Children across the country are no doubt overjoyed at being out of school today. ‘Christopher Columbus Day’ is the second Monday of every October. It is a day set aside to honor the Italian explorer considered by many to have discovered the ‘New World’ (aka the ‘Americas’) in 1492. Children are taught to revere the heroic man who risked life and limb to prove the Earth was round. They’re taught that he discovered the land that would one day be considered the greatest, most prosperous nation on Earth. Columbus Day is intended as a celebration of this man and all his greatness. In addition to a holiday just for him, Columbus is honored through the poem 1492.
The thing is: his history has been whitewashed.
While he did sail to North America in 1492, he wasn’t the first person to do so. Not even close. The Vikings are credited as being the first Europeans to voyage to North America, some 500 years prior to Columbus’ voyage.
Secondly, there was no “New World” to discover. The continent of North America was already colonized and had been for at least 12,000 years prior to Columbus’ arrival.
Thirdly, educated contemporaries of Columbus did not think the Earth was flat. By the 1500s, it was known that the Earth was spherical. In fact
As early as the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras — and later Aristotle and Euclid — wrote about the Earth as a sphere. Ptolemy wrote “Geography” at the height of the Roman Empire, 1,300 years before Columbus sailed, and considered the idea of a round planet as fact. (source)
Fourthly, Columbus was no hero. He was a brutal man who enslaved the Indigenous People’s of the New World:
The native population was nearly wiped out. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes, “In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.” Columbus’s efforts amounted to genocide. Native people “were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands,” Zinn writes. “By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks [on the Bahamas] or their descendants left on the island.”
Fifthly, Columbus Day is not some grand American tradition. In the 1930s, a Catholic fraternal organization called the Knights of Columbus were looking for a Catholic hero and chose Christopher Columbus. Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Columbus Day into law as a federal holiday in 1937.
Christopher Columbus should not be held up as a hero. He did not discover the United States. He didn’t discover the world was flat. He was a man in charge of a crew who oppressed, enslaved, raped and murdered the populations of the areas he “discovered”.
On Columbus’s first trip to the Caribbean, he later returned to Spain and left behind 39 men who went ahead and helped themselves to Native women. Upon his return the men were all dead.
With 1,200 more soldiers at his disposal, rape and pillaging became rampant as well as tolerated by Columbus.
This is supported by a reported close friend of Columbus, Michele de Cuneo who wrote the first disturbing account of a relation between himself and a Native female gift given to him by Columbus.
“While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me, and with whom, having taken her into my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived desire to take pleasure. I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun. But seeing that (to tell you the end of it all), I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams that you would not have believed your ears. Finally we came to an agreement in such manner that I can tell you that she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots.”
Several accounts of cruelty and murder include Spaniards testing the sharpness of blades on Native people by cutting them in half, beheading them in contests and throwing Natives into vats of boiling soap. There are also accounts of suckling infants being lifted from their mother’s breasts by Spaniards, only to be dashed headfirst into large rocks.
Bartolome De Las Casas, a former slave owner who became Bishop of Chiapas, described these exploits. “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel,” he wrote. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”
Every year, Indians across the US are repulsed at the thought of honoring a man who brought such harm to their ancestors.
One of the prime motivations of his voyages was greed: Columbus sought riches in the form of spices and gold. His exports of gold back to his home country resulted in the paralysis of the African Gold Coast economy. With the decline of gold as a commodity in that region, something had to rise up and takes its place. That something was the slave trade, which more or less makes Christopher Columbus the father of the transatlantic slave trade.
Columbus was not a hero. He was a vile, murderous, asshole. He should not be honored, revered, or respected. He also should not have a holiday in his name.