Nostalgia Post: Pastwatch, or A Critical Essay on the Redemption of Christopher Columbus

Tonight (as if I post on this thing more than once in a blue moon anyway), I’m re-posting an old entry from my MySpace blog. Reason? I found this cool photo to give the essay a bit of pizazz, and in the hopes that someone may actually read it here.


Being that it’s just the beginning of September, we’re only about a month or so away from that wonderful, not always federally observed holiday, Columbus Day. Many of you just treat it as another Wednesday, going about your business never even thinking about the “intrepid explorer”. Some people though, like me, think it should be outright abolished, or at least that Indigenous People’s Day should get the same treatment. After all, they pretty much all died so Columbus could posthumously have his.

I personally find the celebration of Columbus Day abhorrent. My realization of that fact began with one of my High School History Teachers, Mr. Vandierdonck.

I, like most of you, never really thought much of the Columbus Day holiday. We didn’t often get it off from school, so it was really nothing to get excited about at age 15. But that day in 10th grade was about to take on a whole new meaning by the time I hit 3rd period “Cultures & Civ”.

First, let me preface this by saying that Mr. Michael Vandierdonck was a bit of a Zealous Teacher. He always treated everyone as if they were adults, calling us Sir and Miss (if you were a girl), and giving us nearly college level tests and projects. He knew most of us weren’t stupid, and could handle the workload. He never had us do anything outside of the curriculum, so to him it was standard state-mandated fare, but with a bit of excruciating zest added into the mix. He also was very liberal, something that I had come to appreciate in a teacher. Someone who wouldn’t sugarcoat the truth, or hold back facts because they felt it “wasn’t pertinent” or “it wouldn’t represent our ancestors/forefathers/allies favorably”. He was very much into having us find out alternative ideas to the mainstream and come to our own conclusions about various historical scenarios and current events situations. He was also very outspoken, and at our school that was his downfall (after this incident I will describe, he was censured by the principal of the school, then the district, which he left to work for a more liberal one).

I arrived in 3rd period C&C, as we called it (no relation to the similarly named music factory of note), to find my teacher clad in nothing but black. For a guy that normally wore a pair of slacks and a button down shirt, this was decidedly odd. He had warned us the day before that tomorrow would be different, as he would be remembering those horribly wronged. Not only was he dressed in black sweatpants and a black shirt, but he was also clad in an executioner’s mask, a balaclava, as it were.

We all took our seats, and the jackass high school kids that worried about popularity, clothes, and cars began to giggle at someone in what they considered a costume (being completely insecure themselves, they obviously had need to mock someone to make themselves feel more human). He asked everyone to come in quietly, for a moment of silence, and verbally called out and a very terse manner those giggling punks who disrespected his wishes. He told us that he was “celebrating” Columbus Day the only way he could: by mourning those who were lost to western colonial expansion. He said that by celebrating Columbus Day we were celebrating genocide, murder, slavery, disease, cruelty, racism, theft, bigotry, and a whole slew of other terrible actions.

Most people didn’t get it, and I have to admit, I at first didn’t either. I remember someone raising their hand and timidly asking as to why he was so bent out of shape over Columbus Day. Mr. V retorted, “Do you think what we did to the Africans and African Americans by stealing them from their homes, separating them from their families, owning them as property, and harming or killing them with no repercussions was good and justifiable?” The student had nothing but a meek reply, “No…”. “Then why should we condemn those who held slaves in the 1800’s and racially oppressed anyone not white for the past 250 years, but venerate a man who made the enslavement and near extinction of an entire race of indigenous people a reality? Because he ‘discovered America’? Please.” You could almost hear the word “bitch” before that last part of his response.

He then proceeded to read to us from a children’s book about Columbus. One of the most innocent things, telling of Columbus’ journey to the new world, in the most basic of terms. All over the cardboard book Vandierdonck had footnotes and notations on post-it notes, dispelling outright lies the book told, truths it omitted, or facts it got wrong. I have to say it was a very brutal story, and I’m sue more than one person was sick with disgust by the end of class that day.

That year though he had gone farther than he had ever gone before: Apparently the dressed-all-in-black thing was S.O.P. for Vandierdonck on every Columbus Day. He would tell the truth about Columbus’ sordid adventure and tell the kids to draw their own conclusions rather than just accept lies they were told in grade school about his historic voyage. That year though he decided to make flyers and large butcher paper posters repeating some of the missives he told us about genocide and slavery. Problem is that the Administrative Faculty had wanted to get rid of Mr. V for years, and they finally found one of his antics that they could get rid of him for. They told him that he was going to be penalized, if not fired, for his posting of the incendiary posters. He fought back saying that they were suppressing not only the well-documented truth, but also his freedom of speech. They then cited a specific rule about posting of items around the campus, stating that all missives not directly from the administration had to be approved by an administrative faculty member before being posted. That was the rule for students, and apparently that also applied to teachers as well. Vandierdonck could have postulated that other posters from faculty members hadn’t been approved before, but seeing as his weren’t as innocuous as say, Baseball Team Tryouts or Mock Trial, his had drawn more attention and thus fingered him for disciplinary action.

Anyway, long story short, Vandierdonck wasn’t fired (mainly because he brought not only his lawyer into it, but the ACLU as well. Damn, that man had CONNECTIONS…), he gave his notice and went to work for Miramonte High School, and regardless of the fact that they were our Speech & Debate Nemeses, it made me want to transfer just so I could continue to learn from this man. The teacher he was replaced with, a Mr. Wood, was very true to his namesake, and silently and unobtrusively helped Mr. V’s class finish out the year.

