those papers.

"No one should be afraid to take on any enterprise in the name of our Savior if it is right and if the purpose is purely for his holy service,'' wrote the dauntless sailor, whom many historians have described as a self-promoter and exploiter.

Brigham maintains that Columbus had a worthy goal to reach India "to spread the Christian gospel" and "to make enough money to finance a crusade to free Jerusalem from the Turkish infidels and rebuild the Temple in order to hasten the return of Christ."

Hero or villain? You decide.

Adon Taft served as religion editor for the Miami Herald for 37 years. He lives in Brooksville and can be reached at adontaft@yahoo.com.

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