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Black, white and red: Atlantic history points to new understanding of Columbus' context

  • Author: Steve Haycox
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published October 15, 2015

Colonial American history once was taught somewhat differently than it is now. A generation ago students learned there was a triangular trade system across the Atlantic, though just which ports, coasts and products were involved was always a bit murky. Also, it wasn't clear how the triangular trade meshed with British trading goods going directly to the colonies, while New England pine trees went to Britain for masts for English ships. It's all quite passé now; there were many trade routes across the Atlantic and they cannot be reduced to a simple, single system.

Beginning in the 1960s, a new sub-discipline in history arose called Atlantic studies. It started with the knowledge that soon after discovery of the new world, European entrepreneurs began to capitalize on several New World crops Europeans had never known. They were farmed with slave labor, mostly in the West Indies, and processed into highly desirable consumer goods. The most important were sugar, coffee, chocolate and tobacco. The profit from these was enormous, partly because they were produced with cheap slave labor, cheap because no consideration was given to keeping the slaves alive because the supply of black Africans was ostensibly endless. Slavery became racialized. The goods, which one historian has labeled "drugs," dramatically changed the European diet of consumables; their legacy lives today. Atlantic studies put the development of colonies in America into a new and broader context, most particularly recognizing the central role of slave labor, and slavery.

Even before Atlantic studies, historians understood the significance of the "middle passage" of Africans to the New World in which people sold into slavery by Africans were transported under the most inhumane and squalid conditions imaginable to a life of bondage and subjugation in the Americas. As Atlantic studies matured, a new focus developed around the fate of the indigenous populations of the Americas, added to the story of slavery. A tragic result of European contact with indigenes was destruction of their cultures, degradation of their rights and devastation of themselves as people, the latter more through small pox and other communicable diseases than any other cause. The civil rights revolution complemented the rise of Atlantic studies, both movements recognizing the fundamental equality of all peoples and the reality and legitimacy of cultural differences. One historian popularized the new understanding of Atlantic complexity as a history of red, black and white.

The movement to rename Columbus Day is one result of this newer understanding of Atlantic history. A United Nations conference in Geneva in 1977 initiated the renaming effort, and in 1992 Berkeley, California, became the first U.S. city to proclaim Indigenous Peoples Day. Many cities have been falling into line, and Anchorage has now joined the movement; additionally, Gov. Walker has made Alaska the first state to make the declaration.

While it's appropriate to note Columbus' torture and wanton killing of indigenous Americans, it's important to recognize, as Atlantic studies does, that history is as complex and inconsistent as real human life, whose story it is. Columbus was a man of his time, a time when most people were blind to the inhumanity of many of their thoughts and actions, or regarded them as entirely natural, despite a few courageous, dissenting voices. The European treatment of African slaves and indigenous Americans was in a sense inevitable. Cultures had not yet evolved to the point of recognizing and accepting the humanity of all people; that evolution continues today.

On the other hand, numerous credible and respectable historians understand that from European contact with Americans, along with the negatives there were many positive aspects of human intellectual and cultural evolution. For one thing, change agents went in both directions; aspects of American cultures influenced Europe. With the other products, chili, potatoes and tomatoes also migrated from the New World to the Old. Historians call this the Columbian Exchange.

On the positive side, Columbus' ventures mark the beginning of the globalization of the planet, the point at which the hemisphere, and the U.S., begin their identity. It was the start of the long journey toward American freedom.

If it teaches anything, history shows that a phenomenon can be one thing, and also quite another, at one and the same time.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

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