If you’ve read this far, I applaud you, for you may still be wondering what the point of this blog posting actually is. Mainly it’s due in fact that I just finished a brilliant book called Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, by Orson Scott Card. A very phenomenal book in itself, it asks some very tough questions and presents a very interesting (yet highly speculative) look at a possible alternate history as changed by travelers from the future.

The basic storyline is this: Past Watchers from the future wish to prevent slavery from ever happening as they find it one of the utmost evils that ever existed. They trace the huge expansion of slavery and genocide to on man, Christopher Columbus, who after discovering the new world, exploits it’s native peoples in the name of god and is solely responsible for the beginning of the western colonization. The watchers find out that they know enough about history to be able to prevent these horrible atrocities from happening, that they can manipulate these events for the better, and hopefully bring about a better future (as their world is dying from the raping of natural resources by colonialists and past empires). After much back-story about Columbus’ process of getting to the “new world”, and much planning by the Pastwatchers, the ending resolves with them all changing the future within the last 60 pages of the 375 page book.

All in all the book is very good, and it does take into account the atrocious nature of the Spaniards that first landed on the Haitian coast ready to pillage the land and ensnare it’s locals into a lifetime of servitude. The speculation almost makes the book falter, solely because of the fact that the last 60 pages wrap everything up very nicely. None of the watchers’ plans really go awry after they jump back in time. It almost goes too well with no variables they weren’t able to account for; something that you think would crop up due to the fact that causality is completely random and cannot be perfectly predicted. Sure they watched every nuance of Columbus and his men for most portions of their pastwatching lives, it was their job. But you would think for literary or dramatic effect someone would act totally out of character when presented with a different line of events, showing how chaotic causality is, rather than constant.

The interesting thing is the alternate history in which Columbus is successful in bringing Christianity to the “new world” but also in the process (with the help of an intervening pastwatcher) creating a joint Spanish-Carib empire that embodies all of the Americas and eventually meets with Europe on a similar technological level, immune to most of their deadly diseases, and wanting to live in peace and harmony (mainly due to future influence). It is an interesting thought which makes for a nice story, but a bit unsettling.

Whereas I would love to think of a world that lives in a harmony and unison unlike anything I’d ever dream of, it obviously scares me a bit how because of this alternate history, I could possibly never exist. A selfish thought I know, especially considering how many Taino, Mexica, Mayans, and Incans fell under the boot of Europe. But frightening due to the fact that since causality seems to be so random, the change of events in the past may cause me in the future never to exist. My parents could never meet, if I was actually born I would possibly not have the same childhood experience due to different home locations, I may due to those differences not have the same interests or loves that I do now.

It is all speculation, and until we discover a time machine and start messing around with the past, I’m not really in any danger, but it does make you think about the past and how different things would have been if someone’s horrible mistake had been averted. It allows me to mourn, in the same way Vandierdonck did, for those who were terribly wronged by Columbus and his Successors. The book paints Columbus in a semi-favorable but wavering light: as a man in the service of god and wanting to do his will, however brutally, but also a man of strong character and willing to listen to advice, know the difference between right and wrong, and act with courage and discipline.

It is mainly the fact that the watchers know him so well (as I mentioned before, Columbus=Their Job) and are able to manipulate his actions by acting as emissaries of god, of which he is a total supplicant, and knowing parts of his past which makes him see them as all knowing, that allow them to change the future for the better. A bit of a cheat I must say, but I guess Card was really looking to make the novel fit fewer than 400 pages and felt if he built up the watchers knowledge enough in the beginning he could get away with this type of caveat towards the end.

In the end, it really gives new appreciation for the people of the time and for our place in the present. If only to realize how their suffering brought about what we know and live in today, and serve as a reminder what never to allow again. But unfortunately, there are still people out there who still think that those who are not White are a lesser race, and that Christianity in whatever form needs to be spread, even if it as the expense of others and their freedoms. With any luck, more of those alternative books preaching the truth about the aforementioned brutality will promulgate in high schools across the country to be able to give an unadulterated view of historical fact while kids are still malleable and will understand how wrong racism and the exploitation of others is. There are a millions ways that I could say the same thing, but I think my point, if not proven, has been well illustrated.

I entice you to read this book, or similar one like it that ask the touch questions, an come this October’s Columbus Day, actually take a moment to realize that those people died to propagate this future and the best we can do now is learn from it and promote the truth to our children and any who will listen with an open mind and heart.

~JYH

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~ by jyhash on April 16, 2010.

3 Responses to “Nostalgia Post: Pastwatch, or A Critical Essay on the Redemption of Christopher Columbus”

  1. Thanks for re-posting this and providing me the opportunity to read it. It was a pleasure.

    You were lucky to have such a passionate and interesting teacher. You don’t find many like that any more.

    I’ve read Orson Scott Card before, although not that particular story- yet. I might just pick up a copy this week.

    Have a great weekend.

  2. I had Mr. Vandierdonck for US History in my junior year at Miramonte. We learned so much more than all the kids who took AP US. He’s a great teacher!

  3. Nice article Jay. Do you know if Mr. V is still working at Miramonte? I’ve been wanting to reconnect with him for a while. I took his class at Monte Vista…must have been ’98 or so.

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